Articles

Apr 22, 2004

Updated Mylroie piece

The War on Iraq She Wrote by Peter Bergen
Americans did not support the war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator–we had known that for many years–but because President Bush had made the case that Saddam might hand off weapons of mass destruction to his terrorist allies to wreck havoc on the United States. As of this writing there appears to be no evidence that Saddam had either weapons of mass destruction or significant ties to terrorist groups like al Qaeda. Yet the belief that Saddam posed an imminent threat to the United States amounted to a theological conviction within the Bush administration, a conviction that was successfully sold to the American public, and so it’s fair to ask: Where did this faith come from?

In the past year or so there have been a flood of stories about the thinking of neoconservative hawks such as Richard Perle, until March 2003 the chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board and a key architect of the president’s get-tough-on Iraq policy. Perle has had a long association with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank. It was at AEI in particular that the idea took shape that overthrowing Saddam should be a fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy. Still, none of the thinker/operatives at AEI, or indeed any of the other neoconservative hawks such as deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, were in any real way experts on Iraq or had served in the region. Moreover, the majority of those in and out of government who were Middle East experts had grave concerns about the wisdom of invading Iraq and serious doubts about claims that Saddam?s regime posed an urgent threat to American security. What, then, gave neoconservatives like Wolfowitz and Perle such abiding faith in their own positions?

Historians will be debating that question for years, but an important part of the reason has to do with someone you almost certainly have never heard of: Laurie Mylroie. Mylroie has an impressive array of credentials that certify her as an expert on the Middle East, national security and, above all, Iraq. She has held faculty positions at Harvard and the U.S. Naval War College as well as serving as an advisor on Iraq to the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. During the 1980s Mylroie was an apologist for Saddam’s regime, but around the time of his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 Mylroie reversed her position, and with the zeal of the academic spurned became rabidly anti-Saddam. In the lead up to the first Gulf War Mylroie wrote Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf (with New York Times reporter Judith Miller), a bestselling book that was favorably reviewed and was translated into more than a dozen languages.

Until this point there was little controversial about Mylroie?s career. That would change with the bombing of Manhattan?s World Trade Center in 1993, the first time that international terrorists had struck inside the United States. The Trade Center attack would launch Mylroie on a quixotic quest to prove that Saddam’s regime was the most important source of terrorism directed against the United States. Mylroie laid out her case for Iraqi involvement in the 1993 Trade Center attack in Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America, a book published by AEI in 2000. The book makes clear that Mylroie and the neoconservative hawks worked hand-in-glove to push her theory that Iraq was behind the ?93 Trade Center bombing. Richard Perle glowingly blurbed the book as “splendid and wholly convincing”. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, now Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, is thanked for his “generous and timely assistance”. And it appears that Paul Wolfowitz himself was instrumental in the genesis of Study of Revenge. His then-wife is credited with having “fundamentally shaped the book”, while Wolfowitz is profusely thanked: “At critical times, he provided crucial support for a project that is inherently difficult.”

None of which was out of the ordinary, except for this: Mylroie became enamored of her theory that Saddam was the mastermind of a vast terrorist conspiracy against the United States against virtually all evidence and expert opinion. In what amounts to the discovery of a unified field theory of terrorism, Mylroie believes that Saddam was not only behind the ’93 Trade Center attack, but also every anti-American terrorist incident of the past decade, from the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 to the September 11 attacks. She is, in short, a crackpot, which would not be significant if she was merely advising say, Lyndon LaRouche, but it is of enormous significance if her neocon friends, who went on to run the war in Iraq, believed her theories, bringing her on as a terrorism consultant at the Pentagon, and continued to entertain her eccentric belief that Saddam was the fount of all anti-American terrorism.

The extent of Mylroie’s influence is shown in the recent book Against All Enemies written by the veteran counterterrorism official Richard Clarke in which he recounts a senior level meeting on terrorism that Bush officials had some months before the September 11 attacks. During that meeting he quotes Wolfowitz as saying “You give bin Laden too much credit, he could not do all these things like the 1993 attack on New York, not without a state sponsor. Just because FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages does not mean they don’t exist.” Clarke writes “I could hardly belive it but Wolfowitz was spouting the totally discredited Laurie Mylroie theory that Iraq was behind the 1993 truck bomb at the World Trade Center, a theory that had been investigated for years and found to be totally untrue.”

And Mylroie’s influence can also be seen in the Bush cabinet’s reaction to the September 11 attacks. According to reporter Bob Woodward’s new book Plan of Attack, Wolfowitz told the cabinet immediately after the attacks: “There was a 10 to 50 per cent chance Saddam was involved.” A few days later, President Bush told his top aides: “I believe that Iraq was involved, but I’m not going to strike them now. However, the most comprehensive criminal investigation in history — involving chasing down 500,000 leads and interviewing 175,000 people — has turned up no evidence of Iraqi involvement. Moreover, the U.S. State Department’s counterterrorism office stated in its 2000 report: “[Iraq] has not attempted an anti-western attack since its failed attempt to assassinate former President Bush in 1993 in Kuwait.” In other words, by the time of the 9/11 attacks Iraq had not been involved in anti-American terrorism for more than a decade.

As ideas do not spontaneously appear out of nowhere, why is it then that key members of the Bush administration believed that Iraq had been deeply involved in anti-American terrorism for many years? For that we must turn to Mylroie’s Study of Revenge, which posited that Iraq was behind the first Trade Center attack, a theory that is, on the face of it, risible as hundreds of national security and law enforcement professionals had combed thorough the evidence of the ?93 bombing, including looking for a Saddam connection, and found it there was no evidence of such a connection. But Mylroie claims to have discovered something that everyone else missed: That the mastermind of the plot, a man generally known by one of his many aliases, “Ramzi Yousef”, was an Iraqi intelligence agent. Mylroie writes that sometime after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 Yousef assumed the identity of a Pakistani whose family lived in Kuwait, named Abdul Basit, in order to disguise his real identity as an Iraqi agent. Mylroie came to that deduction following an examination of Abdul Basit’s passport records and her discovery that Yousef and Abdul Basit were apparently four inches different in height. On that wafer thin foundation Mylroie builds her case that Yousef must have therefore been an Iraqi agent who had access to Abdul Basit’s passport following Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. However, US investigators say that “Yousef” and Abdul Basit are in fact one and the same person, and that the man Mylroie describes as an Iraqi agent is in fact a Pakistani with ties to al Qaeda.

Mylroie appears never to have absorbed the lessons of Occam’s razor, the basic philosophical and scientific principle generally understood to be: “Of two competing theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred.” In this case the simpler, and more accurate explanation of Yousef/Basit’s identity is that he was part of the al Qaeda network, not an Iraqi agent. Indeed, there is an avalanche of evidence that demonstrates that Yousef was part of the loosely knit al Qaeda organization, evidence that Mylroie does not consider in her work as it would undermine all of her suppositions.

When Ramzi Yousef flew to New York from Pakistan in 1992 before the bombing of the Trade Center, he was accompanied by Ahmad Ajaj, who was arrested at Kennedy Airport on immigration charges, and was later found to have an al Qaeda bomb-making manual in his luggage. Al-Qaeda member Jamal al-Fadl told a New York jury in 2000 that he saw Yousef at the group’s Sadda training camp on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border sometime between 1989 and 1991. When Yousef lived in the Philippines in the early 1990s his partner in terrorism was Wali Khan Amin Shah who had trained in Afghanistan under bin Laden. A number of Yousef’s coconspirators had ties to a Brooklyn organization known as the Afghan Refugee Center that was the American arm of an organization bin Laden founded in Pakistan during the mid 1980s that would later evolve into al Qaeda. Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, sent him money for the Trade Center attack, and would later go on to become al Qaeda’s military commander and the chief planner of 9/11. I could go on. The essential point is that the 1993 Trade Center attack was plotted not by Iraqi intelligence, but by men who were linked to al Qaeda.

In addition to ignoring Yousef’s many connections to al Qaeda, Mylroie is clearly aware of the fact that in 1995 Yousef gave what would be his only interview to the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat in which he denied any links to Iraq, as Mylroie alludes to that interview in her book Study of Revenge. Yousef told the Al-Hayat reporter “I have no connection with Iraq”, adding for good measure that, “the Iraqi people must not pay for the mistakes made by Saddam.” “Yousef”, who traveled under a variety of false identities, confirmed that his real name was indeed Abdul Basit and that he was a Pakistani born in Kuwait. Yousef also admitted that he knew and admired Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, one of al Qaeda’s spiritual gurus, whom the US government would later convict of plotting terror attacks in New York. Yousef went on to say that he wanted to “aid members” of Egypt’s Jihad group, a terrorist organization then led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now bin Laden’s deputy. Yousef’s interview has the ring of truth as he freely volunteered that he knew Sheikh Rahman, the cleric that the US government had by then already identified as the inspiration of several terrorist conspiracies in New York during the early ’90s. Yousef also explained that he was part of an Islamic movement that planned to carry out attacks in Saudi Arabia to avenge the arrests of Sheik Salman al- Audah and Sheikh Safar al-Hawali; radical clerics who have profoundly influenced both bin Laden and al Qaeda. Yousef knew that he was likely facing a lifetime in prison at the time of this interview, and so had little reason to dissemble. In Study of Revenge Mylroie is careful not to mention the substance of what Yousef said in his Al-Hayat interview as it demolishes her theory that he was an Iraqi intelligence agent.

Moreover, Mylroie’s broader contention that the first Trade Center attack was an Iraqi plot is, to put it mildly, a view not shared by the intelligence and law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation into the operation. Vince Cannistraro, who headed the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center in the early 1990s, told me, “My view is that Laurie has an obsession with Iraq and trying to link Saddam to global terrorism. Years of strenuous effort to prove the case have been unavailing.” Ken Pollack is a former CIA analyst, who can hardly be described as “soft” on Saddam as his book Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq made the most authoritative case for toppling the dictator, dismissed Mylroie’s theories to me saying: “The NSC [National Security Council] had the intelligence community look very hard at the allegations that the Iraqis were behind the 1993 Trade Center attack. Finding those links would have been very beneficial to US government at the time, but the intelligence community said that there were no such links.”

Mary Jo White, the no-nonsense US attorney who successfully prosecuted both the Trade Center case and the al Qaeda bombers behind the 1998 US embassies attacks in Africa told me that there was no evidence to support Mylroie’s claims: “We investigated the Trade Center attack thoroughly, and other then the evidence that Ramzi Yousef traveled on a phony Iraqi passport, that was the only connection to Iraq.” Neil Herman, the FBI official who headed the Trade Center probe, explained that following the attacks one of the lower level conspirators, Abdul Rahman Yasin did flee New York to live with a family member in Baghdad: “The one glaring connection that can’t be overlooked is Yasin. We pursued that on every level, traced him to a relative and a location, and we made overtures to get him back.” However, Herman says that Yasin’s presence in Baghdad does not mean Iraq sponsored the attack: “We looked at that rather extensively. There were no ties to the Iraqi government.” In sum, by the mid-?90s the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, the FBI, the US Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, the CIA, the NSC and the State Department had all found no evidence implicating the Iraqi government in the first Trade Center attack.

As Mylroie was fighting against the tide of expert opinion to prove her case that Saddam was behind the ’93 bombing, her neocon colleagues at AEI, and elsewhere, were formulating an alternative vision of US foreign policy to challenge what they saw as the feckless and weak policies of the Clinton administration. Mylroie’s research and expertise on Iraq complemented the big-think strategizing of the neocons, and a symbiotic relationship developed between them as evidenced by the garlands that the neocons bestowed upon her for her work. Paul Wolfowitz gushingly blurbed Study of Revenge: “[Her] provocative and disturbing book argues that Ramzi Yousef, was in fact an agent of Iraqi intelligence. If so, what would that tell us about the extent of Saddam Hussein’s ambitions? How would it change our view of Iraq’s continuing efforts to retain weapons of mass destruction and to acquire new ones? How would it affect our judgments about the collapse of U.S. policy toward Iraq and the need for a fundamentally new policy?” (How, indeed?) James Woolsey, another prominent Iraq hawk who headed the CIA between 1993 and 1995, also weighed in writing, “anyone who wishes to continue to deal with Saddam by ignoring his role in international terrorism?and by giving only office furniture to the Iraqi resistance now has the staggering task of trying to refute this superb work.” Study of Revenge was reissued after 9/11 as The War Against America and Woolsey contributed a new foreword that described Mylroie’s work as “brilliant and brave”.

It is possible, of course, that the neocons did not find Mylroie’s researches to be genuinely persuasive, but rather that her findings simply fit conveniently into their own desire to overthrow Saddam. But there are reasons to think that they actually were persuaded by her research. As the one member of the neocon team with serious credentials on Iraq, Mylroie’s opinions would naturally have carried special weight. That she was a genuine authority, whose “research” confirmed their worst fears about Saddam, could only have strengthened their convictions.

The evidence that the hawks really believed Mylroie’s theories can be seen in their statements and actions following the September 11th attacks. Newsweek recently reported that following the 9/11 attacks Wolfowitz’s preoccupation with Mylroie’s theory extended to pressing top Justice Department officials to declare Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 Trade Center bombing an “enemy combatant”. This would have allowed Yousef to be transferred from federal prison in Colorado into US military custody. Wolfowitz apparently believed such a move might get Yousef to confess that he was indeed an Iraqi intelligence agent. Wolfowitz’s request to designate Yousef an enemy combatant was turned down by Justice officials.

Shortly after 9/11 James Woolsey was dispatched to Wales on an extraordinary trip, apparently sanctioned by Wolfowitz, to check out a key aspect of Mylroie’s theory that the mastermind of the 1993 Trade Center attack was an Iraqi spy. During the early ?90s Abdul Basit, the Pakistani man whose identity Ramzi Yousef had supposedly assumed attended a Welsh college to study electrical engineering. Mylroie writes that Abdul Basit was quite different in appearance from Yousef, thus further proving her contention that Yousef was an Iraqi intelligence agent, a fact that could be proved by visiting Abdul Basit’s former college in Wales.As Woolsey has made no comment on his trip to Wales it’s fair to assume that his efforts to replicate Mylroie findings did not meet with success. Yet even around the second anniversary of 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney continued to echo Mylroie’s theories when he told NBC’s Tim Russert that “[Iraq] was the geographic base of the terrorists that have had us under assault for many years, most especially on 9/11”, a demonstrably false theory that Mylroie has been vigorously touting since the attacks.

In July 2003 Mylroie published a new book Bush vs. the Beltway, which reprised many of the themes of Study of Revenge. The subtitle of her new tome tells you where the book is headed: How the CIA and the State Department Tried to Stop the War on Terror. The book charges that the US government actually suppressed information about Iraq?s role in anti-American terrorism, including in the investigation of 9/11. Luckily, Bush vs. the Beltway, which reads in part like Bush 2004 campaign literature, does have at least one heroic figure: “There is an actual hero, in the person of the president who could not be rolled, spun or otherwise diverted from his most solemn obligation.”

Bush vs. the Beltway, the subject of additional hosannas from both Woolsey and Perle, claims that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the now-captured mastermind of 9/11, is an Iraqi intelligence agent, like Ramzi Yousef, who adopted the identity of a Pakistani living in Kuwait. Funnily enough, the US government doesn’t seem to have explored this intriguing theory. Why not? According to Mylroie there is a plot afoot to prevent Mohammed’s unmasking as an Iraqi agent. Shortly after Bush vs. the Beltway was published Mylroie appeared as an expert witness before the blue ribbon commission investigating 9/11 testifying that: “There is substantial reason to believe that these masterminds [of both the ’93 and 9/11 Trade Center attacks] are Iraqi intelligence agents.” Mylroie explained that this had not been discovered by the US government because, “A senior administration official told me in specific that the question of the identities of the terrorist masterminds could not be pursued because of bureaucratic obstructionism.” So we are expected to believe that the senior Bush administration officials that Mylroie knows so well could not find anyone in intelligence or law enforcement to investigate the supposed Iraqi intelligence background of the mastermind of 9/11, at the same time that 150,000 American soldiers had been sent to fight a war in Iraq under the rubric of the war on terrorism. Please.
Further undermining Mylroie’s theory that Khalid Sheik Mohammed is an Iraqi spy is the fact that since his apprehension in Pakistan, KSM, as he’s known to law enforcement, has specifically denied any connection to Iraq, at the same time that he has offered up actionable intelligence that have averted terror plots inside the United States. A senior US counter-terrorism official told me that KSM, like several other high ranking al Qaeda operatives, has produced much useful information following the use of coercive methods that include making him “uncomfortable and withholding water and sleep”. As a result of KSM’s interrogations, Iyman Faris, a trucker living in Ohio, was arrested for plotting to cut through the cables supporting the Brooklyn Bridge and was sentenced in October 2003 to twenty years jail time.

Mylroie declined to be interviewed for this article, “with regret”, so the only chance I have had to talk with her came in February 2003, when we both appeared on Canadian television to discuss the impending war in Iraq and Saddam’s putative connections to terrorism. As soon as the interview started Mylroie began lecturing in a hectoring tone: “Listen, we’re going to war because President Bush believes Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. Al Qaeda is a front for Iraqi intelligence [the US] bureaucracy made a tremendous blunder that refused to acknowledge these links. The people responsible for gathering this information, say in the CIA, are also the same people who contributed to the blunder on 9/11 and the deaths of three thousand Americans, and so whenever this information emerges they move to discredit it.” I tried to make the point that Mylroie’s theories defied common sense, as they implied a conspiracy by literally thousands of American officials to suppress the truth of the links between Iraq and 9/11, to little avail.

At the end of the interview Mylroie, who exudes a slightly frazzled, batty air, started getting visibly agitated, her finger jabbing at the camera and her voice rising to a yell as she outlined the following apocalyptic scenario: “Now I”m going to tell you something, OK, and I want all Canada to understand, I want you to understand the consequences of the cynicism of people like Peter. There is a very acute chance as we go to war that Saddam will use biological agents as revenge against Americans, that there will be anthrax in the United States and there will be smallpox in the United States. Are you in Canada prepared for Americans who have smallpox and do not know it crossing the border and bringing that into Canada?”
This kind of hysterical hyperbole is emblematic of Mylroie’s method, which is to never let the facts get in the way of her monomaniacal certainty that every major anti-American terrorist attack of the past decade has been engineered in some manner by Iraq. In the case of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168, Mylroie has said that Terry Nichols, one of the plotters, was in league with Ramzi Yousef, the supposed Iraqi intelligence agent. Richard Matsch, the veteran federal judge who presided over the Oklahoma City bombing case, ruled any version of this theory to be inadmissible at trial. Mylroie implicates Iraq in a 1996 bombing of a US military facility in Saudi Arabia that killed nineteen US servicemen. In 2001 a grand jury returned indictments in that case against members of Saudi Hezbollah, a group with ties not to Iraq, but Iran. Mylroie suggests that the attacks on two US embassies in Africa in 1998 might have been “the work of both bin Laden and Iraq.” An overseas investigation unprecedented in scope did not uncover any such connection. Mylroie has written that the crash of TWA 800 into Long Island Sound in 1996 was an Iraqi plot. A two-year investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board ruled it was an accident. According to Mylroie, Iraq supplied the bomb making expertise for the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 that killed seventeen US sailors. No American law enforcement official has made that claim. Mylroie blames Iraq for the post-9/11 anthrax attacks around the United States. Marilyn Thompson, the investigations editor of the Washington Post, who has written an authoritative book on those attacks, says, “The FBI has essentially dismissed this theory and says there is no evidence to support it.” A US counterterrorism commented to me that Mylroie probably believes the Washington DC sniper was Iraqi.

In her book Bush vs. the Beltway Mylroie approvingly quotes the maxim “we should not love our opinions like our children.” It’s long overdue that Mylroie heeds this excellent piece of advice. Saddam is guilty of many crimes, not least the genocidal policies he unleashed on the Marsh Arabs and Kurds of Iraq, but there is no evidence linking him to any act of anti-American terrorism for the past decade, while there is a mountain of evidence that implicates al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, Mylroie’s research has proven to be more than merely academic as her theories swayed key opinion makers in the Bush administration who then managed to persuade seven out of ten Americans that the Iraqi dictator had a role in the attacks on Washington and New York. So Mylroie’s specious theories of Iraq’s involvement in anti-American terrorism have now become part of the American zeitgeist and were a crucial factor in leading us into the costly war in Iraq. Meanwhile in a quote to Newsweek, in November Mylroie observed: “I take satisfaction that we went to war with Iraq and got rid of Saddam Hussein. The rest is details.” Now she tells us…

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