Politics & Policy

Armchair Diplomat, Back-Channel Baathist

Duped by the enemy.

Was what Susan Lindauer is accused of doing really all that bad? Lindauer’s alleged crime was contacting President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, (at the behest of Iraqi intelligence agents) with an offer to mediate between the White House and Saddam. Her remarks last week, after she entered a plea of not guilty, suggest she is unrepentant and casts herself in the role of a spurned peacemaker. “I am incredibly proud of my work,” she insisted, blaming Bush’s obstinance for her arrest.

She also claimed to have persuaded the Iraqi regime to allow an FBI agent to fly to Baghdad in order to ascertain the truth about a Prague meeting between September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi agent. Claimed Lindauer, “President Bush refused to send the FBI, and here I am today.”

Her attorneys will probably portray Lindauer as a concerned amateur diplomat along the lines of ABC correspondent John Scali, who met with KGB resident Aleksandr Feliksov during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Scali, acting on instructions from the White House, exerted pressure on the Soviets to convince them an American invasion of Cuba was imminent. Perhaps “Symbol Susan” (as she was allegedly known by Iraqi officials) something of a journalist herself, saw an opportunity to become the Iraq war’s Scali. Was that so wrong?

The problem, according to Cambridge intelligence historian Christopher Andrew, is that the Scali exchange marked “the first time the initiative in the back channel had passed from East to West.” In The Lord of the Rings, good kings and wizards are deceived by crystal balls (palantiri) that they believe grant them a true vision of the world, but in fact allow them to see only what Sauron intends them to see. The sad but true history of back-channel diplomacy is a similar tale–one of enemy intelligence agencies showing gullible American presidents only what they want them to see.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was exacerbated by Bobby Kennedy’s own back channel to the Soviets, a friendly KGB officer named Bolshakov. Bobby met with Bolshakov regularly; viewing the meetings as a means of circumventing the unwieldy diplomatic process of negotiating directly with Krushchev. Bolshakov, in turn, used the channel to deceive the Kennedy brothers and to circumvent the unwelcome caution of their advisers. Among his deceptions was reassuring Kennedy that Krushchev had no intention of placing missiles in Cuba–until the missiles were in place.

Another dupe of Communist back channels was FDR’s personal assistant, Harry Hopkins. The clueless Hopkins secretly corresponded with a Soviet spymaster named Ishkak Abdulovich Akhmerov because he thought he was a direct link to Stalin. Akhmerov called Hopkins an “agent of major significance,” albeit an “unconscious” one. (Some doubt still lingers about how “unwitting” Hopkins really was.)

In assessing the damage Lindauer might have done it is worth considering another prewar incident from Roosevelt’s administration. Roosevelt’s friend, E. Stanley Jones, a well-known Methodist preacher, offered to carry messages back and forth between Roosevelt and a Japanese diplomat, Hidenari Terasaki. Terasaki implored Roosevelt to appeal for peace directly to the emperor. He also begged Roosevelt not to mention his name owing to the risks Terasaki ran by his secret peacemaking correspondence.

Roosevelt assured Jones that Terasaki’s secret was safe, and the next day he discussed with his Cabinet the idea of an appeal to the emperor. The telegram was never sent, but Roosevelt took the message to mean the Japanese were disorganized and “running around like wet hens.” That was on December 2, 1941.

If Terasaki was trying to sow complacency and doubt about Japanese intentions while preparations for Pearl Harbor were underway, then he succeeded. And as chief of Japanese Intelligence for the Western Hemisphere, that is exactly what he was trying to do. Roosevelt–and his staff–lost valuable time worrying about Terasaki’s disinformation. Without that distraction, someone may have had time to piece together the ample information America had gathered about the impending attack.

What happened to these dupes of foreign agents? Nothing much. Stanley Jones continued a successful career as a respected worldwide evangelist. Harry Hopkins was remembered fondly as “one of the 20th century’s best government figures” by Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt, even after the news of his collaboration broke.

Thanks to the FBI’s follow-up sting, Susan Lindauer’s legacy is bound to be less illustrious. In light of her latter conduct, her “peace overtures” begin to look more like bait for an Iraqi intelligence trap. According to her indictment, she flew to Iraq, met Iraqi Intelligence agents in the Al-Rashid hotel, and accepted $5,000 cash from them. But just to nail her coffin shut an undercover FBI agent approached her (claiming to be a Libyan intelligence agent) and discussed the necessity of supporting the Iraqi “resistance.” In accordance with the agent’s instructions, the indictment charges, Lindauer twice left dead drops around Takoma Park, Maryland, where she lived.

It has not yet emerged what was in the dead drops, but the indictment alleges that she executed one of them “on or about August 6, 2003.” That was one day after a “resistance group” which Lindauer supported killed an American civilian mailman in Tikrit. Her second alleged dead drop occurred “on or about August 21, 2003,” two days after these “resistance groups” killed U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others with a horrific truck bomb at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. How could Lindauer not have known the malignant character of the terrorists that continue to murder Coalition forces and pro-democracy Iraqis every day? The rubble, after all, was still smoking when Lindauer made her drop.

If Symbol Susan knew the score, so did the White House. They avoided a temptation that has often tripped up more “nuanced” administrations: that of direct, private contact with the enemy. They probably realized that back channels the enemy tries to open are usually pipelines for disinformation. They definitely realized Saddam was utterly untrustworthy, and therefore never wavered in their efforts to topple him.

Clinton W. Taylor is a lawyer and a graduate student in political science at Stanford.

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