Well, it’s better than the Intelligence Committee thing, anyway. You can actually read this one, sometimes with pleasure, which is a rarity for documents of the genre. And it’s got lots of information, some of which is a mystery.
To start with, this commission is explicit about Iran’s ongoing intimate relationship with al Qaeda. We know–and the report confirms–that Iran was up to its neck in the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 in Saudi Arabia, and the report cryptically adds “there are also signs that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown.” But the relationship goes back a good five years, as Sudan brokered an agreement whereby Iran would train al Qaeda terrorists for operations against Israel and the United States. This training took place first in Iran, and, in the fall of 1993, in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
For those of us who have long argued that Iran, and Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah, provided much of the operational inspiration for Osama, it is gratifying to find forthright statements like “Bin Ladin reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983. The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations…al Qaeda contacts with Iran continued for many years.”
The unsealed indictment of Osama bin Laden in the fall of 1998 charged that al Qaeda had allied itself with Iran, Sudan, and Hezbollah, and that there was an “understanding” between al Qaeda and Iraq, promising that al Qaeda would not attack Iraq and that the two sides would cooperate on various things, including weapons development. Richard Clarke suspected that chemical-weapons projects in Sudan were the result of that agreement.
Recent leaks had already announced the commission’s conclusion that many of the 9/11 terrorists had received favored treatment from Iranian border guards–by granting them safe passage and declining to stamp their passports–but the leaks were incomplete. In October 2000, we are told, a senior Hezbollah terrorist went to Saudi Arabia and “planned to assist individuals in Saudi Arabia in traveling to Iran during November…. In mid-November, we believe, three of the future muscle hijackers…traveled in a group from Saudi Arabia to Beirut and then onward to Iran. An associate of a senior Hizbollah operative was on the same flight…the travel of this group was important enough to merit the attention of senior figures in Hizbollah.” And it goes on and on: “Later in November, two future muscle hijackers…flew into Iran from Bahrain. In February 2001, Khalid al Mihdhar may have taken a flight from Syria to Iran, and then traveled further within Iran to a point near the Afghan border.”
And there is another bombshell, quietly buried on page 149: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s family lived in Iran for a while in the mid-90s, and KSM himself spent time there as well.
All of this might lead a normal person to conclude the obvious: that Iran was helpful to the 9/11 conspiracy. But no, not really. First of all, the Hezbollah attention to the travelers might have been coincidental; they might have been tracking a different group. And despite the considerable evidence, the commission resorts to the usual CIA CYA language in such matters: “We have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.”
I remember, back in the Eighties, an Arab terrorist flew from Damascus to Istanbul, and went directly to the synagogue there, where he killed many people. When some of us suggested we might find some appropriately mean thing to do to the Syrians, CIA was quick to say that there was no hard evidence linking the Syrian regime to the terrorist attack. By which they meant that we did not have either a tape recording of a conversation in which old man Assad authorized the attack, or a signed affidavit from the Syrian government admitting guilt.
In the real world, it’s very rare, verging on impossible, to have such “intelligence” or “evidence.” The commission piled up an impressive quantity of it–I should think quite enough to justify Iran’s status as charter member in the Axis of Evil, and more than enough to compel deputy secretary of State Armitage to change his tune on the “democratic” nature of the mullahcracy.
So what’s the mystery? The mystery is where did the information come from about Iran training al Qaeda terrorists over a long period of time? I don’t think that CIA believes that. Yet CIA is presumably the source. Ah, well, as the commission says, “this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.” Don’t hold your breath.
The weakest part of the report concerns what needs to be done to destroy the terror masters. The whole section is written as if the state sponsors were somehow beside the point; the commission focus is entirely on the terrorist groups. This is an odd position, given all the evidence of the deep involvement of countries like Iran, Syria, and Iraq.
It’s downhill from there. In a rambling discussion of our many intelligence failures over the years, the commission pretends to criticize Congress, but then only discusses sins of omission–insufficient oversight. Yes, the report mentions the scandals in the 70s, and if you read very carefully you will find clever language that credits Attorney General Levi with drafting guidelines for the FBI that avoided even greater damage (talk about damning with faint praise). But the report fails to make the basic point that Congress had defanged the FBI and CIA. And there is no explicit recommendation that the old strictures be abolished, maybe because many of them have, thanks to the Patriot Act, but that is really not good enough.
The commission has actually come up with an oversight scheme that would almost certainly make things even worse than they have been. They want new oversight committees, with “bipartisan staff” (presumably selected by the Archangel Michael, because nobody in Washington is capable of such an act), bigger budgets, and unlimited tenure. This is a guarantee of corruption. Elected officials with open-ended terms will invariably end up in the pockets of the intelligence community. The best hope for honest congressional criticism is short tenure and revolving staff.
Worse still, the report calls for even more money for intelligence, and an entirely new layer of bureaucracy, the effect of which would be far greater centralization of the whole process.
I think this gets the problem backwards. We need a smaller intelligence community, not a bigger one, because bigger means more homogenized. The Senate Intelligence Committee report complained about “group think,” which is the inevitable outcome of a big community that has to agree on final language for finished intelligence. It would be far better, in my opinion, to let real specialists tell the policymakers what they think, and sign their names to their conclusions. That way, if an analyst successfully solved a problem, he could be rewarded. As things stand now–and the matter is even worse if the commission’s recommendations are adopted–no one can be rewarded for original thinking, and bad analysis gets blamed on the whole organization.
In short, we should strive for competitive intelligence. Keep the boxes small, let them present their analyses and recommendations, and make the policymakers sort it out. The commission goes through the ritual pieties of keeping policy and analysis separate, but most of such talk is misleading, since every grownup knows that certain conclusions–say, that Iran supported the 9/11 operation–lead inevitably to certain policies–say, that “selective dialogue with Iran” is a joke.
Everyone in Washington is making policy all the time. Live with it.
Other really big problems–above all, the need for a new generation of spies capable of penetrating the terror network–are finessed by calling for future leaders to solve the problems within the proposed context. But, as Reuel Gerecht has long taught us, no bureaucratic fix can possibly undo the terrible damage wrought by more than 30 years of restrictions and the consequent culture of risk avoidance and long-distance spy craft.
Oh, and by the way–as Angleton would be the first to observe–there’s hardly a word in here about counterintelligence. If you’re going to centralize things even more, it makes it easier for our enemies to penetrate the structure and get…damn near everything. So the commission’s scheme cries out for better counterintelligence. If intelligence is going to be across-the-government, well, then, I’m afraid counterintelligence will have to be expanded and improved as well.
At the end of the day, we need officials who are good enough to make the hard decisions, authorize risky actions, listen carefully to dissonance among the analysts and disagreement about proposed operations, and manage the whole thing while protecting civil liberties to the utmost. It won’t be easy. If and when our guys get to that point, the structural changes they need to actuate are actually quite simple: They need a big-time purge, what the business world called “restructuring,” leading to a smaller, leaner intelligence community where individuals are encouraged to think independently and act courageously.
It’s leadership, stupid.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen is Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.