Against my better judgement, I went to go see "Fahrenheight 9/11" over the weekend. While "Spider Man 2" was by far superior on any number of counts and I think that there's been more than enough discussion of the film in blogosphere in general and here on Winds of Change in particular, there was just one point of the film that I found deliciously ironic on so many levels:
Michael Moore basically agrees with many of the controversial conclusions of under secretary of defense for policy Douglas J. Feith, whose Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group is the source of one of Moore's key (though erroneously framed) premises - namely that a sizeable chunk of the Saudi royal family and key members of the Saudi business establishment, including members of the Bin Laden Group, were in cahoots with al-Qaeda.
And I very much doubt that Moore is alone in this regard.
One of the stronger criticisms that has been made against the administration as far as its handling of the war on terrorism is concerned is that Bush has more or less been treating al-Qaeda's Saudi backers with kid gloves. Similar remarks are sometimes made with regard to the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, though most of the administration's more salient critics seem to at least recognize that General Musharraf is probably the best we're going to get as far as Pakistan is concerned for at least the immediate future. With the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich, I certainly don't recall any Democratic candidate calling for a withdrawl of US support to the Pakistani military government. So for the time being, let's just stick with the Saudis, shall we?
The Standard View
To put it quite simply, pre-9/11 a rather sizeable chunk of the United States intelligence community bought the idea that the Saudi royal family were nothing more than the intended victims of bin Laden's terror offensive. Al-Qaeda, or at least its Saudi wing, was seen as more or less an outgrowth of the anti-monarchist sentiments that had been building in the Kingdom for years. That Khalid al-Fawwaz, a top bin Laden lieutenant who was involved in the 1998 embassy bombings and is still fighting extradiction to the US, ran the avowedly anti-monarchist London office of the Advice and Reform Commission before his arrest by MI5 on September 28, 1998 did a great deal to strengthen this view within the US intelligence community.
Now, nobody in the CIA disputed throughout the late 1990s that bin Laden was an extremely popular man in the Kingdom. Indeed it has been a common tactic for the Saudi government or their preferred surrogates to argue that US support for the monarchy was all that kept the Kingdom from degenerating into an anti-Western Islamist theocracy in order to give US policy-makers an added incentive to support the Saudi monarchy. How this would be any different from the status quo, minus of course the presence of the princes, is a question that is well worth asking.
While there was an undeniable link between al-Qaeda and various Saudi charities that even prompted at one point a meeting between senior Saudi officials and then-Vice President Al Gore, up until 9/11 the intelligence agency was fairly willing to accept the standard Saudi claims that any Saudi money that did end up in al-Qaeda's hands was largely the result of unscrupulous individuals inside various charities (some of which were actual arms of the Saudi government) rather than the charities themselves.
The Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group
As this story from the New York Times makes fairly clear, shortly after September 11, Michael Maloof and David Wurmser started culling for the better part of a decade's worth of intelligence on al-Qaeda and its activities, with particular emphasis on its state sponsors outside of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.
As the Times piece explains:
The team's conclusions were alarming: old barriers that divided the major Islamic terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, were coming down, and these groups were forging ties with one another and with secular Arab governments in an emerging terrorist war against the West.
Their analysis covered plenty of controversial ground. The two men identified members of the Saudi royal family who they said had aided Al Qaeda over the years. They warned that Al Qaeda had operatives in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, where they were establishing ties with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. They suspected Abu Nidal, an aging Palestinian terrorist leader living in Baghdad, of being an indirect link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, even though many other analysts believed that he was essentially retired and that his once-fearsome organization had been shattered. Mr. Nidal died under mysterious circumstances in Baghdad in 2002.
Now I want to be absolutely clear before proceeding onwards, because this is something that is all too often missed among Feith's detractors, particularly those who want to accuse him of manipulating intelligence with respect to Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda:
If you believe that there are members of the Saudi royal family or Saudi business magnates who are in cahoots with bin Laden, you accept that conclusions of Maloof and Wurmser.
They were the first ones to come to this conclusion, and they reached it in November 2001. That was months before Abu Zubaydah's capture and subsequent interrogation in March 2002, in which he more or less spilled the beans concerning the connection between 3 senior Saudi princes (Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud, and Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Khabir) and al-Qaeda. You can read all about that in Gerald Posner's book.
I should add, incidentally, that there are still quite a few people within the intelligence community who hold to the same position that I outlined earlier, t5hat the Saudis are simply intended victims and nothing more. Perhaps that's why the first clue to the general public that the Saudis probably weren't such nice guys came from from Rand Corporation analyst Laurent Murawiec on August 6, 2002, and not from any official assessment of the intelligence community (The War Against the Terror Masters, which contains much the same information, was not published until September 10, 2002).
Murawiec, incidentally, was part of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, which until recently also included Richard Perle, the key figure in all variants of the neoconservative cabal conspiracy theory.
Understanding the Saudis and the Counter Terrorism Analysis Group
So what's my point on all of this? The original analysis that led to the opinion (largely verified by what we know now, I would argue) that Saudi regime is:
[a] Not our friend; and
[b] Has been far more than tacitly complicit in a lot of the crap that's occurred in terms of the rise of Sunni extremism over the last 20-30 years; and
© In many cases continues to be complicit, as can be seen from all of the wonderful work that the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) is now doing in places like Fallujah these days.
Or let's take for example Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, bin Laden's brother-in-law who has been financing militant Islamist activities in the Philippines ever since 1988, including the proto-9/11 Oplan Bojinka. He was arrested shortly after 9/11 by Saudi authorities, but was subsequently released and to this day remains a free man in the Kingdom with full access to his finances and extensive network of Islamist NGOs. No doubt this is a great comfort to all of the people that Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have murdered over the last decade.
The case of Khalifa is just one of many that I could point out as far as Saudi activities in this regard are concerned. We could always get into little details like IIRO Pankisi Gorge helping to finance Khattab's invasion of Dagestan in 1999, or the more recent series of wackiness surrounding the death of Paul Johnson and the subsequent amnesty offer to Saudi al-Qaeda members. I can go on, but I think that readers are getting my point.
Oddly, the same people who seem more than willing to accept the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group's conclusions with respect to Saudi Arabia will vehemently argue against doing the same with regard to Iraq and al-Qaeda (or Iran depending on where you work, but that's another post altogether).
This is so despite the fact that in my view the conclusions of Maloof and Wurmser as stated above have held up to the letter: Saudi royals have funded al-Qaeda, the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein al-Hilweh in particular has degenerated into an al-Qaeda haven, and al-Qaeda has had a standing alliance with Hezbollah ever since 1993. If anybody wants to dispute any of that, I'll be more than happy to take them up on any of those particular subjects.
This is one of the reasons why the administration was so willing to accept their Iraq analysis over others that were presented at the time: to be quite frank, Maloof and Wurmser got right in one fell stroke what other analysts had been getting wrong for literally years on end.
Now then, one of the things I will be quite up front about is that there are multiple ways at looking at various sets of data. This is one of the reasons why, for example, Richard Clarke in his book, for example, fully allows for the possibility that Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were working with Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols in the Philippines, a notion that I'm certain would be considered the last refuge of utter kookdom were it repeated by yours truly.
Having a better understanding of how this works actually being inside the Beltway and talking with various people here (and I'll be quite honest - I've learned more about US politics in 1 month at AEI than in 2 years of political science courses), I'm a lot more aware now of how people came to different conclusions concerning Iraq and al-Qaeda within the US government. What I think needs to be understood, however, is to begin with the assumption of good motives.
Suffice it to say that there is more than enough evidence available to support any given conclusion that one might desire to entertain concerning any number of complex issues, like say Iraq and al-Qaeda. The problem as far as policy-makers or the broader intelligence community are concerned then, comes to the issue of making a judgement call. Unfortunately, given the charged political atmosphere that exists within Washington these days, what is all too frequent an occurence is that the people who lose the policy debate have a nasty way of going to the press in order to receive a sympathetic airing of the dissenting view to the general public.
Another common tactic (and Winds of Change commenter praktike hit it right on the money when he recognized that a lot of these "former officials" are really pretty much the same group of people, some of which have axes of their own to grind - it might be helpful the next time you see Patrick Lang quoted, for example, to keep in mind that he is currently a foreign agent of the Lebanese government) is to bring individuals who used to serve in government and are now outspoken on any number of issues (Lang, for example, supports Jayna Davis's work on the Oklahoma City bombing) but are able to hide further scrutiny of their identities by expressing their opinion on these subjects anonymously.
This has nothing to do with conservativism or liberalism, incidentally, it's simply the way that Washington operates. The right does it, the left does it, it's a problem, and I don't foresee any way of changing this in the future.
As I said, the best way to approach this kind of information is understand that there numerous ways of looking at any given set of data. Things that are often caricatured as insane (such as Clarke or Lang's rather interesting assessments of the Oklahoma City bombing), tend to look quite different when approached with a more open mind - and that counts every bit as much against the connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda as it does for it.
One point I do want to drive home, however, is that those who are so willing to accept Maloof and Wurmser when it comes to Saudi Arabia might well do be a little more charitable towards them with regard to Iraq, given that there are every bit as many arguments to be made for or against al-Qaeda collaboration with Saudi Arabia inside the intelligence community as there ever were with al-Qaeda and Iraq. I'm not advocating agnosticism in these particular areas (though this seems to be a pretty good position to hold with respect to data in general, as Fred Pruitt says, "I'm prepared to believe 10 impossible things every day") as my views on these subjects are fairly well known, but there are benefits to keeping an open mind with respect to this stuff.
Oh, and some other stuff ...
As long as we're on the subject of intelligence, I just thought I'd make some other passing observations. The first is that while deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other prominent neocons have been widely criticized for their optimistic assessment of post-war Iraq, one thing that hasn't gotten nearly as much note is that this was pretty much the same thing that the intelligence community believed at the time of the war and all Wolfowitz and others were doing was simply airing these assessments to the public (no doubt apologies will be in order from all those who have routinely accused Wolfowitz and his colleagues of acting solely on the basis of ideology without considering the intelligence on this one).
I also notice that in the same news story somebody decided to leak two key items of note, though bits and pieces of this have also appeared in other media outlets:
- US intelligence put forth a report suggesting that US territory could be attacked by Iraq prior to the war. It doesn't get into specifics on this one, but if you combine this with what Putin recently decided to go public with as well as Zarqawi and other factors that policy-makers had to consider prior to the war, it should give you at least some idea as far as what the intelligence actually said.
- Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard commanders now in US custody have stated that they were under the quite sincere belief that adjacent units possessed WMD. If you remember hearing about that infamous "red line" outside of Baghdad, that's where a lot of this comes from.
- About the one thing that everyone in Washington does seem to agree on these days is that most of the surviving al-Qaeda leadership is currently in Iran, though there seem to be a number of different opinions on how to deal with them. Some folks, particularly in the State Department, seem to be of the opinion that they can actually get Iran to hand these people over at some unspecified point in the future, though I'll be quite honest and say that by my reckoning any chance of that happening after the hardliners' victory in the recent
riggedelections. The other thing I've heard here that I find highly disturbing is this misguided belief that Rafsanjani and Co will rein al-Qaeda in, order at least keep them from launching major attacks on the United States in the immediate future for fear of a US retaliation.
You'll forgive me for being somewhat skeptical of Rafsanjani and his ilk as far as their willingness to restrain themselves as far as terrorism is concerned, particularly if the mullahs get their hands on the bomb.