July 02, 2004

Jacob Levy on the Mysterious Puzzle of the Ansar al-Islam Camp That Was Not Attacked

Jacob Levy continues his almost-daily series of trying to figure out why the Ansar al-Islam camp in northern Iraq was left alone until the invasion of Iraq began. He is quite discouraged: "The... official denial seems to be: unless we had 100% certainty that Zarqawi himself was in the camp at any given moment, the failure to attack is not an oddity requiring explanation.... [T]his is an odd standard... one rarely has perfect information; that neither excuses nor explains inaction."

As always, recognize that anything written by Robert Novak bears at best a random relationship to the truth:

The Volokh Conspiracy - Archives 2004-07-01 - 2004-07-07: Robert Novak at Town Hall calls the Zarqawi story an "urban legend," and says his source at the CIA agrees.

One CIA source puts this aborted Zarqawi raid in the same category as Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11," which spreads such false information as George W. Bush's conspiring to get Osama bin Laden's relatives out of the U.S. after the terrorist attacks.

Note that the question I asked yesterday about NBC's Pentagon officials applies equally to Novak's CIA source: how do they know? If the decision not to attack was made by the NSC, then there's a pretty small number of people who can credibly claim to know why it was made. The CIA source might be telling the truth as far as he or she knows, but not be in a position to know very well. In any event, I'd love to hear Novak's CIA source's account of why the attack plans were rejected.

One item from the column I hadn't seen before:

Sen. Clinton on the next day, March 4, called the NBC report "troubling" and asked Gen. John Abizaid about it. The Central Command commander in chief replied, "I would be very surprised to find out that we had a precise location on Zarqawi." Unsatisified, the senator asked for "further investigation."

On March 9, Hillary Clinton asked CIA Director George Tenet about the story. Tenet: "I don't know that Zarqawi was up there at the time, Senator. And I don't know that the report accurately reflects the give-and-take of the decision-making at the time." In CIA-speak, that was a "no."

And, finally, someone asks the NBC reporter for some follow-up.

Jim Miklaszewski told me he stands by his story, and pointed to House Armed Services Committee hearings April 21. Congressman Snyder brought the NBC story up to retired Gen. John Keane, and asked why the attack was rejected. "No, I can't help you," the former Army acting chief of staff replied. "We were looking at it as early as the Fourth of July weekend before we commenced activities against Iraq."

I'm going to check out the Congressional transcripts Novak quotes to see what else is there.

By the way, one of my initial questions has now been answered. Has there ever been an official denial? Yes, there has.

The character of that official denial seems to be: unless we had 100% certainty that Zarqawi himself was in the camp at any given moment, the failure to attack is not an oddity requiring explanation. It's been pointed out to me (by a Republican) that this is an odd standard for administration officials to hold themselves to in any event, and that in that sense it's oddly like the claim "If we had known that terrorists were going to hijack airplanes on September 11 and fly them into buildings, we would have acted." In wartime, one rarely has perfect information; that neither excuses nor explains inaction.

But both Zarqawi himself and the Ansar al-Islam camp were identified as items in the casus belli. As best as we knew at the time there were ricin prouction facilities and terrorist training facilities at the camp, and the fact that this was so was relevant to the case for war. So simply saying "We didn't know for sure when he was in the camp" isn't responsive to the charge that an attack that would clearly have been more than justified as part of the war on terrorism was vetoed in order to preserve a casus belli against Iraq (though it is responsive to the charge that, by letting Zarqawi himself live, the administration became responsible for all his subsequent crimes).

See also David Meyer.

Posted by DeLong at July 2, 2004 05:09 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

The 100% certain criterion also seems odd in that we have more recently bombed civilian areas in Fallujah at least three times to try to kill Zarqawi without so far catching him at home.

Posted by: smith on July 2, 2004 05:47 PM


what Smith said, x 1000%
the story is Mikla-whatever's to push. Surely if he were to insert this unanswered question into each segment on Zarqawi, there'd be more bodies floatin to the surface of the Potomac.

Posted by: SkipWalkDC on July 2, 2004 06:16 PM


The concern that Ansar was gaining bioweapon expertise with regime help stands on its own.

Even if the camp, and Zarqawi had been blown to kingdom come, that in no way reduced the risk that chem/bioweapon expertise could be transferred from the regime to AQ.

Posted by: am on July 2, 2004 06:55 PM


How ironic, that it was deemed important to have 100% certainty about Z., but suspicions and innuendo were good enough for the war as a whole (costing many times more in every way than a simple strike.) Of course, it can't be both that there was an excuse for not doing it, however bad, and that it wasn't even considered, as the Dark Prince suggests.
PS: I want to see the Plame investigation get steamed up again!

Posted by: Neil' on July 2, 2004 06:58 PM


And let's not forget how absolutely unconscionable they all thought it was for Bill Clinton to have not tried to kill Osama bin Laden just because we weren't sure of our intelligence.

Posted by: hilzoy on July 2, 2004 07:03 PM


"As best as we knew at the time there were ricin prouction facilities and terrorist training facilities at the camp, and the fact that this was so was relevant to the case for war." - Levy.

But it was *not* relevant to case for war. The only thing it was relevant to was attacking the area that the Bush administration chose not to attack. The camp was behind the Iraqi-Kurdish front line, on the border with Iran, but independant of Kurdish control. Saddam may have given support to Ansar al-Islam on the enemy-of-my-enemy principle, but he did not directly control the territory where they were operating. Most of the support for Ansar al-Islam came from al-Qaeda, and most of the killing they did was of PUK members. On top of that, it would have made no sense for Saddam to arm a bunch of Islamists in his own back yard with WMDs, especially Islamists that seem to have been on at least speaking terms with Iran, when the very same Islamists were sponsored by a group that had proclaimed Saddam an enemy.

The most plausible explanation is that the Kurds were trying to snooker us into bombing their enemy, and thus feed us a bunch of B.S. about bioweapons. And, boy, did we take the bait or what....

Posted by: Tom DC/VA on July 2, 2004 07:45 PM


Brad, I'll give you odds that Zarqawi has been caught. Ginmar ('The Alamo is Overrated as a Tourist Destination, Dammit') is saying that a recent Wash. Times article about Zarqawi's plans to capture a female US soldier are funny, and she can't say why. She coyly says, 'I think he's going to have to change his plans'

If you'll give me 5-1, I'll take you on for 20 bucks.


Posted by: mac on July 2, 2004 07:46 PM


So am I to assume that we had 100% certainty on all the sites that were initially targeted at the outset of the actual war?

Posted by: Phil K. on July 2, 2004 08:19 PM


100% certainty...

Now where have I heard that before....

Oh yeah, Condi's "we would have done everything to stop 9-11 had the terrorists only told us what flights they would be on, at what time they would leave, what hotel they were at, and which specific targets they planned to fly said planes into."

Posted by: zap on July 2, 2004 08:40 PM


In the course of debating the issues involved in the attack on Zarqawi on the earlier thread, I have established to the level of proof required by any reasonable person that:

1. The Ansar al-Islam facility at Sargat, while not the "poison factory" alleged by the Administration was probably engaged in small scale chemical weapons production. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/iraq/story/0,12239,892112,00.html, Fleishman, LAT 4/27/03)

2. That the facility was easily dispatched by Special Forces in place prior to the invasion, backed up by Kurdish troops (Fleishman, LAT 4/27/03)

3. That the facility was sufficiently isolated from civilians in the occupied village to not pose serious threat of civilian casualties.

4. That international law supports actions, including combat resulting in death, against persons such as Zarqawi. Among other things, Zarqawi had been sentenced to death in a Jordanian court (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3483089.stm) and is otherwise clearly not entitled to the protections of a typical "civilian."

One can argue many things about what the US should or should not have done about the Ansar al-Islam camp and al-Zarqawi, but no reasonable person can argue that it was impossible or prohibited for the US to have attacked Sargat or Zarqawi prior to the war.

Not that that inhibits the usual suspects.

Posted by: Charles on July 2, 2004 10:13 PM


Sorry; the international law citation should mention the CRS (http://www.fas.org/irp/crs/RL30252.pdf)

Posted by: Charles on July 2, 2004 10:15 PM


Charles- perhaps there being no civilians close was also a cosideration, you have to have plenty of bodies, ask any israeli.

Posted by: latibulum on July 3, 2004 03:22 AM


I am sure that the Kurds were pressuring us to take out Ansar-al-Islam regardless of Zarqawi. Ansar had attacked the Kurds repeatedly.

Posted by: Bob H on July 3, 2004 06:36 AM


The concern that Ansar was gaining bioweapon expertise with regime help stands on its own.

In Kurdistan. Right. In no-fly, no-drive, autonomous Kurdistan. Uh-huh.

Even if the camp, and Zarqawi had been blown to kingdom come, that in no way reduced the risk that chem/bioweapon expertise could be transferred from the regime to AQ.

So Zarqawi's a threat, the camp is a threat, but eliminating Zarqawi and the camp (along with any "experts" who for some reason might be at the camp) won't lessen the threat. Might as well let the terrorists run free and leave their infrastructure intact. Need to preserve that oh-so-thin veneer of casus belli, huh?

Posted by: flatulus on July 3, 2004 08:01 AM


where are the damned ITALICS?????

Posted by: flatulus on July 3, 2004 08:02 AM


Doesn't the line of questioning by Sen Clinton here suggest that she, more or less, "gets it?"

I'm not a particular partisan of hers, but it struck me that she recognized that the response, while not a classic non-denial denial, was nonetheless inadequate. If so, then good. It's good to have someone who not only drives the other side insane, but also knows what she's doing (in direct contrast to, say, Cheney).

Posted by: JRoth on July 3, 2004 08:48 AM


This on Novak from Stephanopolous in Washington Post today:

Partisan Politics, Not Journalism
Saturday, July 3, 2004; Page A25

Robert Novak's July 1 column, "Iraqi Urban Legend," is partisan politics disguised as opinion journalism.

Novak mischaracterizes an exchange I had with Condoleezza Rice on the June 27 edition of "This Week." I did not ask Rice, as Novak states, "Why did the United States pass up chances to kill terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi in 2002 and 2003?" Instead, I laid out a series of facts on the public record: that Zarqawi had set up a weapons and training camp in northern Iraq; that the United States had evidence Zarqawi had visited the camp; and that the United States had considered but rejected plans to attack the camp in 2002 and 2003. I then asked Rice: "Was it a mistake not to take out that camp when you had a chance?" Either Novak didn't check the transcript or chose to rewrite my question precisely because it didn't fit his thesis.

Novak goes on to question my motives: "Why would [George] Stephanopoulos bring up another network's March broadcast of an obscure story never reported elsewhere? It has been spread by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to imply that President Bush held back the attack to gain support for invading Iraq." Had Novak bothered to call, I could have told him that I've never discussed this issue with Clinton or her staff. Had Novak done his homework he would have known that possible military action against the Zarqawi camp had been reported not just by NBC News but also by ABC, the Los Angeles Times and columnists such as Andrew Sullivan in the Washington Times and Fred Kaplan on Slate.com. Questions about the failure to strike the camp were raised at hearings conducted by several congressional oversight committees both before and after the start of the war in Iraq.

Each time the questions were asked, administration officials declined to answer them in public session or provided incomplete, equivocal responses. Novak himself admits that the public responses from Pentagon and CIA officials have been "cautious" -- which is why I raised the question with Rice. While she did not acknowledge that an attack against Zarqawi's camp had been contemplated, she did say that "Zarqawi was on people's radar screens" and described the administration's efforts to capture Zarqawi and cripple his network. Her conclusion? The United States "never had a chance to get Zarqawi."

Rice's answer is the most forthcoming description of actions taken against Zarqawi and his network that I have heard from a top administration official. I have no reason to doubt it. Considering the havoc being created by Zarqawi in Iraq right now, I'm glad "This Week" viewers got to hear it.

I've worked in both politics and journalism. I know enough not to confuse the two. So should Mr. Novak.

-- George Stephanopoulos

Posted by: paulo on July 3, 2004 11:49 AM


Let us remember that Zarqawi was only a small part of the case for war. SInce Zarqawa was in Kurdistan, he didn't stand up as an argument at all, and could only be used if buried in a list of stronger arguments, a "me-too" argument that could do nothing on its own. If Bush was willing to let him and his plant remain to pursue policy, he was willing let terrorism flourish even when the policy gain was small.

Now, if this did happen, let's phrase the consequences in general terms:

Bush is willing to let terrorists pursue their activities for the sake of futhering his political agenda.

Does that remind you of anything? A much bigger event, but also with a vastly bigger payback?

I can sense that a view of 9/11 that has been presented in the media only in the form of pre-emptive Administration denials is inching towards thinkability. Table, meet the 9/11 conspiracy theory.

And it is a shame that liberals as so afraid of being called "conspiracy theorists" that it has taken a conservative (Jacob Levy) to point out the obvious.

Posted by: Martin Bento on July 3, 2004 12:00 PM


Neo-Cons at work! Warch out! The best book I read about the Neo-Cons is this one. It tells you how our country was sucked into war in Iraq and that the neo-cons WON the war. Or at least they accomplished their goals. Very insightful. The neo-cons won, America lost!

Posted by: Lump on July 3, 2004 02:29 PM


Bush and Tenet didn't have any such reliability quibbles over nuking a Baghdad restaurant that Saddam was supposedly attending, although on the sheer face of it, that would be 1,000 times more improbable than Zarqawi in some terrorist camp.

They lie out their asses. Lies so fudge-packed, their faces get all red and swollen lying. Just look at the way they pound the podium. Must hurt!

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