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interview: laurie mylroie

What's going on in Washington right now in the debate over terrorism and the possible Iraq connection?

The Pentagon believes Iraq is behind the terrorism that began on September 11 and wants to include Iraq as a central target in our war on terrorism.

The State Department says that there's no evidence, or insufficient evidence, that Iraq is involved; [that] Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan should be the sole object of our war, because we have to build an international coalition for support for the American war effort in Afghanistan, and if we add another target, i.e. Iraq, to our war, that will break up the coalition that exists in support of the war in Afghanistan. The CIA maintains that the evidence points to bin Laden and there is little evidence pointing to Iraq, and it's not interested in pursuing the evidence pointing to Iraq.

Who are the members of the teams that are fighting each other here?

This is a very bitter and nasty fight. ... One of the things that is going on is that people who accommodated Bill Clinton's desire not to hear of Iraqi involvement in any of the preceding terrorism are continuing on that line, probably with an eye to their past positions they held and maybe probably their careers; they feel their careers may be endangered.

The Defense Policy Group for the Defense Department, this panel of very esteemed Washingtonians, people from power in the past and such, recently came to some decisions. Can you tell us about that?

I was not at the Defense Policy Board meeting. Some people who were, some friends, told me about it. And what I heard was that, in some respects, my work on terrorism played a prominent role. There are people [who are] involved in this debate with the book who are familiar with this book [and] who have endorsed it. I think it makes a compelling case that Iraq was involved in the first attack on the World Trade Center back in 1993, and then it raises questions -- serious questions -- about whether Iraq has not been involved in subsequent terrorism.

That's very important, because the general view is we have been doing all these things to Saddam for a decade since the Gulf War, and he's been unable to strike back at us. Now, if you believe that, you believe Saddam's no problem. But if you believe that he has been attacking us since 1993 with very major ambitions -- because in 1993, the intention was to bring down the Trade Center towers; Saddam has been trying to carry out those murderous plots since 1993 -- then you have an entirely different view of the man's vengefulness and willfulness and the kind of threat he poses to the United States.


Laurie Mylroie is the author of two books on Saddam Hussein. The most recent, Study of Revenge--Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America, assembles evidence that Saddam was behind the bomb plot to topple the World Trade Center towers in 1993 and that two Iraqi intelligence agents were masterminds of the plot. She was interviewed on October 18, 2001.

Why would Saddam Hussein get involved in this? Why take the chance of attacking the United States?

One can ask why did Saddam invade Kuwait in 1990. He is a man who takes chances. Moreover, Saddam's view of the utility of violence is entirely different than ours. A Kuwaiti once told me -- he's a professor of political science at Kuwait University -- "There's something very important that you Americans have to understand about the mentality of Saddam and those around him." The Kuwaiti then went on to tell me this little story.

He was a member of a delegation from the Arab Political Science Association -- Arab academics -- who visited Baghdad in the late 1980s during the latter years of the Iran/Iraq war. And they asked Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, "Why is it that Iraq attacks oil tankers carrying oil from Iran, even when those tankers belong to countries that are friendly to Iraq, like France?" And Tariq Aziz replied to them, "Iraq wants more international pressure to end the Iran/Iraq war, and the way to get people to do what you want is to hurt them."

Saddam sees violence as something that can achieve his goals. He sees a utility in violence. In addition, Saddam seeks revenge against the Untied States, to do to us what we have done to Iraq. ...

Give me the overall picture on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and evidence of connections to Iraq.

... [It] revolves around the issue of the identity of the Trade Center bomber. [Convicted terrorist] Ramzi Yousef came into the United States on an Iraqi passport in the name of Ramzi Yousef, which is why he's known by that name. He left on a Pakistani passport in the name of Abdul Basit Karim, who is a real individual. He was a Pakistani born and raised in Kuwait, where his father worked.

And oddly enough, most of that can be deduced from the evidence in the Trade Center trial, particularly the copies of the passport of Abdul Basit Karim that Ramzi Yousef presented to the Pakistani consulate in New York in December 1992 to obtain the passport on which he fled. The Kuwaitis maintained a file on Abdul Basit Karim because he was a resident alien, and that file was tampered with.

... There is considerable evidence that Iraqi intelligence tampered with documents in Kuwait when it occupied that country. Above all, the file of Abdul Basit Karim, on whose passport Ramzi Yousef fled the United States the night of the Trade Center bombing, was tampered with. Information was taken out, information was put in.

So what does that lead you to believe?

That Abdul Basit's file in Kuwait was tampered with leads me to believe that Iraqi intelligence tampered with that file to create a false identity for Ramzi Yousef. Only Iraqi intelligence, reasonably, could have tampered with the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry files.

Has what you just laid out convinced other people?

The evidence did convince other people of this -- many other people, including senior people in national security circles and journalists. Then there was this recent lpptrip to London by James Woolsey, and the British provided information that is contrary to that.

So James Woolsey's trip to London, which we assume ... was to figure out who Yousef really was... Your information is that London intelligence told Woolsey that indeed, it seems that he was this Kuwaiti?

The impression I have is that the British officials said that Ramzi Yousef is really the individual born Abdul Basit Karim in Kuwait.

But you think this is just a ploy, basically, and the real intention was...?

I believe that the British officials who said that are either mistaken -- because it is an Iraqi intelligence operation and it's very complicated, and one can make mistakes in the investigation -- or that they acted out of ill will for some reason, like Britain does not want the U.S. to go to war against Iraq.

There is a big debate going on. If Iraq can be shown to be behind the February 1993 attack on the Trade Center, that makes the case a great deal stronger. Some people do not want that case to be made, because they don't want us to go to war with Iraq.

Why do people in Washington get nervous about the coalition when it comes to targeting Iraq?

The State Department's business is diplomacy. It likes coalitions, by its very nature, and it likes negotiations and it likes agreements. There are some problems that cannot be dealt with in that way. In addition, the State Department accommodated the position of the Clinton administration, which was not to see any problem in Iraq, whether in regards to Saddam's weapons or in regards to terrorism. Clinton just didn't want Iraq to be an issue. And there are people -- many people in the State Department -- who went along with it.

One aspect of that was a viciousness towards the Iraqi National Congress, and getting in the way of trying to provide any meaningful support to the INC, trying to make decision making capabilities far more difficult, and trying to pretend the INC couldn't do anything, when, in fact, it could....

If you were going to go in to see President George Bush and lay down on his desk one piece of evidence that would convince him that indeed, Iraq is tied to terrorism, what would that one piece of evidence be?

I would take the British file on Abdul Basit, because they maintained a Home Office file; the Kuwaiti file on Abdul Basit, which was tampered with; and the American immigration file, INS file, on Ramzi Yousef. And I would use that information to show that the Kuwaiti file was tampered with, that the information in the British file contradicts the information in the Kuwaiti file.

And just so that it's very clear -- what do you think happened? Iraqi intelligence went in to the Kuwaiti files, realizing they had this man, Ramzi Yousef, who they were going to use in the years to come. So therefore they were setting up a circumstance where they would create a mole, basically, whose identity would be certified by Kuwaiti files. What do you assume happened?

When Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990 and 1991, it used some Kuwaiti files to create false identities for key agents. It tampered with those files. It tampered with Abdul Basit Karim's files to create a false identity for Ramzi Yousef.

Questions also exist about Abdul Hakim Murad, who was convicted with Yousef in the plane bombing plot [Ed. Note: a plan to bomb 12 U.S. airplanes in the Philippines] and also claims to be born in Kuwait. Questions also exist about Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, also involved in the plane bombing, a fugitive who also claims to be born in Kuwait. People should check those files to see if they've been tampered with.

On all of this, it's all circumstantial evidence, but a lot of people believe it. Why?

Well, Jim Fox, then head of the New York FBI himself believed that Iraq was behind the Trade Center bombing. Why? Because he recognized that the Muslim extremists were not capable of carrying out this plot on their own. There was something major behind it. Two, there were Iraqis all around the fringe of the plot. One of those Iraqis, Abdul Rachman Yasin, came from Baghdad before the bombing, returned to Baghdad afterwards.

The bombing occurred on the second anniversary of the Gulf War ceasefire approximately, and the Gulf War was not a distant memory at the time. People had it very vividly in their minds. The defendants themselves -- Mahmud Abu Halima, an Egyptian -- believed that Iraq was behind the Trade Center bombing, and understood perfectly well what had happened.

And had used them?

And had used them. That's right.

What did he say about that?

There was an Egyptian in jail with Mahmud Abu Halima, and that Egyptian told the FBI that Halima said that Ramzi Yousef came to the United States, transformed the conspiracy, and left them behind to be arrested and take the blame. The Egyptian asked Halima, "Are the authorities going to catch Ramzi Yousef?" and Abu Halima said, "No, don't ask. Can't catch a Ramzi Yousef." Abu Halima's brother told the same Egyptian man that Muhammad Salameh ([Note: Salameh is another defendant in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing] had dealt with Iraqi intelligence.

Yasin -- what was his role, and how do we know that?

Abdul Rachman Yasin was indicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of the Trade Center. He's still a fugitive. The indictment of Yasin states explicitly that he helped mix chemicals for the bomb.

How was national security, in your view, endangered by the locking up of the evidence in this case, or in general, in looking at terrorist cases as cases that can be dealt with in the court?

By treating terrorism as a law enforcement issue, that has the effect of denying to the national security bureaucracies the information that would allow them to recognize state sponsorship. That is because of the grand jury secrecy laws. That lies at its heart.

Whenever information is obtained by a grand jury investigation, it cannot, by law, the criminal code, be provided to the national security bureaucracy. So that meant, for example, that in the 1993 bombing, the results of the FBI investigation were not provided to the national security bureaucracy. The FBI said to them... For instance, if an individual, say, in the State Department -- which did happen -- asked the FBI about the Trade Center bombing, the FBI said there was no state sponsorship.

When this individual asked, "Well, could we see the evidence to check for ourselves," the FBI said, "No, this is a criminal case. We're handling it." In order to understand who was behind that bomb, one needs the results of the FBI investigation. It's much more important than the intelligence that's produced by the national security bureaucracy.

The only agencies which had both the evidence and the intelligence was the FBI, and in particular, the National Security Division of the FBI. It was formally responsible for examining the question of state sponsorship in the Trade Center bombing. It didn't recognize the structure and hierarchy which supported that plot. It saw only individuals, and therefore came to the conclusion that this was loose networks, or what they called international radical terrorism.

No one could double-check on that work, because no other bureaucracy had the evidence produced by the FBI investigation. And that persists to this day, because there is still an outstanding fugitive. That's what an FBI agent told me earlier this year.

Because Abdul Rachman Yasin is still a fugitive, the entire results of the FBI investigation cannot be provided to the national security bureaucracy. You can get the evidence -- that's what's been made public -- but not the entire results of the investigation.

Did we ever demand from Baghdad the extradition of Yasin?

Under the Clinton administration, although it was known that Yasin was in Baghdad, there was no serious effort to demand his extradition. Perhaps pieces of paper were sent to Baghdad, but there was no serious effort to pursue it. And if the Iraqis did not cooperate, then to use that to show that Iraq is a state that harbors terrorists. ... In fact, I suggested to Martin Indyk, who was NSC adviser in the fall of 1993, that he do exactly that.

I pointed out to him Yasin's presence in Baghdad. I said, "Well, if the Iraqis aren't going to hand him over -- which you don't expect them to -- then let's use that to isolate Baghdad and show it's a terrorist state." Martin thought that was a good idea when I spoke to him, but nothing ever happened. I think he went to those above him; they didn't want the evidence of Iraqi involvement out, and they didn't pursue it.

Why?

The reason that the Clinton administration did not want the evidence of Iraqi involvement coming out in the Trade Center bombing was because, in June of 1993, Clinton had attacked Iraqi intelligence headquarters. It was for the attempt to kill George Bush. But Clinton also believed that that attack on Iraqi intelligence headquarters would take care of the bombing in New York, that it would deter Iraq from all future acts of terrorism. And by not telling the public what was suspected of happening -- that New York FBI really believed Iraq was behind the Trade Center bombing -- Clinton avoided raising the possibility the public might demand that the United States do a lot more than just bomb one building. And Clinton didn't want to do more. Clinton wanted to focus on domestic politics, including health policy.

And even if you read something like George Stephanopoulos's memoirs, for Clinton, the attack on Iraqi intelligence headquarters in 1993 was a nail-biting affair. He was not confident that those missiles would land where they were supposed to. Clinton did not want to get the United States involved in a war with Iraq, in 1993 or since.

A mistake?

The Clinton administration's unwillingness to identify Iraq as the suspected sponsor of the Trade Center bombing was a terrible blunder. Not only did the 1993 attack on Iraqi intelligence headquarters not deter Saddam forever; indeed, Saddam was back already in January of 1995 with that plot in the Philippines.

It didn't deter Saddam forever, and equally important, it generated a false and fraudulent explanation for terrorism called "the loose network theory" -- that terrorism is no longer carried out by states, that the Trade Center bombing was a harbinger of a new terrorism carried out by individuals or loose networks without the support of state.

And once that notion took hold, Saddam could easily play into it by working with Islamic extremists like Osama bin Laden, putting them front and center, leaving a few bin Laden operatives to be arrested. That also played into this fraudulent theory and led directly to the events of September 11. ...

Is your opinion that bin Laden basically was the front man for Saddam Hussein?

Bin Laden and Saddam are working together; they're both in it together. But between Iraqi intelligence and Al Qaeda, the far more important party is Iraqi intelligence. Bin Laden also worked with Sudanese intelligence. That came out in the trial for the 1998 embassy bombing. Bin Laden works with the Taliban. He's not as important as we think. He does not work independently of a state, of a government. But because we have not seen the links, or perhaps not wanted to see the links between Osama bin Laden and various governments, we ourselves have attributed to him capabilities that he alone does not possess.

To finish up on Ramzi Yousef ... back in 1996, you suggested to bring former acquaintances to identify him, to figure out what his real identity was. Did that ever happen? And if not, why not?

In 1996, I wrote that those who knew Abdul Basit from his days in Kuwait should be brought to the prison to meet Ramzi Yousef and give us the best possible account we can of whether Ramzi Yousef's, in fact, also Basit. Indeed, I met with Abdul Basit's teachers in Britain. I offered to bring them to New York, because Yousef was about to be on trial -- see if they could look at him in the courtroom and come to a definitive conclusion. Because those people do not believe that their student is Ramzi Yousef, and they've said so since, publicly.

They said to me, "Well, we'd like to do that, but the only circumstances under which we'd be 100 percent sure is if we met with him." Well, he's in the custody of U.S. officials. That was what I wanted to happen; that has not happened to this day. The trip to London, because of what the British said, that is now apparently lost. But I want that to happen. I want teachers who knew Abdul Basit to go to the prison in Colorado and meet Ramzi Yousef, and if the U.S. government can't afford it, I will pay the expenses myself.

The George Bush assassination attempt -- what were the ties? This was one of the situations that people say was proven; it was used as the reason by Clinton for the attack.

Regarding the Iraqi attempt to assassinate George Bush and his entourage in April 1993, the Kuwaitis discovered the bomb before it could go off, and that bomb could be linked to other bombs built by Iraqi intelligence.

So that was, for our government, good enough proof that this indeed was an Iraqi scheme?

Yes. The fact that the bomb in Kuwait could be tied to other bombs built by Iraq was accepted as proof that Iraq was behind this thing. But there was a debate within the Clinton administration about how to respond. There were some people who wanted to hold trials. They did not want the United States to attack Iraq militarily. That's kind of a strange response, but they really wanted it, and that debate had to be settled first before Clinton took action against Saddam Hussein. But as I say, even then, I think Clinton had a lot more in mind.

How is the debate altered by the anthrax attacks?

The anthrax attacks, particularly the attack on Senator Daschle's office, in which high-grade military anthrax was used and infected a considerable number of people, strongly suggests that a state is involved in this. Only states have that kind of material, and of course Iraq is the number one suspect. I believe that it strengthens the hand of those people who argue that the war on terrorism should be taken to Iraq. It's also terribly dangerous. Because what's to prevent those people who have that anthrax from delivering it in a way that's going to be far more deadly?

Suppose those people just go onto a subway system in an American city? Suppose those people go to the subway system in an American city and just release it into the air? When that happens, no one's going to know that it has occurred, so there won't be any testing for anthrax. And presumably, the people who inhale that anthrax, the same sort of anthrax that arrived in Senator Daschle's office, will become sick and die.

You had a conversation with General Wafiq al Samarrai, who helped define the reason why -- after all the pressure of UNSCOM, the U.N. weapons inspection team sent into Iraq -- they would not give up this weaponry. Help us define the Iraqis' view of these weapons.

General Samarrai was head of the Iraqi intelligence. He defected in late 1994 to the Iraqi National Congress, and I spoke with him in the fall of 1995 after Hussein Kamal's defection. Samarrai told me at that point that Iraq was terribly dangerous; Saddam lived for revenge, and that his biological weapons, in particular, were a great danger. He thought those biological weapons were meant for Americans, that they would be part of Saddam's revenge. He told me Saddam is a destroyer.

And what did he mean by that?

I assume that he meant that Saddam, in some way, lives for destruction. I didn't ask him to explain any further. He said, "Saddam is a destroyer." It's open to whatever interpretation people would put on it by destruction.

Are there any other points that are very significant to you?

It is important that people understand that Ramzi Yousef is not an Islamic fundamentalist. That came out following his arrest for the plot in the Philippines. Remember, he was running from authorities and he ran to Islamabad. Many people said he went to Osama bin Laden's guesthouse. No, he went to a commercial guesthouse in Islamabad, not far from the Iraqi Embassy, and that's where he was arrested.

Because he was caught by surprise, he was revealed not to be a fundamentalist. There's nothing religious about him. He went to Manila's bars and enjoyed Manila's nightlife. There are voice files on his computer, and he speaks very abusively to a woman. This is not how those people behave.

Does one have to tie Hussein to bin Laden to give enough reason to go after Hussein?

Well, there is significant evidence tying Hussein to bin Laden. There's evidence tying the plotters in the September 11 attack to Iraq directly. Above all, Mohammed Atta, who piloted the plane that first hit the Trade Center tower -- and that was a key figure in the conspiracy in the U.S. -- met repeatedly with Iraqi officials in Prague.

Very notably, in June 2000, Atta traveled from Germany, where he was based, to Prague and met an Iraqi official there. Atta stayed there only 24 hours. That's the only purpose he had in going to Prague. He then flew to New Jersey on his first trip to the United States. He stayed here for six months, in that period of time taking pilot's training in Florida.

In that period of time, he received a $100,000 wire transfer from the United Arab Emirates. This is a new phase of the conspiracy that begins, and begins after Atta meets an Iraqi intelligence official. That seems significant and worth pursuing.

Lastly, there's a lot of evidence, but it's all circumstantial. Is it enough to turn this country towards what could be a very difficult and damaging war against Iraq, the possibility of the loss of the coalition, and the chance of making a mistake? Is it enough?

An assessment has to be made by the political leadership of this country, whether it is more likely that bin Laden acted on his own or more likely that bin Laden acted in concert with Iraq. That involves questions about could bin Laden himself have carried out the attack on September 11 or was a state required. It means going back and looking at the previous terrorism, including the first attack on the World Trade Center n 1993.

If the assessment concludes -- which I believe it should -- that Iraq was most probably involved, then that means Saddam is a very, very big danger. Don't forget, there's biological weapons now involved. And this anthrax can cause more Americans to die, and many, many more Americans than died on September 11. Is that a threat that we want to sit passively for and wait to happen, or do we want to pre-empt it? Because the odds are very high that Saddam is going to do that at some point.

... I used to teach at the Naval War College, the Navy's senior academy, and one of the things the teachers said and the students learned is you go after the center of gravity, the main force -- and that's Iraq. That information that the president needs does not have to be definitive, because that information may not be available. What it has to do is be convincing. If the president's convinced of it, then we take the war to Iraq and we persuade our coalition partners it has to be done.

How strong is the Pentagon convinced of this?

I think at the Pentagon they are quite convinced of this need to take the war to Iraq.

Is there any point that you think is essential to know?

Saddam Hussein retains a huge biological weapons program. That's the program that he made the greatest effort to conceal from UNSCOM and the U.N. weapons inspectors. Richard Butler, the last UNSCOM chairman, has repeatedly described it as "a black hole." And it's very dangerous, Iraq's biological weapons program. There haven't been any weapons inspectors in Iraq for the past three years.

One of the things that is particularly disturbing about the way that Iraq dealt with that program -- it never turned over any of its stockpile of biological agents to UNSCOM. That's a bit strange, because a biological program is the easiest to reconstitute. Iraq could have given UNSCOM most of its stockpile, kept a few seed germs to regrow at any time, and very quickly reconstituted that stockpile that it had. Why didn't it do that?

One suggestion that has emerged, which is particular relevant in recent days, [is that], as people all know now, anthrax and other biological agents have DNA. If the U.N. weapons inspectors had part of the stockpile from which any given Iraqi biological agent had come, if there were an act of terrorism carried out by Iraq in this country using Iraqi biological agents, it might be possible on the basis of DNA testing to trace the agents used in the biological attack to Iraq's stockpile. But without Iraq's stockpile, of course, that can't be done.

So by retaining Iraq's entire biological stockpile, Saddam also retained the option of carrying out biological terrorism against the United States.

Because we can't prove it?

We can't prove it. We don't have any evidence whatsoever. If we had, or if more particularly, the U.N. weapons inspectors had Iraq's biological agents; if Iraq had turned over those stockpiles, then we might well be able to link the anthrax attacks to Iraq.

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