JAMES WOOLSEY IS AT IT AGAIN. He is now spearheading the revived Committee on the Present Danger which was a mainstay of national security hawks during the Cold War and served as the platform for the late Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson‘s iconic ascent as the Democratic Party’s toughest national security voice. But now he’s lining up distinguished Americans, mostly neocons but not all, to stand tough against terror. You can find the list and more information at (One question, does anyone NOT want to fight terror?)
Woolsey has recruited Scoop Jackson wannabes Senators Joseph Lieberman and Jon Kyl as honorary chairs. And on the surface of it, the organizing statement of the Committee says some sensible things:
America faces its gravest threat in a generation: an organized global movement — assisted by rogue regimes — has adopted mass terror as a weapon to achieve political goals. And, the prospect that this deadly collusion will involve weapons of mass murder is at hand. . .Victory over terror inspired by radical Islamists — fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — will also be a long struggle. It will involve waging a war of ideas and educating the American people on the nature of the anger.
At first glance, I had little problem with much of what appeared in the full page ad placed by the Committee on the Present Danger — except that one should remind the signers that poor planning by American and allied forces contributed to Iraq becoming a cesspool of fighting radical Islamists. The original fight in Iraq — against Hussein — was a regime change effort against a secular fascist that morphed into the kind of war with America that bin Laden actually wanted. But those are just fading details now.
What does greatly concern me in the statement is the righteousness of it, the notion that a “unified voice” against terror is the path to winning this long battle:
Yet, in the course of time, and with success diluted by weariness, some would diminish the scale of the threat that America and our allies must confront. We know, however, that with denial, the danger only grows. This is a war not of fixed formations and battlefield, but of unpredictability both as to time and place of action. . .When faced with a clear and present danger, Americans have always set aside partisan politics to secure this nation and to affirm our common values. The War on Terrorism requires no less.
This letter seems designed to stifle dissent and to preempt the diversity of voices fundamentally required to win a long term battle against radical Islamic terrorists. Hasn’t our problem in Iraq thus far been a paucity of views and voices around the president about the costs and consequences of attacking Iraq as an expanded part of the battle against bin Laden?
And to make matters worse, the letter perpetuates the military dimension of American toughness and resolve while not really embracing the reality that long term success is going to depend on economic and cultural leaps between Americans and citizens of other nations, so as to steal the global audience away from the terrorists playing to it.
But there is more to this Committee on the Present Danger than stifling voices or alternatively and less cynically, of providing yet another vehicle for patriotic, security concerned citizens to help the nation maintain its “resolve.” The issue is James Woolsey himself.
On September 11, 2001, Woolsey became the first to allege a possible connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. By September 12th, the former Clinton administration CIA Director was appearing on every major network posing the same argument: that Iraq had contacts with al Qaeda and that the terrible terrorist assaults in New York and Washington were likely to have had state assistance. He argued that Iraq was a likely candidate behind the tragedy but, to be fair, also mentioned Iran but with the notation that it was a less likely player.
While Woolsey, a real patriot by many accounts from those who know him, may have been pointing a finger of suspicion at the most obvious thug in the Middle East, he should have pondered the many other competing scenarios — involving potentially the Saudis, rogue elements in Pakistan, or the possibility that al Qaeda was itself the first major transnational terrorist network with the sophistication and complexity of a multinational corporation (Peter Bergen’s thesis in Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden). There were many other scenarios to consider as well — but Iraq became his and the president’s focus after 9/11. What explains the former Director of America’s Central Intelligence Agency becoming so tenaciously focused on Hussein?
First of all, though it was allegedly a pro bono relationship, Woolsey was the lawyer and Washington adviser to Hussein’s enemy and princeling abroad in waiting, Ahmed Chalabi.
Shame on Woolsey and the media for failing to disclose the conflict of interest that Woolsey held when pointing the finger at Iraq for collusion in 9/11. To shore up his credibility, his relationship with Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress should have been made more public. The distraction of resources, financial and military, away from closing down al Qaeda in Afghanistan and losing bin Laden early in this war on terror by the United States has proved so costly that the “mystique of American power” in the world has been punctured and seriously so. Too many bad guys now see that despite pretensions of global power, the United States is at its limit in ability to project power, armaments, and troops anywhere else in the world. A hot conflict in Asia today, one of the other world’s hot spots, would be devastating as America is obviously overstretched because of Iraq commitments.
Besides lack of transparency about his client’s motives, Woolsey also brought previously unknown baggage to the table when he linked Hussein to radical Islamists. Between August 2000 and February 2001, James Woolsey and one of his early cohorts in the assertion of Saddam Hussein’s connection to al Qaeda, Laurie Mylroie (see Peter Bergen’s “Armchair Provocateur,” in the December 2003 Washington Monthly) participated in an important scenario building exercise at Sandia National Weapons Laboratories that raised some interesting security risk scenarios for the nation.
The project was to look at what they termed ultra-terrorism and the possibility of an organized, asymmetric attack on the U.S. One of these scenarios — deemed unlikely in the end by the Sandia organizer — was that Iraq creates a “false flag operation using fundamentalist Muslims to carry out infrastructure and biological attacks in the U.S.” that might seed “widespread suspicion of Muslims and blacks in the U.S., create the perception that the U.S. government was over reacting, and radicalize the world’s Muslim community.” A second scenario starts with Iraq working through Osama bin Laden, who spawns many attacks and violent incidents, “escalating to bio and radiological weapons.” The scenario included publicly tying incidents to bin Laden, America vacating the Middle East, and Iraq declaring final victory. The organizer also deemed this conclusion “unlikely.”
This kind of scenario building is exactly what America’s national security labs should be doing with smart people like Woolsey, but what became a problem is that this former CIA Director may have let scenarios dreamed up in a simulation harden into realities in his own mind. The scenarios also helped validate the fantastic and disproved allegations made by Mylroie in her book, The War Against America: Saddam Hussein and the World Trade Center Attacks.
Woolsey’s scenario about Hussein had taken shape even before the 9-11 attacks occurred as he played ultra-terrorism war games with other colleagues. Like so many others, Woolsey jumped way too far ahead in his conclusions and steered the nation in a direction that has undermined American power and interests — and he won’t admit it.
In addition, Woolsey’s client Ahmed Chalabi secured Woolsey’s services in 1998 clearing from an INS detention center in Guam six Iraqi National Congress associates of Chalabi that the INS (and CIA) believed to be threats to American interests. As it turned out, the INS and CIA were right as one of the detainees, Aras Habib Karim, became Chalabi’s Chief of Intelligence and was a sieve of sensitive and classified American information to Iran, now under investigation by the FBI. Woolsey successfully freed these Chalabi acolytes, paved ways of so-called defectors from Iraq whom Chalabi lined up to feed false information to American intelligence services, and may have become the first American CIA Director clearly duped by a foreign government (Iran) to take out its number one enemy, Iraq. Normally, these wouldn’t be good career moves.
Despite the failure to be transparent about his early conflict of interest and the problem of bringing preconceived notions to a complex national security problem, Woolsey can not be faulted for his patriotism but rather for just being regularly wrong and imperviously blind to evidence. His spearheading the Committee on the Present Danger seems to be driven by the toxic combination of vanity combined with the politics of distraction for his earlier failures.
Now with President Bush advocating an Intelligence Czar, consistent with the proposal made by the 9-11 Commission but without real hiring and budgetary authority, Woolsey is on a short list being discussed for that job.
If Woolsey does want to remain valuable to his nation — shouldn’t he begin to fess up for some of these errors of judgment and transparency? Part of being a good leader is being accountable for one’s mistakes, changing course, and moving on.
Jim, we are waiting. . .
— Steve Clemons