Two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, no memorial service, cable-news talkfest or university seminar seemed to have been complete without someone emerging from the woodwork to wonder darkly why the CIA ever financed Usama bin Laden "in the first place."
Everyone from Washington Post reporters to Michael Moore seems to buy some version of this.
It is time to lay to rest the nagging doubt held by many Americans that our government was somehow responsible for fostering bin Laden. It's not true and it leaves the false impression that we brought the Sept. 11 attacks down on ourselves. While it is impossible to prove a negative, all available evidence suggests that bin Laden was never funded, trained or armed by the CIA.
Bin Laden himself has repeatedly denied that he received any American support. “Personally neither I nor my brothers saw any evidence of American help,” bin Laden told British journalist Robert Fisk in 1993. In 1996, Mr. Fisk interviewed bin Laden again. The arch-terrorist was equally adamant: “We were never, at any time, friends of the Americans. We knew that the Americans supported the Jews in Palestine and that they are our enemies.”
In the course of researching my book on Bill Clinton and bin Laden, I interviewed Bill Peikney, who was CIA station chief in Islamabad from 1984 to 1986, and Milt Bearden, who was CIA station chief from 1986 to 1989. These two men oversaw the disbursement for all American funds to the anti-Soviet resistance. Both flatly denied that any CIA funds ever went to bin Laden. They felt so strongly about this point that they agreed to go on the record, an unusual move by normally reticent intelligence officers. Mr. Peikney added in an e-mail to me: “I don’t even recall UBL [bin Laden] coming across my screen when I was there.”
There are many reasons to believe them. They knew where the money went. Both men have retired from the CIA; they have no motive to mouth an agency line. And no compelling evidence has emerged that the CIA ever paid bin Laden: no cancelled checks, no invoices, no government reports.
Those who contend that bin Laden received U.S. funds usually make the following argument: America financed the Afghan rebels, bin Laden was among the rebels, therefore, in one way or another, America gave money to bin Laden.
This ignores a key fact: There were two entirely separate rebellions against the Soviets, united only by a common communist enemy. One was financed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and was composed of Islamic extremists who migrated from across the Muslim world. They called themselves “Arab Afghans.” Bin Laden was among them. When the Saudis agreed to match U.S. contributions dollar-for-dollar, the sheikhs insisted that their funds go exclusively to the “Arab Afghans,” possibly including bin Laden. Meanwhile, U.S. funds went exclusively to the other rebellion, which was composed of native Afghans. Mr. Bearden told me: “I challenge anyone to give any proof that we gave one dollar to any Arab Afghans, let alone bin Laden.”
Even if the CIA wanted to pay “Arab Afghans” -- which agency officials insist they did not -- bin Laden would be a far from obvious choice. Bin Laden himself rarely left the safety of Pakistan’s northwestern cities and commanded few troops of his own. At the time, bin Laden was the Arab Afghan’s quartermaster, providing food and other supplies.
If a CIA officer tried to give money to bin Laden, he probably would not have lived through the experience. The arch-terrorist was known for his violent anti-Americanism. Dana Rohrabacher, now a Republican congressman from California, told me about a trip he took with the mujahideen in 1987. On that trek, his guide told him not to speak English for the next few hours because they were passing by bin Laden’s camp. “If he hears an American, he will kill you.”
Why is this myth of CIA support for bin Laden so persistent? Some find the myth persuasive because they do not know that America and Saudi Arabia funded two different sets of anti-Soviet fighters. Others on the anti-American left and right, in both Europe and America, find it oddly comforting. It gives solace to those who want to think the worst of us. The CIA-funding myth allows them to return to a familiar pattern, to blame America first. Whatever the cause, this myth weakens America’s case for the war on terror by setting up a moral equivalency between America and Al Qaeda. This animates protests at home and makes it harder to win allies abroad.
When former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani learned that a Saudi prince had blamed U.S. policies for the Sept. 11 atrocity, he famously turned down the prince's $10 million donation. His words at the time could be applied to the myth of CIA support for bin Laden: “There is no moral equivalent for this attack,” he said. “Not only are these statements wrong, they're part of the problem.”