Did the CIA and FBI do everything they could have done to prevent September 11? Was Iraq behind the attacks? Did Saddam Hussein possess weapons of mass destruction?
Middle East expert Laurie Mylroie tackled these and other heated questions at a luncheon held on February 11 by Accuracy in Media. Mylroie also discussed her book Bush vs. the Beltway: How the CIA and the State Department Tried to Stop the War on Terror (Regan Books, 2003).
Much of the discussion dealt with the policies of former President Bill Clinton, for whom Mylroie served as an advisor on Iraq during the 1992 presidential campaign. Mylroie reported that her former boss had taken a tough stance toward Iraq on the campaign trail; once he took office, however, Clinton suddenly developed an aversion to dealing with what Mylroie called “the unfinished business of the Gulf War.”
The response to the bombing of the World Trade Center in February of 1993 demonstrated the weakness of the Clinton administration’s policies on terrorism, Mylroie said. The New York FBI suspected that Iraq had played a major role in the bombing, citing the sophistication of the attack plan and the suspicious ease with which the alleged perpetrators had been captured. Most intelligence officials, however, promoted the theory that state-sponsored terrorism had given way to attacks by “loose networks” of terrorists such as al Qaeda, with the WTC bombing being a case in point.
Mylroie disagreed and wrote a book making the case that Iraq had planned the WTC bombing and used Islamic militants to cover its tracks. Although she had assembled a great deal of evidence, including information from the New York FBI’s investigation, she was informed that there was no market for the book-one publisher even told her that the subject didn’t merit a book of its own because only six people died in the attack.
Former President Clinton was aware of the evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attack, Mylroie reported, but brushed it aside because of his reluctance to confront Iraq. The administration “spun the media away” from evidence of Iraqi coordination, Mylroie said, and clung to the theory that the bombing was performed by terrorists unaffiliated with any state. The CIA went so far as to ignore and even suppress evidence of Iraq’s possible role in terrorism, she charged.
Mylroie recalled other errors of judgment from the Clinton years. In June 1993, after Iraq’s failed attempt to assassinate former President George Bush, Clinton ordered cruise missiles launched at Iraqi intelligence headquarters, thinking that this would be sufficient to deter Saddam Hussein from any future attacks. In 1998, Clinton called off a bombing 30 minutes beforehand when Iraq faxed the U.N. a promise to comply with weapons inspections.
One of the main problems with 1990s counterterrorism efforts, Mylroie argued, was that the U.S. too often treated terrorism as an issue of law enforcement rather than one of national security. As such, the issue was left to prosecutors, who were concerned only with convicting individual terrorists, neglecting the question of whether their actions might have been coordinated by a foreign government.
Mylroie gathered a great deal of evidence of Saddam’s involvement in terrorism. In 1995 his son-in-law, Hussein Kamil, who had been in charge of Iraq’s unconventional weapons program, defected to Jordan. He revealed-and Iraq subsequently confirmed-that Iraq’s weapons programs were much larger than the government had previously admitted, and that they included biological and nuclear weapons.
Of all the weapons programs developed by Iraq, Mylroie argued, the biological program was most dangerous, as demonstrated by the deadly anthrax attacks in the weeks following September 11. To produce lethal anthrax in its inhalational form requires a good deal of technological sophistication. In particular, the anthrax sent to the offices of Senators Tom Daschle and Pat Leahy was of such a lethal quality that government scientists still have not been able to reproduce it.
The scientific expertise and specialized equipment needed to produce such a toxin indicate that there was a great deal of money and support behind the anthrax attacks, Mylroie pointed out. Moreover, Iraq admitted in 1995 that it had produced lethal forms of anthrax and other biological agents.
One startling piece of evidence linking Iraq to September 11 was a terrorist training camp called Salman Pak, which was located about 25 kilometers south of Baghdad. There recruits were taught how to hijack airplanes using a variety of tools, including pens and eating utensils, according to one Iraqi defector. When Marines captured the camp last year, Mylroie said, they found an abandoned airplane far from any airport or runway, just as the defector had described.
It was in light of such evidence that Mylroie emphasized the importance of the 2003 war in Iraq. “We had to do it,” she said. “The 1991 war never ended.”
Mylroie expressed frustration with the widespread belief that Iraq was simply a “speed bump” on a road leading elsewhere. She stated categorically that the U.S. is “not going to liberate any more countries” as part of the war on terrorism.
Noting failed attempts by the British and French to establish democratic governments in the Middle East, Mylroie argued that the region is simply not amenable to democracy. She said that the Mideast has been a “snake pit” for the last 200 years.
Mylroie contended that there is a remarkable scarcity of expertise on the Middle East among U.S. government officials, especially when compared to, for example, British administrators of India in the early twentieth century. She said that building knowledge on the region and its history is an urgent priority for the United States.