In the aftermath of September 11, more than several former national security and intelligence officials fashioned new careers as critics of the Bush administration's war on terror. Among the more prominent of these former officials is Daniel Benjamin, who worked for the National Security Council from 1994 to 1999. Benjamin's criticism flows from his belief that prior to the war in Iraq, as he wrote in Time magazine earlier this year, "there was no pre-existing relationship between Baghdad and al-Qaeda." Still worse, the invasion of Iraq has made us "less safe" and "above all, the invasion and occupation of Iraq--have galvanized still more Muslims and convinced them of the truth of bin Laden's vision."
He carried this line of attack a step further in Slate two weeks ago, arguing that Vice President Dick Cheney's role in directing national security policy trumped that of the president's. As evidence, he highlighted Cheney's ties to the Counterterrorism Evaluation Group ("CTEG") and the "neoconservative(s)" who put together "bad intel" connecting Iraq and al Qaeda. "Some of CTEG's material was leaked to THE WEEKLY STANDARD," he warns readers, "where it was published" and "achieved some renown as a classic in the genre of cherry-picked intelligence."
But if one is looking for an exemplary cherry-picker, then there is none better than Benjamin himself. Benjamin has gone out of his way to advance the most logically tortuous reasons for dismissing evidence of a relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda. In so doing, he has demonstrated the absurd lengths to which some will carry their wrongheaded assumptions.
During the 1990s,, many in the U.S. intelligence community came to believe that the Middle East could be carved into neatly-drawn ideological boxes. The "secular" Saddam fit into one box, while the Islamists of al Qaeda fit into another. It was assumed that their ideological differences precluded cooperation and Saddam could never trust a group like al Qaeda. We now know, thanks to the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into prewar intelligence, that this assumption was made without the benefit of any intelligence assets within Saddam's inner circle. There are also ample reasons (including the role played by radical Islamist Hassan al-Turabi as an intermediary) to believe that this premise was not a wise one.
Yet, Benjamin adopted this view as his starting point. Writing in the New York Times in September 2002, Benjamin said that Saddam "has long recognized that Al Qaeda and like-minded Islamists represent a threat to his regime" and he "has shown no interest in working with [al Qaeda] against their common enemy." Benjamin explained that this was "the understanding of American intelligence in the 1990s." Furthermore,
In 1998, the National Security Council assigned staff to determine whether that conclusion was justified. After reviewing all the available intelligence that could have pointed to a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq, the group found no evidence of a noteworthy relationship.
Well, that wasn't exactly true. They did find "evidence of a noteworthy relationship" in 1998; it's just that Benjamin has tried to explain it away. Consider, for example, his own defense of the Clinton administration's retaliation against al Qaeda for the August 1998 embassy bombings.
The Clinton administration responded to the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania by simultaneously destroying two sites: al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant named al-Shifa, which was suspected of being part of al Qaeda's chemical weapons procurement efforts. The decision to strike the training camps was uncontroversial. The decision to destroy al-Shifa was quickly labeled suspect by many in the mainstream media and some political partisans, including some Republicans, who speciously reasoned that Clinton was "wagging the dog." (I happen to agree with Benjamin that the charges leveled against President Clinton in this regard were wrong.) Much of the criticism focused on a soil sample the CIA said showed traces of EMPTA, a precursor for VX nerve gas, and the ties between the plant and bin Laden.
Benjamin and his frequent co-author, Steven Simon, argue that the media and the president's opponents got it all wrong. They spend an entire chapter defending this episode in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror. They argue that the "pivotal event" for understanding the threat bin Laden posed, prior to 9/11, was the reaction to the strike on al-Shifa and the failure to give the intelligence surrounding that decision an honest hearing.
They argue the connections between the plant and al Qaeda were solid, as were the connections between the plant and Iraqi chemical weapons experts. They write,
Officials who spoke with reporters also noted that Iraqi weapons scientists had been linked to al-Shifa, and this Iraqi connection was independently underscored by UN weapons inspectors. There are several different methods for making VX, but the only one known to involve EMPTA is Iraq's. Again, this information was never contradicted, but few found it persuasive.
This would appear to be evidence of a "noteworthy relationship," no? Not in Benjamin's view. In a debate last year on PBS's NewsHour, Benjamin explained,
It is true that the method for producing VX gas, the chemical weapon, was an Iraqi method but we have no indication whatsoever that the Iraqis knew that bin Laden had invested in this or that there was any contact between them in this project.
Benjamin believes, therefore, that: While the U.S. intelligence community could piece together the details of al Qaeda's role at al-Shifa, the Iraqis--who were the ones actually supplying the VX nerve gas technology--could not. In addition, this all occurred at a time when Sudan's Islamist leader, Hassan al-Turabi, was openly embracing his "close ally," Saddam Hussein, and Iraq's state-run newspapers were calling Osama bin Laden a "hero."
It's as ridiculous as it sounds.
Benjamin and his fellow-travelers in the U.S. intelligence community argue that Saddam would not have provided WMD technology to al Qaeda or any other terrorist group because the risks to his regime would have been too great. But, do they really believe that an arrangement such as the one Benjamin argues existed at al-Shifa could have happened by accident? Given the nature of Saddam's neo-Stalinist regime that's hard to imagine.
It is even more difficult to imagine when one considers that intelligence indicated that this type of arrangement was occurring at more than one facility in Sudan, which was widely known to have a vast al Qaeda presence. In an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD last year John Gannon, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council and deputy director of the CIA, explained, "The consistent stream of intelligence at that time said it wasn't just al Shifa." He elaborated, "There were three different structures in the Sudan. There was the hiring of Iraqis. There was no question that the Iraqis were there. Some of the Clinton people seem to forget that they did make the Iraqi connection."
Benjamin's interpretation is also inconsistent with what his boss, Richard Clarke, and others in the intelligence community once believed. Just a few months after the strike on al Shifa the Clinton administration's original indictment of bin Laden, which alleged that al Qaeda agreed not to work against Saddam's regime and to cooperate on weapons development, was unsealed. The 9/11 Commission Report tells us that the passage concerning Iraq and al Qaeda, "led Clarke, who for years had read intelligence reports on Iraqi-Sudanese cooperation on chemical weapons, to speculate to Berger [National Security Advisor] that a large Iraqi presence at chemical facilities in Khartoum was 'probably a direct result of the Iraq-Al Qida agreement.'" [emphasis added]
Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA's bin Laden unit at the time of the strike on al-Shifa, also once recognized the intelligence surrounding Sudan for what it is. In 2002, before his own flip-flop on the issue, Scheuer wrote, "We know for certain that bin Laden was seeking CBRN [Chemical-Biological-Radiological-Nuclear] weapons . . . and that Iraq and Sudan have been cooperating with bin Laden on CBRN weapon acquisition and development."
Benjamin eagerly uses his time at the National Security Council as a point of contrast for the Bush administration's claims. But the intelligence surrounding al Shifa and other Sudanese facilities is not the only body of evidence from his tenure he has to explain away. Reports of meetings, funding, and training became more and more common throughout 1998. The reports finally boiled over in December, just a few months after the strike on al-Shifa, when Saddam sent one of his top intelligence operatives to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden & Co. That meeting was in response to the Clinton administration's four day bombing campaign against Iraq. Even the worldwide media--left and right of center--reported these disturbing developments and fretted over their implications.
Among those fretting over Iraq's relationship with al Qaeda was, once again, Benjamin's boss. Multiple reports indicated that Saddam had offered bin Laden safehaven and in February 1999, Clarke warned that if he found out about an impending strike, "old wily Osama will likely boogie to Baghdad." The 9/11 Commission Report also tells us that Bruce Riedel of the NSC staff warned "that Saddam Hussein wanted Bin Laden in Baghdad."
Whatever one makes of these events in 1998 and 1999, we are certainly a long way away from Benjamin's contention in 2002 that Saddam "has shown no interest in working with [al Qaeda] against their common enemy."
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