He ran agents in the Middle East throughout the Cold War years and hunted Osama bin Laden across Afghanistan two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The East African terrorist group Al-Shabaab also claimed to have killed him in 2003.
But Gary Schroen appeared -- alive and well -- at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Thursday night, speaking to students about his experiences at the intersection between intelligence and policy as a case officer and station chief for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Schroen ran the CIA’s efforts in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, where he worked with Mujahideen fighters, giving them clothing, medicine and supplies to keep the fight going against the Soviets.
He said he drafted CIA findings -- reports based on intelligence gathered from agents and observers in the field -- used by presidents and congressmen alike to legitimize the U.S.’s operations in Afghanistan as well as appropriate funds for covert missions.
“There was a total of seven findings done in the first six weeks, and every one added to what the CIA and the U.S. government could do,” Schroen said. “What we got was a final finding that allowed us to send not just nonlethal aid, but what we called lethal assistance.”
The weapons, ammunition and vehicles the CIA gave to the Mujahideen – which was depicted in the book and movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” – led to a turning point in the conflict.
The Afghan fighters were estimated to have shot down as many as 600 Soviet aircraft; Schroen called the Russian withdrawal from the Middle East “the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Schroen was later named the station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan and worked in Langley, Virginia, before he was recalled to Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.
Working on the ground as one of the first Americans in the country, Schroen recalled the campaign to track down bin Laden in Kabul and later at Tora Bora.
The U.S. bombed military sites in Kabul for 10 days, Schroen said, allowing the al-Qaida leader to slip into the mountainous region bordering Pakistan.
“They knew the end was coming,” Schroen said. “They stayed for a long time because they thought we weren’t going to bomb them, and then when we did, it shocked them and they fled.”
At Tora Bora, Schroen said there were three CIA teams paired up with U.S. Special Forces units and several hundred Afghan fighters searching for bin Laden through the region, while the military “bombed the bejesus” out of the mountain fortress.
Bin Laden later slipped away on Dec. 16, 2001, after members of a tribe hired by the CIA to patrol the mountain “turned their backs” and let him escape.
“Believe me, we wanted him, we just didn’t have the wherewithal,” he said.
It would be 10 years before the U.S. would kill bin Laden at a compound in neighboring Pakistan.
In addition to his experience in serious matters, Schroen also told a few lighthearted stories about his adventures as a spy-runner.
After the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979, deploying thousands of troops at airports around the country, those who landed in Kabul were met by a KGB colonel who led them to the Afghan palace where they captured and executed the president and his family.
Schroen said he met the KGB colonel once -- “he was a strange guy” -- in Azerbaijan, after the colonel had become a lieutenant general.
During their talk, they both learned that they had handled the same Afghan agent.
“He said, ‘every month I would send him one helicopter full of Afghan money,’” Schroen recalled. “I said I met him once a month and I gave him one duffle bag of American money.”
As they continued to talk, both intelligence officers revealed they had never received any useful information from the agent.
“I said, but I got nothing for a lot cheaper than you did.”