The New York Times published a bona fide gem today: “Rounding Up Qaeda Suspects: New Cooperation, New Tensions, New Questions,” it was called. (For a copy, see below.)
Unfortunately for the Times, this lengthy article (upwards of 2500 words) glistens for all the wrong reasons. For those of you who followed the Times‘s much-celebrated “mea culpa of a sorts” in late May, this morning’s reassessment of the false terrorist scare issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at the start of August will have a familiar ring to it.
As I noted in a previous ZNet blog (i.e., “The Captive American Mind” (Aug. 14)), the August 1 spectacle of the Bush Administration’s Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announcing that newly acquired and highly specific “intelligence” had compelled his Department to heighten the terror alert statuses in three different American cities (New York, Washington, D.C., and Newark) was at bottom a political decision, related more to this administration’s understanding of how a good “terrorist” scare will play before the captive American mind of the early 21st Century, than to the substance of any real counter-terrorist “intelligence” that had come their way in the days or weeks before.
Thus, the outcome of the decision to tell the American public (indeed, to tell the whole world, the way these things work these days) that Americans ought to be even more fearful from that Sunday onward than they already had been just the day before was reminiscent of the interplay between pre-war “intelligence” on the alleged Iraqi threat, on the one hand, and the Bush Administration’s earlier decision, also taken on strictly political grounds, to invade Iraq. Here, the quote Associated Press would later dredge up from an anonymous White House offical betrayed the whole game quite exquisitely: The White House “still would have issued the terror alerts that it did [on Aug. 1,]” this unnamed insider confessed, “even had it known at the time that the surveillance documents did not point to an imminent operation.” (Ted Bridis, “Official: No Evidence Attack Is Imminent,” Aug. 12.)
(Quick aside: Imagine the fun we might have rewriting this single sentence from the anonymous White House insider for all occasions! For example, with respect to Iraq, we might state instead that the so-called “intelligence” services of the United States, Britain, Israel, and Australia still would have issued their findings on the Iraqi threat which they did issue in the pre-war environment—recall the American Secretary of State’s February 5, 2003 speech before the UN Security Council—even had they known at the time that the various strands of evidence in their possession did not point to a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons threat from Iraq.—You see what I mean?)
Anyway. It is within this very broad, and above all profoundly political, mix that I think we need to interpret both this morning’s article in the New York Times and the whole terror alert status affair of August 1.
Of course, we can’t know how the Times‘s reporters (one in Washington, one in Islamabad, and two in London) managed to pull together the strands that went into the final article. But it sure looks to me like one or more Bush Administration insiders are lurking in the background of this article, working hard to see how much of their point of view on the August 1 terror alerts they can sneak past the gatekeepers at the Times. Only this time, they are laboring to show—not that the administration’s August 1 terrorist scare was a political decision (i.e., that it would have issued the recent terrorist alerts NO MATTER WHAT)—but, rather, that its decision was based on a reasonable interpretation of the best evidence available at the time, on behalf of the greater good of securing the Homeland.
Indeed. The Times‘s article even manages to raise this possibility, as when it quotes a “senior Pakistani intelligence official” who said that “Much of the information in the market is raw,” with the Times itself adding by way of a gloss on this remark that:
both Pakistani and American intelligence officials were under pressure to produce results. What this means, he said, is that unsorted and unanalyzed intelligence sometimes now reaches the public domain after a remarkably short time in the classified realm. It was just this trend that was about to start evoking complaints from Britain.
But even this concedes too much to the honesty and the credibility of these sordid affairs of the contemporary American state. Quite the contrary. When the Times narrates (And don’t you wonder who in Washington, London, and Islamabad helped the Times assemble its narrative?) the July 13 arrest of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan at the Lahore International Airport; when it tells us about the July 24 commando raid on the two-story house in Gujarat, leading to the arrest of “star target Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani,” one of the U.S. Government’s “25 most wanted international terrorists;” when the narrative then thrusts ahead to the July 29 announcement by Pakistani officials that they had indeed arrested Ghailani, all the way forward to the spectacle of the Homeland Security Secretary’s August 1 terror alert news conference (“We do have new and unusually specific information about where Al Qaeda would like to attack,” Ridge stated that day), and, by way of climax, to the Times‘s own affirmation that—
ultimately, investigators say, the computer and other equipment seized when Mr. Kahn was arrested held something else critically important: the highly detailed information about the surveillance of financial buildings in Washington, New York and Newark—
I think we are seeing evidence of Bush Administration insiders more or less successfully resorting to the New York Times as a vehicle to rescue the Administration from the false terror alert fiasco of August 1, and to deny what in this particular instance appears to me undeniable—that the administration would have issued this particular false terrorist alert NO MATTER WHAT.
From the Editor, “The Times and Iraq” (New York Times, May 26, 2004)
Daniel Okrent, “Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?” (New York Times, May 30, 2004)
FYA (“For your archives”): Am depositing here (a) a copy of the New York Times‘s “Rounding Up Qaeda Suspects: New Cooperation, New Tensions, New Questions,” followed by (b) a copy of British Home Secretary David Blunkett’s “Why I refuse to feed the media’s summer frenzy,” his commentary in the August 8 Observer (London), also referenced in the New York Times‘s article.
The New York Times
August 17, 2004 Tuesday
Late Edition – Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 1; National Desk; THE REACH OF WAR: TERROR ALERT; Pg. 12
HEADLINE: Rounding Up Qaeda Suspects: New Cooperation, New Tensions, New Questions
BYLINE: By AMY WALDMAN and ERIC LIPTON; Amy Waldman reported from Islamabad for this article and Eric Lipton from Washington. Patrick E. Tyler and Richard A. Oppel Jr. contributed reporting from London.
DATELINE: ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 16
Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan walked into the Lahore International Airport on the morning of July 13, in search of a package that had been sent to him by his father in Karachi, some 600 miles away.
But something other than his package was awaiting him. A group of Pakistani security officers detained Mr. Khan, a tall, heavy-set 25-year-old computer engineer, on suspicions that he was the same elusive operative for Al Qaeda whom United States intelligence sources had tipped them off to two months earlier.
The apprehension of Mr. Khan, in this ancient Punjab city not far from the Indian border, was wrapped up with almost no notice; his arrest did not even make the local papers. But before the end of the month, that single act would have enormous global repercussions.
The government’s alert level would be raised in the financial sectors of Washington, New York and Newark, warning that financial buildings might be the targets of an attack. Commandos elsewhere in Pakistan, using information gathered after Mr. Khan’s detention, would apprehend one of the suspected masterminds behind the bombing of two United States Embassies in East Africa in 1998. And a string of arrests would be made in Britain, rounding up 13 men who the authorities there suspected might be terrorists.
Just how imminent any threat related to Mr. Khan might have been and how much progress was made in defeating Al Qaeda as a result of his arrest remains unclear. The synchronicity of the arrests may have also given the impression that an organized crime ring has been broken up on two continents; that too remains unclear.
But the rush of activity demonstrates the extraordinary interconnection among international intelligence services that has surfaced since the Sept. 11 attacks. It also exposes the awkward and at times clearly testy antiterrorism partnership between the United States, Britain and Pakistan — tension that has been so evident in the past few weeks that the British have suggested that undisciplined acts by their two partners may have compromised the ultimate success of the operation and unnecessarily alarmed the public.
The British are not alone in expressing some frustration. One senior American official said last week that the United States was letting Pakistan and Britain take the first passes through material from computer records seized in Pakistan. ”It’s not going as fast as we would like,” the administration official said. ”But the Pakistanis work at a different pace than we do.”
The differences in how swiftly the distinct intelligence services have gathered and analyzed the data and whether details are then shared with the public are examples of the varying tactical styles that the United States, Britain and Pakistan have shown as they work together to dismantle the Qaeda terrorist network.
A Collaborative Hunt
It was back in May that Pakistani officials received from their American counterparts a somewhat murky tip that would eventually lead them to the Lahore Airport and the arrest of Mr. Kahn.
There was a man, Pakistani officials said they were told by their American counterparts, who represented the ”new Al Qaeda.” He spoke Urdu and Arabic, as well as English with a British accent. He was apparently based in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, but he frequently moved to tribal areas, sometimes driving a motorcycle and at other times a car. And he was believed to be helping plan some kind of operation against United States or other Western targets, perhaps a kidnapping or another relatively modest-scale attack. Officials, however, did not know the man’s name.
Mr. Khan, at least superficially, offered no obvious hints that he might have been that man. He was raised in a professional middle-class family and had studied at a respected engineering university in Karachi. Two years ago, he traveled to London to take a course at City University in human resource management. His father works as the senior purser for state-owned Pakistan International Airlines; his mother is an assistant professor of botany at St. Joseph College in Karachi.
There have been conflicting reports from Pakistan about how investigators ultimately tracked down Mr. Khan, finding at first his family and then the suspect himself.
”Three years ago, you wouldn’t have believed that we could have this kind of cooperation from Pakistan on counterterrorism,” Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush’s homeland security adviser, said in an interview on Fox News in the weeks after Mr. Khan’s arrest. ”They were not our strongest partners, and now they really have come around.”
The description of Pakistan’s new spirit of cooperation has been voiced broadly across the Bush administration and has been backed up with both money and military and espionage equipment. But it remains a delicate relationship; the United States has not sold the Pakistanis the additional F-16 fighter jets it had promised and the Pakistanis have not allowed the Americans to directly interrogate Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program, who has acknowledged that he shared nuclear technology with Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Two assassination attempts against Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, last year may have also played a role in that country’s cooperation with the United States. ”Those Al Qaeda attempts focused Musharraf’s mind,” a senior administration official said. ”He understands that Al Qaeda is coming straight at him. So we’ve got a common interest here.”
Key to Qaeda Transmissions
Even before this summer, the collaboration had produced some major gains: the apprehension in March 2003 of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as two other major Qaeda leaders, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh. Muhammad Khan, the arrested computer engineer, is not in this league. But only after his arrest on July 13 would investigators learn that he had been part of an apparent terror plot that reached far beyond Pakistan.
Mr. Khan, investigators say, was at the center of a complex communications network in which he would take messages from Qaeda operatives he had met in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan and send them on in coded e-mail messages or in a covert way on the Internet. This window into how Al Qaeda communicates inside a global network may prove to be one of the most important outcomes of his capture.
And ultimately, investigators say, the computer and other equipment seized when Mr. Kahn was arrested held something else critically important: the highly detailed information about the surveillance of financial buildings in Washington, New York and Newark.
Yet it was still the middle of July. And before they would find those surveillance details, investigators said, they would need to figure out a way to get access to the heavily protected and encrypted computer files.
Local police officers and commandos wearing T-shirts labeled ”No Fear” surrounded a two-story house in Gujarat–a city 110 miles southeast of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad–on the night of July 24, 11 days after the arrest of Mr. Khan. Gunfire soon erupted, echoing through the darkness.
The siege, recorded on a private television station, ARY-One World, had none of the bravado of a Hollywood takedown: a shot would be fired, long periods would pass with no action, and then perhaps a shot would be fired back.
But when it was over, officials said, Pakistani forces, relying on information received from Mr. Khan and other sources, had tracked down what they said was a star target: Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. News of the surveillance information that apparently was in Mr. Khan’s computer still had not broken. But already the investigation was expanding.
Mr. Ghailani, a native of Tanzania, had long been listed by the United States government as one of its 25 most wanted international terrorists. He was indicted six years ago for the central role United States officials say he played in the bombings in August 1998 of the United States Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which killed more than 200 people.
He is believed to have spent most of his years on the run in West Africa, working with rogue nations like Liberia to help Al Qaeda secure a lucrative piece of the diamond trade, according to a report by the United Nations.
When the gun battle ended, investigators took Mr. Ghailani into custody, along with weapons, foreign currency, two laptop computers and computer discs that suspects had unsuccessfully tried to destroy.
His arrest would be announced at midnight in Pakistan on July 29. But so far, this still was a relatively low-profile case.
It was not until investigators found the surveillance information in the computer equipment recovered earlier in the month that the isolated arrests became an international incident. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called a news conference on Sunday, Aug. 1.
”We do have new and unusually specific information about where Al Qaeda would like to attack,” Mr. Ridge said, in announcing that the alert status for the financial sectors in New York, Washington and northern New Jersey was being elevated. ”The reports that have led to this alert are the result of offensive intelligence and military operations overseas, as well as strong partnerships with our allies around the world, such as Pakistan.”
The New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup in Manhattan, Prudential’s headquarters in Newark and the headquarters buildings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington would immediately be surrounded with armed security and other new antiterror measures.
Much of the focus of news reports about the threat would be on how Mr. Ridge and others failed to emphasize that the information recovered from the computers in Pakistan was, in most cases, at least three years old. The administration defended elevating the alert status, offering more details about what led to the decision.
”There were multiple reporting streams that came together in such a way that gave us grave concern,” Ms. Townsend said at a White House news briefing on Aug. 2.
There were also repeated statements by senior officials in Washington and Pakistan saying that regardless of how old the information was, a strike in the United States might still be imminent, that it was perhaps part of a plan to attack before the Nov. 2 election.
”Much of the information in the market is raw,” a senior Pakistani intelligence official said, adding that both Pakistani and American intelligence officials were under pressure to produce results.
What this means, he said, is that unsorted and unanalyzed intelligence sometimes now reaches the public domain after a remarkably short time in the classified realm. It was just this trend that was about to start evoking complaints from Britain.
A 13-Suspect Sweep
In a middle-class suburb on the outskirts of northwest London called Willesden, a caravan of cars pulled up to a two-story apartment building, and officers with automatic weapons drawn spilled out, smashing their way into the building and rounding up several men, witnesses said.
Several blocks away, another man sought by the authorities tried to elude capture by ducking into the Golden Touch Barber and Beauty Salon, which sits among takeout chicken restaurants and betting shops on a busy two-lane main road through Willesden.
”He’s a very dangerous man,” a police officer told Stephanie Walker, who witnessed the arrival of the officers at the salon.
It was midday on Aug. 3, and the police in Britain were moving quickly to detain 13 terror suspects, all in one swoop.
Among the men arrested that day would be a Qaeda operative named Issa al-Hindi, who had apparently been sent to New York three years ago to scope out possible targets on American soil. Mr. Hindi, along with an explosives expert, had visited Mr. Khan in Lahore back in March 2004 for some kind of a strategy session, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, a Pakistani government spokesman, said in an interview on Monday, citing Mr. Khan as the source for the details about the secret gathering.
But the exact connection between Mr. Khan and Mr. Hindi remains difficult to decipher, as there have been differing reports from different sources — a common occurrence in the entire affair — as to where and with whom the two might have met, or whether they have met at all in person.
How details of the arrests emerged in the United States and in Britain illustrates that despite the cooperation between the countries’ intelligence services, tensions remain. In Britain, the police would not confirm Mr. Hindi’s name, saying little more in an official release than that the arrests were ”part of a preplanned, on-going intelligence operation” and that the 13 suspects were involved in the ”commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”
As for the timing of the arrests, British officials hinted that they were concerned that the investigation might be compromised by the flurry of news reports about the heightened alert in the United States and the details about the life and activities of Mr. Khan.
The release of Mr. Khan’s name — it was made public in The New York Times on Aug. 2, citing Pakistani intelligence sources — drew criticism by some politicians, like Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who charged that this leak might have compromised the search in Britain and Pakistan for Mr. Khan’s Qaeda partners. (No officials in Britain, Pakistan or the United States have told The Times on the record that identifying Mr. Khan had such an impact).
It was American officials, meanwhile, who released Mr. Hindi’s name, details about his possible connection to Mr. Khan and information on his suspected role as the leader of a three-man team that surveyed the New York Stock Exchange and other buildings in New York.
”It’s a big moment; and it’s also very visible, and that’s okay,” Ms. Townsend, the homeland security adviser to President Bush, said in the Aug. 8 interview on Fox News. ”People ought to feel good about the fact. What we’re seeing now are the dividends based on the president’s counterterrorism policies.”
The same day Ms. Townsend and other Bush administration officials were on television heralding progress that had been made in American antiterrorism efforts, David Blunkett, who as home secretary in Britain serves as one of the country’s top antiterrorism experts, was emphasizing his very different approach to making public comments about the Qaeda threat.
”I could have appeared a dozen times last week on radio and television, but I turned down the offers,” he wrote in a commentary piece published in The Observer in Britain. ”I would have merely added to the speculation, to the hype, to the desire for something to say for its own sake. In other words, to feed the news frenzy in a slack news period.
”Is that really the job of a senior cabinet minister in charge of counterterrorism? To feed the media? To increase concern? To have something to say, whatever it is, in order to satisfy the insatiable desire to hear somebody saying something? Of course not. This is arrant nonsense.”
August 8, 2004
SECTION: Observer News Pages, Pg. 17
HEADLINE: Why I refuse to feed the media’s summer frenzy: David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, says he’ll not talk of al-Qaeda if he has nothing new to say
BYLINE: David Blunkett
I WAS astonished to hear a very experienced political commentator last Wednesday bemoaning the fact that there hadn’t been debate in the House of Commons on security and the threat from al-Qaeda.
He suggested it would be a good idea if there were ‘a minister’ who could speak in the Commons on these issues and appear regularly on radio and television.
I was taken aback because so far this year we have had two parliamentary debates. Last July I led on the one on the Intelligence and Security Committee’s annual report and I spoke on the threat from al-Qaeda, the events of Istanbul, Madrid and the undoubted threat to this country.
Last February I published a consultation paper precisely dealing with the issues of what particular threat existed. I raised the issue of what we do about those we have in custody who pose an international threat but whom we can’t remove from the country.
The problem is that those commenting and those submitting ideas to this consultation paper have one thing in common. They all know what they are against, but they don’t appear to have very much idea as to what they favour.
This is understandable. It’s a difficult and complex area. Contradictions abound.
For instance, over the last four days there has been column inch after column inch devoted to the fact that in the United States there is often high-profile commentary followed, as in the most current case, by detailed scrutiny, with the potential risk of inviting ridicule.
In Britain the accusation is the opposite. It is that we don’t say enough. We don’t comment often enough. We don’t speculate enough. In other words, we don’t sufficiently raise the profile – and therefore the concern – about terrorism.
The same commentator that I heard on Wednesday night suggested that regular appearances by a minister would be helpful. But helpful to whom?
I could have appeared a dozen times last week on radio and television but I turned down the offers. I turned them down because I didn’t have anything relevant and additional to say, not because I don’t know what is taking place.
I spent last Wednesday going through the facts, not the speculation, with the security and intelligence services, the Metropolitan Police and my own officials.
At any one time there is a lot of painstaking and patient work being undertaken by them to tackle this threat and last week, as always, I was kept fully up to date with developments.
Of course, it is not possible for me to comment on last week’s arrests and the action which has followed. These are operational matters. But I can say that I am full of admiration for the work of the police and the Security Service in dealing with these situations. I issued an appropriate statement and I refused to comment further. Why?
Because had I done so without having anything additional to add, I would have merely added to the speculation, to the hype, to the desire for something to say for its own sake. In other words, to feed the news frenzy in a slack news period.
Is that really the job of a senior cabinet minister in charge of counter-terrorism? To feed the media? To increase concern? To have something to say, whatever it is, in order to satisfy the insatiable desire to hear somebody saying something?
Of course not. This is arrant nonsense. I’ve never been known as a shrinking violet and I’m the first person to say something when I’ve got something to say. But it is important to be able to distinguish if there is a meaningful contribution that helps to secure us from terrorism. And to understand if there isn’t.
And there are very good reasons why we shouldn’t reveal certain information to the public. Firstly, we do not want to undermine in any way our sources of information, or share information which could place investigations in jeopardy. Second, we do not want to do or say anything which would prejudice any trial.
So I make no apology for not having appeared last week, over and over again.
Of course it would have provided soundbites but it also could have increased the tension. The Security Service and the Counter-Terrorism Branch are doing their jobs. They’re doing their job in saving us from terrorism and ensuring that we’re more secure.
In other words they’re protecting us in a way that I desire, you desire and we all expect from them. That is all, at the moment, there is to be said.