In a mixed review of Andrew McCarthy’s Willful Blindness, I criticized the book for slighting the role of states in terrorism. McCarthy’s outsize response — a 3,000-word pejorative/adjective-laden assault in National Review Online — suggests the review hit upon a significant and sensitive point. Extensive name-calling typically obscures a weak argument, or at least attempts to do so, even as this debate involves the national-security issue of the day, including why the United States is engaged in its most serious military campaign in three decades and whether the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime was correct. Few questions merit more careful consideration.
1) McCarthy’s NRO piece introduces matters not in my review and misrepresents them. In the mid-1990s, I approached the Manhattan district attorney’s office, because I believed the federal government was gravely mishandling terrorism by treating it almost exclusively as a law enforcement issue. McCarthy, an unexpected guest at that meeting and one whose contribution then consisted mostly of shouting at me, errs on the date of my briefing there. It was not 1993 or 1994, but January 13, 1995 (as noted in my book on the subject, Study of Revenge, p. 277). The trial of Sheikh Omar had just begun, with jury selection underway.
#ad#I had not expected to brief the federal prosecutors, but at the last moment, the Manhattan DA’s office decided not to take up the issue, but leave terrorism to the federal government (a policy reversed after 9/11.)
My main point was that treating terrorism on the scale of the two very large and ambitious plots that had occurred in New York in 1993 as a law enforcement matter was so grossly inadequate, it would only invite more attacks. Of course, that has now become conventional wisdom, embraced by McCarthy among many others.
The essential points of that briefing were published as the lead article in The National Interest (Winter 1995/96) with Vincent Cannistraro (chief of counterrorism operations for the CIA) hailing it as “one of the most brilliant pieces of research and scholarship in the area that I have ever read.” Eric Breindel, in a New York Post editorial, endorsed the “important article” and its critique of the dangerous inadequacies of Bill Clinton’s law-enforcement approach to terrorism. And The Washington Monthly highlighted it with a “Journalism Award.”
With support like that, my briefing can scarcely be dismissed as “loopy.” Indeed, if that were so, why would McCarthy sit for nearly two hours, listening to me, particularly with his trial of Sheikh Omar in progress?
2) The suggestion that Iraq was behind the February 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center is supported by New York law enforcement. Indeed, New York FBI, the lead investigative agency, suspected the attack was a false flag operation carried out by Iraq. That was reflected in the contemporary reporting, including in the New York Times. That is also why, in 1994, when ABC News and Newsweek did a joint investigation into the WTC bombing, for which I was consultant, we focused on Iraq.
Jim Fox headed New York FBI and the WTC bombing investigation. As Fox wrote of Study of Revenge: “This work is the most comprehensive and best researched review of the bombing investigation. . . . I found it to be extremely accurate, and although we are unable to say with certainty the Iraqis were behind the bombing, that is certainly the theory accepted by most of the veteran investigators.”
Gil Childers, the lead prosecutor in the WTC bombing trial (Mohammed Salameh, et al), was considered to be the U.S. official who knew the most about that bombing, and he also attended my briefing. Childers’s response was quite different from McCarthy’s. Childers later spoke at the book launch for Study of Revenge and described it as “work the U.S. government should have done.”
3) The case against Sheikh Omar was weak — as McCarthy himself states in Willful Blindness, “It would be a challenge to find charges that would both fit our evidence and overcome inevitable First Amendment protests against the purported stifling of religious conviction and political dissent.”
So different acts of violence, including the WTC bombing, were somewhat artificially linked to make the charges against Shaykh Omar strong. Consequently, most Americans, including even U.S. officials, believe Sheikh Omar was behind the WTC bombing — which is also the impression that Willful Blindness gives.
#ad#Yet as McCarthy states in his NRO piece, his defendants “were not charged with the substantive crime of bombing the World Trade Center.” That is precisely my point — not something that I “mulishly [refuse] to hear,” as McCarthy perversely claims.
4) Once that is understood — Sheikh Omar et al. were not substantively involved in the WTC bombing — we can ask the question: Who was?
The WTC bombing is of particular importance for explaining why we are fighting in Iraq. Of all the major terrorist attacks since the 1991 Gulf War in which suspicion might fall on Iraq, it is easiest to make a case for Iraq’s involvement in the WTC bombing. It was the first, and the cover was thin.
By August 1993, U.S. authorities had arrested four Islamic militants for the WTC bombing. In addition, there were two indicted fugitives — both with ties to Iraq. It is a bit odd that we did not widely suspect Saddam’s hand then. The basic problem was that the Clinton White House did not want to hear Iraq was behind the attack, because it would be obliged to address the problem in a serious fashion (that became evident to me over the course of several meetings with Martin Indyk, Clinton’s NSC adviser on the Middle East, whom I knew well, as he had brought me out of academics to work at the Washington think tank he headed, before he joined the Clinton administration.)
By June 2002, U.S. authorities had identified the mastermind of the 9/11 assaults, describing him as the uncle of the WTC bombing mastermind, and both men were involved in a 1995 plot to bomb a dozen U.S. airliners. As CIA Director George Tenet told the U.S. Congress: “We now believe that a common thread runs between the first attack on the World Trade Center in February 1993 and the 11 September attacks,” explaining that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, is the uncle of Ramzi Yousef, who masterminded the WTC bombing.
Thus, if one can demonstrate Iraq was behind the 1993 bombing, one has also demonstrated it was behind the airline bombing plot. Most importantly, one has gone far in suggesting why a reasonable person might also think Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks — and why the Iraq war is a necessary part of the GWOT.
5) A question of very broad strategic significance also looms: To what extent are the networks of Islamic militants penetrated and sometimes supported by states that use the militants for their own purposes? Despite all the injunctions against group-think issued after 9/11, McCarthy, et. al. want to impose just such a stifling consensus and silence the dissenting voices that may exist, like mine.
The Reagan years saw a fierce fight over a closely related issue. The view that prevailed was promoted by figures like CIA Director Bill Casey and journalist Claire Sterling: Major terrorist attacks, particularly against the United States, are basically state-sponsored. That remained the consensual perspective through Bush 41. Are we really sure that this changed so radically a mere month into Clinton’s first term in office?
Considerable evidence exists to support the notion that Islamic networks are thoroughly penetrated by states, including evidence presented in Willful Blindness, highlighted in my review. Yet we are not allowed to consider this point and its implications, even as it, quite arguably, represents a dangerous strategic vulnerability: any enemy state that infiltrates the networks of Islamic militants can attack the United States with impunity, as long as that state takes sufficient measures to hide its hand from our incurious eyes.
– Laurie Mylroie is an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein’s War Against America.