The independent 9/11 Commission investigating the intelligence failures that preceded the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States has not done enough to shed light in its hearings during the past month on the most critical problems facing America’s system of predicting and protecting against external threats. The commission’s blue-ribbon panel seems unable–perhaps even unwilling–to ask tough questions about how good intelligence was politicized, how bad intelligence was used to make worse policy, and how policymakers’ egos and personal career agendas interfered with the development of prudent national-security strategies to deal with the growing threat of militant Islam’s terrorist front.
Analyzing these areas can reveal more about how the 9/11 attacks became possible than any assessment of which committee or working group met when, and who did or did not attend, or how high a “wall” was built to make sure the American judicial system functioned properly. The Clinton administration’s stormy relations with Sudan illustrate the gaping holes in the commission’s important work with distressing clarity.
On the central point of contention, whether Sudan offered to extradite archterrorist Osama bin Laden to the United States in 1996 before his al Qaeda militants became an organized global threat, the commission’s staff report said: “Former Sudanese officials claim that Sudan offered to expel bin Laden to the United States. Clinton administration officials deny ever receiving such an offer.” Taken individually, both statements are probably accurate. But the gap left between what the commission wants ordinary Americans to believe by its deftly crafted statement, and the truth of what happened at that time is wide enough to drive a tractor-trailer through it.
Rosslyn, Virginia, March 3, 1996. In late 1995, CIA Director John Deutsch withdrew over 100 fabricated intelligence reports on Sudan’s alleged terrorist threats against U.S. diplomats, spies, and their children in Khartoum. In January 1996, Secretary of State Warren Christopher ordered the U.S. embassy in Khartoum closed on the basis of that bad intelligence over the objections of US Ambassador Tim Carney. On March 3, 1996, Sudan’s defense minister El Fatih Erwa secretly met Carney, State Department official David Shinn, and a senior CIA Africa officer at a Rosslyn, Virginia, hotel. After receiving a list of eight demands from the CIA, of which providing detailed intelligence data and assessments on bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers was number two, Erwa reiterated Sudan’s offer to extradite bin Laden to Saudi Arabia. Carney had received a similar proposal during his Khartoum exit interview with Sudan’s foreign minister a month earlier. President Clinton, hoping the Saudi king would take bin Laden back and swiftly behead him, called Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal, to vet the proposal. The Saudis said no, again. Erwa asked for a second meeting five days later.
Alexandria, Virginia, March 8, 1996. With only Erwa and the CIA Africa officer present during the second meeting, Sudan first offered to increase surveillance and hand over intelligence on bin Laden and his associates. Deemed insufficient to reflect the hard line Washington wanted to take with Sudan, Erwa made another offer. He told the CIA officer that if the U.S. could show cause through an indictment that bin Laden was complicit in or guilty of committing terrorist acts against Americans and the Justice Department was willing to try him on U.S. soil, Sudan would hand him over to U.S. authorities. The CIA officer’s account of this meeting matches Erwa’s and has been recounted in Richard Miniter’s New York Times bestseller, Losing Bin Laden. There is no question that a prima facia offer was made. The question is how was it handled by the U.S. government’s various organs once it was made.
Where is the gap of understanding in what the commission reported to the American people and what really happened? Nothing less than the very failure the commission was charged with trying to uncover, understand, and prevent in the future. An intelligence officer of the U.S. government received the offer, not a political official from the Clinton administration. The CIA officer was neither empowered to respond, nor inclined to take a controversial, perhaps not believable proposal from the representative of a pariah state to his superiors whom he knew were engaged in a war of words with the Clinton White House at the time. The offer was, quite literally, left on the table in that Virginia hotel room.
President Bill Clinton admitted the legal dilemma he faced in bringing bin Laden to the U.S., thereby implicitly admitting that some kind of an offer had been made, at a February 2002 business luncheon on Long Island when he said “At the time, 1996, he [bin Laden] had committed no crime against America, so I did not bring him here because we had no basis on which to hold him, though we knew he wanted to commit crimes against America. So I pleaded with the Saudis to take him, ’cause they could have. But they thought it [the bin Laden issue] was a hot potato and they didn’t and that’s how he wound up in Afghanistan”.
Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger echoed Clinton’s views earlier in an October 3, 2001, Washington Post interview with Barton Gellman when he said: “The FBI did not believe we had enough evidence to indict bin Laden at that time and therefore opposed bringing him to the United States.”
A fundamental breakdown in communications and strategic planning occurred between the CIA and the FBI on one side and the Clinton White House, National Security Council, State Department, and Justice Department on the other. Moreover, the failure was political, of a president who shunned the intelligence briefs and factual data American taxpayers paid him to look at, analyze, debate, and question. His apathy translated into either crystallized hard-line positions taken by advisers he didn’t bother to communicate with, or in equally apathetic aides busy handling problems deemed a higher priority by the administration’s senior ranks.
Over the next four years, the failures–and their consequences–only got worse.
Khartoum, April 19, 1997. After eight months of negotiations and countless dinners of Nile perch and soggy French fries, I persuaded Sudan’s president, Omar Hasan el Bashir, to make an unconditional offer to share Sudan’s intelligence data with the FBI and CIA. The offer, made at my request directly to the 9/11 Commission’s vice chairman, former Congressman Lee Hamilton (D., Ind.), sat in limbo for months. Hamilton personally discussed the offer with Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, with little effect.
In late May 1997, I met Clinton at a private function in Washington and asked him why the U.S. was not willing to take the Sudanese up on getting intelligence that we now know contained data on two of the 9/11 hijackers and members of their support cell in Hamburg, as well as three of the suspects who bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. His response, which included a flippant remark about bin Laden, clearly indicated he neither understood the nature nor magnitude of the threat al Qaeda posed at that time, nor did he particularly see the value in the Sudanese offer.
Washington, September 28, 1997. Despite Clinton’s apathy, the U.S. government undertook an interagency review on whether to act on Sudan’s offer. After five months of wrangling and policy reassessments, the Clinton administration decided to return its diplomats to Khartoum to “…investigate human rights abuses, monitor and encourage peace talks between the Government and a rebel army operating in the southern Sudan, and to push Khartoum to fulfill its recent public promises to oppose terrorism….” The State Department spokesperson cited Albright’s direct intervention as the deciding factor in accepting the offer.
Richard Clarke, then counterterrorism coordinator, and Susan Rice, Albright’s incoming assistant secretary for East Africa known for her strong anti-Sudan views, immediately confronted Berger to reverse the decision. Angry that Albright did not consult him before moving ahead, Berger sided with his deputies and forced the decision to look at Sudan’s intelligence files to be overturned three days later on October 1, 1997. Politicization indeed. To this day, none of the officials involved have been asked how or why three individuals with decidedly anti-Sudan feelings could overturn a deliberative decision of the entire U.S. government’s interagency review process. Sadly, the 9/11 commissioners failed to ask this question of any witness as well.
Khartoum, February 5, 1998. After the political track broke down in October 1997 and it became clear no political reconciliation was possible with the Clinton administration’s Sudan hardliners, Sudan’s intelligence chief, Gutbi al-Mahdi, wrote directly to the FBI in a final attempt to share intelligence data. He reasoned that theoretically, the FBI could not be pressured or interfered with by the U.S. government’s executive branch. He was wrong.
At around the same time in mid-February 1998, bin Laden’s key Sudan deputy traveled to Baghdad to meet Saddam’s intelligence chief. The Clinton White House was aware of both developments. It chose not to stop the Iraqi-al Qaeda meeting, but blocked without delay the FBI from traveling to Khartoum to view critical intelligence data. U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked six weeks after the FBI sent its June 24, 1998, letter stating it was “…not in a position to accept your [Sudan’s] kind offer” to share intelligence.
Khartoum, August 8, 1998. A day after the U.S. embassies were bombed, two of the key suspected planners, Sayyid Nazir Abbass and Sayyid Iskandar Sayyid Suliman, landed in Khartoum with fake Pakistani passports. Sudanese intelligence immediately got in touch with the FBI, put the suspects–who had taken up residence in an apartment opposite the U.S. embassy in Khartoum–under surveillance and asked FBI officials for further instructions. The Sudanese intelligence chief even sent a handwritten note to the FBI director asking for guidance. The U.S. responded on August 20, 1998–with a cruise-missile attack against the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant that the Clinton administration incorrectly assessed was producing VX nerve gas precursors. The two suspects fled to Pakistan.
Politicizing American intelligence had reached its zenith in the Sudan case. Richard Clarke said in a January 23, 1999, interview with the Washington Post that intelligence existed to link bin Laden to al-Shifa’s owners, Iraqi nerve gas producing agents and the National Islamic Front, Sudan’s ruling junta. Last month, in a 60 Minutes interview, Clarke said, “…there’s absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda. Ever.” It is precisely such contradictions that are intolerable in the search for truth on how 9/11 could have occurred.
The 9/11 Commission has only scratched the surface of these failures. It owes the families of the victims who died on that sunny morning in September a deeper and more thoughtful analysis of what happened that is not only devoid of partisanship and political rancor, but also more replete with an examination of political motive and how intelligence was used.
When I testify under oath on May 7, 2004, in private with the commission’s staff and commissioners, I will certainly bring these issues to light. The question is whether the American people will be allowed to see that light, and to transparently understand that what allowed terrorists to believe they could attack us on our own soil was not just a structural intelligence failure, but a failure at the highest levels of America’s political policymaking apparatus.
Let us hope the commission’s final recommendations reflect this finding as well.
–Mansoor Ijaz negotiated Sudan’s offer to share intelligence data on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to the Clinton administration in April 1997 and co-authored the blueprint for the militant ceasefire in Kashmir in summer 2000. He is chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York.