Losing bin Laden
[ bookreviews ]
On the face of it, Miniter's book on Osama bin Ladin, promises to be just another of the many popular revisionist histories promoted by right-wing websites and piled high in Wal-Marts across America's mid-west and south. Regnery, the leading conservative publisher in the US, boasts a list of similar "investigative" diatribes on the Clinton years, the Democratic Party and liberals in general, all written by seasoned journalists of a Republican persuasion.
It's all in the sub-title - and the cover, where the photograph of a pained Clinton, hands clasped in prayer or penitential apology, is three times the size of the shot of bin Ladin's threatening eyes. Miniter clearly intends to pin the blame for 11 September and its 3,000 dead on the two-timing former president - and, by inference, to damage the high ambitions of his wife, Hilary - and nothing is going to stand in his way.
"Osama bin Ladin is the unfinished business of the Clinton Administration," he begins. Over 11 snappily written chapters, he guides us through the eight-year build-up to that climactic autumnal day, exploring in detail the many crossroads and byways where greater presidential focus and less political pusillanimity might have staunched the ultimate outcome.
The trouble is, the author is too good a journalist to conform fully to his own publisher's prejudices. A senior fellow in the Brussels-based Centre for the New Europe, Richard Miniter has worked as an investigative journalist for the Sunday Times and a columnist at the Wall Street Journal.
For Losing Bin Laden, he has interviewed the cream of Clinton-era senior officials from the White House, the Pentagon, the departments of State and Justice, the NSA, CIA, FBI, CTC - most of whom went on record - along with veteran CIA staffers, former US diplomats and the strange cast of go-betweens who acted as envoys in the secret diplomacy between the US, Afghanistan and Sudan during the 1990s. He has also done comprehensive research, much of it entirely original, judging from over 60 pages of intelligence documents, photos, notes and a bibliography in the back.
The product is a kind of docu-drama version of the joint congressional enquiry into 9/11, published this August. Miniter cross-cuts interview material from leading figures to illustrate contradictions - or outright denials - in their testimony, punctuating for dramatic effect with short stretches of narrative reconstruction: "Bill Clinton's face was pink and his mouth was dry."
That style may be an acquired taste, but Miniter's work adds considerably to the state of public knowledge of bin Ladin, Al Qa'ida and the half-hearted measures taken to destroy them before the attacks in the US. A central chapter examines in depth bin Ladin's five-year spell in Sudan and Khartoum's subsequent efforts in 1996 and 1997 to improve relations with Washington by sharing its intelligence on Al Qa'ida with the CIA and even to extradite the Saudi. That intelligence included photocopied passports of some of the bombers in the Nairobi attacks, as well as detailed surveillance reports, some of which are reproduced here. Both offers were rejected.
Miniter's chief collaborator in this section is businessman Mansoor Ijaz, unofficial fundraiser for the Democrats and an informal go-between with Khartoum at a time when Sudan was listed as a terrorist-sponsoring state. Ijaz had the ears of Clinton, Sudan's President Bashir and even Hassan al-Turabi, the homegrown Islamist firebrand who had met bin Ladin on several occasions. ["With him," Turabi is quoted as saying, "it is always jihad, jihad, jihad."]
Ijaz concludes that Clinton's refusal to press the CIA to take a more proactive role with Sudan was due to his being then embroiled in a major scandal over cash-for-access concerning the Lebanese-American fundraiser and fugitive oil entrepreneur, Roger Tamraz.
Similarly well-informed chapters deal with Clinton's failure to engage the enemy after the first World Trade Center attack, after the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and in Afghanistan, where the demoralised and near-bankrupt Northern Alliance rebels nevertheless carried out five, previously unknown assassination attempts on bin Ladin, the Taliban's close ally.
But time and again, Miniter's research demonstrates the opposite of what he seeks to prove. The reason no pre-emptive action was taken against bin Ladin was less Clinton's fault and more the permanent state of resentment that existed - and still exists - between the various branches of the defense and intelligence bureaucracy. Neither the FBI nor CIA shared files while the Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC), founded specifically to combat terrorist attacks, was kept entirely out of the loop.
Meanwhile, since the military disaster in Mogadishu in 1993, Miniter alleges that the Pentagon had chosen to "let sleeping dogs lie". "Rather than oppose a [a bin Ladin snatch] operation directly, the general fell back on a favourite Pentagon tactic: counteroffer with proposed operations so large that the president and his senior staff would back down." Exaggerate the possible losses, the backup required, the diplomatic problems, and Clinton would automatically shelve the proposal on political grounds.
With hindsight, the Clinton administration must carry the blame for the unfettered growth in Al Qa'ida's reach and ambition during the 1990s. But facing Pentagon inertia, turf wars in the intelligence apparatus and the threat of impeachment, the blame is not Clinton's alone.
Losing Bin Laden tends to lose the plot in the final appendix on the Iraq-Al Qa'ida connection which, in spite of recent statements to the contrary by Bush, Powell and Rumsfeld, Miniter maintains does exist - without supplying any convincing evidence, documentary or otherwise.
Given Miniter's extraordinary access and research budget, it would have been better had he concentrated his enquiries in Saudi Arabia, whose role in supporting and financing Al Qa'ida is still poorly understood. Such a line of enquiry, however, would have ended by pointing the logical finger of blame for 11 September far more widely than his publisher felt comfortable with.
In spite of this, with this book Miniter has made a significant and valuable contribution to Al Qa'ida studies and the understanding of the failure of US intelligence.