Saddam and Terrorism

A Prague Orgy
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 2 2003 3:45 PM

Saddam and Terrorism

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Ed—

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Enough with Prague! Why don't you bring up Ansar al-Islam, Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, and the reported cell in Baghdad? More of this and I'll defenestrate myself!

I'm wounded, too, that you could allege that I place too much trust in the Fourth Estate. Never mind that my near-decade in the business at Time and the Wall Street Journal gave me biological immunity to the malady you diagnose. As you know, we also devote a long chapter in Sacred Terror to the question of why America slept while the threat of al-Qaida was on the rise, laying much of the blame on the press. American journalists were lazy, uncritical, and at their pack-mentality worst in reporting on the bombing of Khartoum, Sudan, in 1998 and downplaying the danger thereafter. Nor were we kind to the New York Times, which produced a daisy chain of phony scandals stretching from Whitewater to China satellites to Wen Ho Lee that had the country distracted by all the wrong things.

No, I'm not relying just on press reports—though it's worth noting that the Independent reported that British intelligence dismissed the al-Ani-Atta story, and Der Spiegel said the German spooks had done the same—but also on the fact that the administration gave up on the issue. Do you really think Colin Powell would have gone to the Security Council armed with just that paltry list of terrorist connections if he could have pointed to Prague as well?

Let's turn things around: Even if an Iraqi intelligence agent met with Mohamed Atta in Prague, it would be interesting and worrisome but not decisive. I apologize for the sin of quoting myself, but when asked this question by USA Today (Dec. 3, 2001) and many others, I said, "In that part of the universe, the part occupied by Muslims who hate Americans, there are bound to be some (al-Qaida) contacts with Iraqi agents, even some who are known as such." There may have been Iraqi spies within al-Qaida, keeping an eye on the group. There were likely individuals who worked for Baghdad and then joined up with Bin Laden. The point is that establishing a real relationship in which the two sides were working on joint projects for common goals requires a lot more. One meeting would not a relationship make.

Which brings me to your point about U.S. intelligence capabilities. I don't think that the CIA—and the herd of other acronyms in the intelligence community—is omniscient. But it is very difficult to hide serious ties between a government and a terrorist group. We have a hard time spying on terrorist organizations, but governments, which have buildings with telephones and faxes and employees who will trade information for money, are easier to keep an eye on. When terrorist groups and governments work together, they negotiate over targets, finances, materiel, and tactics. That affords plenty of opportunity for detection. My judgment that we would have seen more evidence of cooperation is based on the pretty extensive trail left by state sponsors, including the Iraqis, working with other terrorist groups. Given this empirical record, we would need some explanation for why there is no analogous record regarding al-Qaida and Iraq. And, by the way, even if we accepted the most robust administration accounts of Iraqi links to Zarkawi and Ansar al-Islam (which, incidentally, has been a remarkable group in getting support from both the Iraqis and the Iranians—I guess there is a big demand for those who want to attack America's Kurdish friends), I think we would still want more information on a Baghdad/al-Qaida relationship before going to war against Iraq. As I fear we are about to find out, the costs of turmoil in the region and the huge opening that we have given jihadists—Iraq will be the central theater of operations for terror against Americans for a good while to come—have not been adequately balanced against that possible nexus.

You raise good points about the issue of states and the new terrorism. I'm not going to pretend that this isn't a complex picture. But your description of the advantages that states have does not note that al-Qaida, at least for the last eight years, appears not to have relied on embassies, diplomatic pouches, other privileged communications, or state banks for its operations. With the critical exception of territory on which to train and hide out, virtually everything it needed was provided by its leadership, cells and network of financial supporters. It has resources few states can muster. What country, after all, could assemble a team of 19 suicide operatives? Maybe Iran. Perhaps Iraq will show it can, too.

Let's clear up one misconception that has crept into our discussion. You say in closing, "It is in this context that I deem it worth pursuing the investigation into whether or not the perpetrators of 9/11 had state support." That implies that there has been no such inquiry. I've been out of government since the end of 1999, but I cannot imagine that this issue has not been chewed over many times in the intelligence community. After every terrorist attack, our spies and all our friends' spies around the world would be tasked to check all their sources to examine exactly that question. That would be standard—and it looks like all that turned up was that lousy story from Prague. Unless the quality of operations has fallen dramatically, that question would be asked over and again as time went by. Especially when you have an administration that believes, as the Bush team does, that states remain the core issue in terrorism.

OK, I've tried to use the powers of sweet reason. Can I buy you a few rounds of Pilsner Urquell and see if that will do it?

All the best,
Dan

Daniel Benjamin is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff in 1998-99 and is the co-author ofThe Age of Sacred Terrorand The Next Attack.

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