Once again, Americans have been stunned by our government's release of warnings about terrorist threats. Most recently, the danger highlighted has been that al-Qaeda will attack cities using radioactive materials mixed into explosives, or so-called "dirty bombs." Here's a story sure to ride for more than one news cycle, and therein lies a tale -- a tale of the Bush administration and what it was really up to during all the recent alerts; or, if you prefer, a tale of classic intelligence snafus and misconceptions. Whichever way you take the story -- and the two interpretations aren't mutually exclusive -- it does not reflect well upon our leaders.
The narrative begins with the Justice Department's announcement on June 11 that federal authorities had transferred into military custody an American citizen, Abdullah al-Muhajir (born Latino as Jose Padilla), who was arrested in Chicago on May 8. Al-Muhajir had traveled with al-Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah and the two had discussed the use of bombs in the United States, including, perhaps, a dirty bomb. Zubaydah himself was captured earlier this year and indirectly tipped off interrogators about the bomb plot, giving them enough descriptive information to enable the CIA to identify al-Muhajir from other material. The alleged American terrorist had been held as a material witness, incommunicado and with no public knowledge of his detainment, until the Bush administration decided to reveal its action (at the point where al-Mujahir was moved from a New York jail to a Navy detention facility).
The single most significant aspect of the al-Muhajir affair is the timing of the announcement, which coincided precisely with the moment congressional investigations into the missed warnings before September 11 began to come very close to George W. Bush himself (as Congress heard testimony from Richard A. Clarke, the National Security Council staffer who was charged with running the counterterrorism office at the White House when the September 11 attacks occurred). The dirty bomb news will now completely distract attention from the matter of the president's accountability for inaction before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
And this is just the latest instance of a pattern that has become depressingly standard procedure for this administration. Each alert this year has occurred in the context of some challenge to Bush administration orthodoxy in the war on terror. Beginning on May 16, news emerged that President Bush had actually been briefed on al-Qaeda threats to aircraft, which forced the White House into major damage control mode. Thus began a chorus of warnings issued by top officials -- from Vice President Dick Cheney down to White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. The show kicked off with the claim that interceptions of al-Qaeda communications were at the same levels they had reached just before 9-11, triggering considerable alarm -- which was then exceeded on May 21 when vague warnings suggested that the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge might be targeted over the Memorial Day holiday. Added to the list of those Americans threatened were people on subways and even in their own apartments. During this time Bush himself accused critics of second-guessing administration efforts.
There are other examples. In early March, for instance, the creation of a color-coded system of terror warning alerts, which also raised the level of public concern, coincided with the Democrats' first attempt to raise questions about Bush strategy in the war on terror.
There is ample reason to suspect that some of these recent warnings of terrorist threats have been made for political purposes. In the case of al-Muhajir, for example, the alleged terrorist was apprehended on May 8. A desire to allay public fears should have led to an immediate announcement of the arrest. Instead, the act was kept secret, allowing Donald Rumsfeld to have his cake and eat it too: The administration could raise the specter of Al Qaeda nuclear attacks while not revealing that the man who constituted the threat was already in custody. Thus the arrest was only revealed when it offered maximum opportunity for turning attention away from inquiries into what went wrong before 9-11.
In addition, although the al-Muhajir arrest was set in the context of a warning (of terrorists using dirty bombs), information released in explications of these events shows that the CIA and the FBI were following the suspect for a considerable time before his arrest, that al-Muhajir had no nuclear materials when arrested or any immediate prospect of getting any, and that the nuclear "plot" was actually just accounts of conversations between the suspect and another U.S. prisoner, Abu Zubaydah. Does this constitute a "warning," or is it merely the cynical manipulation of public fears?
Inevitably there will be those inclined to the view that all of the above represents normal intelligence practice based on the interrogations of enemy prisoners. For such individuals we pose a different question, one that suggests an alternative but related story line. Namely: Is the United States getting its money's worth from the Abu Zubaydah? Or is the prisoner playing with his interrogators?
Consider the following: According to intelligence sources, it appears the Memorial Day threats against the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge were based on Zubaydah's fanciful rendering of scenes from the movie Godzilla. The prisoner also sent his keepers into a tizzy over shopping centers, apartment buildings, subways, and who knows what else. In spy tradecraft, the person playing a double game has to let out some real information to keep the other side convinced of his value. Al-Muhajir fits that description very well, the small fry thrown to the enemy to permit the great game to go on.
At the height of the Cold War, there were a series of events involving Russian defectors that nearly tore apart U.S. intelligence. These involved stories revealed under interrogation, by one defector especially, that led CIA's counterintelligence chief James Angleton to suspect most of his agency's best Soviet specialists. American intelligence against Russia was very nearly crippled as a result. It looks as though Zubaydah has U.S. intelligence tied up in similar knots today -- the difference being that upheaval is not limited to the CIA, but has instead touched the entire nation. And it's a credulous Bush administration leadership that is either letting Zubaydah do it, or using the "intelligence" he provides to political advantage -- or a little bit of both.