Thursday, October 18, 2001

The Iraq Connection

For the Wall Street Journal, former CIA director James Woolsey writes:

The professionally prepared and precisely sized anthrax spores that have infected some 30 congressional staffers and closed down the Capitol and the office of the governor of New York have made the point forcefully: When you are at war, the primary task should be to determine whom you are at war with.

In most wars this is not a problem. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 the way the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor--with flags flying. Even in our war two centuries ago with the Barbary Pirates, an enemy with some loose parallels to al Qaeda, we had no doubt which North African government sheltered them. Stephen Decatur knew whom to attack.

This time it's different. Although the administration's decision to move first against the obvious target--the Taliban and their demonic al Qaeda guests--is sound, there are rising doubts that even a victory in Afghanistan, and even the capture or death of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, will solve the problem. And this is not only because of al Qaeda operatives and street demonstrations in other countries. Removing bin Laden and his associates may only amputate one hand of our enemy. There are substantial and growing indications that a state may, behind the scene, be involved in the attacks. This is hard for us to deal with because, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein said recently, "It's a very sobering thing for Americans, who tend to be upfront dealing with everything, to be faced with something so clandestine and unknown."
When an enemy has a face and a name, this country can be awesome in its ability to mobilize quickly for war and win, as we did in both world wars. But we are now facing an enemy from a part of the world where the major aspects of war, for many centuries, have been clandestine raids, assassinations, terror against civilians, and deception. In response to the challenge "Come out and fight like a man," we will get only smirks in the shadows and more anthrax, or worse.

Some hold the view that no degree of sophistication--precisely prepared anthrax, coordination across continents, sophisticated training, professionally-stolen identities--is enough to indicate the strong probability of a state's being involved. Such a position was most succinctly stated by an unnamed FBI official to Seymour Hersh (in the Oct. 8 New Yorker), speaking of the Sept. 11 attackers: "These guys look like a pickup basketball team. In your wildest dreams, do you think they thought they'd be able to pull off four hijackings?" But for those of a more suspicious cast of mind, the degree of complexity and the sophistication of the attacks against us suggest that we have enough indications of possible state involvement for the government to be carefully and vigorously investigating.

One central issue is state involvement in what? If we define the problem in such a way as to require proof (and make it proof beyond a reasonable doubt) of state involvement in the Sept. 11 attack itself, we will quite likely define ourselves out of being able to understand who is at war with us. Instead, we need to look at the pattern of terrorism against us over the last decade and reach a considered judgment in light of the whole picture, even if we cannot prove, to the demanding standards of criminal law, a state's involvement in the Sept. 11 atrocity itself.

The weakest argument against the possibility of state involvement is usually implicit--that since al Qaeda is clearly involved in the Sept. 11 and other attacks, a state probably is not. But haven't such people heard of joint ventures? Do they think that international law imposes some sort of sole-source contracting requirement for terrorism?

But which state? Well, whichever one turns up when you start looking. Iran, for example, has to be considered a possibility because--in spite of a rational president, a number of elected reformers, brave newspaper editors, and an electorate that solidly supports reform--murderous mullahs still run the country's intelligence services and instruments of state power. Iran sponsors Hezbollah and other terrorist groups that are targeted principally against Israel today but that have attacked us in the past, including quite possibly at Khobar Towers. Iranian involvement with al Qaeda, even across the bitter divide between extreme Wahhabi Sunnis and extreme Shiites, is not impossible.

But by far the more likely candidate for involvement with al Qaeda is Iraq, for several reasons.

Saddam has gone to great lengths to court Sunni Islamists in recent years, even restructuring the Iraqi flag to put Allahu Akbar ("God is great") in his own handwriting across its face. (Even Saddam's soulmate and fellow hater of religion, Joseph Stalin, didn't think of courting the Russian Orthodox Church when he needed it after Hitler's invasion by writing across the face of the Soviet flag in his own hand, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.") This courtship has included terrorist meetings in Iraq and, according to press reports, at least one visit to the Taliban capital of Kandahar by the infamous Faruk Hijazi, a senior official in Iraqi intelligence although nominally the Iraqi ambassador in Ankara, Turkey.

Saddam has a festering sense of revenge for his humiliation of the Gulf War, and our conduct at, and after, the war's end has given him added hope, he believes, for vengeance. In the aftermath of the war, the Iraqi resistance controlled much of the country, but we watched from the skies while Saddam mobilized the Republican Guard that we had spared and used it to massacre the rebels. He is not grateful to us. He has concluded that we are weak and irresolute, and that we do not dare to confront him even when we are in a position as strong as we were in the spring of 1991. If he has confidence that he has successfully hidden his hand in attacking us, he doubtless has even more confidence in our fecklessness.

His confidence in our fecklessness has some reasonable basis. If the first Bush administration made one major mistake in not helping the Iraqi resistance, in the spring of 1991, to finish the job that we had started, the Clinton administration made eight years of them. In the spring of 1993, Iraqi Intelligence (i.e., Saddam) tried to assassinate former President Bush in Kuwait, as confirmed by both CIA and FBI investigations of an unexploded bomb. President Clinton responded by shooting some cruise missiles into an empty intelligence headquarters in the middle of the night. The message--we will ruthlessly use high technology weapons against cleaning women, night watchmen and masonry--may not have struck as much fear into Saddam's heart as the administration hoped.

There then began eight years of using law enforcement as the principal investigative tool and principal sanction against what came to be called "loose networks" of terrorists. For two reasons, neither one the fault of those who were doing their best to enforce the law, this had the effect of making it very difficult to establish any links between terrorists and foreign governments (although the FBI reportedly found ties between Iran and the Khobar Towers terrorists).

First, a prosecutor's team is not the right institution to use to look for an overall assessment of whether there is state sponsorship of a terrorist act. Indeed, the better the prosecutors are, the more likely they are to focus like a laser on proving that the people they can get their hands on have committed the elements of the crime set out by the law--not on a general search for background information useful to the rest of the government. A criminal trial is not a general search for truth but rather, in a sense, a legally circumscribed trial by combat. It makes as much sense to expect a prosecutor's team to make an overall assessment of state sponsorship of a terrorist event as it does to ask a Marine company commander, in the midst of taking a hill, to advise you about the international alliances of the enemy whose troops he is facing.

Second, Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (perhaps now being modified by Congress) severely restricts the flow of information to the rest of the government from investigations when information is obtained pursuant to a federal grand jury's subpoena. A federal judge might approve some sharing with, say, a state prosecutor, but there is no provision that permits sharing with, e.g., the National Security Council or the CIA. Any such sharing must await the trial, creating a delay of months to years after the terrorist event.

As a result, during the many months of investigation and the trials of the defendants for the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, little was done to discover the implications of the fact that one of the indicted plotters, Abdul Rahman Yasin (who held Iraqi and American citizenship) fled to Baghdad after talking the FBI in New Jersey into releasing him. There are indications that both he and Ramzi Yousef, now in prison in Colorado, may be Iraqi agents, but on some important aspects the trail is very cold. Other investigations of terrorist incidents in the 1990s were similarly less than thorough on the question of state sponsorship. One can take the view that this was an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise desirable law enforcement focus.

The other, less generous possibility is that the Clinton administration was engaged here in its trademark behavior of focusing first and foremost on spin, expectation-adjustment, and short-term public relations, and deriving policy therefrom. If you assume that all terrorism flows from loose networks and not state action, then you will usually be able to find at least someone who was involved in a terrorist attack to convict. You can then claim success, get some good press and avoid confronting a state. The alternative approach--a thorough search for any state actor--presents two PR risks, neither attractive. If you find no state actor, there might be the appearance of an investigative failure. If, on the other hand, you find that a state was involved, you might then risk confrontation, even conflict, and possibly body bags on the evening news.

This may help account for the spate of recent stories in the press that seem to suggest that Iraqi government ties to terrorism are not being checked out, and that reports of such ties surprise senior government officials. It has been widely reported that the hijacker (some say the lead hijacker) Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague just before he came to the U.S. One report suggests that he met with senior Iraqi intelligence official Hijazi. And, as noted, another report puts Hijazi in the Taliban capital in 1998. Such reports are invariably followed by background statements from senior government officials to the effect that, "We don't know what they talked about so it doesn't prove anything."

Then on Oct. 1, William Safire wrote in the New York Times that al Qaeda's Abu Abdul Rahman, "financed by bin Laden and armed by Saddam," ambushed and killed 36 Kurds in Halabja in Northern Iraq. The Kurds retaliated, took 19 terrorists prisoner, and got valuable information from them about the terrorist-Iraqi connection. "Our top NSC officials," Mr. Safire wryly notes, "were unaware of this engagement until they read it in The Times."

Then on Oct. 12, Jim Hoagland wrote in the Washington Post that an Iraqi ex-intelligence officer has told the Iraqi National Congress of specific sightings of Islamic extremists training for hijacking a Boeing 707 in a suburb of Baghdad, Salman Pak, a year ago, but that he "was treated dismissively by CIA officers in Ankara this week. They reportedly showed no interest in pursuing a possible Iraq connection to Sept. 11." (I checked yesterday and essentially the same situation still obtains.)

What is going on here? Government bureaucracies do have a way of getting into comfortable ruts and staying there through inertia. In the present circumstances, we need to be especially sure that if any of our government agencies became infected during the 1990s with the Clinton administration malady of backward reasoning (start with the conclusion you want, then select the facts you'll look at), they are given the required curative as soon as possible.

The State Department, for example, negotiates with, and normally tries to make common cause with, foreign governments. And like any normal group of people, it seeks a role in the bigger picture for what it does. So it tends to push for the importance of coalition-building and cordial relations in the big scheme of things. No doubt we will have more and happier coalition partners (at least in the short run) if we don't raise the uncomfortable issue of a possible need to confront Saddam. But is a large coalition that doesn't move against a state that is at war with us better for the nation as a whole than a small coalition that moves effectively against a state that is attacking us? Isn't the first job learning the truth and not accommodating the views of our least staunch friends?

For its part, the CIA has always had an institutional bias in favor of information coming from recruited agents rather than volunteers and defectors. There are exceptions, but in a number of circumstances--some with which I have long personal familiarity--defectors especially have been dealt with in less than exemplary fashion by the Agency. Something similar might be said for democratic resistance groups--their occasional fractiousness makes them hard to discipline. Sometime during 1995, these tendencies seem to have joined to produce substantial hostility at Langley to the Iraqi National Congress. As one wag puts it, "If the INC showed up out there with Osama's and Saddam's heads on a plate, a number of people would say, 'I'll bet that's the Pope and the Dalai Lama.' " As in the case of the State Department, it would be a tragedy of the first order if bureaucratic inertia of this sort had any hand in keeping us from learning whom we are at war with.

One must have sympathy for the president as he tries to sort all of this out. The decision whether to move against Iraq after Afghanistan will be one of the most difficult and important decisions any American president has ever made. It is much harder than deciding, even in very difficult circumstances, whether to confront a clear enemy when there is no alternative--as after the Confederacy's firing on Fort Sumter, or after Pearl Harbor.

The best analogy may be--although our condition is far from this desperate--the choice faced by Churchill at the time of Dunkirk in May 1940, when Britain stood alone and Lord Halifax was pressing for accommodation, via Mussolini, with Germany. Churchill's decision to reject Halifax's advice and fight was, in many ways, the hinge of the 20th century. Early in this new century, President Bush already faces one of its most momentous choices. He needs the best information any of us can give him.

Mr. Woolsey, former director of Central Intelligence, is a lawyer in Washington.