She is a conspiracy theorist whose political conceits have consistently been proved wrong. So why were Bush and his aides so keen to swallow Laurie Mylroie’s theories on Saddam and terrorism?
by Peter Bergen
Americans supported the war in Iraq not because Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator – they knew that – but because President Bush made the case that Saddam might hand weapons of mass destruction to his terrorist allies to wreak havoc on the United States. In the absence of any evidence for that theory, it’s fair to ask: where did the administration’s conviction come from? It was at the American Enterprise Institute – a conservative Washington DC thinktank – that the idea took shape that overthrowing Saddam should be a goal. Among those associated with AEI is Richard Perle, a key architect of the president’s get-tough-on-Iraq policy, and Paul Wolfowitz, now the number-two official at the Pentagon. But none of the thinkers at AEI was in any real way an expert on Iraq. For that they relied on someone you probably have never heard of: a woman named Laurie Mylroie.
Mylroie has credentials as an expert on the Middle East, national security and, above all, Iraq, having held faculty positions at Harvard and the US Naval War College. During the 1980s she was an apologist for Saddam’s regime, but became anti-Saddam around the time of his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In the run-up to that Gulf war, with New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Mylroie wrote Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf, a well-reviewed bestseller.
It was the first bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993 that launched Mylroie’s quixotic quest to prove that Saddam’s regime was the chief source of anti-US terrorism. She laid out her case in a 2000 book called Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America. Perle glowingly blurbed the book as “splendid and wholly convincing”. Wolfowitz and his then wife, according to Mylroie, “provided crucial support”.
Mylroie believes that Saddam was behind every anti-American terrorist incident of note in the past decade, from the levelling of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 to September 11 itself. She is, in short, a cranky conspiracist – but her neoconservative friends believed her theories, bringing her on as a terrorism consultant at the Pentagon.
The extent of Mylroie’s influence is shown in the new book Against All Enemies, by the veteran counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, in which he recounts a senior-level meeting on terrorism months before September 11. During that meeting Clarke quotes Wolfowitz as saying: “You give Bin Laden too much credit. He could not do all these things like the 1993 attack on New York, not without a state sponsor. Just because FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages does not mean they don’t exist.” Clarke writes: “I could hardly believe it, but Wolfowitz was spouting the Laurie Mylroie theory that Iraq was behind the 1993 truck bomb at the World Trade Centre, a theory that had been investigated for years and found to be totally untrue.”
Mylroie’s influence can also be seen in the Bush cabinet’s reaction to the September 11 attacks. According to Bob Woodward’s recent book, Plan of Attack, Wolfowitz told the cabinet immediately after the attacks that there was a 10 to 50% chance that Saddam was implicated. Around the same time, Bush told his aides: “I believe that Iraq was involved, but I’m not going to strike them now.”
The most comprehensive criminal investigation in history – pursuing 500,000 leads and interviewing 175,000 people – has turned up no evidence of Iraqi involvement.
How is it that key members of the Bush administration believed otherwise? Mylroie, in Study of Revenge, claims to have discovered what everyone missed: that the plot’s mastermind, a man generally known by one of his many aliases, “Ramzi Yousef”, was actually an Iraqi intelligence agent. Some time after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Mylroie argues, Yousef was given access to the passport of a Pakistani named Abdul Basit whose family lived in Kuwait, and assumed his identity. She reached this deduction following an examination of Basit’s passport records that indicated Yousef and Basit were four inches different in height. But US investigators say that “Yousef” and Basit are the same person, and that he is a Pakistani with ties to al-Qaida, not to Iraq. Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was al-Qaida’s military commander until his capture in Pakistan in 2003.
The reality is that by the mid-90s, the FBI, the CIA and the State Department had found no evidence implicating the Iraqi government in the first Trade Centre attack. Vincent Cannistraro, who headed the CIA’s counterterrorist centre in the early 90s, told me, “My view is that Laurie has an obsession with trying to link Saddam to global terrorism. Years of strenuous effort to prove the case have been unavailing.” Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, dismissed Mylroie’s theories: “[The National Security Council] had the intelligence community look very hard at the allegations that the Iraqis were behind the 1993 Trade Centre attack … The intelligence community said there were no such links.”
Neil Herman, the FBI official who headed the Trade Centre investigation, explained that 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 looked at that rather extensively. There were no ties to the Iraqi government.”
In July last year, Mylroie published a new book, Bush v the Beltway: How the CIA and the State Department Tried to Stop the War on Terror. The book charges that the US government suppressed information about Iraq’s role in anti-American terrorism, including the investigation of 9/11. It claims that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the now captured mastermind of 9/11, is an Iraqi intelligence agent who, like his nephew Ramzi Yousef, adopted the identity of a Pakistani living in Kuwait.
The US government doesn’t seem to have explored this theory. Why not? Mylroie explained to the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks: “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.” We are expected to believe that the Bush administration could not find anyone to investigate supposed Iraqi links to 9/11, at the same time as 150,000 American soldiers were sent to fight a war in Iraq.
Mylroie had only this comment when I asked about her research: “This issue [of Iraq’s involvement in anti-US terrorism] has become enormously politicised. When I first wrote about it in 1995, major magazines and newspapers and the Israeli ambassador commented positively on my research.” The only other chance I have had to talk with Mylroie came last February, when we both appeared on Canadian television to discuss the impending war. “Listen,” she declared, “we’re going to war because President Bush believes Saddam was involved in 9/11. Al-Qaida is a front for Iraqi intelligence.”
Towards the end of the interview, Mylroie became agitated, jabbing her finger at the camera: “There is a very acute chance as we go to war that Saddam will use biological agents against Americans, that there will be anthrax in the US and smallpox in the US. Are you in Canada prepared for Americans who have smallpox and do not know it crossing the border?”
Such hyperbole is emblematic of Mylroie’s method. She has said that Terry Nichols, one of the Oklahoma City plotters, was in league with Ramzi Yousef, the supposed Iraqi agent. The federal judge who presided over the Oklahoma case ruled this theory inadmissible. Mylroie implicates Iraq in the 1996 bombing of a US military facility in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 servicemen. In 2001, a grand jury indicted members of Saudi Hezbollah, a group with ties to Iran. Mylroie suggests that the attacks on US embassies in Africa in 1998 were “the work of Bin Laden and Iraq”. An investigation uncovered no connection. Mylroie has written that the crash of TWA flight 800 in 1996 was probably an Iraqi plot; a two-year investigation found it was an accident. Saddam is guilty of many crimes, but there is no evidence linking him to any act of anti-US terrorism for a decade, while there is a mountain of evidence against al-Qaida.
Mylroie has also recently taken on the role of defender of Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, who is accused of providing fraudulent information about Iraq’s WMD programme and passing intelligence to Iran. In May, in the conservative newspaper the New York Sun, Mylroie described Chalabi as the victim of a “longstanding grudge” by the CIA.
Mylroie’s theories have bolstered the argument that led us into a costly war in Iraq, and swayed key opinion-makers in the Bush administration, who in turn persuaded Americans that the Iraqi dictator had a role in the 9/11 attacks. In November Mylroie told Newsweek: “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 in Washington DC and adjunct professor, school of advanced international studies, Johns Hopkins University, is the author of Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden.