As pressure builds on lawmakers to move on the recommendations in the 9/11 Commission report, Dreyfuss urges caution. From its limited understanding of MIddle Eastern history to its efforts to expand FBI powers, the commission's recommendations do not serve the people of the United States.
This article was previously published as a series of separate entries in the TomPaine.com blogThe Dreyfuss Report
Flaw One. There is a scary rush to judgment about implementing the Big Brother-like recommendations of the commission. You wouldn’t think that officials and members of Congress would pay that much attention to the opinion of a Republican governor of New Jersey et al. when it comes to matters of reorganizing the intelligence community. But the politicians don’t want to be accused of dragging their heels when it comes to implementing all 567 pages, in case there is a pre-election terrorist incident. Adding fuel to the fire are the families of the 9/11 victims. Let’s be honest here—having endured the tragedy of a terrorist attack doesn’t make you an expert in fighting terrorism. The commission’s proposal for reorganizing intelligence is wrong-headed and scary. It would create a Big Brother that even the authors of the USA PATRIOT Act wouldn’t have dreamed of.
First, the commission proposes the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). It would have two functions: intelligence and operations. Of its intelligence function, the commission says: “The NCTC should lead strategic analysis, pooling all-source intelligence, foreign and domestic, about transnational terrorist organizations of global reach.” Operationally, “The NCTC should perform joint planning. The plans would assign operational responsibilities to lead agencies, such as State, the CIA, the FBI, Defense and its combatant commands, Homeland Security, and other agencies.” According to the commission, the head of the NCTC “must have the right to concur in the choices of personnel to lead the operating entities of departments and agencies focused on counterterrorism, specifically to include the head of the Counterterrorist Center, the head of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, the commanders of the Defense Department’s Special Operations Command and Northern Command, and the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism."
Then the commission would couple this all-powerful new entity with the creation of a National Intelligence Director. The NID would be an intelligence czar, overseeing both foreign and domestic intelligence collection and analysis. "The National Intelligence Director must be able to directly oversee intelligence collection inside the United States.” The NID would also have authority to “approve and submit nominations to the president of the individuals who would lead the CIA, DIA, FBI Intelligence Office, NSA, NGA, NRO, [parts of] Homeland Security and other national intelligence capabilities.” And the NID would control their budgets. The NID would also oversee covert operations. And: “The head of the NCTC would report to the national intelligence director.”
In tandem, the NCTC and the NID would create an intelligence power of truly awesome scope. Because terrorism is essentially a political crime, as the ACLU reminds us constantly, counterterrorist investigations always involve politics, dissidents and rebels. It’s not like investigating crimes, or like intelligence on war-making capabilities of nations. Just as the Patriot Act knocked down the “wall” between the CIA and the FBI, making it far easier to conduct domestic spying operations against American citizens not suspected of a crime, the NCTC-NID combination would concentrate the power to carry out domestic spying in all-powerful nexus, located (where?) in the White House. The NID would report directly to the president, or to the “POTUS,” in the pompous wiring diagram in the commission report. Says the report: “The intelligence entity inside the NCTC .. would sit there alongside the operations management unit, … with both making up the NCTC, in the Executive Office of the President.”
Such changes in our foreign and domestic spying capabilities cannot, and should not, even be considered in the months before a presidential election, with each party competing with the other to show how tough on terrorism they are. I expect that normal bureaucratic resistance will happily block the commission's radical plan this year, but you never know. One thing we do know: If Osama bin Laden & Co. are planning some attack this year, the commission's Big Brother plan won’t stop them—whether it’s enacted or not.
Flaw Two. Perhaps it’s too much to expect people like Fred Fielding, Slade Gorton, Jim Thompson, Bob Kerrey and the rest of the 9/11 Commission to say anything intelligent about how to “Prevent the Continued Growth of Islamist Terrorism,” one of the top priorities in the “What To Do? A Global Strategy” chapter of their report. After all, it’s fair to say that they are virtual know-nothings when it comes to understanding Islam, not to mention its radical and fundamentalist manifestations.
But this chapter isn’t a road map on fighting “Islamist terrorism.” It is a veritable Bartlett’s of quotable (and meaningless) platitudes. So far, at least, I haven’t seen anyone point this out.
Here are a few of the silliest (and by the way, these are not taken out of context, but are the central observations and “recommendations” of the commission in how to fight Islamic terrorism by “engage[ing] in the struggle for ideas”):
It is among the large majority of Arabs and Muslims that we must encourage reform, freedom, democracy, and opportunity."
"The U.S. government must define what the message is, what it stands for. We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors… That vision of the future should stress life over death."
"Just as we did in the Cold War, we need to defend our ideals abroad vigorously. America does stand up for its values."
"The U.S. government should offer to join other nations in generously supporting a new International Youth Opportunity Fund."
Another key recommendation is to support a Middle East NAFTA. “The U.S. government has announced the goal of working toward a Middle East Free Trade Area, or MEFTA, by 2013…. Recommendation: A comprehensive U.S. strategy to counter terrorism should include economic policies that encourage development, more open societies, and opportunities for people to improve their lives.”
It goes on in this vein. The commission report (page 362) notes that “Islamic” terrorism is “motivated by religion and does not distinguish politics from religion, thus distorting both. It is further fed by grievances stressed by bin Laden and widely felt throughout the Muslim world—against the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, policies perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, and support of Israel.” This is a nod in the direction of admitting that the terrorists don’t just “hate our freedom,” as President Bush constantly intones, but that there are fundamental policy differences that feed into anti-American sentiment in the region, and which Osama bin Laden draws upon. Yet the commission doesn’t recommend a single policy change, or even a review of those polices, or even a study to find out what policies exactly are considered “anti-Arab” and “anti-Muslim.”
I’d expect Jon Stewart to suggest that we fight Osama bin Laden though MEFTA. Or by having America “stand up for its values.” But the 9/11 Commission?
Flaw Three. Despite some juicy tidbits about the Bush administration’s post-9/11 obsession with Iraq, the 9/11 Commission unconscionably lets Bush off the hook on this one. Nowhere in the report does it conclude, as virtually any fair-minded observer would, that the attack on Iraq had nothing to do with the so-called War on Terrorism. (In fact, even the fair-minded have concluded that the war on Iraq was a major setback to the battle against Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism.)
And nowhere does the commission say point-blank that Iraq was innocent of ties of Al Qaeda. It’s a glaring omission. And it allows Chairman Kean to get away with nonsense like this: “There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.”
With a straight face, the commission—whose chapters on Iraq seem to cite Bob Woodward’s book as much as the actual testimony and documents it received—reports many instances of Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith demanding attacks on Iraq. Best, of course, is the one reported in a footnote (page 559, Note 75), citing a memo to Rumsfeld “that appears to be from Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith.” Says the commission: “The author suggested instead hitting outside the Middle East in the initial offensive, perhaps deliberately selecting a non-Al Qaeda target like Iraq.” This, said the commission, “might be a surprise to the terrorists.” That is so hilariously stupid on so many levels that it almost doesn’t need comment—but yes, an attack on Iraq would have surprised the terrorists.
The report cites other new or authoritative examples of the Iraq obsession:
The secretary [Rumsfeld] said his instinct [on September 11] was to hit Saddam Hussein at the same time—not only Bin Laden… [Condi Rice] recalled that in the first Camp David session chaired by the president, Rumsfeld asked what the administration should do about Iraq. Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz made the case for striking Iraq during ‘this round’ of the war on terrorism… Powell said that Wolfowitz was not able to justify his belief that Iraq was behind 9/11. ‘Paul was always of the view that Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with,’ Powell told us. ‘And he saw this as one way to using this event as a way to deal with the Iraq problem.’ … President Bush ordered the Defense Department to be ready to deal with Iraq… Wolfowitz continued to press the case for dealing with Iraq, [saying that] the odds were ‘far more’ than 1 in 10 [that Iraq was involved]. (Page 335-6)
Charitably giving the president far more credit than he deserves, the commission notes that “as a former pilot” Bush suspected that the perpetrators of 9/11 were sophisticated and he “wondered immediately after the attack whether Saddam Hussein’s regime might have had a hand in it… He also thought about Iran.” (Page 334) There is no report that the president suspected those actually guilty of the attack, however.
The commission also debunks the theories of Wolfowitz, Feith and the seemingly deranged Laurie Mylroie that Saddam was also behind the 1993 attack on the WTC. We have found no credible evidence to support theories of Iraqi government involvement in the 1993 WTC bombing. Wolfowitz added in his memo that he had attempted in June to get the CIA to explore these theories.” (Page 559, Note 73)
And on page 228 (“Atta’s Alleged Trip to Prague”) the commission fudges a little on the question of whether Mohamed Atta, a 9/11 ringleader, met with Ahmad al Ani, an officer of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, but ends up concluding: “The available evidence does not support the original Czech report of an Atta-Ani meeting.”
It’s clear that the commission framed its report carefully in order not to embarrass the president or to give ammunition to his critics. Indeed, it’s being cited by conspiracy theorists from Vice President Cheney to the Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes (author of The Connection: How Al Qaeda’s Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America ) as proof of what they’ve been saying all along. Alas.
Flaw Four. In its workmanlike account of the birth and rise of bin Ladenism, the 9/11 Commission flatly ignores America's role in creating the conditions for the triumph of that ideology, including of course, its support for the Afghan jihad, sponsoring the training of the “Arab Afghans,” and creating the monster that stalked the world in the 1990s. In keeping with its obsessive need to find “consensus” among the five Republicans and five Democrats on the panel—which steered the panel away from making any observations about whether the war in Iraq helped or hurt the War On Terrorism, and away from saying if the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented—the 9/11 Commission also avoided casting any blame for the pandemonium that followed on the American support for the jihadists of the 1980s in Afghanistan, and on American foreign policy more specifically.
In fact, throughout the report, its account of both the history of U.S. foreign policy and of domestic counterterrorism is painted in soft, pastel colors—no evildoers there.
The commission’s history of the region is laughably flawed. “After gaining independence from Western powers following World War II, the Arab Middle East followed an arc from initial pride and optimism to today’s mix of indifference, cynicism and despair.” (Page 52) But the chief Arab countries—Egypt , Iraq , and Syria —were long independent by then, and Saudi Arabia was never colonized. Whatever “despair” settled in by the 1960s had more to do with America ’s imperial role in the Middle East than with some failing by Arab leaders. Secular Arab leaders—that is, those opposed to fanatical Islam—were vigorously suppressed by American foreign policy, including a countless string of CIA-inspired coups d’etat, revolts, ethnic insurgencies, and, of course, wars sparked by American- and European-backed Israeli regimes in 1956 and 1967. The commission ignores all this, but says: “The bankruptcy of secular, autocratic nationalism was evident across the Muslim world by the late 1970s.” True—but had the United States supported Iran’s Mossadegh, Egypt’s Nasser, Algeria’s Ben Bella, and secular Syrian and Iraqi leaders rather than blindly approaching the Middle East and the Arab world as a Cold War battleground, things might have been different.
What caused bin Ladenism? According to the commission, it was “social and economic malaise.” (Shades of Jimmy Carter!) Then, it says, “A decade of conflict in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 gave Islamist extremists a rallying point and training field…. Young Muslims from around the world flocked to Afghanistan to join as volunteers in what was seen as a ‘holy war’—jihad—against an invader.” That’s it. No mention of the CIA’s role in backing Osama bin Laden and his crew. No mention of the CIA, working with Egypt and Saudi Arabia , in recruiting the jihadists. The fact that the CIA encouraged the most vicious of the Afghan fundamentalists because they were seen as the most bloodthirsty in killing Soviet soldiers goes unmentioned.
Not that any of this is secret. But the commission blithely ignores history in its report. (It goes without saying that there’s no mention of U.S. support for the Taliban in the 1990s.)
Flaw Five. I was happy to see David Ignatius’ Post column July 30, one of the first blanket indictments of the commission’s wrong-headed approach to “fixing” intelligence:
Okay, America, here's our intelligence reform agenda: The CIA recognized six years ago that America was at war with al Qaeda, so let's demote it... Pentagon officials dragged their feet on dealing with terrorism, so let's give them more power...The White House politicized the intelligence process, so let's create a new intelligence czar in the White House and give him control over domestic spying, too. The intelligence community suffers from too many fiefdoms, so let's create a few more.
Maybe that's an unfair summary of the recommendations made by the Sept. 11 Commission. But as President Bush and John Kerry race to endorse the commission's agenda for change, you'd think the proposals had been handed down from heaven itself, rather than offered up for public discussion.
Bravo. Kerry’s unthinking endorsement of the 9/11 Commission is craven and absurd. And Bush, purporting to consult with his national security team (as if he could ever grasp the issues at stake) may implement a lot of the commission’s terrible ideas right away. Both Kerry and Bush seem to want to accelerate the FBI’s transition from fighting crime and criminals to spying on Americans. So here is my fifth, and last, critique.
The commission, not unlike backers of the USA PATRIOT Act and other terrorism crusaders, casts the FBI as a domestic CIA, with barely a caveat:
We do not recommend the creation of a new domestic intelligence agency. It is not needed if our other recommendations are adopted...The FBI does need to be able to direct its thousands of agents and other employees to collect intelligence in America’s cities and towns—interviewing informants, conducting surveillance and searches, tracking individuals, working collaboratively with local authorities, and doing so with meticulous attention to detail and compliance with the law. The FBI’s job in the streets of the United States would this be a domestic equivalent, operating under the U.S. Constitution and quite different laws and rules, to the job of the CIA’s operations officers abroad.
But nowhere does the commission explain against whom these “surveillance and searches” would be directed. After 9/11, Attorney General Ashcroft warned that there were 5,000 Al Qaeda sleepers in the United States, but nary one has been found—and none have committed any acts of terrorism. Yet the FBI has reinvented itself, beefing up its Joint Terrorism Task Forces, creating an Office of Intelligence, and reorienting many of its crime-fighting agents to intelligence, not law enforcement. The commission praises all this, and urges more:
The Director of the FBI has proposed creating an Intelligence Directorate as a further reinforcement of the FBI intelligence program... Recommendation: A specialized and integrated national security workforce should be established at the FBI consisting of agents, analysts, linguists and surveillance specialists who are recruited, trained, rewarded, and retained to ensure the development of an institutional culture imbued with a deep expertise in intelligence and national security. The president, by executive order, should direct the FBI to develop an intelligence cadre.
Of course the commission doesn’t need to recommend the creation of an MI5-style domestic spy agency. They’ll just turn the FBI into one. Hmmm. I wonder who knows you are reading this?