With intelligence and ferocity, Michael Sheehan waged titanic, sometimes losing, battles against America’s enemies near and far. As a 1977 West Point graduate and young officer in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, he fought drug dealers, insurgents, and terrorists in Central America. While on active duty, and later in a variety of senior civilian posts, he battled al-Qaida, first in Sudan and Afghanistan, and, after 9/11, in New York. While he never lost focus on America’s resilient enemies abroad, what angered him most, friends know, was bureaucratic rigidity and passivity, government waste and distraction, and above all, conventional thinking. For the past seven years, he had fought painful, disabling multiple myeloma, a war he lost on July 30 at age 63.
Despite holding prestigious and sensitive counterterrorism posts in the federal government and at the United Nations, where he coordinated the international body’s counterterrorism programs and supervised its peacekeeping forces, he was no household name—and that was fine with him. Unlike some senior military officers, high-ranking diplomats, and civilian officials eager for celebrity, Sheehan did not seek the limelight. But within the counterterrorism community, he was a hero, widely respected and deeply admired. His legacy is as enormous as his loss.
We first met in the late 1980s, when he was serving as a military officer on the National Security Council staff for President George H. W. Bush, and later for President Bill Clinton. He was struggling, unsuccessfully, to persuade officials to place greater priority on the growing threat of militant Islamic groups, especially al-Qaida. It galled him that while Osama bin Laden and militant Shiite Islamists in Iran were blowing up American warships off the coast of Yemen and U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia, officials in Washington (and most reporters) were focused on domestic problems—from broken promises on taxes to a scandal over a president’s affair with a young intern.
A legendary story circulates in Washington and is recounted in Daniel P. Bolger’s book Why We Lost, about Sheehan’s confrontation with a group of senior military officers at the Clinton White House over their reluctance to take stronger action against al-Qaida. “What’s it going to take to get them to hit al-Qaeda?” he reportedly asked. “Does al-Qaida have to attack the Pentagon?” Sheehan is one of the few officials, along with Richard Clarke, another nonpartisan who worked for Republican and Democratic presidents, to be commended by the 9/11 Commission for his efforts to warn about the looming Islamist threat.
Friends and colleagues recall Sheehan’s determination to do the right thing. “He was not a howler,” said David Cohen, a former senior CIA official who worked with him as a fellow NYPD deputy commissioner while creating police commissioner Ray Kelly’s post-9/11 counterterrorism program. “But he had the fiercest mind anyone can imagine, and the courage to stand behind the fierceness of his thinking. There is no one I would have rather been in a foxhole with.”
Foxholes abounded, especially in the creation of what is still widely regarded as the gold standard in urban counterterrorism. Kelly and his key deputies Cohen and Sheehan often tangled with formidable adversaries—New York City bureaucrats, accustomed to independence; the F.B.I., jealous and protective of its turf; the city’s powerful real estate, financial, and political interests; and sometimes even Mayor Bloomberg himself, though he almost always wound up backing them.
Others note Sheehan’s enormous kindness and mentoring in helping younger national security analysts. One beneficiary was R.P. Eddy, who served as a director at the NSC and now heads global intelligence firm Ergo. Eddy is grateful for what he calls Sheehan’s invaluable advice and support when he joined the NSC after graduate school. “He taught me how to handle bureaucratic B.S.,” said Eddy, who worked with Sheehan in five different posts. “He was fiercely patriotic but also ruthlessly honest, especially about our own shortcomings.”
Eddy recalls a meeting in 2000 at the U.N. to issue a démarche to the foreign minister of Afghanistan, then under Taliban control. “Mike told him in no uncertain terms that if the U.S. or its citizens were attacked, Washington would hold the Taliban responsible.” Sheehan also said that if the Taliban expelled al-Qaida and turned bin Laden over to the U.S., “Afghanistan could expect good things to happen in our relations and support.” The Afghan official was unconvinced, Eddy recalled. “He told us that even were the Taliban to comply with America’s request, relations would not improve, that the U.S. government would never accept the Taliban government’s horrible treatment of women.”
“You know, he’s right,” Eddy quoted Sheehan saying as they left the meeting. America had not yet decided that combating Islamic terrorism should take priority over human rights.
James Rubin, a former aide to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, praised Sheehan’s disdain for party politics and his devout bipartisanship, an increasingly rare quality in today’s politically polarized environment. A Republican, Sheehan worked for Republican and Democratic presidents with equal dedication; he deplored what he considered petty partisan disputes that threatened national security. “He didn’t care what party you belonged to,” Rubin said of his friend of 25 years. “We could argue all the time as a Republican and Democrat, but still be friends.”
“No one approached counterterrorism from as many angles as he did—as a high level official, as a civilian in charge of ‘snatch and grab’ missions, from the perspective of a Special Ops soldier operating by himself in El Salvador’s jungles,” continued Rubin. “From working with New York City cops to devising global terrorism policy. That’s what made him unique. He not only knew how to teach a cop how to interrogate a terrorist suspect, but also the cultures of different countries and how they would respond to us,” he said. “No one fought the issue harder from as many different perspectives.”
Sheehan made the most of his astonishing range. “The breadth of the jobs he had was unprecedented—assistant secretaries in both the State Department and the Pentagon, peace keeping for the U.N.,” supervising 14 different missions and some 40,000 soldiers, “and then onto the NYPD,” said Clarke, who mentored Sheehan when he was seconded by the military to the NSC. He noticed Sheehan early on, Clarke recalled. “He was very unmilitary at the White House. He never wore a uniform or had that haircut, or acted like a military guy.” He also became a skilled bureaucratic fighter.
Clarke credits Sheehan with helping him, in 1999, to deliver to Turkey Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish nationalist who led the Kurdistan Workers Party, now declared a terrorist organization by the U.S., Turkey, and other countries. They also worked together to oust Boutros Boutros-Ghali as Secretary General of the U.N. and replace him with Kofi Annan, viewed as friendlier to U.S. interests. Neither was an easy bureaucratic lift, Clarke said. “When we told President Clinton that Ghali was out and Annan was in,” Clarke chuckled, “Clinton told us that he would have to eat crow because he hadn’t thought that it could be done.”
The battle for which Sheehan is best known in New York was his successful effort on behalf of Commissioner Kelly to change the design and location of the Freedom Tower, the city’s great post-9/11 project. Looking at the architectural plans for the city’s tallest building and its proximity to major highways, Sheehan sensed that the replacement structure was a terrorist catastrophe waiting to happen. With Kelly’s blessing, he launched a stealthy and ultimately public campaign to force a redesign that would eliminate the envisioned structure’s glass base—shattering glass being the most lethal weapon in an explosion—and move the tower back from streets and major highways. Many city grandees were furious about the delay and added cost, but the NYPD prevailed.
Sheehan did not stop battling terrorists after leaving the NYPD in 2006. He went on to work on counterterror at the Center for Law and Security at New York University, and he helped found the highly respected Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
One of the qualities I admired most about him was his ability to rethink problems and change his mind. Among the first to warn about the militant Islamic threat, he became a staunch critic of parts of the government’s vast counterterrorism apparatus spawned by 9/11. The U.S. was spending too much on programs that didn’t work and wasting resources, he told a gathering of counterterror specialists hosted by the Manhattan Institute, a decade after 9/11. Though al-Qaida and like-minded Islamists had not changed their goals or desire to kill as many Americans as possible, they were not “ten feet tall,” he said. If Americans underestimated the militant Islamist threat before 9/11, many were now overestimating its abilities. “Their operational capability has been dramatically degraded between 2001 and 2003,” Sheehan said, and losing their camps in Afghanistan was “crucial to diminishing their strategic reach.” Before 9/11, al-Qaida had conducted “three strategic attacks in 37 months (in America).” In the decade after 9/11, “they were 0 for 10.”
Americans should take credit for what had been accomplished, he said. “Our CIA, our Special Ops forces, our FBI have done extremely well in the last 10 years.” But overreacting to terrorist threats, he warned, had adverse consequences—including stoking Islamophobia that alienated Muslim-American communities, the source of tips that had helped thwart and disrupt numerous plots. “When we overreact to a terrorist attack,” he warned, “we empower them. Israelis and the Brits do it better. We’ll be better the next time around.”
Increasingly, Sheehan focused on non-Islamist threats to American peace and security. Having worked on a book of terrorism case studies that will be published posthumously, he began thinking about how to counter the wave of deadly active-shooter killings in our schools and public venues. Specifically, he recommended the creation of “counter-violence” centers within the FBI.
Two weeks ago, David Cohen told me, Sheehan talked about collaborating on an op-ed on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan that basically endorsed the approach that President Trump is said to favor: keeping a limited number of American troops in the country to protect Kabul, heavily bomb ISIS and al-Qaida remnants wherever they are, but be prepared to give up the Afghan countryside to the Taliban, ending an unwinnable fight that will drain U.S. resources and divert government attention from greater threats. “Mike was always two steps ahead of the policy community,” Cohen said.
Mike Sheehan never stopped fighting for American peace and security, or thinking about how best to do that, said James Rubin. “What he hated more than anything were bureaucrats who preferred to do nothing rather than make a mistake. He was the opposite. It’s what made him a unique public servant.”