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Secrets of September 11’

To the Editors:

In his “Secrets of September 11” [NYR, October 10] Thomas Powers urges CIA to go beyond providing information pertaining to a potential US attack on Iraq and offer conclusive judgments as well. In supporting this laudable, but possibly unnecessary, advice, he refers to CIA analysis of the US bombing campaign against Viet Minh supply routes during the Vietnam War. “The numbers in the CIA studies,” he writes, “were information; the intelligence—the judgments that mattered—had to be read between the lines.”

The facts are otherwise. I describe CIA’s reporting and analysis of the US Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in The Unknown CIA (Brassey’s, 1989). In brief, Secretary Robert McNamara came to us and asked for an analysis of the success of the Rolling Thunder campaign. When I asked whether he wanted us to coordinate our work with the Pentagon, he barked, “Certainly not. I know what the Air Force thinks. I want to know what your smart guys think.”

In response, we demonstrated that Rolling Thunder was not significantly slowing the flow of supplies into South Vietnam. Impressed, McNamara asked us to repeat the study quarterly, which we did. “We finally determined that the North Vietnamese in the teeth of the US bombing program had improved their capability for moving war materiel south fivefold” (p. 185).

Earlier, in a study titled “The Will to Persist,” we had told President Lyndon Johnson that US programs, both underway and planned, were not likely to break North Vietnamese will to persist in the war in the foreseeable future (p. 183).

No “reading between the lines” was required in either instance.

Russell Jack Smith
Deputy Director for Intelligence
Central Intelligence Agency
1966–1971
McLean, Virginia

To the Editors:

Thomas Powers is an astute observer of US intelligence agencies. One cannot say the same for his commentary on Osama bin Laden in “Secrets of September 11.” Mr. Powers quotes bin Laden’s remarks of May 1998 to John Miller, an ABC reporter, to the effect that he will resort to violence against America in the name of “our children in Palestine.” Powers introduces this quotation by stating that bin Laden was answering “a question rarely addressed or even raised since September 11: Why was he angry at America?”

Though Powers cannot be faulted for trying to understand the roots of Muslim anger, he appears to suspend his critical faculties with respect to bin Laden. Could it be that bin Laden, the arch-terrorist, was manipulating anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish feeling and prejudice in order to push himself and his movement to the forefront of the Islamic world? As Mr. Powers knows very well, bin Laden was preparing his major strike against this country throughout 1999 and 2000 (The New York Times, September 27 and October 11, 2002). Let’s think back to the Middle East three years ago. The government of Ehud Barak—being intensely eager to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict—was moving toward recognizing a Palestinian state comprising approximately 90 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, with a capital in Jerusalem.

The complex issues at stake between Israelis and Palestinians had not obviously been resolved, but they were then the subject of serious negotiation. Is it not likely that Osama bin Laden and other extremists of his calling were engaged in terrorist plotting not only to undermine any peaceful resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, but above all to torpedo relations between the Islamic world and the West? Certainly, bin Laden is not a proponent of a pluralist world order, or one who accepts the presence of a Jewish state. Nor do groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Our consideration of the Middle East should be informed by deeper cultural understandings—which should extend to various expressions of Jewish as well as Islamic aspirations and grievances.

David E. Narrett
Associate Professor of History
University of Texas at Arlington
Arlington, Texas

Thomas Powers replies:

I am happy to be reminded of The Unknown CIA by Russell Jack Smith, who was the agency’s deputy director for intelligence during some of the bitterest years of the war in Vietnam. But we interpret differently his report that Hanoi had increased its ability to ship war materiel “fivefold”—Smith’s word. I take this as an example of the emphasis on numbers, rather than conclusions, which was the agency’s way of telling the truth without contradicting the high officials who had staked their reputations on beating North Vietnam into submission with Operation Rolling Thunder. Did a “fivefold” increase in supply capability mean Hanoi was at the edge of collapse, or approaching cruising speed? That was the part that had to be read between the lines.

Still, I urge readers to consult Smith’s chapter, which quotes the late Richard Helms on the difficulties faced by analysts. Smith says he stomped into Director Helms’s office one day to ask how President Lyndon B. Johnson could have decided to ignore some CIA study and do X instead of Y. “How do I know how he made up his mind?” Helms responded. “How does any president make his decisions? Maybe Lynda Bird was in favor of it. Maybe one of his old friends urged him. Maybe it was something he read. Don’t ask me to explain the workings of a president’s mind.”

David Narrett is of course right when he says that Osama bin Laden could be trying to excite “anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish feeling and prejudice” when he cites the plight of the Palestinians as one source of “Muslim anger” at the United States. But the claim does not strike me as unlikely on its face; I’m sure it is a source, and probably a major one. Bin Laden is far from the only figure in the Islamic world to criticize American support for Israel throughout its long and increasingly harsh occupation of the West Bank. Why should bin Laden be expected to take a different or a gentler view? My point is that we don’t have to guess about the emotional roots of bin Laden’s animus toward the United States, but only to listen to what he says. If you want to understand the mind of Adolf Hitler the place to start is Mein Kampf.

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