At first I thought there was a short circuit in the ouija board, because there were sparks coming out of the thing, just when I thought I’d finally connected with my old friend, the late James Jesus Angleton, former head of CIA counterintelligence. But then I realized that it was, indeed, Angleton, cursing and sputtering (his poetic side–the side that made him the editor of The Yale Literary Review when he was an undergraduate in New Haven–somehow got lost when he got angry).
ML: Hey! That used to be my ear…
JJA: Sorry, sorry, but this latest business is just too much.
ML: You mean the Curt Weldon story about how some Army intel guys figured out–from open sources–that Mohammed Atta was part of an al Qaeda cell inside the United States, but then they weren’t permitted to pass it on to the FBI?
JJA: Damn right, but that’s not even the half of it. All these stories, all this faux shock, oh my gosh, we knew it but we couldn’t act on it, they just make me sick.
ML: But they’re true enough, aren’t they?
JJA: Half true, except for the original reaction from those phonies at the 9/11 Commission, that bunch who think they’re the first eternal commission in American history, all those pompous moralists who pronounce on everything that happens. They just lied.
ML: So it seems. They said they never heard about it, but then it turns out that they had, but they ignored it.
JJA: They ignored it, because it didn’t quite fit with what they wanted to say. Which, of course, is the whole point. It’s why we didn’t–couldn’t, actually–act on it.
ML: How so? I thought the Army thought it was illegal to pass on the information to a law-enforcement agency, so they didn’t. The usual mess, with the lawyers getting in the way of rational policy.
JJA: It wasn’t illegal, first of all. How could it have been? The “information” wasn’t proprietary, and it wasn’t secret. The data came from newspapers and magazines, they just analyzed it, and apparently they analyzed it quite well. There was no legality that prevented them from pointing out the significance of the data to anyone–law enforcement or Army cook. It’s just nonsense. Some prissy lawyer in the JAG undoubtedly lectured these guys about spreading sensitive information, but at the end of the day, that wasn’t decisive. Their superiors blocked the analysis for a much more important reason: It didn’t fit with what the policymakers wanted to believe.
ML: I think I understand. You’re saying that Clinton, Berger, and the others didn’t want to have to act against terrorist groups inside the United States, so the system didn’t send them information…
JJA: That would have compelled them to take action. It’s very bad for your career to tell the policymakers things they don’t want to hear. But don’t personalize this: It wasn’t just Clinton, Berger, and the others around them; it went on for decades. Even Reagan basically didn’t want to do anything about terrorism. It goes back a long time.
ML: Yeah, Ford and Carter weren’t exactly gung-ho either.
JJA: Right. So, as usual, the “scandal” is the wrong scandal. You know a thing or two about that, don’t you?
ML: You mean the Rome thing?
JJA: Exactly. You put the Pentagon in touch with people who really knew what was going on, didn’t you? Those Iranians…
ML: Iranians who provided the U.S. government with accurate information about Iranian activities in Afghanistan aimed against American troops. The information seems to have saved American lives.
JJA: And what happened? Did you get a medal?
ML: Uh, well, not exactly.
JJA: Don’t be coy with me. State and CIA threw a tantrum over it, and decreed that nobody should talk to those Iranians ever again.
ML: In fact, Rumsfeld gave orders that Pentagon officials were forbidden to talk to Iranians, period. One DoD official, who had Persian relatives, asked if all family members were off limits.
JJA: HoHo, that’s how it works.
ML: No good deed goes unpunished.
JJA: Yes, yes, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here. We have two cases where life-saving information was available, but the system refused to accept it, because the political considerations were more important. In the Weldon story, the administration didn’t want to know about terrorist groups operating inside the United States. In the Rome story, they didn’t want to know about Iranian groups killing Americans. In the first case, we’d have had to act against sleeper cells, which is a very nasty business. In the second case, we’d have had to act against the biggest terror sponsor in the Middle East, another can of worms. Better to pretend we didn’t know, hope that nothing terrible would happen, and concentrate on career advancement.
ML: And blame it on the lawyers if anybody finds out.
JJA: Right. But I’m still steamed about the 9/11 commission. Did they ever ask you about the Rome business?
ML: Nope. And the Senate Intelligence Committee, which spent a lot of time looking into the Rome story, doesn’t seem to have inquired why the contacts were terminated. And the Raab-Silverman Commission, which did some of the very best work on all this, didn’t mention it in their report, although they did ask me about it.
JJA: Of course not, nobody wants to talk about it, because it doesn’t fit their story.
ML: In fact, the very few journalists who have written about it have invariably quoted some of your former colleagues hinting that there must have been some nefarious plot in there somewhere…
JJA: Perfect. They take drastic action to ensure we don’t know what the Iranians are up to, all the while punishing the people who got the information. And in the Weldon business, the only action taken was to prevent the bureau from being told that Atta and his fellow murderers were planning to kill Americans here. And notice that none of the usual explanations works here. The information wasn’t classified, so “compartmentalization” can’t explain or justify it. It’s political, and in Washington, politics trumps policy every time.
ML: So what should we do?
JJA: WHAT SHOULD WE DO???
The sparks started up again. I couldn’t make it out clearly, and some of it isn’t appropriate for this publication, but I’m pretty sure I heard him say “fire the bastards” at one point. But then the ouija board really did short out, and I was never able to confirm that he said it, or who he might have had in mind.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.