Thursday, September 22, 2011

Laurie Mylroie’s Convoluted Iraq-Terrorism Conspiracy Theory

In April 2001, the new Bush administration held its first National Security Council meeting on terrorism. The White House’s counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke said that the United States had to focus upon Al Qaeda. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz disagreed. He said that Iraq was the leading sponsor of terrorism in the world. He claimed that Iraq was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as an example. Wolfowitz went on to say that just because the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) couldn’t find any evidence to support his claim didn’t meant it wasn’t true. Clarke and Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin both countered by saying that Iraq had not been behind any anti-Western terrorism since its 1993 attempt upon former President Bush while he was on a trip to Kuwait. Wolfowitz’s argument was based upon a book written by Laurie Mylroie. Mylroie began as an adamant supporter of Iraq in the 1980s, but when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 she turned around 180 degrees. She became obsessed with the 1993 New York bombing, creating an elaborate conspiracy theory to blame Iraq for it. That led her to blame every major terrorist attack upon the U.S. on Saddam. Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney and others later embraced her idea, and used it to advocate for military action against Iraq. This was despite the fact that every investigation of her theory found nothing to support her claims.

Laurie Mylroie began as a staunch supporter of Saddam Hussein. She started writing about the Middle East in the 1980s as a graduate student. She later became an assistant professor of political science at Harvard, and then worked at the U.S. Naval War College. She became attached to Saddam because he was not anti-American or an Islamist. She then argued that the U.S. should ally with Iraq in a 1987 article co-written by Daniel Pipes for the New Republic. In it, she wrote that Washington should back Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq War believing that would help with not only American security, but Israel’s as well because it would block the expansion of Tehran’s revolutionary ideas. Mylroie then took it a step further believing that she could personally broker a peace between Iraq and Israel. She went to the Middle East and worked with a professor from the Israeli University to try to mediate between the two countries. In 1987, she travelled to Baghdad and met with Iraq’s Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and its Ambassador to the U.S. Nizar Hamdoon. She worked out a meeting with Hamdoon and two Israeli Army generals in the United States. The effort failed, but it showed how committed she was to her beliefs. In May 1989, she wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post saying that Israel and America should not condemn Iraq’s gassing of the Kurds from 1987-1988. Everything would change the next year however.

The 1990 invasion of Kuwait would forever change Mylroie’s opinion of Iraq. She ended up co-authoring a book with New York Times reporter Judith Miller entitled Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf. It detailed Iraq’s abuses. It became a best seller, and helped her get a position at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In a flash, Mylroie went from one of the biggest boosters of Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein, going as far as trying to improve its relations with Israel, to suddenly condemning Saddam as a brutal dictator. This was a beginning of an obsession for Mylroie who went beyond Iraq’s actual crimes, to trying to blame almost any terrorist act against the United States on Baghdad.

That began with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Despite the overwhelming evidence that Al Qaeda was behind the attack, Mylroie began arguing that it was actually the work of Iraq. The gist of her argument came down to three major claims. First, was that one of the conspiracy members Abdul Rahman Yasin fled to Iraq after the incident. Yasin was an Iraqi born in Indiana, who grew up in Baghdad. Mylroie argued that Yasin was working for the Iraqi government, and was given safe haven by them after he returned to the country. Second, Mylroie found out that one of the bombers, Mohammed Salmeh, was the nephew of a PLO-Fatah member, Abu Bakir who lived in Baghdad, and would call him often. She thought that proved Iraq was involved in the 1993 attack because Bakir could have been working for Iraqi intelligence. Finally, Mylroie believed that the lead bomber, Ramzi Yousef, was an Iraqi agent. In 1995, the FBI arrested Yousef in Pakistan. He ended up admitting that his real name was Abdul Basit Karim, a Pakistani national who grew up in Kuwait, and went to school in Wales. Mylroie theorized that there were actually two Abdul Basit Karims. One was the real Karim, who was killed along with his whole family in the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Iraqi intelligence then took his identity and gave it to one of their agents who then became Ramzi Yousef. Mylroie's evidence was that Karim’s passport was missing some pages and had some discrepancies, which she claimed were because his passport was a fake made by Baghdad. She also claimed that former classmates of Karim’s in Wales claimed he looked physically different, like being shorter. In May 1993, three months after the World Trade Center bombing, Mylroie presented her ideas to the FBI. They did not call her back. Later, the 1993 prosecutor of the bombing, the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, the State Department, the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Council all looked into Mylroie’s writings and found nothing. Officially, Mylroie’s theory was not accepted by a single agency within the U.S. government.

There were several problems with her theory. First, Iraq tried to use Abdul Rahman Yasin as a bargaining chip with the United States, something that didn’t seem to jibe with him being an Iraqi agent. For example, in 1998, Baghdad offered to return Yasin to America, but the Clinton administration refused because it did not want to give any concessions to Saddam. Second, several other members of the 1993 bomb plot planned on going back to their homes countries like Egypt and Pakistan. The difference was that Yasin actually made it to Iraq, while the others didn’t. Those other countries were not implicated in the 1993 bombing by Mylroie, only Iraq was. As for Ramzi Yousef, there were witnesses in England who testified that he was the same man they’d known in Wales. Other witnesses said Yousef was an Islamic radical who trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, something he admitted himself. The FBI also said that Yousef’s fingerprints matched those of Basit in Kuwait. Finally, even if Yousef did not prove to be exactly whom he was that did not prove that he worked for Iraqi intelligence. Overall, her whole argument was largely based upon speculation, which was likely the reason why it received no official support.

In the 1990s, Mylroie would pick up an important supporter in Paul Wolfowitz. At the time, he was a dean at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He found a kindred spirit in Mylroie, who was just as obsessed with Iraq as he was. Wolfowitz became a fan of her book, and went to the National Security Council asking why Washington wasn’t doing more about her theory. He was told that the CIA and FBI had debunked her writing, but Wolfowitz didn’t believe them. Rather he claimed that the Clinton administration did not want to take on Saddam. Wolfowitz would end up pushing Mylroie’s argument when he returned to government with the second Bush administration in 2001.

Mylroie was not done with her Iraq conspiracy ideas. In 1995, she offered to be a witness in the trial of Eyad Ismoil, one of the 1993 bombers, claiming that he was just a fall guy because Iraq was really the main culprit. That same year, she talked with Timothy McVeigh’s lawyer claiming that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the work of Iraq as well. She ended up being hired by McVeigh’s defense team. One theory she came up involved McVeigh’s co-conspirator Terry Nicholas. He spent time in the Philippines, and Mylroie argued that he met Ramzi Yousef there, proving an Iraq connection. McVeigh’s lawyer hired an investigator to look into this, but found nothing. This would start a trend of blaming almost every single major terrorist attack upon America on Iraq. This included the 1996 Khobar tower bombings in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 U.S.S. Cole assault. Like her previous work on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, her arguments for Iraqi connections to all of these attacks were tenuous at best.

In the 2000s, Mylroie’s fortunes appeared to pick up when some of her supporters joined the new Bush administration. First, she got a job with the American Enterprise Institute, which published her book in 2000, Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America where she outlined her argument about Iraq’s involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Paul Wolfowitz, former Defense Department official Richard Perle, and ex-CIA Director James Woolsey all endorsed her work. In 2001, she was hired as a Pentagon adviser on terrorism. Wolfowitz and others would all end up pushing her work hard within the White House and with the public. In early 2001 for example, Wolfowitz asked the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) director Admiral Thomas Wilson to go over Mylroie’s book. He found nothing. In June 2001 Wolfowitz asked the same of the CIA, and they had the same results. Just like in the 1990s, government agencies could not find anything to support Mylroie’s conspiracy theory about the World Trade Center bombings, but that didn’t stop her or her supporters.

When the September 11 attacks occurred in 2001, Mylroie, Wolfowitz, and others used her book to argue for attacking Iraq instead of Al Qaeda. On September 12, Wolfowitz began arguing that Iraq was behind the attacks, saying that they were responsible for the 1993 bombing. The next day, James Woolsey wrote a piece for the New Republic summing up Mylroie’s argument. He would repeat that story for the Wall Street Journal in October. (1) On September 14, the American Enterprise Institute held a panel discussion about the attacks, which Mylroie participated in. She said that Al Qaeda could not carry off the assault without a state sponsor, and that was Iraq. Three days later, Wolfowitz sent a memo to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld entitled, “Preventing More Events” saying that Iraq was behind 9/11, and cited Iraq’s involvement in the 1993 bombing as evidence. The fact that no government agency had ever been able to find any evidence to support Mylroie’s theory did not seem to matter. Rather it was the biases of Wolfowitz and others who became obsessed with Iraq that was important. They had reached the point where they would believe just about anything that fingered Saddam for wrong doing in the world, and that led them to Mylroie’s ideas.

In mid-September, Wolfowitz wanted to try to prove Mylroie’s theory on his own, since the U.S. intelligence agencies had rejected it. He sent Woolsey on a trip to England to find evidence. In London, Woolsey asked British officials to release more information about Ramzi Yousef from when he was a student in Wales. The British said they had cooperated with the FBI in their investigation of the 1993 bombing, and found nothing to support Mylroie’s ideas. Woolsey came away empty handed, but that didn’t matter either. He went on to write a new forward for Mylroie’s book. She in turned claimed that proved that he must have found evidence to support her book in England, otherwise he would not have endorsed it. In an interview with PBS’s Frontline that aired in October, she said the same thing, claiming that the British had proof that Iraq had tampered with Yousef’s files in Kuwait. That seemed to be contradicted by Woolsey himself in another Frontline piece where he said he knew Yousef was an Iraqi agent, but he couldn’t prove it. Wolfowitz and Woolsey’s own failure didn’t stop them from their continued support for Mylroie.

In the following months, heading into 2002, Mylroie only gained more support within the Bush administration, while she continued to expand her conspiracy theories. In October, she claimed that the anthrax letters sent to Washington D.C. were from Iraq. Then Vice President Dick Cheney took up her cause. He went on Meet The Press in December claiming that Abdul Rahim Yasin was in Iraq implying that Iraq was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. (2) Cheney, like Wolfowitz, was keen on any reports that implied Saddam’s wrong doing. With Wolfowitz and others pushing Mylroie within the administration it was only a matter of time before they reached the Vice President.

After the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Mylroie supporters believed they would finally be able to find the evidence they’d always lacked to prove her theory. Wolfowitz sent a Pentagon official to investigate captured Iraqi records for information on Abdul Rahman Yasin for example. Nothing substantial was found, but it was discovered that Yasin received a monthly stipend from the government while he was kept under surveillance. This was later used as evidence for Mylroie's case. In late-2003, Cheney for instance, was interviewed on National Public Radio (NPR) where he said that Iraq was behind the 1993 bombing because Yasin was on the Iraqi payroll after he fled to Baghdad. In November, Wolfowitz was on Good Morning America talking about how Yasin fled to Iraq, and that the government was finding more connections between him and Baghdad. In January 2004, Cheney told NPR much of the same thing. These claims showed how Wolfowitz and Cheney’s support of Mylroie was based more upon faith and their anti-Iraq biases then any evidence. Previously Wolfowitz had gone to the U.S. intelligence agencies and they had all said that there was nothing to Mylroie’s story. After he sent one of his own underlings to Iraq and he could not turn anything up except that Yasin received a monthly stipend, it did not shake Wolfowitz’s belief or Cheney’s.

From 2004 on, more and more evidence actually built up against Mylroie's theory. In March, Richard Clarke testified to the 9/11 Commission. He stated that one of the 12 culprits involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing being an Iraqi did not prove that Iraq was involved. He said that Al Qaeda, not Iraq was responsible, and that from 1995-1996 the CIA and FBI reviewed all the information available and found no Iraqi ties. In July, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on pre-war intelligence. Supporters of Mylroie’s theory claimed that Ramzi Yousef used a fake passport provided by Iraqi intelligence. The CIA could find no evidence of that. The claim that Abdul Rahman Yasin was an Iraqi agent because he received a stipend after he fled to Baghdad in 1993 was countered by the fact that he was held under custody after he arrived. Finally, the CIA did not think that bomber Mohammed Salameh’s uncle who was in the PLO was used as a middleman by the Iraqi government because he was allowed to move to the West Bank in 1995. The Agency did not think that the uncle would be allowed to leave if he played an important role in a major terrorist attack upon the United States. Finally, the United States ended up arresting and interrogating Abdul Rahman Yasin after the fall of Saddam, and found that Baghdad tried to use him as a trading chip with the United States. As stated before, Iraq offered to return Yasin for concessions, which the Clinton administration was unwilling to give. An investigation of Iraqi documents also discovered that Saddam’s government actually had its own conspiracy theory about the 1993 attack, believing that the CIA or the Mossad was behind it. As usual, none of this shook Wolfowitz’s faith. In a November 2004 profile in the New Yorker, he was still repeating Mylroie’s story, claiming that Yasin fleeing to Iraq proved that Saddam was behind Islamic terrorism in the world.

Laurie Mylroie went from one of the strongest supporters of Saddam Hussein, to one of its greatest opponents. She was so attached to Iraq being the savior of the Middle East, that when it invaded Iraq in 1990 she felt deeply betrayed. She became obsessed with Iraq, and tried to blame every anti-American terrorist attack upon it with very little evidence to support her argument. She was still able to attract many powerful allies like Wolfowitz, Woolsey, and Cheney. The fact that one U.S. agency after another found nothing to support her writing did not matter. It was that she blamed Iraq for much of the wrong doing in the world that made her appealing to people like Wolfowitz and the others. They were so convinced that Iraq was one of the greatest threats to the United States that they would accept just about any evidence against Saddam no matter how factitious it was. It was that anti-Iraq agenda that led to all these people pushing such a flimsy conspiracy theory.


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