Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ghost Wars Calls It

Folks who know me often hear me talking about the modern history book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll. The book gives extensive information on a lot of events and decisions that lead us not to predict the 9/11 attack. In pundit land these days, there are a lot of oversimplified, accusatory statements about what Bush and Clinton and other government officials did wrong. One thing Ghost Wars does is to show the complexity of these matters and the difficulty in making decisions.

Dick Morris says in Fahrenhype 9/11 that Clinton had the chance to hit bin Laden in 1999 with cruise missiles while bin Laden was at a hunting camp in Afghanistan, and did not. The implication is that Democrats are weak and friendly to terrorists. Ghost Wars says (page 448 of my paperback) that several prominent sheiks and royalty from the United Arab Emirates were also in that camp. Many CIA officials said we should bomb it anyway, but others had very specific concerns. Richard Clarke had built a relationship with the UAE involving arms deals, basing agreements, intelligence exchanges. Much oil flowed to the US from the UAE, and its ports were the most frequently used in the Arab world by the US Navy. An $8 billion deal for UAE to buy 80 F-16 fighters from the US was in the making, and our defense contractors were very happy about the deal. Bombing bin Laden at that hunting camp likely would have killed these prominent UAE people and ruined relationships with that country. Clinton called off the attack. Now, ask yourself honestly, since when has a Republican taken an action that would ruin an arms deal? Would a Republican president have done anything different? And if Clinton had attacked bin Laden there and ruined relations with the UAE, wouldn’t the likes of Dick Morris criticize him for doing so?

Some Reports say that Sudan offered to give us bin Laden, and the Clinton administration declined to accept him. The implication is that Democrats are weak and friendly to terrorists. Ghost Wars says (page 323 of my paperback) that, in 1996, there was some discussion with Sudan about their helping us with intelligence on bin Laden. The Sudan government has said that it did not formally offer bin Laden to us, but instead said that they would give him to us if we could make a legal case against bin Laden. Several senior American officials from that time have said they never received such a message. Nevertheless, there was some discussion in Washington of a hypothetical case of Sudan offering us bin Laden, and the question of whether we could indict him if they did. Sandy Berger said that we did not have enough evidence of bin Laden having commited crimes against the US to indict him. Some federal prosecutors talked of having a grand jury probe of bin Laden to produce evidence to indict him, but American law prevented the Department of Justice and the FBI from telling any other government department about such an investigation.

Looking back on this, it is all too bad. It would have been great to get custody of bin Laden then. But the Clinton administration was standing by the general tenet of our justice system which is “innocent until proven guilty.” This was not being friendly to terrorists, or weak. We all benefit from this tenet of our justice system, and isn’t it one of the aspects of freedom that the pro-war camp continues to say we are “defending” in our Middle East wars?

Ghost Wars tells where everyone came from. When I hear that the anonymous author of Imperial Hubris and Through Our Enemies' Eyes is Mike Scheuer, I think, “I wonder if he was in Ghost Wars,” and I check and sure enough, he was. When Daniel Benjamin or Paul Pillar appear in the news, I check up on them in Ghost Wars. Same goes for when Milton Bearden appears in the credits for The Good Shephard. Lots of information about these folks and more is given in Ghost Wars.

Re-reading parts of it in the past year, the oversight by our intelligence agencies before 9/11 that seemed most significant to me was that surrounding known terrorists Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. Pages 569-70 of my paperback say that in mid-July of 2001, as part of the ongoing scramble to figure out exactly what al Qaeda was going to do, the CIA discovered that these two terrorists had unrestricted visa access to the US and were probably in our country. But neither was put on a watch list, and the CIA did not formally notify the FBI.

My own thought was, if they had been put on a watch list, they might have been discovered in their cheap hotel nearby in Laurel, Maryland. And if they had been discovered, the specific 9/11 plot may have become clearly understood before it happened. This might be the single most clear instance where the ball was dropped.

In recent days, a CIA report has come out describing errors that agency made before 9/11. The highlight of that report, according to this New York Times article, is that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were not tracked within our country.

Ghost Wars called it. Go get it, and keep it next to the dictionary.

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