Politics & Policy

Signals & Background Noise

Angleton on Clarke, Condi, and who knew what when.

This time he called me. Every time in the past, I had had to fiddle with the dials on the ouija board until I connected to my old friend, James Jesus Angleton, the late chief of CIA counterintelligence. But this time the board started to spark and sputter, and I ran over to find him in high dudgeon.

JJA: Have you read the bleeping book?

ML: I’ve been reading books on Naples, actually. You know, my manuscript is due in September and all this terrorism business has been cutting into my work schedule.

JJA: No, no, the Clarke book, the bleeping Clarke book.

ML: Actually I haven’t. I’ve read a few reviews, though.

JJA: Typical! But you watched Condi’s testimony, didn’t you?

ML: No, sorry. What’s up with that?

JJA: Well, the whole thing is just amazing. I just can’t believe it. Nobody reads any more, and nobody can tell the difference between signals and background noise.

ML: Oh, the old Roberta Wohlstetter thing about Pearl Harbor, where she said that there was plenty of evidence that the attack was coming, but it was impossible to pick out the “evidence” from all the clutter. There was so much intelligence that we couldn’t distinguish what was important from what was either false or irrelevant. I did read that book.

JJA: Right. So all the Dems and their pals in the press are busily looking at this one PDB as if everyone should have seen that 9/11 was coming. Such nonsense. They don’t know the first thing about intelligence.

ML: Well, you should know.

JJA: Damn right. Look here, back in 1956 I got a copy of Khrushchev’s secret speech in Moscow, in which he laid out chapter and verse about Stalin’s crimes. If you look back at it now, that speech was the beginning of the end of Soviet Communism. It showed that the regime was kept in place only by a relentless terror campaign against its citizens. It showed that top Soviet leaders knew the whole system was rotten. But do you think I was able to convince our leaders that we had just received an x-ray of the Soviet soul? Did anyone recognize just how important this document was?

ML: That’s what I always thought. I mean, it made your career, didn’t it?

JJA: Never mind my career. There were furious debates, first within CIA, and then, of course, throughout the whole national-security crowd. Some didn’t think it was real–they even suggested it was a forgery–others didn’t think it was so important. And this was crystal clear, it was unambiguous, it wasn’t some vague statement like the ones in the PDB, “bin Laden is determined to attack inside the United States,” and “al Qaeda is thinking about using airplanes,” and so on.

ML: Yes, it looked like one of those CYA things, where CIA is passing on information from other intelligence services (funny how nobody’s remarked on that, huh? It’s not as if we had this stuff firsthand.) just in case something happens, so they can say “we told you.”

JJA: Remember that Bush had asked about possible domestic attacks, so they gave him some bits and pieces. But that document does not say “we know an attack has been planned.” And, of course, they’re quick to shift responsibility to the FBI, as if CIA shouldn’t have penetrated al Qaeda long since.

ML: That stuff about sleepers, though, that’s clearly FBI’s turf, isn’t it?

JJA: Sure it is. But the point I’m making is that we didn’t have enough information to justify a serious, specific warning. We were generally concerned, but we didn’t have enough to act on. So we kept on looking. That’s the way life is, most of the time.

ML: Right. But what about Clarke’s book?

JJA: The dynamite stuff in Clarke’s book has to do with Iran. He says, for example, on page 284, “al Qaeda regularly used Iranian territory for transit and sanctuary prior to September 11.”

ML: But I thought the consensus view in the intel community was that Sunnis and Shiites couldn’t work together?

JJA: Well, apparently they knew better, although, of course, Clarke hedges it a bit: “the ‘ties’ and ‘links’ between al Qaeda (and Iran) were minimal.”

ML: What is that all about?

JJA: I guess some government lawyer told Clarke that since we didn’t have transcripts of the conversations between al Qaeda leaders and Iranian officials, we couldn’t very well accuse the Iranians of “supporting al Qaeda.”

ML: No doubt. The lawyers do that all the time.

JJA: But then Clarke goes on. He says “any objective observer looking at the evidence in 2002 and 2003 would have said that the U.S. should spend more time and attention dealing with the security threats from Tehran than those from Baghdad.”

ML: I haven’t seen that quoted in the reviews.

JJA: My point exactly. And that statement directly contradicts Clarke’s statement, 150 earlier, that we (that is, he) had “checkmated” the Iranian and the Iraqi intelligence services, because we’d bombed the headquarters of Iraq’s service, and run an “intelligence operation” against the Iranians.

ML: Oh, yeah, I read something in USA Today about that.

JJA: You bet you did. Clarke leaked it to a reporter named Barbara Slavin. He bragged about it, in fact. He said that we’d “outed” Iranian intelligence officers all over the world, and they’d been kicked out of their host countries, and that had brought them to their knees.

ML: Except that, by 2002 and 2003 they were a bigger threat than the Iraqis.

JJA: As they were all along. Iraq was under sanctions, and there are only 20-plus million Iraqis, while Iran was trading vigorously with most of the world (and you know how easy it is to provide commercial cover to intelligence agents), and there are seventy million Iranians.

ML: So they weren’t exactly checkmated, huh?

JJA: Just read the headlines this week. Virtually every newspaper in the world is reporting tons of evidence about the connections between Iran and both Shiite and Sunni terrorists in Iraq. It’s just maddening. Why doesn’t somebody point out that Clarke, and therefore Clinton, knew this all along and foolishly convinced themselves that they’d thwarted our major regional-security threat?

ML: And why doesn’t anybody ask Clarke how he can claim that our bombing of an empty intelligence building in Iraq in the middle of the night (as Jim Woolsey has pointed out, Clinton apparently thought that cleaning ladies were more expendable than Saddam’s security chiefs) had a devastating effect?

At which point, the board blew up. The techies promise they’ll have it working again in a few days, but I have my doubts. That was a hell of a surge.

Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen is Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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