The CIA is a rogue institution. It undermines national security. It was dishonest about the threat from Iraq. It hid the truth from the American public. It has plotted against other parts of the government. It has betrayed the country.
That’s not the latest lefty screed against the spooks. This critique is the central point of a new book written by a darling of the neoconservative claque running much of President Bush’s foreign policy. In Bush vs. the Beltway, Laurie Mylroie, an adjunct fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute (neocon HQ), offers a j’accuse-like indictment summed up by this slim volume’s subtitle: “How the CIA and the State Department Tried To Stop the War on Terror.” Mylroie charges that a conspiracy of head-in-the-sand intelligence analysts and don’t-rock-the-boat foreign service apparatchiks covered up, ignored and dismissed evidence that Saddam Hussein orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and that al Qaeda has been a front for Iraqi intelligence. Moreover, she claims that midlevel CIA bureaucrats — no names, of course — were able to thwart Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and others from presenting the best possible case for war against Iraq.
Mylroie’s theories might not deserve much attention except for the fact she has influential admirers. Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, R. James Woolsey, a former CIA director, and Christopher Hitchens, the leftist writer turned Wolfowitz fan, have endorsed her book. Her past work has been hailed by former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick (the godmother of the neocons) and Wolfowitz. Several years ago, Mylroie co-wrote a book on Saddam Hussein with New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Mylroie is a terrorism consultant for the Pentagon. She recently testified before the independent commission investigating the 9/11 attacks.
So, what Mylroie says matters — at least to some important folks. And her work reflects the suspicions (and biases) held by the neocons and hawks who derided and disregarded intelligence assessments that did not support their prewar assertions about Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Baghdad’s supposed alliance with al Qaeda, and the threat posed by Hussein. Her embrace by the neocons illustrates that some of this bunch are happy to engage in the most liberal (and apprehensive) interpretations of reality when it suits their interests.
Mylroie argues that “substantial evidence did exist to tie Iraq to al Qaeda and to suggest that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks.” Substantial evidence — that’s a big claim for a big charge. But boiled down, her case rests on the unproven assertion that key 9/11 plotters were not Islamic fundamentalists but Iraqi intelligence operatives. She starts with Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. She raises intriguing questions about an alias he used and speculates that Kuwaiti files supporting this alias were manipulated by Iraqi intelligence. And, to her, that means Hussein was behind the first attack on the World Trade Center. She then turns to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the supposed author of the 9/11 attacks. He is Yousef’s uncle and, like his nephew, a Pakistani. Without evidence, she surmises that his identity might be a concoction, too. Noting that Yousef’s two older brothers and a cousin also are involved with al Qaeda, she asks, what are the odds that one Pakistani family would be at the center of a terrorism crusade? It is more probable, she argues, that Iraqi intelligence set up fake identities for its own operatives so they seemed to be Islamic fundamentalists.
Appearing before the 9/11 commission, Mylroie was asked if any information indicated Khalid Sheik Mohammed was indeed an Iraqi operative. She replied that a friend of hers — a retired Israeli intelligence official she would not name — had told her, “It’s obvious that these [identities] are legends.” As Judith Yaphe, a professor at the National Defense University who for 20 years was a CIA analyst, snapped, “That is not evidence.”
Even if Mylroie offers more theory than proof, wouldn’t the CIA be keen on demonstrating that Hussein was responsible for 9/11? Au contraire, she says. CIA officials, she maintains, have been “systematically denying any evidence of an Iraqi connection with terrorist activity.” During her testimony before the 9/11 commission, Mylroie recalled, “A senior administration official told me in specific that the question of the identities of the terrorist masterminds [particularly that of Khalid Sheik Mohammed] could not be pursued because of bureaucratic obstructionism.” Who said that to her? Mylroie wouldn’t say. Obviously, the Bush administration would love to connect Hussein to 9/11. So, I asked Mylroie, how could midlevel CIA bureaucrats foil the White House and the Pentagon? “I don’t really know all the details of it,” she answered.
Why would the CIA be undermining the war on terrorism? Mylroie’s answer is simple. In the 1990s, the CIA and the State Department concluded that modern-day terrorism was mostly a “stateless” endeavor conducted by evildoers unattached to any particular government and not sponsored by regimes. So to protect themselves, national-security bureaucrats have smothered evidence that Hussein was responsible for 9/11 (“evidence” being a loosely defined term). According to Mylroie, they rigged intelligence reports and spoke to reporters off the record to cast doubt on supposed Baghdad–bin Laden links. The bottom line: The world was kept in the dark because career-first intelligence officials gave anonymous quotes to a few reporters.
Mylroie offers some sound points about the self-protective nature of bureaucracies in Washington and the inability of agencies to rethink prevailing assumptions. But her investigative techniques do not inspire confidence. She notes that Hussein’s gleeful responses to the 9/11 attacks (“Americans should feel the pain they have inflicted on other peoples”) reinforced “the impression . . . that Iraq was linked to the attacks.” But these comments could as easily have been seen as Hussein exploiting the tragedy. Mylroie stands by the disputed charge that Mohammed Atta, the supposed ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers, met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001. She neglects to mention that the FBI investigated and found no corroborating information and that in October 2002 The New York Times reported that Czech President Václav Havel informed the White House there was no evidence to confirm the meeting. By the way, this Iraqi intelligence officer was captured by U.S. forces in early July. So far, there’s been no word that he has acknowledged meeting with Atta.
Mylroie is still fighting the last battle — in which Pentagon neocons and their allies wrestled with other government officials who questioned their Hussein-is-a-threat rhetoric — even though her side was victorious in that face-off. During the prewar debate, Bush and his aides relied on belief more than facts to argue that Hussein was an imminent danger. That has become increasingly clear in the postwar period, which has yet to yield evidence to back up their most dramatic charges. Now Mylroie enters the fray, providing even less proof for a harsher case against Iraq and, more importantly, seeking to discredit those government forces that occasionally questioned the factual basis for the invasion. She literally pronounces the CIA the enemy within.
It is no secret that before the war Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other Bush officials were suspicious of CIA analysts who were unable to confirm what these war advocates assumed to be true — that Hussein was in cahoots with al Qaeda, that he possessed WMDs, that he was a 9/11 co-conspirator. These hawks did not want to be inconvenienced by facts (or the lack thereof). For this choir, Mylroie’s book is a hymnal. She offers them full justification for adhering to their own assumptions and disregarding the analysis of others. For the rest of us, she unintentionally supplies insight into a paranoid corner of the neocon world where truth is based on presumptions rather than facts.