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The march to the battlefield

A Pretext for War 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies James Bamford Doubleday: 420 pp., $26.95 * The Iraq War John Keegan Alfred A. Knopf: 254 pp., $24.95

June 13, 2004|Walter Laqueur | Walter Laqueur is a distinguished scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the author of many books, including "No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century," and the editor of "Voices of Terror: Manifestos, Writings and Manuals of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Other Terrorists From Around the World and Throughout the Ages."

No war in history has been covered as rapidly and in as much detail as the war in Iraq. The many new books have made a notable contribution to the dissemination of knowledge not only about Washington political decision-making but also about subjects such as geopolitics, terrorism, theology (Islam) and even political philosophy (Leo Strauss and the Straussians). But a price was paid, of which repetition and overlapping are probably the least important features. Most of the new books contribute something to our knowledge. But even if an author interviewed the president at length, even if he had the highest security clearances, even if he had the most wonderful sources -- and most of the writers were not in this fortunate position -- the revelations may be fascinating but create a picture that is incomplete and even misleading.

Authors like John Bamford who write about intelligence tend to forget that the CIA and other professional agencies, like the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, had no monopoly on gathering information. The media and the academic experts shared their interest (and sometimes had easier access), and if there was an "intelligence failure" concerning the 2001 terrorist attacks or about the nature of Saddam Hussein's weaponry, a postmortem should not really be limited to government agencies even though, with George Tenet's resignation as CIA director, the inclination to solely blame the government seems clear.

In the first part of "A Pretext for War," Bamford relates what various famous and not-so-famous people were doing on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and this is followed by an account of the activities of leading terrorists during the 1990s. This is by now very familiar ground and one wishes the author would have concentrated on what he knows best, signal intelligence, about which he wrote an excellent, detailed book some 20 years ago.

Bamford explains in "A Pretext for War" why the challenges facing the NSA have become infinitely more difficult because of technical developments. Twenty years ago, most of the world's communications were transmitted via satellite (and could be intercepted), whereas now fiber optics have taken over, and they can only occasionally be intercepted and with great difficulty. There are other technical reasons that are discussed, but unfortunately this is the shortest part of a book based on two propositions: that the Bush administration was out to get Hussein, believing that he was up to no good, and that it fabricated, falsified and abused intelligence to make a case for an invasion.

Bamford's first proposition is no doubt correct, though not exactly new or sensational. The second is doubtful: Bamford does, in fact, undermine it over many pages, claiming that the performance of the intelligence agencies had been lamentable. They failed, he writes, to alert the administration not just in regard to terrorist dangers but also on many other occasions. If his allegations are true, charges of abused intelligence no longer seem as convincing: For information that does not exist -- or hardly exists, as he suggests -- cannot be abused.

Like some writers on intelligence, Bamford believed at one time that many activities of the NSA were dangerous intrusions into the private sphere of citizens: Generally speaking, these agencies had turned into something harmful and unpredictable, like a rogue elephant or a Frankenstein-Big Brother-type monster. But this was 20 years ago, and now he says that "the decision to keep CIA employees at arm's length from the terrorist organizations was a serious mistake." This is perfectly correct but unfortunately, it was not that easy to infiltrate Al Qaeda.

There is a great deal about Israel in this book that, the author thinks, played a paramount role in the decision to attack Iraq. But confusion abounds: Bamford writes that the Israelis really had no idea what had happened in Iraq and fed Washington, knowingly or unwittingly, bad intelligence. This could well be true, but Bamford also argues that the Israelis knew early that there was no real danger from Iraq but did not want to spoil President Bush's scenario. What to believe?

According to the author, only Osama bin Laden benefited from President Clinton's 1998 decision to bomb a factory in Sudan (mistakenly) believed to be producing poisonous substances. But whether the substances were poisonous remains a matter of controversy to this day among the experts. In any case, the attack induced Sudan to withdraw from involvement with Islamist terrorism -- hardly a victory for Bin Laden.

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