The unearthing of documents directly linking Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization to Saddam Hussein this weekend may have hermetically sealed the Bush administration’s case that dismantling Iraq’s Baathist enterprise was in part necessary to undo terrorism’s dynamic duo. But closing that case may reopen a Pandora’s box for ex-Clinton administration officials who still believe their policy prescriptions protected U.S. national interests against the growing threat of terrorism during the past decade.
The London Telegraph’s weekend revelations raise deeply disturbing questions about the extent and magnitude to which President Clinton, his national-security adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, and senior terrorism and State Department officials — including Assistant Secretary of State for East Africa, Susan Rice — politicized intelligence data, relied on and even circulated fabricated evidence in making critical national-security decisions, and presided over a string of intelligence failures during the months leading up to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Analysis of documents found in the rubble of Iraq’s intelligence headquarters show that contrary to conventional wisdom, Iraqi military and intelligence officials sought out al Qaeda leaders, not the other way around, and ultimately met with bin Laden on at least two occasions. They also show that channels of communication between al Qaeda and Iraq were created much earlier and were wider ranging in scope than previously thought.
The timing of the meetings sheds important new light on how grave the Clinton administration’s intelligence failures may have been.
On February 19, 1998, about six months prior to the attacks in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi, Iraqi intelligence officials set in motion a plan to bring a senior and trusted bin Laden aide to Baghdad from Khartoum. One of the key Mukhabarat intelligence documents shows that a recommendation was made for “…the deputy director general to bring the [bin Laden] envoy to Iraq because we may find in this envoy a way to maintain contacts with bin Laden.” The meetings took place in March 1998.
The initial program to have the terror talks last for one week was extended to two because of the success in whatever nefarious plans were being hatched. The meetings also laid the groundwork for Iraq’s former intelligence chief, Farouk Hijazi, arrested last Friday in Iraq, to meet with bin Laden in December 1998 in Afghanistan. Press reports also chronicled an earlier meeting between Hijazi and bin Laden in Sudan in 1994.
Baghdad, however, was not the only game in town. While Saddam was busy trying to find a formula for embracing and employing al Qaeda’s budding global terror network to attack U.S. interests, Sudan was busy trying to alert Western intelligence officials — including those at the National Security Council, the State Department’s Terrorism Bureau, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency — of the dangers still lurking in Khartoum’s sandblasted neighborhoods after bin Laden’s May 1996 expulsion.
A brief chronology demonstrates how compelling the Sudan’s offer to turn over terrorism data might have been in thwarting attacks on U.S. citizens and assets overseas, and how mendacious a narrow clique of Clinton officials were in not taking advantage of those efforts.
OCTOBER 27, 1996. In a confidential memorandum I wrote to Sandy Berger to follow up on the August 1996 meeting he and Susan Rice (then a National Security Council official) had called me to the White House for to discuss U.S.-Sudan relations, I recounted events of my first meeting with the new Sudanese intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Gutbi al-Mahdi, just days earlier — a meeting whose consequence even I did not fully grasp at the time:
…the purpose of my meeting [with al-Mahdi] was to see if we could glean any insights into the data Sudan has on those who have been attending the Popular Arab & Islamic Conference meetings convened by [Sudan’s theological leader Hassan] Turabi. As you recall, during our August meeting, I told you I thought this data could be invaluable in genuinely assessing terrorism risk from Sudan and neighboring countries… His [al-Mahdi’s] central contention is that Sudan is prepared to share data on those people attending the conferences and belonging to banned groups, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Jamaah Islamiyah, and others, if we are prepared to genuinely engage and incent the Sudan away from its present course. He complained bitterly about repeated efforts to communicate with the administration, which are as I understand it, being blocked at very low levels because of what he called “blind spots.”He showed me some files in which the data seemed pretty compelling — names, bio data like dates and places of birth, passport copies to show nationality, recent travel itineraries in some cases and a brief description of each individual to delineate which groups they claim loyalties to. In short, it seemed to me everything we discussed in August was available. Strongly suggest we test the Sudanese on the data, perhaps even try to get at the data on an unconditional basis…
Berger’s secretary, Kris, confirmed he had received and read the memo. Berger’s reply: We’ll evaluate this after the election. Election day came and went. No action was taken.
APRIL 5, 1997. Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan El Bashir, delivered to me a final, unconditional political offer, addressed to Rep. Lee Hamilton, to invite FBI and CIA officials to go to Khartoum and evaluate Sudanese intelligence data on terrorists that had lived in or passed through Sudan. The offer went without a reply even as Hamilton repeatedly queried Berger, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and others about what was wrong with the offer and why it was not being evaluated more seriously. Correspondence in my files fully documents these events.
SEPTEMBER 28, 1997. Sudan’s April policy shift to make cooperation on terrorism issues unconditional sparked a heated debate at the State Department, where foreign-service officers believed the U.S. should take a new approach to Khartoum, and lobbied the incoming Secretary of State — still untainted by her politicized and yet-to-be-confirmed staff — to have a fresh look. On September 28, after four months of deliberate and exhaustive interagency reviews, Sec. Albright announced that up to eight U.S. diplomats would return to Sudan to pressure its Islamic government to stop harboring Arab terrorists, and furthermore, to gather intelligence on terrorist groups operating out of Sudan — including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
OCTOBER 1, 1997. As the reengagement policy was taking shape, Rice, the incoming Assistant Secretary for East Africa, informally confronted the same foreign-service officers who had recommended returning diplomats to Sudan to Albright and vowed that the new policy directive would not stand. On October 1, State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin sheepishly announced an abrupt reversal of the September 28 Albright decision. Rice was confirmed by the Senate on October 9, 1997. To this day, neither Berger nor Albright nor Rice have explained to the American people why a deliberative decision of the U.S. government, made through interagency review, was overturned in such a cavalier fashion by a narrow clique of Clinton advisers when Sudan’s April offer to cooperate on terrorism issues had been made unconditionally.
SEPTEMBER 12, 1997 and DECEMBER 5, 1997. On the very day Rice was delivering testimony for her Senate confirmation, Sudan’s ambassador to the U.S., Mahdi Ibrahim, met with David Williams, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Middle East and North Africa Department. Faced with the growing prospect that political reconciliation was impossible with forces at the National Security Council and State Department lined up adamantly against Sudan, Ibrahim decided to take matters directly to the intelligence community and discuss how the FBI could take advantage of Sudan’s offer to cooperate independently of the administration. A second, and critically important, meeting took place on December 5.
FEBRUARY 5, 1998. On the basis of those two FBI meetings in Washington, Sudan’s intelligence chief, al-Mahdi, made a final, almost desperate attempt to reach out to U.S. intelligence officials in order to turn over data on the people and evidence of their planning against U.S. targets in the region. He wrote officially to Williams “…with reference to your meeting with Ambassador Mahdi Ibrahim on Sept. 12 and Dec. 5 1997, I would like to express my sincere desire to start contacts and cooperation between our service and the FBI…” The letter was sent at the very moment that Iraq was reaching out to al Qaeda leaders resident in Khartoum. Did al-Mahdi know something serious was amiss in the radical Islamist community he was closely monitoring? Apparently so. He would later recount to Vanity Fair correspondent David Rose in a January 2002 expose that had the FBI come to Khartoum in February 1998 to analyze the data on terrorists Khartoum was actively monitoring, the U.S. embassy bombings would probably not have occurred.
FEBRUARY 19, 1998. Iraqi intelligence plans the trip of a senior al Qaeda operative and trusted bin Laden aide to visit Baghdad.
MARCH 1998. The al Qaeda operative visits Baghdad for two weeks. The visit sets the stage for Farouk Hijazi to travel to bin Laden’s Afghanistan hideouts in December 1998.
JUNE 24, 1998. Theoretically, the February Sudanese offer to the FBI should have been evaluated on merits that did not take the Clinton administration’s political viewpoint on Sudan into consideration, particularly since it differed from President Bashir’s April offer at a political level, in that it was made at an intelligence-to-intelligence level. After all, the U.S. executive branch is not supposed to interfere with the FBI’s job. Or so we thought. On June 24, Williams finally replied to al-Mahdi “… I am not currently in a position to accept your kind invitation. I am hopeful that future circumstances might allow me to visit with you….” Future circumstances was code, as I found out later from career officials at State involved in the discussions at the time, for a point at which the politicizing that had come to characterize Clinton administration terrorism policies would end. Blockages created by State’s East Africa department under Rice, and by Berger at the National Security Council, remained as both vehemently argued against allowing FBI delegations to visit Khartoum under any circumstances.
U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed six weeks later. Cruise-missile attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan, based on faulty and inaccurate intelligence, followed and ignited the fires burning inside radical Islam’s criminal core. As we now know, planning for the September 11 attacks on America began soon thereafter.
I believe that as we continue to unravel the spaghetti strings that bound al Qaeda and Saddam’s regime together in the coming months, we are going to learn that Iraq provided expertise, financial, logistical and intelligence support to al Qaeda terrorists in an unprecedented manner. The terrorists, emboldened by their state sponsorship, were able to then carry out their suicide missions almost with impunity.
The silence of Clinton officials charged with the responsibility of securing U.S. interests around the world, when faced with this compelling timeline of facts, is still deafening. The American people deserve candid answers for the difficult questions posed by their actions in addressing the growing threat of terrorism, and failing repeatedly to respond to meaningful offers of assistance from the very nations who because of their sponsorship of terrorism, best understood those who rose up to attack us.
— Mansoor Ijaz, chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York and an NRO contributor, negotiated as a private citizen the Sudan’s offer to share intelligence data on al Qaeda, bin Laden, and other terrorist groups with the Clinton administration in April 1997.