Informed Comment : The Difference between Clinton and Bush on Terrorism

The Difference between Clinton and Bush: The Millennium Plot

More on the Clarke conroversy: The pundits and politicians who keep saying that Clinton's anti-terrorism policies and Bush's are the same are missing a key piece of the puzzle. The policy outline was the same, but the implementation was very different.

Hint: The key piece of evidence is the Millennium Plot. This was an al-Qaeda operation timed for late December 1999. Forestalling this plot was the biggest counter-terrorism success the US has ever had against al-Qaeda.

the plot involved several key elements:

*Los Angelese International Airport would be blown up.

*(Possibly: The Needle in Seattle would be blown up).

* The Radisson Hotel in Amman Jordan, a favorite of American and Israeli tourists, would be blown up. A lot of the tourism for the millennium was Christian evangelicals wanting to be in the holy land.

* Bombs would go off at Mt. Nebo, a tourist site in Jordan associated with Moses.

* The USS The Sullivans would be targeted by a dinghy bomb off Yemen.

The story of how the LAX bombing was stopped on December 14 has been told in an important series in the Seattle Times. Extra security measures were implemented by US customs agents, leading to the apprehension of an Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, with a trunk full of nitroglycerin, heading for LAX (he wanted to start his journey by ferry from Port Angeles, Washington).

Ressam grew up fishing in the Mediterranean and going to discos. But like many Algerians, he was radicalized in 1991. The government had allowed the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist party, to contest elections. FIS unexpectedly won, however. The military feared that they would never allow another election, and would declare an Islamic state. They cancelled elections. FIS went into opposition, and the most radical members formed the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which got money from Usama Bin Laden, then in the Sudan. Ressam seems to have been GIA.

Ressam fought in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Then he settled in France and became part of the terrorist Groupe Roubaix, which carried out attacks in that city (pop. 98,000, near Lille in the north). In spring of 1998 he flew to Afghanistan and was trained in two camps under the direction of Palestinian-Saudi Abu Zubaida. Abu Zubaida recruited Ressam into an Algerian al-Qaeda cell headed from London by Abu Doha al-Mukhalif. Ressam was assigned to form a forward cell in Montreal, from which he and several other Algerians plotted the attack on LAX.

What Clarke's book reveals is that the way Ressam was shaken out at Port Angeles by customs agent Diana Dean was not an accident. Rather, Clinton had made Clarke a cabinet member. He was given the authority to call other key cabinet members and security officials to "battle stations," involving heightened alerts in their bureaucracies and daily meetings. Clarke did this with Clinton's approval in December of 1999 because of increased chatter and because the Jordanians caught a break when they cracked Raed al-Hijazi's cell in Amman.

Early in 2001, in contrast, Bush demoted Clarke from being a cabinet member, and much reduced his authority. Clarke wanted the high Bush officials or "principals" to meet on terrorism regularly. He couldn't get them to do it. Rice knew what al-Qaeda was, but she, like other administration officials, was disconcerted by Clarke's focus on it as an independent actor. The Bush group-think holds that asymmetrical organizations are not a threat in themselves, that the threat comes from the states that allegedly harbor them. That funny look she gave Clarke wasn't unfamiliarity, it was puzzlement that someone so high in the system should be so wrongly focused.

In summer of 2001 the chatter was much greater and more ominous than in fall of 1999. Clarke wanted to go to battle stations and have daily meetings with the "principals" (i.e. Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Powell, Tenet). He wanted to repeat the procedures that had foiled the Millennium Plot. He could not convince anyone to let him do that.

Note that an "institution" is defined in sociology as a regular way of getting certain collective work done. Clarke is saying that Clinton had institutionalized a set of governmental routines for dealing with heightened threats from terrorists. He is not saying that Clinton bequeathed a "big think" plan to Bush on terrorism. He is saying that he bequeathed the Bush administration a repertoire of effective actions by high officials.

He thinks going to such a heightened level of alert and concerted effort in 2001 might have shaken loose much earlier the information that the CIA knew that Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were in the US. As it is, the INS wasn't informed of this advent and did not start looking for them until Aug. 21, 2001, by which time it was too late. Since they made their plane reservations for September 11 under their own names, names known to the USG, a heightened level of alert might have allowed the FBI to spot them.

So it just is not true that Bush was doing exactly the same thing on terrorism that Clinton was. He didn't have a cabinet-level counter-terrorism czar; he didn't have the routine of principals' meetings on terrorism; he didn't authorize Clarke to go to 'battle stations' and heightened security alert in summer of 2001 the way Clinton had done in December, 1999.

The key to understanding Clarke's argument is to understand how exactly the Millennium Plot was foiled.

Meanwhile, the Bush slime machine has thrown up the charge that Clarke admitted that there was an al-Qaeda-Saddam connection in Sudan in the early 1990s. This is such a non-story that it is incredible to me that anyone even bothers with it.

Clarke is straightforward that he suspected an Iraq-Bin Laden link in the very early 1990s in Khartoum. He also admits that Saddam tried to have Bush senior assassinated in Kuwait in 1993. What he told Wolfowitz in spring of 2001 was that there hadn't been any Iraqi terrorism against the US in ten years. Note that he does not say "there never had been." I am personally skeptical that even the early 1990s Khartoum-Baghdad links are based on good intelligence. But Clarke is entirely consistent if you read him knowing the whole story of al-Qaeda in the 1990s. His critics still don't get it.

Appendix: The Ressam take-down:

A special report by Hal Bernton, Mike Carter, David Heath and James Neff · The Seattle Times - June 23 - July 7, 2002

The Coho arrived in Port Angeles in the dark, just before 6 p.m., the last boat of the day. Customs inspector Diana Dean stopped each car as it rolled off, asking the drivers a few basic questions and wishing them a good trip.

The last car in line was a green Chrysler 300M with British Columbia plates.

"Where are you going?" "Sattal."

"Why are you going to Seattle?" "Visit."

"Where do you live?" "Montreal."

"Who are you going to see in Seattle?" "No, hotel."

The driver was fidgeting, jittery, sweating. His hands disappeared from sight as he began rummaging around the car's console. That made Dean nervous.

She handed him a customs declaration to fill out, a subtle way of stalling while she took a closer look. He filled out the form and handed it back. By this time, Dean observed, he was acting "hinky."

She asked him to turn the car off, pop open the trunk and step outside. Noris [Ahmed Ressam's alias was Antione Noris] was slow to respond but complied.

At this point, the other customs inspectors were finished and waiting to go home. They came over to help process the last car of the day. Dean told them this might be a "load vehicle" — code for one used for smuggling. Inspector Mark Johnson took over the interrogation.

"Habla español?" he asked.

"Parlez-vous français?" the man replied, handing over his ID. Not a passport or driver's license, but his Costco card.

"So you like to shop in bulk? You know, the 120-roll pack of toilet paper?" Johnson joked. He escorted Noris to a table, where he asked him to empty his pockets.

Inspector Mike Chapman searched the suitcase in the trunk. As he was doing that, inspector Danny Clem reached in and unscrewed the fastener on the spare-tire compartment. He opened the panel, looked inside and called out to Johnson.

Johnson, grabbing Noris by the shoulders, led him over to the trunk. At a hefty 240 pounds, Johnson had no trouble maneuvering the slim Noris. They peered in and saw no spare tire. In its place were several green bags that appeared to filled with white powder, as well as four black boxes, two pill bottles and two jars of brown liquid. A drug dealer, perhaps?

Johnson felt Noris shudder. He escorted Noris back to the table and patted him down for weapons. Inside Noris' camel's-hair coat was a bulge. As Johnson was slipping off the coat to take a closer look, he was suddenly left holding an empty garment. Noris was fleeing.

By the time it sank in, Noris was nearly a block away. Johnson and Chapman took off on foot, yelling, "Stop! Police!"

With his head start, Noris escaped. The inspectors couldn't find him. Then Chapman noticed movement under a pickup parked in front of a shoe store. He squatted down, saw Noris, drew his gun and ordered him to come out with his hands up.

Noris stood up, arms raised, and looked at Chapman, just 20 feet away with his gun drawn. Then he turned and ran. "Stop! Police!"

Johnson joined Chapman on Noris' tail. Noris bounced off a moving car but continued running. When he got to the middle of a busy intersection, he reversed direction, headed for a car stopped at the light and grabbed the driver's door handle. The woman behind the wheel, startled, stepped on the gas, ran the red light and sent Noris spinning. Chapman and Johnson swarmed him. "

posted by Juan @ 3/28/2004

Informed Comment : 03/01/2004 - 03/31/2004


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