It is a little known fact that Richard Clarke, former chief counter-terrorism adviser to the White House, who rose to fame by shaking up the Bush administration with his j'accuse book “Against all Enemies”, was not the only Washington insider to point out the White House's pre-9/11 blind spot on al Qaeda. Last month, after Clarke's damning testimony at the fact-finding “National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States” set off a political firestorm, a small item appeared in several American and Europe newspapers. It said that on February 26, 2001 – six-and-a-half months before 9/11 – the current US administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer – made similar accusations.
Speaking to a McCormick Tribune Foundation conference on February 26, 2001, Bremer said:
“The new administration seems to be paying no attention to the problem of terrorism. What they will do is stagger along until there’s a major incident and then suddenly say, ‘Oh, my God, shouldn’t we be organized to deal with this?'”
“That’s too bad. They’ve been given a window of opportunity with very little terrorism now, and they’re not taking advantage of it.”
Bremer made the speech after he had chaired the National Commission on Terrorism, a bipartisan body formed by President Bill Clinton's administration to examine US counter-terrorism policies.
Commenting Sunday, May 2, on his remarks of three years ago, Bremer said they reflected his frustrations that none of his commission’s recommendations had been implemented by Clinton or the new Bush administration. Criticism of the new administration, however, was unfair, Bremer said.
“President Bush had just been sworn into office and couldn’t reasonably be held responsible for the Federal Government’s inaction over the preceding seven months,” Bremer said in his statement on Sunday.
Nonetheless, how did an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's seemingly complacent attitude toward terrorism end up being its point man in Iraq?
A lot had to do with Bush's disappointment with his first appointee, retired General Jay Gardner. Looking for a quick-fix replacement, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld picked L. Paul Bremer III, a pedigreed career State Department diplomat regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on crisis management, terrorism and homeland security. Prior to Iraq, Bremer was chairman and chief executive officer of a crisis management firm owned by the financial services firm Marsh & McLennan. From 1989 to 2000, he was managing director of Kissinger Associates, a strategic consulting firm headed by former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.
It all looked good on paper, and Bush scrambled to stamp the presidential seal of approval on Bremer's initial moves in Iraq.
In retrospect, that was a very big mistake: two of the US viceroy's key decisions were just plain wrong.
First, he opted not to recruit into the new Iraqi army and temporary administration former soldiers, officers and bureaucrats linked to Saddam Hussein's Baath party or ousted government. He erred again when he based his program for Iraq self-rule on the Four Grand Ayatollahs of Najaf, led by Ali Sistani, and on the Kurdish factions of Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, while shunting aside Saddam’s army officers and Sunni ex-officials.
Bremer's policy, the subject of a series of discussions at the White House – some of which he flew in to attend – certainly looked good in official reports and memoranda. But things were quickly falling apart in Iraq itself.
In a document entitled Comments from Baghdad: CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) Briefing that was submitted to a policy-making White House conference on November 11, 2003, Bremer says:
Captured volunteer with Syrian passport turns out to be Yemeni. Felt Syria intelligence knows, but not proactive in encouraging. Have captured some 300 so far, but most entered Iraq before war.
Still face major threats from criminal elements released at the end of the war. It complicates the problem. It is clear that some of the attackers for hire come from this element as well as targeting theft and sabotage in response to guidance or payment from Former Regime Loyalists (FRLs).
Most critical problem is intelligence. Still weak on both FLRs and foreigners. Did set up fusion center in August. Are getting better but still major problems in HUMINT (human intelligence) collection and analysis.
Technical means are of minimal help. Lack area and language skills in US forces. Key is getting Iraqis on the street and taking over part of mission. HUMINT improvements will come from Iraqis.
Do not have a reliable picture of who is organizing attacks, or the size and structure of various elements. Feel there is loose local coordination, possibly some regional coordination. No national coordination. Cannot assess nature of links between FRLs and Jihadis with intelligence now available.
No evidence to support Saddam, Ibrahim (Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, a former intelligence chief and Saddam's half-brother) and (Saddam's former deputy Izzat) al-Douri in charge or of direct role of al Qaeda versus Al Ansar. Saddam felt to be isolated and constantly on the run. Al Douri felt to be dying. Do not know where so-called senior officials ever got the idea that Saddam’s deputy was in charge, but then do not know where the media is getting all of these senior officials.
Feels that (radical Shiite cleric Moqtada) Sadr is declining as a potential threat. Losing popular turnout at rallies. Mostly voice of unemployed young Shiite men. Pushed idea Shiites not a potential threat.
Feels UN deadline of 15 December for plans for transition to new government and constitution will undercut much of terrorist support as show serious in transferring power. Feel useful because forces Iraqis in governing council to act.
FRLs still have lots of money to buy attacks, At least $1 billion still unaccounted for. Some $3 billion more of Iraqi money in Syria by Syrian admission.
Do feel that suicide bombing was done largely by foreigners. Raised argument that suicide attacks go against the Iraqi character, and fact that bomb unusually sophisticated, but made clear had no hard intelligence to confirm were foreigners.
No way to seal borders with Syria, Saudi and Iran. Too manpower intensive. Anyone can enter as a civilian and then suddenly turn terrorist. Try to limit major vehicle movement but this is a limit of what can do.
Continuing to make forces lighter and more mobile, phase out heavy armored forces.
Placed heavy stress on Iraqis taking over mission, rather than seeking more troops, although made it clear that did not expect Iraqis to substitute for US forces and combat action.
One key is police. Have cut training time to 8 weeks versus international minimum of 12 weeks. Many are old police, but all military and low ranks in security services. Some 24,000 more to be trained.
Repeated past comments on accomplishments in aid program and creating new government. Made it clear sought to get a new constitution in six months using locally elected members to convention, and election and new government by later 2004 – faster than previous dates of 2005.
Bremer's presentation effectively set the guidelines – for better or for worse — for US policy in Iraq in the past six months. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington and Baghdad pinpoint just where Bremer got it wrong:
The United States will be able to improve its intelligence in Iraq only when Iraqi resources on the ground begin to cooperate.
It is now clear that Iraqi agents who worked on behalf of US intelligence were playing a double game and aided insurgents.
The guerrilla movements lack coordination on a national level, let alone locally.
The Shiite-Sunni rebellion and battles that erupted in early March 2004 put paid to that assumption. Bremer was also blindsided by the military and intelligence cooperation between the two communities, nationally and with outside elements such as al Qaeda.
The Shiites do not pose any threat to US efforts in Iraq. Sadr is also no danger and his power is weakening.
Bremer's miscalculation, following secret talks with top Shiites, enabled Sadr and his main sponsors, Iran and Hizballah, to easily organize a spring offensive that almost toppled the moderate Shiite leadership of the Four Grand Ayatollahs of Najef.
There is no link between pro-Saddam guerrilla groups and al Qaeda.
The opposite is true, as events have proven in Fallujah. Every attempt to draw Bremer's attention to the situation in Fallujah — where thousands of Muslim madressas sprouted like mushrooms after rain and military cooperation burgeoned between the insurgents and al Qaeda – fell on deaf ears. The alliance between the guerrillas and Osama bin Laden's terrorist group was the bludgeon that drove the US Marines into retreat from parts of the city
Suicide attacks are against Iraqi nature.
It turns out that Iraqi suicide bombers are not only prepared to die in Iraq but they also have no qualms about seeking “martyrdom” elsewhere in the Middle East, such as in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Only those Iraqis without close ties to the Saddam regime should be recruited into the new Iraqi army, police and security forces that will assume responsibility for law and order in major cities.
Only a handful of officials in the Bush administration and the Pentagon are privy to the exact number of men recruited to serve in the Iraqi military, police, intelligence, border guard and the security force in charge of protecting oil fields and installations.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, the figure was 250,000. But more than half – or some 140,000 men – went AWOL, refused to obey orders or even turned their weapons on the Americans after the current fighting began in April. It was all one big US logistical and financial snafu.
The US military in Iraq, based largely on armored forces, should become lighter and more mobile.
Insurgents launched relentless attacks in April on US convoys heading from Baghdad to Fallujah or traveling the main road linking Fallujah, Amman and Baghdad. Supply, fuel, weapons and ammunition trucks were set ablaze – proof of the folly of pulling US tanks and other heavy armor out of Iraq during the winter. Troops in thin-skinned Humvees and riding shotgun in the cabins of the supply trucks they were protecting were easy prey for guerrillas and their rocket-propelled grenades. Even the fast-moving Striker battlewagons brought in to replace the heavy Abrams MI tanks, found it hard to operate in flashpoint Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad's Sadr City without tank cover.
But Bremer should not bear the blame alone. His recommendations were also based on the intelligence and military data he received from US personnel on the ground in Iraq and from Iraqis he consulted.
Senior White House officials, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, senior National Security Council staffers and top Pentagon brass, were telling Bush back in February – about a month and a half before the current heavy fighting erupted in Iraq – that Bremer's policy was wrong and could do some real damage. In DEBKA-Net-Weekly 147, on February 27, we reported that Bush had decided to replace him but was looking for the right moment to avoid political aftershocks in Washington and Baghdad.
Seeing the writing on the wall – or in DEBKA-Net-Weekly — Bremer approached Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and offered to join his camp immediately after ending his Baghdad assignment, our sources report exclusively. Bremer’s support came with one condition: a promise he would be one of the front-runners for secretary of state if Kerry was elected.
Both parties get something out of the deal.
Bush’s point man in Iraq for an entire critical year is a hot property for Kerry’s brainstorming team. His defection to the Democratic contender would eloquently spell out for the American voter what he thinks of Bush policy on one of the most sensitive issues of the election campaign. He will provide Kerry with an instant rebuttal weapon, an authoritative figure to face the cameras and challenge any new policy move, military step or statement made by a top Bush official on Iraq.
At the drop of a microphone, Bremer can explain just how Bush got it wrong, and continues to make mistakes, in fighting terror and insurgency in Iraq. He could, in fact, wreak irreversible damage to Bush's image as “war president.”
Even more than Clarke, who is still simmering at being passed over in favor of Tom Ridge for homeland security secretary, Bremer still believes he had all the right pieces for the Iraqi puzzle. He will use Kerry’s well-oiled campaign machine to deliver that message to the American people in the drive to stunt Bush’s prospects of a second term.
Kerry and Bremer have been preparing their little coup since February, at a time when the battles between the US-led coalition forces and Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi militia were just brewing beneath the surface in Baghdad, Karbala and Najef. Kerry's people did a little research and discovered the US Iraq administrator’s scathing remarks of February 26, 2001 on Bush's faltering counter-terror policy.
In the first sign of the hidden strings connecting Bremer, Clarke and Kerry, the senator's campaign made sure to leak those comments when the “Clarke affair” erupted in Washington and US casualties mounted in escalating fighting with Sadr's insurgents.
Under heavy pressure from the White House this week, Bremer apologized and tried to backtrack on his criticism of the president. But he is only biding his time until the end of June, when sovereignty in Iraq is transferred to an Iraqi caretaker government and he hands over to the newly appointed US viceroy John Negroponte, current ambassador to the United Nations. Once Bremer is home, he will wait for a signal from Kerry and then make the jump to his top team of advisers.
Bremer's journey from Baghdad to burning Bush may not be the easy ride they both planned. Before this happens, every Iraqi hand deployed by the current administration will be vulnerable to the spreading outrage over the unending series of photos exposing the appalling practices against Iraqi prisoners in US-run jails.
Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld is first to face an inquisition by the Senate Armed Forces Committee Friday, May 8. But he will not be the last. Officials closely involved in Iraqi issues, like deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz will face hard questions. US officials and officers on the spot, whether Bremer, ground forces commander General Richard Sanchez, his boss, Gen. John Abizaid – and the officers under their command – will certainly be presumed to have known about the goings-on in those jails for at least six months and questioned closely on why no corrective action was taken.