Respond to this Article December 2003

Armchair Provocateur

Laurie Mylroie: The Neocons' favorite conspiracy theorist.

By Peter Bergen

Americans supported the war in Iraq not because Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator--we had known that for many years--but because President Bush had made the case that Saddam might hand off weapons of mass destruction to his terrorist allies to wreak havoc on the United States. As of this writing, there appears to be no evidence that Saddam had either weapons of mass destruction or significant ties to terrorist groups like al Qaeda. Yet the belief that Saddam posed an imminent threat to the United States amounted to a theological conviction within the administration, a conviction successfully sold to the American public. So it's fair to ask: Where did this faith come from?

In the past year, there has been a flood of stories about the thinking of neoconservative hawks such as Richard Perle, until March the chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board and a key architect of the president's get-tough-on-Iraq policy. Perle has had a long association with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank that was also home to other out-of-power hawks during the Clinton years such as John Bolton, now under secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs. It was at AEI that the idea took shape that overthrowing Saddam should be a fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy. Still, none of the thinker/operatives at AEI, or indeed any of the other neocon hawks such as Paul Wolfowitz, were in any real way experts on Iraq or had served in the region. Moreover, the majority of those in and out of government who were Middle East experts had grave concerns about the wisdom of invading Iraq and serious doubts about claims that Saddam's regime posed an urgent threat to American security. What, then, gave neoconservatives like Wolfowitz and Perle such abiding faith in their own positions?

Historians will be debating that question for years, but an important part of the reason has to do with someone you may well have never heard of: Laurie Mylroie. Mylroie has an impressive array of credentials that certify her as an expert on the Middle East, national security, and, above all, Iraq. She has held faculty positions at Harvard and the U.S. Naval War College and worked at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as well as serving as an advisor on Iraq to the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. During the 1980s, Mylroie was an apologist for Saddam's regime, but reversed her position upon his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and, with the zeal of the academic spurned, became rabidly anti-Saddam. In the run up to the first Gulf War, Mylroie with New York Times reporter Judith Miller wrote Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf, a well-reviewed bestseller translated into more than a dozen languages.

Until this point, there was nothing controversial about Mylroie's career. This would change with the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the first act of international terrorism within the United States, which would launch Mylroie on a quixotic quest to prove that Saddam's regime was the most important source of terrorism directed against this country. She laid out her case in Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America, a book published by AEI in 2000 which makes it clear that Mylroie and the neocon hawks worked hand in glove to push her theory that Iraq was behind the '93 Trade Center bombing. Its acknowledgements fulsomely thanked John Bolton and the staff of AEI for their assistance, while Richard Perle glowingly blurbed the book as "splendid and wholly convincing." Lewis "Scooter" Libby, now Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, is thanked for his "generous and timely assistance." And it appears that Paul Wolfowitz himself was instrumental in the genesis of Study of Revenge: His then-wife is credited with having "fundamentally shaped the book," while of Wolfowitz, she says: "At critical times, he provided crucial support for a project that is inherently difficult."

None of which was out of the ordinary, except for this: Mylroie became enamored of her theory that Saddam was the mastermind of a vast anti-U.S. terrorist conspiracy in the face of virtually all evidence and expert opinion to the contrary. In what amounts to the discovery of a unified field theory of terrorism, Mylroie believes that Saddam was not only behind the '93 Trade Center attack, but also every anti-American terrorist incident of the past decade, from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the leveling of the federal building in Oklahoma City to September 11 itself. She is, in short, a crackpot, which would not be significant if she were merely advising say, Lyndon LaRouche. But her neocon friends who went on to run the war in Iraq believed her theories, bringing her on as a consultant at the Pentagon, and they seem to continue to entertain her eccentric belief that Saddam is the fount of the entire shadow war against America.

Hussein on the brain

According to Bob Woodward's book Bush at War, immediately after 9/11 Wolfowitz told the cabinet: "There was a 10 to 50 per cent chance Saddam was involved." A few days later, President Bush told his top aides: "I believe that Iraq was involved, but I'm not going to strike them now." However, the most comprehensive criminal investigation in history--involving chasing down 500,000 leads and interviewing 175,000 people--has turned up no evidence of Iraq's involvement, while the occupation of Iraq by a substantial American army has also uncovered no such link. Moreover, the U.S. State Department's counterterrorism office, which every year releases an authoritative survey of global terrorism, stated in its 2000 report: "[Iraq] has not attempted an anti-western attack since its failed attempt to assassinate former President Bush in 1993 in Kuwait." In other words, by 9/11, Saddam's regime had not engaged in anti-American terrorism for almost a decade.

Ideas do not appear out of nowhere, so how is it that key members of the Bush administration believed that Iraq had been so deeply involved in terrorism directed at U.S. targets for many years? For that we must turn to Mylroie's Study of Revenge, which posits that Iraq was behind the first Trade Center attack, a theory that is risible as hundreds of national security and law enforcement professionals combed through the evidence of the '93 bombing, certainly looking, amongst other things, for such a connection, and found no evidence. But Mylroie claims to have discovered something that everyone else missed: the mastermind of the plot, a man generally known by one of his many aliases, "Ramzi Yousef," was an Iraqi intelligence agent who some time after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 assumed the identity of a Pakistani named Abdul Basit whose family lived there. This was a deduction which she reached following an examination of Basit's passport records and her discovery that Yousef and Basit were four inches different in height. On this wafer-thin foundation she builds her case that Yousef must have therefore been an Iraqi agent given access to Basit's passport following the Iraq occupation. However, U.S. investigators say that "Yousef" and Basit are in fact one and the same person, and that the man Mylroie describes as an Iraqi agent is in fact a Pakistani with ties to al Qaeda.

Mylroie appears never to have absorbed the implications of Occam's Razor, the basic philosophical and scientific principle generally understood to be: "Of two competing theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred." In this case the simpler--and more accurate--explanation of Yousef/Basit's identity is that he was part of the al Qaeda network, not working for Baghdad. Indeed, an avalanche of evidence demonstrates that Yousef was part of the loosely knit al Qaeda organization, evidence that Mylroie does not consider as it would undermine all her suppositions.

When Yousef flew to New York from Pakistan in 1992 before the bombing of the Trade Center, he was accompanied by Ahmad Ajaj, who was arrested at Kennedy Airport on immigration charges, and was later found to have an al Qaeda bomb-making manual in his luggage. Al Qaeda member Jamal al-Fadl told a New York jury in 2000 that he saw Yousef at the group's Sadda training camp on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border some time between 1989 and 1991. When Yousef lived in the Philippines in the early 1990s, his partner in terrorism was Wali Khan Amin Shah, who had trained in Afghanistan under bin Laden. A number of Yousef's co-conspirators had ties to a Brooklyn organization known as the Afghan Refugee Center. This was the American arm of an organization bin Laden founded in Pakistan during the mid-1980s that would later evolve into al Qaeda. Yousef's uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, sent him money for the Trade Center attack, and would later go on to become al Qaeda's military commander and the chief planner of 9/11. I could go on. The point is that the 1993 attack was plotted not by Iraqi intelligence, but by men who were linked to al Qaeda.

In addition to ignoring Yousef's many connections to al Qaeda, Mylroie is clearly aware that in 1995, he gave what would be his only interview to the Arabic newspaper al Hayat since she alludes to it in her book Study of Revenge. "I have no connection with Iraq," said Yousef to his interviewer, adding for good measure that "the Iraqi people must not pay for the mistakes made by Saddam." "Yousef," who traveled under a variety of false identities, confirmed that his real name was indeed Abdul Basit and that he was a Pakistani born in Kuwait, and also admitted that he knew and admired Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, one of al Qaeda's spiritual gurus, whom the U.S. government would later convict of plotting terror attacks in New York.

Yousef went on to say that he wanted to "aid members" of Egypt's Jihad group, a terrorist organization then led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now bin Laden's deputy. Yousef's interview has the ring of truth as he freely volunteered that he knew Sheikh Rahman, the cleric whom the U.S. government had by then already identified as the inspiration for several terrorist conspiracies in New York during the early '90s and also explained that he was part of an Islamic movement which planned to carry out attacks in Saudi Arabia to avenge the arrests of Sheikh Salman al-Audah and Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, radical clerics who have profoundly influenced both bin Laden and al Qaeda. Yousef knew that he was likely facing a lifetime in prison at the time of this interview, and so had little reason to dissemble. In Study of Revenge, Mylroie is careful not to mention the substance of what Yousef said here as it demolishes her theory that he was an Iraqi agent.

Moreover, Mylroie's broader contention that the first Trade Center attack was an Iraqi plot is, to put it mildly, not shared by the intelligence and law-enforcement officials familiar with the subsequent investigation. Vince Cannistraro, who headed the C.I.A.'s Counterterrorist Center in the early 1990s, told me, "My view is that Laurie has an obsession with Iraq and trying to link Saddam to global terrorism. Years of strenuous effort to prove the case have been unavailing." Ken Pollack, a former C.I.A. analyst, scarcely to be described as "soft" on Saddam--his book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq made the most authoritative argument for toppling the dictator--dismissed Mylroie's theories to me: "The NSC [National Security Council] had the intelligence community look very hard at the allegations that the Iraqis were behind the 1993 Trade Center attack. Finding those links would have been very beneficial to the U.S. government at the time, but the intelligence community said that there were no such links."

Mary Jo White, the no-nonsense U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted both the Trade Center case and the al Qaeda bombers behind the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, told me that there was no evidence to support Mylroie's claims: "We investigated the Trade Center attack thoroughly, and other than the evidence that Ramzi Yousef traveled on a phony Iraqi passport, that was the only connection to Iraq." Neil Herman, the F.B.I. official who headed the Trade Center probe, explained that following the attacks, one of the lower-level conspirators, Abdul Rahman Yasin, did flee New York to live with a family member in Baghdad: "The one glaring connection that can't be overlooked is Yasin. We pursued that on every level, traced him to a relative and a location, and we made overtures to get him back." However, Herman says that Yasin's presence in Baghdad does not mean Iraq sponsored the attack: "We looked at that rather extensively. There were no ties to the Iraqi government." In sum, by the mid-'90s, the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, the F.B.I., the U.S. Attorney's office in the Southern District of New York, the C.I.A., the N.S.C., and the State Department had all found no evidence implicating the Iraqi government in the first Trade Center attack.

Perles of wisdom

As Mylroie was fighting against the tide of expert opinion to prove her case that Saddam was behind the '93 bombing, her neocon colleagues at AEI and elsewhere were formulating an alternative vision of U.S. foreign policy to challenge what they saw as the feckless and weak policies of the Clinton administration. Mylroie's research and expertise on Iraq complemented the big-think strategizing of the neocons, and a symbiotic relationship developed between them, as evidenced by the garlands that the neocons bestowed upon her for her work. Wolfowitz gushingly blurbed Study of Revenge: "[Her] provocative and disturbing book argues that…Ramzi Yousef, was in fact an agent of Iraqi intelligence. If so, what would that tell us about the extent of Saddam Hussein's ambitions? How would it change our view of Iraq's continuing efforts to retain weapons of mass destruction and to acquire new ones? How would it affect our judgments about the collapse of U.S. policy toward Iraq and the need for a fundamentally new policy?" (How, indeed…) James Woolsey, another prominent Iraq hawk who headed the C.I.A. between 1993 and 1995, also weighed in: "Anyone who wishes to continue to deal with Saddam by ignoring his role in international terrorism…and by giving only office furniture to the Iraqi resistance now has the staggering task of trying to refute this superb work." Study of Revenge was reissued after 9/11 as The War Against America, Woolsey contributing a new foreword that described Mylroie's work as "brilliant and brave."

It is possible, of course, that the neocons did not find Mylroie's research to be genuinely persuasive, but rather that her findings simply fit conveniently into their own desire to overthrow Saddam. Having blurbed her first book as "wholly convincing," Richard Perle now says that "not everything she says is convincing" and that Mylroie's thinking was "not very important" to the development of his own views on Iraq. At the same time, Perle continues to praise Mylroie's investigative skills, even saying she should be put in charge of "quality control" at the C.I.A. So there are reasons to think that people like Perle actually were persuaded by her research. As the one member of the neocon team with serious credentials on Iraq, Mylroie offered opinions which would naturally have carried special weight. That she was a genuine authority, whose "research" confirmed their worst fears about Saddam, could only have strengthened their convictions.

The evidence that the hawks really believed her theories can be seen in their statements and actions following September 11. Shortly thereafter, Woolsey was dispatched to the United Kingdom on an extraordinary trip, apparently sanctioned by Wolfowitz, to check out a key aspect of Mylroie's argument about Yousef. During the early '90s, Abdul Basit, the Pakistani whose identity Yousef had supposedly assumed, attended a Welsh college to study electrical engineering. Mylroie writes that Basit was quite different in appearance from Yousef, thus further proving her contention that Yousef was a substitute, a fact that could be proved by visiting Basit's former college in Wales. As Woolsey has made no comment on his trip to the United Kingdom, it's fair to assume that his efforts to replicate these findings did not meet with success. However, around the second anniversary of 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney continued to echo Mylroie's utterances when he told NBC's Tim Russert that Iraq was "the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11," a demonstrably false theory that Mylroie has been vigorously touting since this past summer.

In July, Mylroie published a new book Bush vs. the Beltway, which reprised many of the themes of Study of Revenge. The subtitle of her new tome tells you where the book is headed: How the CIA and the State Department Tried to Stop the War on Terror. The book charges that the U.S. government actually suppressed information about Iraq's role in anti-American terrorism, including in the investigation of 9/11. Luckily, Bush vs. the Beltway, which reads in part like Bush 2004 campaign literature, does have at least one heroic figure: "There is an actual hero, in the person of the president who could not be rolled, spun or otherwise diverted from his most solemn obligation."

Bush vs. the Beltway, the subject of additional hosannas from both Woolsey and Perle, claims that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the now-captured mastermind of 9/11, is an Iraqi intelligence agent, like Ramzi Yousef, who adopted the identity of a Pakistani living in Kuwait. Funnily enough, the U.S. government doesn't seem to have explored this intriguing theory. Why not? According to Mylroie, a plot is afoot to prevent Mohammed's unmasking. Shortly after Bush vs. the Beltway was published, she appeared as an expert witness before the blue-ribbon commission investigating 9/11, testifying that "there is substantial reason to believe that these masterminds [of both the '93 and 9/11 Trade Center attacks] are Iraqi intelligence agents." Mylroie explained that this had not been discovered by the U.S. government because "a senior administration official told me in specific that the question of the identities of the terrorist masterminds could not be pursued because of bureaucratic obstructionism." So we are expected to believe that the senior Bush administration officials whom Mylroie knows so well could not find anyone in intelligence or law enforcement to investigate the supposed Iraqi intelligence background of the mastermind of 9/11, at the same time that 150,000 American soldiers had been sent to fight a war in Iraq under the rubric of the war on terrorism. Please.

Further undermining Mylroie's theory about Khalid Sheik Mohammed is the fact that since his apprehension in Pakistan, KSM, as he's known to law enforcement, has specifically denied any connection to Iraq, at the same time that he has offered up actionable intelligence about terror plots in the United States. A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official told me that KSM, like several other high-ranking al Qaeda operatives, has disgorged much useful information following the use of coercive methods that include making him "uncomfortable and withholding water and sleep." As a result of KSM's interrogations, Iyman Faris, a trucker living in Ohio, was arrested for plotting to cut through the cable supporting the Brooklyn Bridge and was sentenced in October to 20 years in prison.

Zeitgeist heist

Mylroie declined to be interviewed for this article "with regret," so the only chance I have had to talk with her came this past February, when we both appeared on Canadian television to discuss the impending war in Iraq and Saddam's putative connections to terrorism. As soon as the interview started, Mylroie began lecturing in a hectoring tone: "Listen, we're going to war because President Bush believes Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. Al Qaeda is a front for Iraqi intelligence…[the U.S.] bureaucracy made a tremendous blunder that refused to acknowledge these links … the people responsible for gathering this information, say in the C.I.A., are also the same people who contributed to the blunder on 9/11 and the deaths of 3,000 Americans, and so whenever this information emerges they move to discredit it." I tried to make the point that Mylroie's theories defied common sense, as they implied a conspiracy by literally thousands of American officials to suppress the truth of the links between Iraq and 9/11, to little avail.

At the end of the interview, Mylroie, who exudes a slightly frazzled, batty air, started getting visibly agitated, her finger jabbing at the camera and her voice rising to a yell as she outlined the following apocalyptic scenario: "Now I'm going to tell you something, OK, and I want all Canada to understand, I want you to understand the consequences of the cynicism of people like Peter. There is a very acute chance as we go to war that Saddam will use biological agents as revenge against Americans, that there will be anthrax in the United States and there will be smallpox in the United States. Are you in Canada prepared for Americans who have smallpox and do not know it crossing the border and bringing that into Canada?"

This kind of hysterical hyperbole is emblematic of Mylroie's method, which is to never let the facts get in the way of her monomaniacal certainties. In the case of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, she has said that Terry Nichols, one of the plotters, was in league with Ramzi Yousef. Richard Matsch, the veteran federal judge who presided over the Oklahoma City bombing case, ruled any version of this theory to be inadmissible at trial. Mylroie implicates Iraq in the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military facility in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 U.S. servicemen. In 2001, a grand jury returned indictments in that case against members of Saudi Hezbollah, a group with ties not to Iraq, but Iran. Mylroie suggests that the attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 might have been "the work of both bin Laden and Iraq." An overseas investigation unprecedented in scope did not uncover any such connection. Mylroie has written that the crash of TWA flight 800 into Long Island Sound in 1996 likely was an Iraqi plot. A two-year investigation by the National Tran-sportation Safety Board ruled it was an accident. According to Mylroie, Iraq supplied the bomb-making expertise for the attack which killed 17 U.S. sailors on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. No American law enforcement official has made that claim. Mylroie blames Iraq for the post-9/11 anthrax attacks around the United States. Marilyn Thompson, The Washington Post's investigations editor, who has written an authoritative book on those attacks, says, "The F.B.I. has essentially dismissed this theory and says there is no evidence to support it." A U.S. counter-terrorism official remarked: "Mylroie probably thinks the Washington sniper was an Iraqi."

In her book Bush vs. the Beltway, Mylroie approvingly quotes the maxim "we should not love our opinions like our children." It's long overdue that she heed this excellent piece of advice. Saddam is guilty of many crimes, not least the genocidal policies he unleashed on the Marsh Arabs and the Iraqi Kurds, but there is no evidence linking him to any act of anti-American terrorism for the past decade, while there is a mountain of evidence that implicates al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, Mylroie's researches have proven to be more than merely academic, as her theories have bolstered the argument that led us into a costly war in Iraq and swayed key opinion-makers in the Bush administration, who then managed to persuade seven out of 10 Americans that the Iraqi dictator had a role in the attacks on Washington and New York. So, her specious theories of Iraq's involvement in anti-American terrorism have now become part of the American zeitgeist. Meanwhile, in a recent, telling quote to Newsweek, Mylroie observed: "I take satisfaction that we went to war with Iraq and got rid of Saddam Hussein. The rest is details." Now she tells us.

Peter Bergen, a fellow of the New America Foundation, is the author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden and an adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.


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