The second job of any intelligence organization, after identifying where danger lies, is to protect its secrets. In theory the secrets are being kept from enemies so that the organization—the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency, say—can pursue the rest of its important work, but in practice the secrets held most tightly are those that can wreck careers, let cats out of bags, or bring a halt to operations—the secrets of failure kept from public exposure. The glacial progress of the investigations of the two most damaging spies in American secret history, Aldrich Ames at the CIA and Robert Hanssen at the FBI, may be explained in part by the queasy certainty of high agency and bureau officials that they were going to catch unshirted hell when the news got out. Of course, the longer the wait the worse the explosion, but who wants trouble today when it can be put off until tomorrow—and maybe even left to ruin the career of the next person to fill the job?
Hiding trouble seems to be part of the ethos of intelligence agencies, especially at the FBI, which rejected and denied all criticism during its half-century under J. Edgar Hoover, the strange celibate who built the bureau in his own crabbed image. “Investigation” was the mission he hid behind: he insisted the bureau only collected facts—it did not interpret them. Filed in his “Do Not File” file were the capital’s most embarrassing personal secrets; when he acquired a juicy one he made sure the subject knew about it—a main reason why no president dared fire him, although several wished to, and why congressional committees rarely turned down his budget requests.
Personal survival was Hoover’s first goal but the second was to protect America from the kind of internal decay which fire-and-brimstone orators of yesteryear used to call “moral pollution.” For decades, as recounted in Ronald Kessler’s history The Bureau, Hoover detested all those he considered un-American—most famously godless socialists and Communists—and found ways to hound and torment them; but Hoover’s deepest loathing was reserved for “sexual perverts,” Negro agitators like Martin Luther King Jr., and civil libertarians who denounced the bureau’s appetite for gossip, rumor, and innuendo.
Still, Hoover, who died in office in 1972, was both rigid and adaptable. When public enemies changed he did, too, and by the mid-1960s the bureau was seeking telephone wiretaps, bugs, mail covers, and especially confidential informants who could deliver intelligence about the Ku Klux Klan and the loosely organized families of Italian-American gangsters known as La Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”) or the Mafia, an old word which has no accepted translation. For years Hoover resisted pressure to go after organized crime, fearing that the bureau’s special agents would be corrupted by Mafia money. But Robert F. Kennedy, United States attorney general under his brother Jack, refused to take no for an answer, and eventually the FBI began to pursue the Mafia with all the energy, and many of the same techniques, it had brought to bear in Hoover’s long campaign against the American Communist Party. There used to be a joke in the 1960s that half the Communists at Party meetings were reporting to the FBI on the other half, and the joke was not far short of the truth. The Mafia was harder to penetrate but the technique was the same—find somebody on the inside, get close, and turn the screw.
Confidential informants are really the same as spies—persons with a nominal allegiance or at least access to a targeted individual or group, who are willing to provide investigators with secret information, usually in return for money or preferment. FBI agents are trained in the art of recruiting informants at the bureau’s academy in Quantico, Virginia, and what they are taught is very similar to the techniques learned by CIA trainees at Camp Peary a little farther down the Virginia coast. For both organizations, rule one in agent-handling is control. Money helps, loyalty is nice, and shared ideals make everybody feel good, but the bedrock of control is fear and the purpose of control is to keep the handler and his mission on top.
Agent-running is not about making friends; it is about collecting information for the purpose of law enforcement or national security. FBI Special Agent John Connolly built a dazzling reputation in the Boston field office during the 1970s and 1980s as a consummate recruiter and handler of confidential informants who provided information used to prosecute bosses in the Italian mob, a top priority of the bureau once Hoover had finally been brought to admit that the Mafia actually existed. Connolly was a native son, born and raised in South Boston (“Southie”), where the Irish mob ran the gambling, loan-sharking, and drug business. A childhood friend of many who ended up on the wrong side of the law, Connolly was a sharp dresser who liked a good time, was easy and affable in manner, and had more brass than brains. Most important, he had a pipeline into the world of Boston mobsters and he helped his bosses make the kind of cases that get headlines.
According to Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Boston Globe reporters who expanded their investigative journalism on the Irish mob into an important book called Black Mass, Connolly was for years the golden boy of high bureau officials including FBI Director William Sessions, whose troubled tenure finally ended when President Clinton took the overdue step of firing him. In 1989, Lehr and O’Neill write, Sessions “traveled to Boston to personally congratulate the Boston agents, singling out Connolly for his handling of informants.” Connolly investigated no major cases, ran no big programs, never had a desk in Washington. He collected information from confidential informants. “The way you solve crime, ninety-nine percent of it,” Connolly said in a radio interview, “is when people tell you what happened. I mean, every director of the FBI has said that informants are our most important resource.”
Connolly’s most important resource was his fifteen-year relationship with James (“Whitey”) Bulger and Stevie (“The Rifleman”) Flemmi, which began in 1975 and ended, officially at least, with Connolly’s retirement in 1990. Bulger, a few years older than Connolly, was the brother of William Bulger, a leading Massachusetts politician who for many years ruled the state senate and is now president of the University of Massachusetts campus in Boston. Connolly was a childhood friend of Billy’s and knew Whitey, whose early life in crime graduated from robbing trucks to robbing banks before it was interrupted in 1956 by nine years in jail, served in federal penitentiaries in Atlanta, Alcatraz, and Leavenworth, where he is said to have taken part in an experimental CIA drug program using LSD. When Whitey got out of jail in 1965 his brother got him a job as a custodian in a Boston courthouse, but Whitey wanted more out of life than a broom and a janitor’s pay and he soon resumed his life of crime, starting with bookmaking.
If spies catch spies, as the mole hunters like to say, then criminals catch criminals, and in 1975 John Connolly, recently transferred to the organized crime squad in the Boston field office, successfully recruited Whitey to help him catch the Mafia gangsters who were the bureau’s top priority. The moment of recruitment is called “the pitch”; it involves both a request and an offer. What Connolly wanted was information that the FBI later used to put away the Angiulo brothers, who ran the rackets in Boston’s North End.
But what Connolly offered was not immediately clear to others. In theory confidential informants help out because they are in a squeeze—facing indictment and a long jail term. Sometimes, in a modest way, they are paid, or they are given a pass on minor offenses that are integral to the pattern of crime they are helping to shut down. But Whitey wasn’t in a squeeze, he never got paid, and his ongoing crimes were far from minor. So what lay behind this unholy pact between the FBI and an Irish mobster? What did Whitey get in return for committing the one sin Southie would never understand or forgive—talking to the cops?
Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill of The Boston Globe played a significant part in finding the answer to this question, beginning with a story in the Globe in 1988 about the brothers Bulger—one a powerful and respected politician, the other a criminal. But what the reporters found still stranger was Whitey’s apparently charmed life: the Boston Mafia was being pulled down by the FBI in one high-profile case after another, but nothing seemed to stick to Whitey. It was hard to explain unless somebody was protecting him. In May 1988 O’Neill was stunned during an interview when an FBI supervisor, John Morris, suddenly dumped the answer on him—James “Whitey” Bulger was an informant for the FBI, he had grown close to his handler, John Connolly, and it wasn’t luck that protected Whitey from the law. A second FBI source confirmed Morris’s story and the Globe published it in September. The bureau naturally denied the connection. “That is absolutely untrue,” said Jim Ahearn, the special agent in charge of the Boston field office. “We specifically deny that there has been special treatment of this individual.”
But once tugged, the thread of Bulger’s special relationship with the FBI continued to unravel and in 1998, during an extended federal court hearing, the story emerged in copious and painful detail. By that time Whitey and his partner Stevie Flemmi had been indicted on federal racketeering charges. Whitey disappeared in 1995 and his whereabouts are still unknown, but Flemmi was picked up when he unwisely tried to sneak back into Boston. At trial his lawyer offered a novel defense: nothing Flemmi did during the years of racketeering covered by his indictment was unknown to the FBI, which was using him and the missing Whitey as informants, and what had been overlooked then could not be charged as crimes now. Federal Judge Mark Wolf eventually rejected that claim and Flemmi in due course was convicted and sentenced to prison for life. But the judge’s 661-page ruling on the FBI’s handling of Bulger and Flemmi, backed up by 17,000 pages of sworn testimony, starkly revealed the terms of the unholy pact.
What Whitey Bulger got from John Connolly, and by extrapolation from the FBI, was immunity. It was a criminal’s dream: he got rid of many personal rivals and enemies, who were investigated, wiretapped, prosecuted, and jailed by the Feds, and in return he received timely information which allowed him to quit talking on phones as soon as they were wiretapped, to move his place of operations when it came under surveillance, and above all to deal in the time-honored manner with informers when they began to tell investigators about his crimes. Whitey and the Rifleman were eventually charged with twenty-one murders, eleven of them committed while acting as informants for the FBI, and three of those removed were men who had begun to talk to the FBI.
In May this year John Connolly was convicted of five charges stemming from his years of dealing with Whitey Bulger, including one for warning Whitey of his impending indictment back in 1995, thereby allowing him to escape. But on nine other charges Connolly was acquitted, largely because the jury didn’t want to take the word of confessed killers who had copped pleas in return for their agreement to testify. At various times during the long unfolding of this story, high FBI officials, including Director Louis Freeh, have apologized for ignoring or bending the bureau’s own rules and procedures for the control and handling of confidential informants. But none have conceded or addressed a conclusion that seems obvious: Whitey Bulger penetrated and ran agents inside the FBI—Connolly, John Morris, and perhaps others still unknown—just as surely as the KGB ran Robert Hanssen. There is no precise word for Connolly’s treachery in the intelligence lexicon, but what he did was familiar enough—selling secrets under the guise of buying them. The only real difference between the Hanssen and Connolly cases is that Hanssen blended into the background, like a chameleon on the forest floor, while Connolly hid in plain sight. In both cases it took the FBI twenty years to notice there was a problem, and in any but the narrowest sense the bureau has yet to address the problem behind the problem.
The twin cautionary tales of Robert Hanssen and Whitey Bulger help to explain the leaden paralysis of the FBI when it was confronted in mid-2001 with the accused terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui—an episode of sustained, almost willful refusal by high bureau officials to heed the warnings of agents in Minnesota convinced that they were investigating a subject who posed a genuine terrorist threat. When the FBI’s legal attaché in Paris passed on French intelligence that Moussaoui was connected to al-Qaeda, bureau officials in Washington objected that there was no proof that the French Moussaoui and the Minnesota Moussaoui were one and the same. The agent in Paris promptly replied that there was only one Moussaoui in the Paris phone book, but that didn’t satisfy Washington either. The thirteen-page letter sent to FBI Director Robert Mueller in May by the legal counsel for the Minneapolis field office, Coleen Rowley, details an evasive pattern so pronounced that agents in the Minnesota office joked that the obstruction in Washington must have come from “spies or moles, like Robert Hansen [sic], who were actually working for Osama bin Laden….”
But it is not the failure to get a legal look into Moussaoui’s computer before September 11 that Rowley emphasized in her letter, which was promptly classified by the FBI although portions of it were published in Time magazine. More troubling, in her view, was Mueller’s new strategy for dealing with terror—a flying “super squad” dispatched at the first sign of trouble by the honchos at headquarters. It wasn’t the special agents in the field who had failed, but the head office. In Rowley’s view a super squad wasn’t the solution; it was an example of the problem—the bureau’s self-protective instinct to hold things close, control every detail, admit nothing.
The cause, Rowley writes, is “a climate of fear which has chilled aggressive law enforcement action/decisions” stemming from a recent history of ruined careers following decisions that “turned out to be mistaken or just turned out badly.” The refusal to seek a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant in the Moussaoui case, Rowley suggests, was based on nothing more substantial than reluctance to be “‘written up’ for an Intelligence Oversight Board ‘error.’… Agents had concluded that “the safer course is to do nothing,” and even Mueller’s own response, Rowley argues, was essentially defensive. Within days of September 11 he issued a statement that the bureau might have been able to do something “if the FBI had only had any advance warning….” Rowley and others, fearing that the new director would soon be compelled to eat his words, immediately warned headquarters to pull back—there had been a warning and it was bound to come out. But when Mueller and other high bureau officials stuck to the no-warning story, Rowley and her colleagues “faced the sad realization that the remarks indicated someone, possibly with [Mueller’s] approval, had decided to circle the wagons…to protect the FBI from embarrassment and the relevant FBI officials from scrutiny.”All in all, this is gently put.
“Don’t Embarrass the Bureau” had been the first commandment of J. Edgar Hoover during his long career. Rowley’s memo suggests it is still at the heart of the bureau’s culture thirty years after his death, but the FBI is not the only Washington behemoth to circle the wagons. Since September 11 the CIA, the Defense Department, and the White House have all been peeping cautiously over the barricades with a lively fear that they are about to catch hell. The prompt and vigorous overthrow of the Taliban, ending al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan, has done nothing to soften the President’s resistance to repeated calls for some sort of commission or official inquiry to look at what went wrong before the attacks. Naturally nobody wants to take the heat for allowing nineteen men armed with box cutters to strike the mightiest blow against the American homeland since the British burned the White House in 1812, but the apprehension of those inside the circle of wagons looking out goes deeper.
Once the public insists on knowing how this could have happened, it may start to ask other difficult questions—for example, how did the huge American intelligence apparatus fail to note for so many years both the scale and resolution of terror networks and the deepening of the hate that drove them? Does a combination of better police work, tighter borders, and aerial bombing provide the right tools to win the war on terror? Do we understand how we got into this war? How will we know when the war is over and it is safe to stand down?
In 1994, the year after the first attack on the World Trade Center, the CIA officer Robert Baer was a regular commuter between the agency in Langley, Virginia, and Amman, Jordan, where his job was to find and assist Iraqi dissidents who might overthrow Saddam Hussein. When he could, he liked to break the long flight with a stopover in London, and there he often visited the Arab neighborhood which had grown up along Edgware Road. Baer had learned Arabic in Tunis in the early 1980s and his assignments thereafter took him in and out of the Arab-speaking world—Sudan, a small station in the Middle East which CIA censors would not let him name in his recent book, Lebanon, the new Counter-Terrorism Center set up in the CIA by Dewey Claridge in 1986, Jordan, northern Iraq. Baer had many jobs, but the one he assigned himself was to learn who had carried out the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, killing scores of people, including almost the entire CIA station.
Baer’s memoir of his years in the agency, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, is a fine primer on the rewards and frustrations of intelligence in the field. The rewards are few but sweet—recruiting a good source, catching a bad guy, winning the praise of a boss you respect. The frustrations are many. Baer once found himself, for example, standing near some buildings guarded by Iranian soldiers in Lebanon’s central Bekaa Valley. An Arab companion told him that was the Shaykh Abdallah barracks. The windows of one of the buildings were obscured by cardboard or blankets. Inside, chained to a radiator, his eyes covered by a blindfold, was the CIA’s chief of station in Beirut, William Buckley, kidnapped by terrorists months earlier. Sometime over the next year he would die there. “I’ll be frank,” Baer writes. “My visit…was a gross fracturing of all the rules…. It was risky and did nothing to help Buckley or anyone else.” But the frustration still burns years later; if he had managed to get that close on his own, what might have happened if his bosses had been a little more daring?
There were many moments like that during Baer’s twenty years with the CIA. He had the born clandestine agent’s love of being operational—nosing around, making contacts, asking questions, getting in where he wasn’t wanted, straining the patience of bosses, sticking with problems after Langley lost interest. His chapters on the Beirut bombing are dense with detail—dates, organizations, people who knew people. “Everything in the Middle East is interconnected,” he writes. “Pull on one thread and a dozen more will come out.”
In June 1987 one of these threads led to the identity of an Iran Revolutionary Guard activist named Husayn Khalil, the man in charge of the Shaykh Abdallah barracks when Buckley was held and killed there. Khalil in turn had worked for Azmi Sughayr, a member of an al-Fatah security force, who had provided the spotter for the embassy bombing—the man who watched the building and said, “Now!” In October 1987 Baer recruited an agent in Hizbollah who told him the name of the suicide bomber who actually delivered the bomb: Muhammad Hassuna. “You’ll have to take my word for it,” Baer writes. “Evidence doesn’t get much better in the intelligence business…. The only conclusion a reasonable person could make was that a Fatah cell—with or without Yasir Arafat’s knowledge—blew up the American embassy in Beirut….” Eventually Baer wrote up what he knew for CIA headquarters, but the answer he got back was one of the biggest frustrations of his career: “While the information is compelling,” the CIA told him, “it is only of historical interest.” Baer’s report was filed, not distributed.
Baer’s career ended in the mid-1990s after a squall of runaway political correctness in Washington nearly put him in jail. In March 1995 President Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, personally asked the FBI to investigate Baer for “trying to assassinate Saddam Hussein,” a strained interpretation of Baer’s efforts to organize political opposition among Iraqi dissidents. Although facing a charge of violating federal murder-for-hire statutes, which carried a possible death penalty, Baer unwisely followed the advice of CIA officials who urged him to talk freely with investigators and to forego his right to a lawyer. In the end the investigation came to nothing, but not without many sleepless nights wondering how his world had been turned upside down. Concluding that there was no place for him in the “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, do-no-evil model for the new CIA,” Baer resigned.
With him into private life he carried the memory of all those London stopovers in 1994, when he had strolled Edgware Road, stopping frequently in the Arab bookstores. There he checked out with troubled alarm, in rack on rack, one cheaply printed volume after another of radical Islamic tracts—burning calls for holy war against the United States. “It didn’t take a sophisticated intelligence organization,” Baer writes, “to figure out that Europe… had become a hothouse of Islamic fundamentalism.” But the CIA station in London had no Arabic speakers, and in any event Americans were barred from operations in Britain to track down the organizations behind these calls for war on the Great Satan. The agency had been shutting down or cutting back stations all over the world and the officers who remained “spent most of their time catering to whatever was in fashion in Washington at the time: human rights, economic globalization, the Arab–Israeli conflict.”
Stopping September 11, in Baer’s view, should have begun right there on Edgware Road in 1994, when any observant man with even a smattering of Arabic could have told the supergrades back in Langley that big trouble was brewing for the United States and the place to start checking it out was right there in London.
After September 11, of course, it was checked out, and what the investigators discovered, according to Jane Corbin, a reporter for the BBC, was a nexus of Islamic radicalism so dense that they began referring to it as “Londonistan.” Zacarias Moussaoui, it was learned, had spent time in Britain, had quarreled bitterly about jihad with the mullah of a Brixton mosque, and had several contacts—by phone, and face-to-face in a private home—with an aspiring British-born suicide bomber who had given himself the name of Abdul Ra’uff. In Corbin’s book Al-Qaeda: The Terror Network that Threatens the World, she describes the chain of evidence that identified Ra’uff, at first only a name on a computer hard drive acquired in Afghanistan, as a young British convert to Islam, Richard Reid, who tried and failed last December to ignite plastic explosives packed into the soles of his shoes during an American Airlines flight over the Atlantic.
Other investigations traced the al-Qaeda assassins of an Afghan warlord fighting the Taliban back to London, and determined that over a three-year period Osama bin Laden himself, using just one of possibly many satellite phones available to him, had placed 238 calls—of a total of 1,100, more than to any other country—to numbers in Britain. In late 1998 bin Laden discovered that the CIA had been picking up his calls on this phone, and he turned to other means.
Few things irritate intelligence professionals more than loose charges that they were snoozing at their desks on September 11. If one of them were to sit down to explain to skeptical journalists “on background” just what the CIA was doing to track the terrorist problem, the evidence cited would include hundreds of intelligence officers with support from numerous contract personnel using sophisticated equipment costing zillions of dollars and aided by friendly intelligence services throughout the globe and much else. Gathering information on a big scale is what the CIA has learned to do over the last half-century. The effort to keep track of the Russians began in the 1940s with a handful of agents of doubtful allegiance trying to count tanks on flatbed railcars, but by the end of the cold war the overhead reconnaissance program alone employed battalions of photo interpreters (PIs), each responsible for a small piece of the land grid of the Soviet Union.
All day five days a week and on weekends at the least blip of something interesting these PIs checked a never-ending river of images with a resolution in yards, then feet, and finally inches for signs of a new bump on tank turrets, different antennae on the roof of the local KGB office, too many fresh graves in a gulag cemetery, a new highway turnoff, or, God forbid, the characteristic outbuildings, concrete pourings, and cone-shaped hole of an intercontinental ballistic missile silo with antennae pointing to an azimuth on a beeline for the American missile fields in North Dakota. No expense and no human effort was spared in this effort and the result was very good coverage of the military capacities of the Soviet Union. Terrorism gets the same sort of budget and manpower now.
But sometimes more is not better, and sometimes information is not intelligence. What’s missing from the story of September 11 so far is a sense of why the United States got sucked into the vortex of violence in the Middle East, and how we ought to proceed now that al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have decided we are Enemy Number One. Neither of these questions was addressed in the only official inquiry yet released, a study made public on July 17 by the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security of the House Intelligence Committee. After several days of testimony by officials of the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency (NSA), the committee issued a brief list of practical recommendations for tightening up. At the top of the to-do list were recruiting spies, especially those with access to terrorist groups, and hiring people, now in short supply, who can speak and translate the relevant languages. To speed up the spy effort, the committee urged the CIA to abandon forthwith rules adopted in 1995 that increased the number of hoops that officers in the field had to jump through in order to recruit spies with a history of torture or murder. (The CIA’s director, George Tenet, complied within the week.)
The FBI, the committee said, should strive above all to prevent terrorist acts, and place second the effort to gather evidence to make prosecutable cases. The NSA should “change from a passive gatherer to a proactive hunter” of ways to eavesdrop on terrorists talking to each other. Most of the issues addressed by the committee had already been raised by journalists and frustrated intelligence officers like Robert Baer, but some were new. For example, the committee cited a report circulated by the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center only a month or two before September 11 under the title “Threat of Impending al-Qaida Attack to Continue Indefinitely.” The agency’s “no threshold” policy of reporting every threat, no matter how trivial or vague, was more hindrance than help, the committee suggested.
But only half-disguised in the report’s sober language was the committee’s frustration with the agency’s “excessive caution” in the field where intelligence wars can be won or lost. Needed now, the committee said, was a commitment to “going on the offensive against terrorism.” Marching orders for the CIA have changed radically over the years: agency coup- plotters were praised in the 1950s for ridding President Eisenhower of inconvenient regimes in Guatemala and Iran, then pilloried in 1961 for trying the same in Cuba. Under President Reagan the CIA allegedly trained Nicaraguan guerrillas in how to assassinate Sandinista government officials; under President Clinton in 1995, embarrassed by a revelation that it had been routinely paying a Guatemalan colonel who had killed and tortured Americans, the agency embarked on an “asset scrub” to get criminals off the payroll. CIA officials insist that in the years since no potential spies have been rejected because they were beyond the pale, but the House committee vigorously demanded rescinding the 1995 rules anyway. But more significant than any single white-gloves-only rule has been the slow growth of a careerist caution in the agency and the FBI alike which some intelligence officers—by no means all—describe as a “risk-averse culture.” What this means in practice is summed up by a sign which long hung over the desk of a CIA officer stationed in Rome:
Big ops, big problems.
Small ops, small problems.
No ops, no problems.
The no ops–no problems mindset before September 11 is well described in The Cell, a useful narrative by three journalists, part personal account and part old-fashioned street reporting, which gives flesh to the dry and condensed recommendations of the House intelligence report. At the heart of the book is the story of FBI agent John O’Neill, at first a source and later the friend of ABC television reporter John Miller, chief among the three authors of The Cell. As a bureau specialist in terror-ism, O’Neill investigated the first World Trade Center bombing and later worked the ground in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where his protests against the stonewalling of local police during the investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 led the American ambassador, Barbara Bodine, to urge the Yemeni government to bar him from the country. This among other frustrations persuaded O’Neill to resign from the bureau in disgust at the age of fifty-one. He was promptly hired by the New York Port Authority as director of security for the World Trade Center and he died there, not a week into the job, on September 11.
The Cell is one of the first of what are sure to be many books about September 11 but it is distinguished by Miller’s involvement in the story before the attacks occurred, and especially by his account of a trip to Afghanistan in May 1998 when he “interviewed” Osama bin Laden in northern Afghanistan. After hard traveling and much waiting by Miller and his crew, bin Laden arrived amid a crescendo of welcoming gunfire, surrounded by seven bodyguards, and with al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef at his side—the latter killed in Kabul last November by American bombs. At six feet three inches bin Laden was the tallest in the group; he wore a green army field jacket; he greeted Miller with a firm handshake; his voice was “soft and slightly high, with a raspy quality that gave it the texture and sound of an old uncle giving good advice.” The “interview” was limited to bin Laden’s answers to questions Miller had earlier submitted in writing while Miller nodded helpfully on camera. Nothing was translated at the time and there were no follow-up questions. Only later did Miller learn what he had been told.
It was simultaneously little and much—little in the sense that it rambled, added few details to what was known of bin Laden or al-Qaeda, offered no door to dialogue; and much because bin Laden answered a question rarely addressed or even raised since September 11: Why was he angry at America?
The American imposes himself on everyone. Americans accuse our children in Palestine of being terrorists—those children, who have no weapons and have not even reached maturity. At the same time, Americans defend a country, the state of the Jews, that has a policy to destroy the future of these children….
Your situation with Muslims in Palestine is shameful—if there is any shame left in America. Houses were demolished over the heads of children. Also, by the testimony of relief workers in Iraq, the American-led sanctions resulted in the death of more than one million Iraqi children. All of this is done in the name of American interests. We believe that the biggest thieves in the world and the terrorists are the Americans. The only way for us to fend off these assaults is to use similar means. We do not worry about American opinion or the fact that they place prices on our heads. We as Muslims believe our fate is set.
Nothing that bin Laden told Miller in his soft voice, or that he has said or written elsewhere, suggests that al-Qaeda’s war on America can be settled at the negotiating table. But that, according to Rohan Gunaratna, an academic expert on terrorism who teaches at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, should not prevent Americans from seeing that the war has a political context, and will be won or lost at least in part by political means. Gunaratna is one of those academics, common in America and Britain, who speaks as often to assembled generals and colonels as he does to college students. He has traveled frequently to Afghanistan and other battlegrounds, has interviewed many terrorists and intelligence officials, and has read widely in the literature of Islamic fundamentalism. His book is a careful and methodical account of bin Laden’s emergence as a leader, and of al-Qaeda cells active around the world. As a handbook, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror does the work of many tomes, but its chief strength is to be found in Gunaratna’s final chapter, where he argues that the political war will be ignored at America’s peril.
Islamic fundamentalism and hostility toward the West did not begin with bin Laden, Gunaratna stresses, but it was his leadership which built the first broadly based Islamic terrorist organization with a global reach and ambition to match. Al-Qaeda, not some vague anti-American feeling among Muslims, destroyed the World Trade Center and aspires to do worse, and Western security cannot be assured until it is crushed. Gunaratna is blunt in saying that bin Laden is the problem and killing him the solution. “Just as Nazism effectively died with Hitler,” he writes, “Islamism of the Al Qaeda brand is likely to die with Osama. His death will break the momentum of the campaign.”
But America and its allies, Gunaratna argues, must not ignore the issues that arouse and anger the Muslim world, beginning with the fate of the West Bank Palestinians. He quotes a leading Islamic cleric, Sheikh Abdel Rahman al-Sudeis, who attacked “the state terrorism of international Zionism” in Mecca on the final Friday of Ramadan last December. “Are we incapable of finding just solutions to stop the flow of Muslim blood?” the Sheikh asked. It is the invitation to seek “just solutions” which America ought to heed and pursue, Gunaratna argues. “As long as Al Qaeda…can appeal to Muslims worldwide” on the unresolved disputes over Kashmir and Palestine, he argues, there will be a steady flow of new recruits for bin Laden’s jihad. “The key to strategically weakening [al-Qaeda] is to erode its fledgling support base—to wean away its supporters and potential supporters,” he writes. “The widespread support it enjoys today is driven by the strong belief among Muslims that the West has persistently wronged them….”
Gunaratna’s judgment on the war so far is mixed. Most of the physical assets of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—weapons stockpiles, training camps, offices, and laboratories—have been destroyed, he says, but the Americans erred badly in not giving Pakistan time to pressure Mullah Mohammad Omar and his government to cut free from bin Laden. The resulting alliance of necessity between Taliban and al-Qaeda forces has survived the first months of the war in Afghanistan, and their capacity to go on fighting should not be underestimated. The worldwide roundup of al-Qaeda activists has been broadly effective but Western intelligence services have had little luck in penetrating activist groups.
The biggest American success, in Gunaratna’s view, was “in creating a fragile international coalition…by painstakingly building an international consensus against a common threat.” But now, in his view, America risks shattering the alliance by a unilateral attack on Iraq—doubly foolish because, in his view, Iran is the real state sponsor of Islamic terrorism. Attacking Iraq would “create the conditions for a fresh wave of support for Islamists” and in the end “the victor will be Al Qaeda.” Americans have received and ignored this sort of advice before. The French, for example, warned the Americans not to plunge into Vietnam. But some people you can’t tell anything.
War to the knife with Iraq seems to be firmly placed on the White House agenda. At West Point in June President Bush said the United States was ready to launch preemptive strikes against hostile states developing weapons of mass destruction, and in July, speaking to units of the 10th Mountain Division freshly returned from Afghanistan, he said it again: “America must act against these terrible threats before they’re fully formed…. Some parts of the world, there will be no substitute for direct action by the United States. That is when we will send you, our military, to win the battles only you can win.”
Backing up these often repeated threats are plans on the drawing board in the Pentagon. Americans got their first look at what the US Army’s Central Command has in mind from a June 23 Los Angeles Times article by the military analyst and air-war expert William Arkin, who described “Polo Step,” a plan to invade Iraq with up to 250,000 troops on three fronts. When Eric Schmitt of The New York Times, using Arkin as a principal source, followed with a second, more detailed story on July 5, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denounced leakers of the plan and asked the Air Force Office of Special Investigations to track down the guilty party. “It is wrong,” he wrote in a memo. “It costs the lives of Americans. It diminishes our country’s chance for success.”
But the reason Arkin was given the story in the first place, and the reason he passed it on to Schmitt, was the widespread skepticism among high-ranking military officers that the plan took advantage of American strengths or was likely to work at an acceptable cost. It called for a large-scale war in the classic American style—a huge air campaign to destroy hundreds of targets in Iraq, army divisions crossing the border on three sides, and a march on Baghdad. “The Pentagon doesn’t go anywhere with light luggage,” Arkin told me recently. Munitions for the war have yet to be moved to the theater of operations, or even received from manufacturers, and no American ally in Europe or the Middle East has expressed support for an invasion of Iraq before giving him at least one chance to readmit UN weapons inspectors. In his speech before the United Nations on September 12 President Bush recited the ten-year history of Iraqi intransigence but also left the door about half open for a renewed Security Council effort to compel Saddam Hussein to abandon once and for all his efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Bush set no deadline for success or else, but the tone of his speech made it clear that he did not intend to wait long, and that “regime change” in Iraq remains central to his administration’s grand strategy for the war on terror.
Is this a good idea? That’s a question which requires intelligence in the classic sense, not just information. American leaders have been convinced before that the nation’s safety required them to go to war—against Cuba in 1961, when a not-so-secret rebel army trained and equipped by the CIA got no further than the beach at the Bay of Pigs; and against North Vietnam in 1965, when the prospect of an imminent Vietcong defeat in the South prompted President Lyndon Johnson to launch an air campaign to force Hanoi to the negotiating table. The CIA was full of doubt the second time around, but there is no stopping a president and his advisers once they have talked themselves into certainty. At that point the agency begins to shorten its reporting focus until nothing is visible but the details.
How this works was explained to me more than twenty years ago by a former high CIA official who attended many White House and Pentagon briefings on the “progress” of Operation Rolling Thunder to punish Vietnam from the air. The President, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff beginning in February 1965 were for several years convinced that steadily intensifying American bombing raids on North Vietnam and on the supply routes south through Laos called the Ho Chi Minh Trail would eventually convince Hanoi that the war could not be won. At that point the North would come to the bargaining table and the United States in some meaningful sense would “win” the war in Vietnam.
High American officials didn’t simply believe this; they had staked their careers, their reputations, and their place in history on it, and the ante on the table was the blood of American boys. Briefing the principals on the “progress” of the bombing presented an awkward challenge for the CIA because the agency never collected any information from any source that said or suggested the strategy might be working—no reports from highly placed agents in Hanoi, no whispers from Soviet or Chinese officials that General Vo Nguyen Giap was losing heart, no overhead reconnaissance suggesting that the North Vietnamese truck fleet was tending toward zero, or the bridges weren’t being fixed, or less was going in at the top end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and days were stretching to weeks and months when nothing came out the bottom end. That was the reality of the matter, I was told, but you can’t tell them if they won’t listen.
So, lacking good news, the CIA narrowed its focus. It painted no rosy pictures and disseminated no false figures. It simply said that the capacity of North Vietnam to ship supplies south was X, that American bombings raids at level Y would on average interrupt Q percentage of the truck traffic; that a P level of warfare in the South required T tons of supplies from the North, and so on for as long as high American officials were willing to sit while CIA briefers flipped through visuals droning numbers. The closest the CIA ever came to saying that the emperor had no clothes was to say that the level of bombing we have achieved has not ended the capacity of the North to wage war, if they choose to go on. The numbers in the CIA studies were information; the intelligence—the judgments that mattered—had to be read between the lines.
The invasion of Iraq is not imminent. Centcom’s plan is still on the drawing board. There is plenty of time for wise heads to have second thoughts about widening the war on terror in order to win it. In mid-August senior figures from the Republican establishment, including the first President Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and retiring House minority leader Dick Armey, all counseled caution. President Bush has since promised to seek authority for military action from Congress, and a full-scale debate has been joined. Somewhere along about now would be a good moment for American intelligence organizations to contribute their thoughts on the wisdom of an Iraqi campaign, but that is not what presidents traditionally want from the secret arm of government.
More than a decade ago Robert Gates, the only CIA intelligence analyst ever promoted to run the agency, remarked in an article that directors of central intelligence rarely showed up on center stage when presidents were hammering out big foreign policy decisions. When it comes to war with Iraq, what the White House will want from the CIA is detail—target coordinates for Scud missiles, where Saddam Hussein is sleeping nights, the agency’s best estimate of the L level of bombing required to knock out P percentage of Iraqi tanks before Hussein can make use of his weapons of mass destruction, designated U for Unknown. Nothing the CIA is likely to say will cast doubt on the American ability to win such a war. But will a bloody, humiliating defeat of Iraq make us safer in the long run, or instead only fan the flames of hatred for America on which terror feeds? For the answer to the big questions of that sort presidents and their advisers often feel they have done enough when they have consulted each other.
—September 12, 2002;
this is the second of two articles.
October 10, 2002