One of the central themes of The War Against the Terror Masters is that we weren’t ready for September 11 because the intelligence community did not want to see it coming. Over many years, people in the field and analysts in Washington and Langley had seen careers ruined because somebody tried to warn the policymakers that trouble was coming. The policymakers didn’t want to hear that sort of thing because they were not prepared to do the unpleasant things that knowledge of the real situation required. The ultimate example was the Clinton White House, where the top people simply refused to even receive information about Osama bin Laden’s activities in Sudan. Clinton was hardly unique; the NSC under Bush the Father simply refused to believe that Saddam would invade Kuwait, and even ignored seemingly incontrovertible information provided the night of the invasion, when General Scowcroft went home early.
When people lower down the food chain, perhaps driven by love of country, insisted on making their superiors face the facts, they often became living examples of “no good deed goes unpunished in Washington.” Bob Baer, for example, who both proved the Iranian and PLO involvement in the Beirut-embassy bombing of 1983, and got inside the terror network a decade later, was threatened with criminal prosecution. And today, Michael Maloof, whose nearly 30 years of service in the Department of Defense uncovering all manner of anti-American skullduggery by various enemies should be rewarded with medals and high praise, is instead subjected to an internal inquisition and nasty leaks to the popular press.
Moreover, whenever either the CIA or FBI aggressively went after suspected terrorists, Congress was ready to investigate, to rewrite guidelines, and to punish anyone who actually succeeded. By September 10, the FBI could not even clip newspaper articles about openly anti-American groups, Muslim or otherwise. It was illegal.
The intelligence community accordingly learned that it must not take risks, and must not bring forward alarming information. So, over the years, the case officers and the top bureaucrats adapted to the political requirements, and they developed elaborate stratagems to ensure that they did not know the things that the policymakers did not want to know. On those occasions when, despite their best efforts, the information became so manifestly clear that it could not be ignored, the intelligence community denied its significance, or whispered darkly about the unreliability of the sources. Thus, for example, when some of the Ayatollah Khomeni’s sermons were translated and published in the popular press, CIA sent experts to tell Senator Scoop Jackson’s committee that the material was probably forged. And, at the same time, the CIA neatly refused to call the PLO a “terrorist” organization.
This convenient self-deception soon spread to the State Department, where in recent times it has taken on the characteristics of a full-blown obsessive/compulsive neurosis. No matter how many times State’s policies fail, no matter how often the “peace process” produces more bloodshed than the preceding period, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William J. Burns fly off to beg our Palestinian, Iranian, Saudi and Syrian enemies to behave better, and warn our allies in Israel to show restraint at all costs. No matter how many times Iran makes monkeys out of our policymakers, Powell and Armitage insist that Iran is a democracy, redefine the bloody internal conflict as a “family squabble,” and beg the mullahs for some of the al Qaeda leaders now acknowledged to be in Iran (a fact first revealed on NRO during the fighting in Afghanistan). That is not in the cards. Iran supports al Qaeda and is not about to betray them merely to give our secretary of state a nice day.
Although clinically interesting, the patient most likely to die from this syndrome is the national security of the United States, with collateral damage throughout the Western world. Our policymakers are now willfully blind, if not always to the facts themselves, at least to their plain meaning. The BBC announced over the weekend that Iraqi police had arrested Iranian terrorists planning operations in Baghdad, and turned them over to the Americans. The general phenomenon is well known, as Jerry Bremer invariably notes in his many interviews and public statements. Yet even Bremer, a man of great talent and courage, has bought into one of the major State Department myths, namely that Sunnis and Shiites don’t actively cooperate. When Brit Hume asked whether the large number of terrorists pouring across the Iran/Iraq border showed that the mullahs were supporting anti-American terrorism in Iraq, Bremer said one could not say that with confidence, since most of the terrorists were Sunni, and the Iranian regime is famously Shiite.
I suppose that, if asked about Syrian support for the terrorists pouring into Iraq from Syria, our experts would remind us that the Damascus regime is secular (Baathist, like Saddam), and does not endorse jihad.…
And so we dither and debate, and go to the Security Council in order to lure more young soldiers to face the terror masters in Iraq, even as Imad Mughniyah, the lethal chieftain of Hezbollah, has now begun his operations against us in both Iraq and Jordan, and as the Iranian mullahs send out orders to begin taking American and British hostages. As Bashar Assad told us some months back, they are going to turn Iraq into a second Lebanon. This is total terrorist war, and we are trying to limit our losses, playing defense instead of taking the war into our enemies’ havens.
Our inability to see the world plain carries over into more specialized areas of intelligence, even those of enormous importance. On some occasions, CIA and State have refused to even talk to sources whose previous information saved American lives, and promising leads on the location of WMDs in Iraq were dropped as well.
It is hard to believe that the president approves of this state of affairs, especially as he sees the poll results that document the American people’s mounting dissatisfaction with developments in Iraq. They are right to be upset, and they are likely to get angrier still if, as I expect, the terror war against us gets uglier. I am an admirer of George W. Bush. He seems to have extraordinarily good instincts and the kind of faith-based courage that makes for good leadership under terrible circumstances. But I do not think he has come to grips with the systematic myopia of our policymakers, and the culture of self-deception that afflicts our intelligence community.
You don’t need master spies to see what’s going on in the Middle East, or brilliant diplomats to tell you that we are playing for enormous stakes. Most normal Americans, unencumbered by visions of diplomatic breakthroughs and negotiated settlements, sense that we are losing the initiative, and that this is costing us money, blood and prestige. We are indeed at war, but we have inexplicably stopped waging it.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates.