Battling the Beltway
Laurie Mylroie on Bush, the war, and the unmade case.


Kathryn Jean Lopez

Laurie Mylroie has been writing about the terrorist threat for years. She coauthored Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf in 1990 with Judith Miller. Re-released after the September 11 attacks, she is also the author of The War Against America: Saddam Hussein and the World Trade Center Attacks: A Study of Revenge. Mylroie’s latest book, Bush vs. the Beltway: How the CIA and the State Department Tried to Stop the War on Terror, was just released. As the two-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached, Mylroie talked to NRO about Bush vs. the Beltway and the war on terror. (Mylroie can be reached at [email protected].) Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who is the “Beltway” that Bush is battling against? Who’s on the Bush side?

Laurie Mylroie: The Beltway is first the bureaucracies, above all the CIA and State Department, which developed a certain perspective on Iraq and on terrorism during the Clinton years — namely that “containment” addressed the danger Iraq posed and that Iraq was not involved in terrorism.

The Beltway also includes much of the media, as well as many Democrats.

The Pentagon is on Bush’s side, along with Congressional Republicans and the conservative media, generally.

That would leave the president outnumbered — except he has the support of the majority of the American people, who basically understand why we went to war.

Lopez: What has Bush done right?

Mylroie: Above all, the decision for war with Iraq was right; it was very courageous and it was absolutely necessary. Iraq was involved with al Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks — which is what nearly 70 percent of the American public believes.

Iraq’s involvement in terrorism, along with its weapons, particularly its biological-weapons program, made war necessary.

Lopez: You make a frightening claim in Bush vs. the Beltway: That we may not know who the terrorists behind the two attacks on the World Trade Center actually were. You even suspect that the Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who we’ve been interrogating may not be KSM, but an Iraqi agent. You say that we may not actually know who the 9/11 hijackers were. People who read that are liable to be scared, shocked, or just think you’re nuts. How do you back it up?

Mylroie: The post-9/11 investigation into al Qaeda has produced a lot more information than we had before. Most importantly, it is now understood that at the core of the astonishingly lethal terrorism — beginning with the 1993 Trade Center bombing and culminating in the 9/11 strikes — there is a family, or what is supposed to be a family, that includes:

Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 bombing; 2) Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, 9/11 mastermind, said to be Yousef’s uncle; 3-4) two older “brothers” of Yousef, also al Qaeda masterminds; 5) a younger “cousin,” Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, now known to have sent most of the money to the hijackers; and 6) Yousef’s childhood “friend,” Abdul Hakam Murad.

This is the claim of the U.S. government.

Yet it is strange. It is without precedent. No terrorist organization has a family at its core. Moreover, all these individuals, with the possible exception of the younger “cousin,” are said to be born and raised in Kuwait. Their identities are based on documents in Kuwait, above all interior-ministry files, that pre-date Kuwait’s liberation from Iraqi occupation in 1991.

Those documents are not reliable, because Iraq had custody of those files, while it occupied Kuwait. This is self-evident and beyond dispute.

Moreover, at least one file in Kuwait was tampered with to create a false identity for Yousef. A summary of that file was read to me. Quite possibly, other files were also altered. In fact, a colleague retired from the number two position in Israeli military intelligence believes exactly this: Iraq used Kuwait’s files to create false identities for intelligence agents.

Lopez: If Iraq under Saddam was that good — they are able to keep us in the dark about 9/11 even now, for instance — why do you think Saddam’s regime managed to fall so quickly?

Mylroie: Saddam is not that good. The real problem is the Clinton administration did not want to know. In 1993, Jim Fox, head of New York FBI, the lead investigative agency, believed Iraq was behind the Trade Center bombing.

Clinton believed that when he attacked Iraqi intelligence headquarters a few months later, in June 1993, saying publicly that was punishment for Saddam’s attempt to kill former president Bush, that strike would also take care of the terrorism in New York, if Fox and his colleagues were correct. It would deter Saddam from all future acts of terrorism.

The Clinton administration then put out an alternative explanation: It was the work of “loose networks” of Islamic militants. That became the accepted explanation.

It’s more a matter of not wanting to know, self-deception, rather than clever Iraqi deception. By now a large cottage industry has grown up around militant Islam. If it were understood that Iraqi intelligence was involved in these attacks and that it provided the expertise for them, that might make ideology (militant Islam) seem less significant than capabilities, as represented by terrorist states like Saddam’s Iraq. Those who made their reputations (along with a great deal of money) flogging the Islamic threat are joined with others in the Beltway in ferociously fighting this notion.

As for why Baghdad fell so quickly, Iraq is not capable of fighting the U.S. militarily (the 1991 Gulf War demonstrated that). But remember, this war is not over.

Lopez: Saddam not being dead yet — how big of a problem is it? Do you think he is helping orchestrate some of these attacks on U.S. troops and others in Iraq?

Mylroie: Yes, it is a serious problem. Almost certainly, Saddam, his Iraqi supporters, and even perhaps, his Sunni militant allies, including al Qaeda, are coordinating at least some of these attacks.

Lopez: How’s Paul Bremer doing? Is he at war with the Beltway, too?

Mylroie: The job of head of the Coalition Provisional Authority is inherently difficult. Moreover, the intense bureaucratic wrangling between the Pentagon and State Department that preceded the war continues in the CPA.

Several individuals from State’s Near Eastern Affairs (who opposed democracy in Iraq and for years sought to undermine Saddam’s democratic opponents) are actually key advisers to Bremer.

The CPA is doing an unsatisfactory job. U.S. military officers in Iraq criticize it (“Can’t Provide Anything,” according to Max Boot). Above all, the CPA hasn’t been working well with the Iraqi Governing Council. They treat the Iraqi leadership with disdain.

Lopez: Should George Tenet have been fired long ago? Are there other people who should have been fired shortly after 9/11?

Mylroie: A terrible blunder occurred on 9/11 that cost the lives of 3,000 Americans. We were vulnerable and the CIA bears substantial responsibility. It accepted and endorsed the false notion promoted by the Clinton White House that a new kind of terrorism had come into existence that did not involve states.

Tenet was very much involved in promoting that notion under Clinton. Now, he is more flexible and more open to the evidence suggesting Iraq has been working with al Qaeda than are the bureaucrats below him. Still, intelligence reform is necessary and it is hard to see how that can be done, while Tenet heads the CIA.

Lopez: Why hasn’t the administration been able to do a better job of tying Saddam Hussein to 9/11? It’s a laughable contention to many.

Mylroie: Yes, for many it is laughable. Indeed, over the weekend the Washington Post ran a story that nearly 70 percent of the American public believes Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks, but there is “no evidence” to prove that. NBC’s Tom Brokaw reported on that story, with the exact same tone, a few days later.

But, of course, there is evidence. There is lots of evidence, which I, and others, have put into the public record.

Still, this is how the bureaucracies, or elements within them, carry out their side of the argument. They refuse to recognize what is before their eyes and the media just repeats the cry, “no evidence.”

That happened when I was testifying before the 9/11 Commission. Another person on the panel — from the CIA — kept saying there is “no evidence,” even as I was presenting evidence.

It’s a word game. Evidence, according to Webster’s, is “something that indicates.” For example, your smile is evidence of your feelings toward me. “Proof” is conclusive demonstration.

After the 9/11 Commission panel, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, one of the commissioners, told the press that he thought Iraq was involved in the attacks, citing the terrorist training camp at Salman Pak. That’s evidence.

I don’t really know why the administration doesn’t make this case. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, explained that the administration had two reasons for war: Iraq’s weapons and its terrorism. There was so much dispute about the latter (read bureaucratic opposition), however, that they focused their public case on the weapons alone.

Perhaps, now that the weapons are in dispute, they will make this case.

Mylroie: What has been the State Department/CIA problem with the Iraqi National Congress, especially given the Baath alternative? Did the State Department like the Baathists? Do they now? In Syria, and elsewhere?

Lopez: Whether at State or in the CIA, the Middle East experts are, largely, oriented toward Arab governments. No Arab government is elected, and they are overwhelmingly Sunni. The population of Iraq is majority Shia. None of the Arab rulers really wants to see an Iraqi government that reflects the Iraqi population, if only because a successful Arab democracy would challenge their rule. Hence, State and the CIA liked the Baathists and disliked the INC.

Even now, their hostility to the INC has not abated. In fact, the State Department has cut off funding to the INC that the U.S. Congress had mandated, even as various Arab countries, as well as Iran, are pouring funds into Iraq to promote the kind of (undemocratic) regime they want to see.

Lopez: What’s your take on Iran and Saudi Arabia re: 9/11?

Mylroie: Iran was not involved in 9/11. If it were, we would have gone to war with Iran. The same with Saudi Arabia. This is not to say that there are not serious problems with those countries. Iran’s nuclear program has to be stopped, and the Saudi export of Wahhabism and funding of Islamic militancy should be stopped too.

That said, many people, I realize, believe the Saudis had more to do with the 9/11 attacks than Iraq. Indeed, that is the preferred explanation of the Beltway, including the Democrats, who vehemently oppose the notion that Iraq was involved.

Some of those who promote the idea that the Saudis were involved do so, because they don’t want to acknowledge their mistake regarding Iraq. Some do so, because it is popular. It makes for best-selling books, time on television, etc. And some genuinely don’t understand the background to 9/11; the complexity of the operation; or, perhaps, how intelligence agencies, particularly Soviet-style intelligence agencies, practice deception.

Lopez: We still don’t know who planted the anthrax in 2001. How can that be?

Mylroie: The same problem that exists with the CIA exists in the FBI, at least at headquarters in Washington.

The extraordinarily lethal form of anthrax sent to the two senators — more lethal than the anthrax produced by the Soviet or U.S. biological weapons programs in their days — could not have been made by a lone individual, even though that has been the operating investigative theory of the FBI from the start.

A state had to have made that anthrax in a laboratory. Of all the suspect states, Iraq tops the list, for me, as well as a number of others, including senior administration officials, as explained in Bush vs. the Beltway.

Lopez: Why aren’t more Iraq experts and people in the administration asking the questions you’re asking?

Mylroie: There are people in the administration pursuing these issues, although the administration is silent publicly.

As for the Iraq experts, part of the problem, I think, is that they do not represent the country’s best and brightest (I include myself). People of talent and ambition were much more likely to study a country like the Soviet Union or China, or to be a general strategist, than to become a Middle East expert.

And in their overwhelming majority, Washington’s Iraq experts represent a disgrace. In August 1995, Saddam’s son-in-law defected and it became known — from the Iraqi regime — that Baghdad retained large amounts of proscribed weapons material, including a large biological-weapons program.

The Clinton administration did nothing to address this problem and the Iraq experts went along with that. In late 1998, I pressed one such expert on this, and was told, “The times are very cynical and everyone must do what he must do for his career.”

Lopez: Given the current state of affairs, if 9/11/01 were tomorrow, would we see it coming? Would we be able to stop it?

Mylroie: It is very difficult to detect and stop a major terrorist attack, before it happens. That is why Bush has taken the offensive. There is significantly less risk than before, although remnants of al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence remain at large, and until this war is won completely, serious dangers continue to exist.

Lopez: What must the president do that he is not? Is there any chance he will?

Mylroie: There is a disconnect between the president’s courageous decision for war and the White House’s cautious dealings with the bureaucracies. It has avoided the inside-the-beltway conflicts it believed it could avoid and still accomplish the goal of ousting Saddam.

The president has not made the clear, indisputable case for war that should — and could — be made. Indeed, Bush probably does not understand how easy it would be to demonstrate Iraq’s role in the 9/11 attacks