Terror Watch: The Politics of Intelligence
May 23, 2007 - The White House dipped into an old playbook today, declassifying secret intelligence about purported Al Qaeda terror threats to the United States, in order to bolster the president’s case for continued funding for the war in Iraq. But in so doing, the Bush administration exposed itself once again to charges that it exaggerates and selectively uses intelligence to score political points.
Delivering a commencement address to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., President Bush made a dramatic disclosure: in January 2005, the president said, Osama bin Laden had “tasked” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of Sunni insurgent forces in Iraq, with forming a cell inside Iraq to conduct terrorist attacks aimed at the United States. At the same time, Bush said, bin Laden was supposed to have directed one of his most trusted deputies, Hamza Rabia, to send Zarqawi a briefing on Al Qaeda plans against the American homeland. The president also said intelligence indicated bin Laden discussed dispatching Rabia to Iraq to assist Zarqawi in the planning.
But the president’s characterization of the intelligence may have been incomplete—and also ignored contradictory reporting about what actually happened, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials with knowledge of the matter. (The officials, following standard policy, declined to be identified publicly talking about sensitive intelligence.)
For example: in his speech, Bush maintained that Zarqawi “welcomed” bin Laden’s orders to plan operations against the U.S. But a U.S. counterterrorism official familiar with the original intelligence told NEWSWEEK that some of the intel showed that Zarqawi actually resisted bin Laden’s instructions at the time, sending word back to the Al Qaeda leader that he had his hands full orchestrating attacks against U.S. forces inside Iraq.
A second senior U.S. counterterrorism official also acknowledged that the intelligence reporting was ambiguous as to how eagerly Zarqawi embraced bin Laden's order. "There is a question as to how responsive he was," said the second official. In any case, the sources contacted by NEWSWEEK could cite no evidence that Zarqawi—who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq last June—ever formed a terror cell that conducted operations against the U.S. homeland or even developed specific targets. (Zarqawi did, however, publicly take credit for a failed rocket attack against U.S. Navy warships in the Jordanian port of Aqaba in August 2005.) One of the counterterrorism officials also acknowledged that Rabia, bin Laden's deputy, never made it to Iraq before he was killed in Pakistan in December 2005.
White House officials insisted the intelligence released today showed that bin Laden himself sees Iraq as a "war of destiny" and hopes to ultimately use the country as a platform from which to orchestrate further attacks against the West. But those assertions were quickly challenged by some former national-security officials who contend the administration has habitually distorted intelligence about Iraq and international terrorism to suit its purposes.
Steven Simon, a former Clinton administration counterterror official, called the new disclosures a “nonstory” put out mainly to distract the public from the administration’s “mismanagement” of the war in Iraq. Rand Beers, another former national-security aide who served under both Clinton and Bush, (and who, like Simon, is affiliated with a group critical of the administration called the National Security Network) added that the “selective use of intelligence” by the administration “fails to make the case” that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. He noted that most of the recent intelligence reporting on terror plots aimed at the U.S. shows that the plans were hatched in Pakistan, not Iraq, and were initiated during the same time frame (in 2005) that bin Laden was ordering Zarqawi to open up a cell. “Bin Laden is using Iraq to kill and demonize the United States, while remaining secure and planning further operations in Pakistan,” Beers said.
The release of intelligence showing that Zarqawi and Al Qaeda leaders had direct dealings after the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq is hardly new. In 2005, the U.S. intelligence community released a long letter it had intercepted that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s second in command, had sent to Zarqawi about developments in Iraq. In the letter, Zawahiri chastised Zarqawi for jeopardizing the battle to win the "hearts and minds" of Muslims around the world by engaging in the "slaughtering of hostages" and other acts of wanton brutality.
But any White House assertions about Zarqawi remain sensitive, because the Jordanian-born terrorist was so central to the administration’s prewar argument that ties between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government made Saddam Hussein a grave threat to the world. In his speech before the U.N. Security Council in February 2003, former secretary of State Colin Powell referred to Zarqawi by name at least 20 times, describing him as "an associate and collaborator" of bin Laden. Powell also claimed that Zarqawi paid a two-month-long visit to Baghdad in the spring of 2002 for medical treatment; while Zarqawi was recuperating in Baghdad, Powell said, nearly two dozen of his associates allegedly set up a base of operations in the Iraqi capital.
A Senate Intelligence Committee report published last September debunked many of these claims, raising questions about Zarqawi's purported relationship with bin Laden as well as the degree to which he was being protected by Saddam.
The CIA, for example, learned "from a senior Al Qaeda detainee" that before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi had actually "rebuffed several efforts by bin Laden" to recruit Zaqawi to work with Al Qaeda, the report said. As for alleged contacts between Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein's regime, the Senate committee report said that Saddam didn’t know that Zarqawi was in Baghdad for medical treatment; at one point, the report said, Saddam's intelligence service actually formed a "special committee" to try to track down and apprehend Zarqawi. But the committee failed to find the renegade Jordanian. Later, U.S. officials believe, Zarqawi migrated to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, an area that was not under the control of the Iraqi government.
According to the Senate report, the CIA's ultimate conclusion about Zarqawi's prewar relationship with bin Laden was very different from the one that Powell had described. Zarqawi "planned and directed independent terrorist operations without Al Qaeda direction," the report stated, though Zarqawi also "most likely" contracted his services out to Al Qaeda in return for financial and logistical support from the bin Laden network. But the Senate committee was hardly the first to report such findings. As NEWSWEEK reported in 2003, information collected by German authorities before the U.S. invasion of Iraq indicated that if anything, Zarqawi was a competitor, rather than a collaborator, with bin Laden's Al Qaeda network prior to 9/11. In the days when bin Laden openly ran Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, Zarqawi ran his own terrorist group called Al-Tawhid—which was devoted to overthrowing and killing the king of Jordan, and which, according to an informant who collaborated with German authorities, competed with Al Qaeda for funds and recruits. The German informant also said that when Zarqawi and other foreign jihadis fled Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. response to 9/11, Zarqawi actually appeared to spend more time hanging out in Iran than Saddam's Iraq.
It was only after the U.S. invasion of Iraq that Zarqawi permanently set up operations inside the country and then formed much closer ties between his Iraqi insurgent organization and the central leadership of Al Qaeda.