Ex-Bush National Security Council Member: How Bush Bungled The War on Terror

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A year after resigning from the National Security Council, Flynt Leverett talks about how Bush pulled U.S. special forces from the hunt for Osama in March 2002 to focus on Iraq, how the U.S. lost Syria as a source on intelligence on Al Qaeda and the role of Elliot Abrams in shaping the country’s Middle East policy. We also talk to Col. Patrick Long (Ret.), former head of the Middle East section of the Defense Intelligence Agency. [includes rush transcript]

In March 2002, six months after President Bush announced the war on terror, an unusual military decision was made: the military’s specialists hunting for Osama bin Laden were reassigned.

According to Flynt Leverett, who was serving in the National Security Council at the time, the Bush administration pulled off Arabic-speaking Special Forces and CIA officers from the hunt and gave them a new assignment: Iraq.

Leverett told the Washington Post last week, “[Richard] Clarke’s critique of administration decision-making and how it did not balance the imperative of finishing the job against al Qaeda versus what they wanted to do in Iraq is absolutely on the money.”

He went on to say “We took the people out who could have caught them. But even if we get bin Laden or Zawahiri now, it is two years too late. Al Qaeda is a very different organization now. It has had time to adapt. The administration should have finished this job.”

  • Flynt Leverett, from February 2002 to March 2003 Leverett was Senior Director for Middle East Affairs on President Bush’s National Security Council He is a former CIA analyst and Middle East specialist. He is now a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East studies at the Brookings Institution.
  • Col. Patrick Lang, retired Army officer who served as head of Middle East and terrorism intelligence for the Department of Defense during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Flynt Leverett joins us now on the line. He says, Arabic speaking special forces officers and CIA officers, who were doing a good job tracking Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders, were pulled out of Afghanistan in March to begin preparing for Iraq. That was March, 2002. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

FLYNT LEVERETT: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you respond to what the administration is saying about Clarke’s critique?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Well, I think that they are beginning, finally, to offer something resembling a substantive response to Mr. Clarke’s charges rather than simply impugning his character or his motives. But I think that Clarke has laid out a very serious and substantive critique of the way the administration has conducted the war on terror since the September 11 attacks. It’s hard to get around the fact that critical resources were taken away from the Afghan theater, to my mind, prematurely, before we had finished the job against bin Laden. They were taken away because if they were going to be ready to do their part in an Iraq campaign on the timetable that the White House wanted to do it, you had to pull these people out in the early spring of 2002. I think it’s because of that that we have not captured bin Laden, we have not captured Zawahiri. Al Qaeda has been able to reconstitute leadership cells in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and, it would seem, in Iran. If we had the right people on the ground in the spring and summer of 2002, I think we might have caught these people. If we catch them now, that’s obviously a good thing, but — if it’s two years too late because Al Qaeda has morphed into a different sort of organization.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who specifically was pulled from Afghanistan in March, 2002, to go to Iraq?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Well, I think I have said — others and I have talked about these people being very highly trained, highly specialized — special forces and intelligence officers. There’s not an infinite supply of those sorts of people to go around. As I said, my view is that those people were pulled prematurely from Afghanistan because the administration was determined to go to war in Iraq on a specific timetable.

AMY GOODMAN: Was there a debate within the Bush administration about pulling these forces?

FLYNT LEVERETT: At the highest levels, I don’t really believe that there was. I think that the decision was taken effectively in the very beginning of 2002. Certainly by February of 2002 that the administration was going to go to war in Iraq, and it was going to happen either at the end of 2002 or, as it turned out, the beginning of the first part of 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Flynt Leverett. From February, 2002 to March, 2003, he was senior director for Middle East affairs on President Bush’s National Security Council. He is a former CIA Analyst and Middle East specialist. Now, visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at the Brookings Institution. We’ll continue with him and be joined by a retired Army officer in just a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: Burning Sphere, “No More War, here on Democracy Now!, the war and peace report. I’m Amy Goodman. Our guest, Flynt Leverett was Senior Director for Middle East Affairs on President Bush’s National Security Council, a former CIA Analyst and Middle East specialist. We are also joined by Colonel Patrick Lang, retired Army officer, who served as head of Middle East and Terrorism Intelligence for the Pentagon during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s under President Bush, Senior. We welcome you, Colonel Patrick Lang, as well, to this discussion.

COL. PATRICK LANG: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back for a minute, though, to Flynt Leverett and ask your role at the time in the discussion, March, 2002, about pulling of resources from Afghanistan and going after Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to deal with an invasion of Iraq.

FLYNT LEVERETT: Oh, I came to the White House to join the NFC staff in February, 2002. Prior to that, I had spent the previous year at the State Department—working on the policy planning staff at the State Department—and in that role, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, I had been one of the small group of officials called back into the building on the night of September 11 to put together the strategy for forging a coalition to go after Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then as I said, in February of 2002, I came over to the White House to start working on Middle East issues there. That was my portfolio at the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece by UPI Intelligence Correspondent, Richard Sale, from about a year ago that says that the staff shakeup at the National Security Council is likely to mean the United States will take a harder pro-Israel stance in the Middle East, several serving and former intelligence officials tell United Press International. According to these sources, Elliot Abrams, the controversial former Reagan administration official, who President Bush in December appointed to the NFC to take charge of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has removed several staff members who were regarded as even-handed on the issue. Ben Miller, who was on loan from the CIA and who had the Iraqi file at the NFC was abruptly let go, according to former long-time CIA Middle East analyst, Judith Yaphe. I’m probably mispronouncing her name. Yaphe, whose account was confirmed by administration officials speaking on condition of anonymity, said two other officials, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann, have also been removed from the NSC. Leverett, who was also seconded from the CIA, had worked at the NSC since February, 2002, appointed Senior Director for Middle East Initiatives December 3rd 2002, the same day Abrams took up his post. Is this accurate?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I mean, certainly, the basic facts in the story are, for the most part — are for the most part accurate. It is true that in December of 2002 that Elliot Abrams was brought in to run the Middle East shop at the — at the NFC. I had been working very hard in the months running up to that on getting the so-called roadmap ready. This is the operational plan that the administration has put forward to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I worked very hard on that in the second half of 2002. At the end of 2002, we had made promises, the administration made promises to our Arab and European partners that we would put the roadmap out before the end of the year, that it would be put out in advance of the Iraq war, but then because of the political problems that Mr. Sharon was having in Israel at the end of that year, there was a decision made not to put the roadmap out, basically to renege on the commitments we had made to various European and Arab partners of the United States. I personally disagreed with that decision, and it was one of the things that led me to feel that by early 2003 I should leave the administration because I disagreed with so many — so many aspects of their whole strategy for approaching this region and for dealing with the war on terror.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to remind people who Elliot Abrams is. In 1991, he was indicted by the Iran-Contra special prosecutor for giving false testimony before congress in 1987 about his role in illicitly raising money for the Nicaraguan Contras. He plead guilty to two lesser offenses of withholding information to congress in order to avoid a trial and a possible jail term. He was ultimately pardoned by President George H.W. Bush along with a number of other Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas night, 1992. But to get back to September 11, Flynt Leverett, you were at the White House then?

FLYNT LEVERETT: No, on September 11, I was working at the State Department.

AMY GOODMAN: And the discussion at that time, do you share Richard Clarke’s view? I mean, he was in the White House, but at the State Department as well, that the discussion immediately turned to Iraq, although, all of the evidence pointed to Al Qaeda. What was happening at the State Department?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Certainly there was discussion about whether there was a role that Iraq might have played here. I think very quickly at the State Department, we concluded that there was no indication of an Iraqi role, and our focus was to put together an international coalition to go after Al Qaeda and to go after their Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan, when it very quickly became apparent that the Taliban wasn’t going to cooperate in any kind of effort to turn over — to turn over the Al Qaeda cadre in their country. That was our focus for the first several weeks in the aftermath of September 11, and then, of course, there is the whole problem of standing up some kind of successor government to the Taliban, which we began that process in a serious way at the — at the Bahn Conference in December of 2001. That was really our focus at the State Department, but I mean, one knew that there were people at the White House, and in other places in the administration, who were very focused on Iraq, who were continuing to seek out some kind of link between Iraq and what had happened on September 11, and the issue was never — never put off the table.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Flynt Leverett, from February, 2002, to March, 2003, was Senior Director for Middle East Affairs on President Bush’s National Security Council, former CIA analyst and Middle East specialist. Also on the line with us, Colonel Patrick Lang, now retired Army officer. He served as head of the Middle East and Terrorism Intelligence for the Pentagon. He worked for the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, under President George Bush, Sr. Your response to the focus on Iraq, Colonel Lang.

COL. PATRICK LANG: Well, I have been listening to with some interest. As it happens, in my Army career, I was exactly the kind of person that Leverett is talking about, having been withdrawn from Afghanistan. I was an Arabic speaking Specials Forces officer and a Middle Eastern intelligence person. I know that the community of such people is not anything like even as big as he suggested it might be. It’s a very tiny group of people in the Army, since the Army doesn’t really focus on this kind of thing to the exclusion of producing infantrymen, and to pull a bunch of these people out of Afghanistan, which they necessarily would have done, to send to Iraq, to prepare for Iraq, would absolutely cripple the effort in Afghanistan, and if he says that’s what happened, that accounts for a lot of the lack of progress there.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you served under President George Bush, Sr. What would you say is the difference between President Bush and his son, president George W. Bush?

COL. PATRICK LANG: In what regard?

AMY GOODMAN: In regard to dealing with Iraq? I mean, in fact, of course, President Bush, Sr. also attacked Iraq.

COL. PATRICK LANG: Well, yes, as a matter of policy, and not politics, the first Bush administration was very focused on performing the limited task of ejecting the Iraqis from Kuwait. And to that end, they constructed a UN-centered coalition, which gave them the power they wanted to do just that. They had no intention whatever, that I could ever discern, and with when I was holding the job that you just talked about, of going farther into Iraq. As a matter of fact, at the end of the war, there was discussed widely in the government and in meetings that I was in, whether or not it would be a good idea to occupy all of Iraq, and the administration was very firmly against doing that, because they didn’t want the commitment of a huge — the huge commitment of resources which would inevitably result. This administration has clearly been determined to do exactly the opposite and charge into the middle of Iraq and occupy the place and make revolutionary changes occur there in society with the result that we now are experiencing.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think George W. Bush takes such a different position — has played such a different role?

COL. PATRICK LANG: Well, his father, and the people who surrounded him, in my view and experience of them, are really traditional people in handling foreign policy matters. I mean, they very carefully try to think through what the relationship is of benefits to costs. They try not to do things which are overly expansive and are going to be too expensive in any way for the United States. President Bush, I think, is — has been very strongly influenced by a circle people who we all know of, and sometimes referred to as the Vulcan’s. He will have very large views of how — what kind of role the United States should play in the world and indeed in the future of mankind in order to ensure that their ideas of how democracy should be — you know, imported to the Arab world, things like that, should go, and so, his whole frame of reference, I think, is quite different. >> And in a minute, we’re going to be speaking with UPI Reporter, Mark Benjamin, who has been following the casualty figures in Iraq, saying that the military made over 18,000 medical evacuations representing 11,700 casualties. We don’t hear that figure very much. We know about the 600 figure, of US Servicemen and women killed now in the last few bloody days, not only US military, but private military contractors from Blackwater USA. Can you respond to what you think, Colonel Patrick Lang, is going to be happening here in Iraq with the US saying it is handing over power, not exactly clear to who, on June 30?

COL. PATRICK LANG: Well, it is a mess, in my view. I have a lot of people in Iraq, Iraqis that I speak to regularly because I continue to do business all over the Middle East in my private capacity, and it isn’t clear at all what sort of government we will hand over to, who will be in charge, what the implications are, of the fact that the Iraqi security forces are nothing like — prepared to take up the burden of security in their country. And at the same time, it isn’t clear to me or anybody else that I know of, exactly who is going to be in charge on the American side. It looks like you will have the emergence of a US subordinate unified command with a four-star general, with a high-powered ambassador and CIA chief of station. These people will all, to some extent, be in competition with each other. So it seems like a very muddled picture. And I know that we are not supposed to use the Vietnam word in connection with this. But I was in Vietnam for a very long time, and this looks like the command set up on the American side in Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Colonel Patrick Lang, retired Army officer who served as head of Middle East and Terrorism Intelligence for the Department of Defense, worked for the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, under George Bush, Sr., and Flynt Leverett, who was with George W. Bush’s National Security Council. A new poll out, fewer than half of all Americans think the country is safer now than it was on September 11th and more than three-quarters expect the United States to be the target of a major terrorist attack at home or abroad in the next few months. Flynt Leverett, your response?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Well, I think it’s very hard to say at this point whether we are, in an absolute sense, a relative sense, safer or not. I feel very confident, though, in a judgment that we are not as safe as we could be, or should be, if we had gone about prosecuting the war on terror in a smarter and more strategic way.

AMY GOODMAN: Flynt Leverett, did you quit or you were forced out of the National Security Council?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I decided to leave the National Security Council at — it was the end of my first year of rotation there. I actually ended up staying 13 months. But I decided not to try to extend my rotation there. And as I said, because I had some disagreements with — with the way that the policy was going, and with the whole strategy that was being laid out for dealing with this part of the world, which is in the end ground zero for the war on terror. I decided it wasn’t a good idea for me to stay at the White House, and I returned to my home agency, the CIA, briefly, for a few weeks, and then left government service entirely. I left in May of 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh had a very interesting piece in The New Yorker magazine last summer, where he quoted you, Flynt Leverett. He talked about how Syria also provided the United States with intelligence about future Al Qaeda plans. In one instance, the Syrians learned that Al Qaeda had penetrated the security services of Bahrain, and had arranged for a glider loaded with explosives to be flown into a building at the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters there. Then Cy writes that, “Flynt Leverett, a former CIA analyst who served until this year on the Nation Security Council, now a fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, told us that Syria let us this wart an operation that if carried out would have killed a lot of Americans. The Syrians helped the United States avert a suspected plot against an American target in Ottawa. Syria’s efforts to help seem to confound the Bush administration, which was fixated on Iraq.” According to many officials, Cy Hersh writes that he spoke to, the administration was ill prepared to take advantage of the situation and unwilling to reassess the situation with Assad’s government. You told Cy Hersh that, quote, “the quality and quantity of information from Syria exceeded the agency’s expectations, but that from the Syrians’ perspective, they got little in return for it.” Can you flesh this out more? First start off with what exactly did — was the attack that Syria helped thwart?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Well, it is — it has been publicly acknowledged by administration officials that in the aftermath of September 11 and for at least a year afterwards, the Syrians provided us with information, intelligence on Al Qaeda and related Sunni extremist groups. And indeed, this information turned out to be quite useful, quite valuable. It did allow us to thwart operations that, if they had been carried out, might have resulted in the deaths of Americans. And this dialogue with the Syrians went on, as I said, for at least a year after the — after the September 11 attacks. In the end, though, it wasn’t something that was a basis for a real opening in relations between the United States and Syria. The administration, perhaps not surprisingly, was very divided on the issue of how to deal with this, how to respond to Syria. There were people in the administration who didn’t think we should be taking the information at all from the Syrians, because after all, Syria is itself designated by the U.S. Government as the state sponsor of terror. There were others in the administration who wanted — certainly wanted to take the information because of its tactical value as we were starting the fight — to fight a global war against al Qaeda and then there were some who thought this could actually — we could leverage this exchange of information with the Syrians to try to engage them on their behaviors that we found problematic from the standpoint of our interests, like their support for certain terrorist groups. That debate was never really resolved during the time that I — that I served in — at the NSC.

AMY GOODMAN: Flynt Leverett, talk about the role of Syria, and the US losing Syria as a key source of information on Al Qaeda. Instead, the US is going after Iraq, and also, Flint Levert, going after Syria itself?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Well, certainly, the administration has been ratcheting up the rhetorical pressure on Syria, and also with the passage of the Syria Accountability Act by the congress, you know, they’re trying to find additional ways to put economic and political pressure on Syria. So far, my judgment is we really haven’t been — been making much progress in getting the Syrians to change those behaviors that we consider problematic, particularly in terms of the sponsorship of terrorism. I think the real reason for that is we haven’t been willing to have a real diplomatic dialogue with the Syrians on this. We make demands of them about what we want them to do or what we want them to stop, but we don’t put on the table what would be in it for the Syrians if they were to make the changes that — that we need them to make. And so, I don’t find the present course that we’re on with Syria a very productive one.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Colonel Patrick Lang, you talk about Iraq being a mess right now. What do you think needs to be done?

COL. PATRICK LANG: What I do think needs to be done?


COL. PATRICK LANG: Well, you know, there’s — this is a very bad situation, and to some extent, there are certain options that you might think we — we ought to have, which are really closed out for us, because, you know, there’s a limit to the patience of the American people, how long we’re willing to do this. There’s a limit to the size of our forces that we can apply to this. They’re very stretched at the present. But it seems very clear to me that something needs to be done to better organize our political approach to the country. In fact, these people who are fighting us up in what is called the Sunni triangle are a population which sees itself as being dispossessioned of power and a role in Iraq by our attempts to hand over authority to the Shia majority in the country, who have never been in control of anything there previously. So, I think it’s understandable that these people up around Fallujah and Tikrit don’t want to be dispossessed in that way. We have to do something serious about assuring them they’re not going to be pushed to one side that they think they’re going to be. At the same time, we need to absolutely regain control of the situation in that part of the country, which we seem to have lost, because if we don’t do that, across Iraq and indeed in the Middle East, we’re going to be seen as weak. To be seen as weak in the Arab world is a fatal thing. If we have to concentrate forces in that area, and bring those cities under control, we absolutely have to do that, even if it means bringing more troops back to Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. It leads perfectly into our next discussion with UPI Reporter, Mark Benjamin, which is about the vast number of casualties. We’re not even talk talking about Iraqi civilians and the numbers who have been killed. But of US soldiers not only killed, but evacuated from Iraq. We’re talking about more than 10,000. We have been speaking with Flynt Leverett, who worked for the National Security Council under George W. Bush, and also Colonel Patrick Lang, retired now, but worked in the Defense Intelligence Agency under George Bush, Sr. This is Democracy Now!.

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