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History > 2008 > USA > Terrorism (III)



A video frame of Abu Yahya al-Libi.



IntelCenter, via Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images        April 3, 2008


Rising Leader for Next Phase of Al Qaeda’s War


















The Torture Sessions


April 20, 2008
The New York Times


Ever since Americans learned that American soldiers and intelligence agents were torturing prisoners, there has been a disturbing question: How high up did the decision go to ignore United States law, international treaties, the Geneva Conventions and basic morality?

The answer, we have learned recently, is that — with President Bush’s clear knowledge and support — some of the very highest officials in the land not only approved the abuse of prisoners, but participated in the detailed planning of harsh interrogations and helped to create a legal structure to shield from justice those who followed the orders.

We have long known that the Justice Department tortured the law to give its Orwellian blessing to torturing people, and that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved a list of ways to abuse prisoners. But recent accounts by ABC News and The Associated Press said that all of the president’s top national security advisers at the time participated in creating the interrogation policy: Vice President Dick Cheney; Mr. Rumsfeld; Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser; Colin Powell, the secretary of state; John Ashcroft, the attorney general; and George Tenet, the director of central intelligence.

These officials did not have the time or the foresight to plan for the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq or the tenacity to complete the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But they managed to squeeze in dozens of meetings in the White House Situation Room to organize and give legal cover to prisoner abuse, including brutal methods that civilized nations consider to be torture.

Mr. Bush told ABC News this month that he knew of these meetings and approved of the result.

Those who have followed the story of the administration’s policies on prisoners may not be shocked. We have read the memos from the Justice Department redefining torture, claiming that Mr. Bush did not have to follow the law, and offering a blueprint for avoiding criminal liability for abusing prisoners.

The amount of time and energy devoted to this furtive exercise at the very highest levels of the government reminded us how little Americans know, in fact, about the ways Mr. Bush and his team undermined, subverted and broke the law in the name of saving the American way of life.

We have questions to ask, in particular, about the involvement of Ms. Rice, who has managed to escape blame for the catastrophic decisions made while she was Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, and Mr. Powell, a career Army officer who should know that torture has little value as an interrogation method and puts captured Americans at much greater risk. Did they raise objections or warn of the disastrous effect on America’s standing in the world? Did anyone?

Mr. Bush has sidestepped or quashed every attempt to uncover the breadth and depth of his sordid actions. Congress is likely to endorse a cover-up of the extent of the illegal wiretapping he authorized after 9/11, and we are still waiting, with diminishing hopes, for a long-promised report on what the Bush team really knew before the Iraq invasion about those absent weapons of mass destruction — as opposed to what it proclaimed.

At this point it seems that getting answers will have to wait, at least, for a new Congress and a new president. Ideally, there would be both truth and accountability. At the very minimum the public needs the full truth.

Some will call this a backward-looking distraction, but only by fully understanding what Mr. Bush has done over eight years to distort the rule of law and violate civil liberties and human rights can Americans ever hope to repair the damage and ensure it does not happen again.

    The Torture Sessions, NYT, 20.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/opinion/20sun1.html






McCain, Iraq War

and the Threat of ‘Al Qaeda’


April 19, 2008
The New York Times


As he campaigns with the weight of a deeply unpopular war on his shoulders, Senator John McCain of Arizona frequently uses the shorthand “Al Qaeda” to describe the enemy in Iraq in pressing to stay the course in the war there.

“Al Qaeda is on the run, but they’re not defeated” is his standard line on how things are going in Iraq. When chiding the Democrats for wanting to withdraw troops, he has been known to warn that “Al Qaeda will then have won.” In an attack this winter on Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic front-runner, Mr. McCain went further, warning that if American forces withdrew, Al Qaeda would be “taking a country.”

Critics say that in framing the war that way at rallies or in sound bites, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is oversimplifying the hydra-headed nature of the insurgency in Iraq in a way that exploits the emotions that have been aroused by the name “Al Qaeda” since the Sept. 11 attacks.

There has been heated debate since the start of the war about the nature of the threat in Iraq. The Bush administration has long portrayed the fight as part of a broader battle against Islamic terrorists. Opponents of the war accuse the administration of deliberately blurring the distinction between the Sept. 11 attackers and anti-American forces in Iraq.

“The fundamental problem we face in Iraq is that there is not a single center of gravity, as in the cold war, but a whole constellation of contending forces,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism and counterinsurgency expert at Georgetown University. “This is much more fractionated than most people could imagine, with multiple, independent moving parts, and when you have that universe of networks, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The entity Mr. McCain was referring to — Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, also known as Al Qaeda in Iraq — did not exist until after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The most recent National Intelligence Estimates consider it the most potent offshoot of Al Qaeda proper, the group led by Osama bin Laden that is now believed to be based on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

It is a largely homegrown and loosely organized group of Sunni Arabs that, according to the official American military view that Mr. McCain endorses, is led at least in part by foreign operatives and receives fighters, financing and direction from senior Qaeda leaders.

In longer discussions on the subject, Mr. McCain often goes into greater specificity about the entities jockeying for control in Iraq. Some other analysts do not object to Mr. McCain’s portraying the insurgency (or multiple insurgencies) in Iraq as that of Al Qaeda. They say he is using a “perfectly reasonable catchall phrase” that, although it may be out of place in an academic setting, is acceptable on the campaign trail, a place that “does not lend itself to long-winded explanations of what we really are facing,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, research director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

But some students of the insurgency say Mr. McCain is making a dangerous generalization. “The U.S. has not been fighting Al Qaeda, it’s been fighting Iraqis,” said Juan Cole, a fierce critic of the war who is the author of “Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi’ite Islam” and a professor of history at the University of Michigan. A member of Al Qaeda “is technically defined as someone who pledges fealty to Osama bin Laden and is given a terror operation to carry out. It’s kind of like the Mafia,” Mr. Cole said. “You make your bones, and you’re loyal to a capo. And I don’t know if anyone in Iraq quite fits that technical definition.”

Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is just one group, though a very lethal one, in the stew of competing Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, Iranian-backed groups, criminal gangs and others that make up the insurgency in Iraq. That was vividly illustrated last month when the Iraqi Army’s unsuccessful effort to wrest control of Basra from the Shiite militia groups that hold sway there led to an explosion of violence.

The current situation in Iraq should properly be described as “a multifactional civil war” in which “the government is composed of rival Shia factions” and “they are embattled with an outside Shia group, the Mahdi Army,” Ira M. Lapidus, a co-author of “Islam, Politics and Social Movements” and a professor of history at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an e-mail message. “The Sunni forces are equally hard to assess,” he added, and “it is an open question as to whether Al Qaeda is a unified operating organization at all.”

In recent months, Mr. McCain has also been talking more about the threat posed by Iranian influence in Iraq, bringing him in line with American military officials, who in the wake of the Basra fighting seem increasingly convinced that Iranian support for Shiite groups now constitutes the primary security threat in Iraq.

Mr. McCain acknowledged those concerns on Tuesday night in an interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC when he said that “we now see the Iranians beginning to reassert an age-old Persian ambition, as you know, to increase their influence, particularly in southern Iraq.”

In talking about both threats, Mr. McCain tripped up last month on a visit to the Middle East, when he mistakenly said several times that the Iranians were training Qaeda operatives in Iran and sending them back to Iraq. Prompted by one of his traveling companions, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Mr. McCain corrected himself, saying that he had misspoken and had meant to say Iran was training “other extremists” in Iraq.

And Mr. McCain went beyond what he usually says and what his foreign policy advisers believe during a back-and-forth with Mr. Obama at the end of February. It began when Mr. Obama said at a Democratic debate that while he intended to withdraw American forces from Iraq as rapidly as possible, he reserved the right to send troops back in “if Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq.”

Mr. McCain seized on the remark. “I have some news,” he said at a town-hall-style meeting in Tyler, Tex. “Al Qaeda is in Iraq. It’s called ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq.’ My friends, if we left, they wouldn’t be establishing a base. They’d be taking a country, and I’m not going to allow that to happen.”

In general, Mr. Obama’s views track with those of many independent analysts. In a speech last August, he criticized President Bush by saying: “The president would have us believe that every bomb in Baghdad is part of Al Qaeda’s war against us, not an Iraqi civil war. He elevates Al Qaeda in Iraq — which didn’t exist before our invasion — and overlooks the people who hit us on 9/11, who are training new recruits in Pakistan.”

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wants to begin withdrawing troops, has spoken of leaving some troops behind to fight Al Qaeda, deal with Sunni insurgents, deter Iranian aggression, protect the Kurds and possibly help the Iraqi military. She warned last year of the dangers if Iraq turned into a failed state “that serves as a petri dish for insurgents and Al Qaeda.”

Few, including Mr. McCain, expect Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a Sunni group, to take control of Shiite-dominated Iraq in the event of an American withdrawal. The situation they fear and which Mr. McCain himself sometimes fleshes out is that an American withdrawal would be celebrated as a triumph by Al Qaeda and create instability that the group could then exploit to become more powerful.

“Al Qaeda in Iraq would proclaim victory and increase its efforts to provoke sectarian tensions, pushing for a full-scale civil war that could descend into genocide and destabilize the Middle East,” Mr. McCain said this month. “Iraq would become a failed state. It could become a haven for terrorists to train and plan their operations.”

Randy Scheunemann, Mr. McCain’s senior foreign policy adviser, said during a recent conference call with reporters that in the event of an American pullout, “you might not necessarily see a single entity taking charge.” But such a withdrawal could empower Shiite militias in the south and Kurds in the north, leaving Al Qaeda “free to try to impose its will” and lead to increased sectarian violence that “would be very likely to draw neighbors into the conflict,” he said.

While “it is absolutely incorrect to describe the Sunni insurgency in Iraq as driven by Al Qaeda, you can’t properly talk about Iraq without talking about Al Qaeda in Iraq” and its importance in the larger war against terror, said Reuel M. Gerecht, a former Middle East specialist at the Central Intelligence Agency who is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Bin Laden is a pretty good judge of the history of his own organization and its future, and he looks upon Iraq as the great battle, the make-or-break issue that will decide the fate of the ummah,” the global community of Islamic faithful.

When Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior military commander in Iraq, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Mr. McCain sought an endorsement of his focus on Al Qaeda. But General Petraeus responded with an evaluation more nuanced than the argument Mr. McCain typically offers on the campaign trail. Al Qaeda “is still a major threat, though it is certainly not as major a threat as it was, say, 15 months ago,” he said.

In response to another of Mr. McCain’s questions, General Petraeus replied, “The area of operation of Al Qaeda has been greatly reduced in terms of controlling areas that it controlled as little as a year a half ago.”

    McCain, Iraq War and the Threat of ‘Al Qaeda’, NYT, 19.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/19/us/politics/19threat.html


















Illustration: Andrés Vera Martínez


The Torture Memo, and the Outrage        NYT        7.4.2008
















The Torture Memo, and the Outrage


April 7, 2008
The New York Times


To the Editor:

Re “ ’03 U.S. Memo Approved Harsh Interrogations” (front page, April 2):

It’s high time that the authors of the Bush administration’s legal recipe book for torture be brought out of the kitchen and into the courtroom. Yet despite volumes of highly credible evidence of human rights crimes, or even war crimes, a negligent Congress continues to fail miserably in its responsibility to mandate proper investigations into these cruel policies.

The United States’ moral and political standing in the world have completely eroded, and legitimate prosecutions of crimes against humanity against the United States have been compromised. Congress must finally face its own complicity in torture with concrete measures — not shortsighted hearings — by ordering a full, independent investigation into how torture became United States modus operandi and holding those responsible accountable. Curt Goering

Deputy Executive Director

Amnesty International USA

New York, April 2, 2008

To the Editor:

The Bush administration attributes detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere to the rogue actions of a few soldiers and a lack of clear interrogation guidelines. But the mounting evidence, particularly the declassified memo by John C. Yoo, a former Justice Department official, proves that administration officials themselves are responsible for the torture and cruel treatment of detainees in United States custody.

The continuing effort to exempt the president from anti-torture law, among other revelations, shows that the government’s calculated policy of torture originated at the highest levels of the administration. The Justice Department’s interpretation of long-held tenets of American and international law provided the executive branch with the unlimited power to treat detainees as it saw fit.

Longstanding legal precedents were willfully twisted to justify a systematic regime of abuse employing the expertise of military psychologists and medical personnel. These “enhanced” techniques inflicted severe and lasting harm on detainees — the kind of harm explicitly criminalized by the United States War Crimes Act.

The use of these interrogation techniques has eroded our international standing and compromised the rule of law. The question is no longer who is responsible. The question now is whether they will be held accountable.

Frank Donaghue

Chief Executive

Physicians for Human Rights

Cambridge, Mass., April 3, 2008

To the Editor:

Your April 4 editorial “There Were Orders to Follow” brings attention to additional evidence that it could take years to unearth the full extent of the damage inflicted on our nation by this Bush administration.

While it will never happen, once the election is over, an independent commission should be appointed to investigate once and for all the nation’s unseemly march to war, the administration’s apparent disregard for civil liberties and international standards of conduct, and its support of policies that served to advance cronyism, self-dealing and economic waste on a monumental scale.

For future generations to be able to identify and marginalize such conduct, it needs to be identified and exposed. While security demands vigilance to thwart the enemy from without, we should not ignore the more insidious dangers posed by contemptible policies foisted on us from within.

Robert I. Goodman

Rye Brook, N.Y., April 4, 2008

To the Editor:

I was reminded of how differently the Truman administration was advised to respond to the Soviet Union.

In 1946 George F. Kennan was asked to explain why the Soviet Union was behaving as it was. In his famous “long telegram,” Kennan discussed how the Kremlin leaders justified the dictatorship and the “cruelties” they inflicted, along with the threat that Communist expansion posed to the West.

The way to respond to despotism and the Communist threat, he concluded, was to “have the courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet Communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

It is more than regrettable that John C. Yoo and others in the Bush administration failed to remember Kennan’s sage advice. Kenton Clymer

DeKalb, Ill., April 4, 2008

The writer is a presidential research professor and chairman of the history department at Northern Illinois University.

    The Torture Memo, and the Outrage, NYT, 7.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/07/opinion/l07torture.html






Rising Leader for Next Phase of Al Qaeda’s War


April 4, 2008
The New York Times


On the night of July 10, 2005, an obscure militant preacher named Abu Yahya al-Libi escaped from an American prison in Afghanistan and rocketed to fame in the world of jihadists.

The breakout from the Bagram Air Base by Mr. Libi and three cellmates — they picked a lock, dodged their guards and traversed the base’s vast acreage to freedom — embarrassed American officials as deeply as it delighted the jihadist movement. In the nearly three years since then, Mr. Libi’s meteoric ascent within the leadership of Al Qaeda has proved to be even more troublesome for the authorities.

Mr. Libi, a Libyan believed to be in his late 30s, is now considered to be a top strategist for Al Qaeda, as well as one of its most effective promoters of global jihad, appearing in a dozen videos on militant Web sites in the past year, counterterrorism officials said. At a time when Al Qaeda seems more inspirational than operational, Mr. Libi stands out as a formidable star whose rise to prominence tracks the group’s growing emphasis on information in its war with the West.

“I call him a man for all seasons for A.Q.,” said Jarret Brachman, a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency who is now research director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “He’s a warrior. He’s a poet. He’s a scholar. He’s a pundit. He’s a military commander. And he’s a very charismatic, young, brash rising star within A.Q., and I think he has become the heir apparent to Osama bin Laden in terms of taking over the entire global jihadist movement.”

The secrecy that envelops Al Qaeda’s leadership structure makes such estimates speculative, other analysts noted. But one Islamist insider said that in addition to youth and charisma, Mr. Libi possessed one skill that Al Qaeda’s leaders had been lacking: religious scholarship. Perhaps with this in mind, Al Qaeda is featuring Mr. Libi, who spent two years in Africa studying Islam, in as many of the videos as the group’s top leaders, Mr. bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.

“Bin Laden is an engineer and Zawahri is a medical doctor,” said Dr. Muhammad al-Massari, a Saudi dissident who lives in London. “So it is important that they also present someone who has the role of scholar.”

The varied roles that Mr. Libi plays in these videos, from recruiter to ideological enforcer, also shed light on Al Qaeda’s shifting tactics. In recent months, those tactics have come to include defensive maneuvers aimed at defusing the media counteroperations of the United States and its allies.

Mr. Libi delivers his message with a preacher’s cadence. His black turban drapes down his chest, and he alternates between white Arabic robes and camouflage jackets.

“O Muslim youth in the East and West, who listen to God calling you: ‘Go forth to war, whether it be easy or difficult for you, and strive hard in God’s cause with your possessions and your lives,’ ” he said in a video sermon released this year.

But increasingly, Mr. Libi uses his videos not to expand Al Qaeda’s base, but to shore it up. He has lashed out at moderate Muslim scholars who accuse Al Qaeda of using false interpretations of the Koran to justify jihad. He has mocked Saudi Arabia’s efforts to persuade jailed militants to give up the fight.

In a 93-minute speech released last fall, Mr. Libi urged supporters to brace themselves for a surge in psychological warfare loaded with false propaganda. He cited a rumor that Al Qaeda’s constitution calls for killing anyone who breaks from the group: “Al Qaeda and its leaders are too noble and pure to descend to the rotten level of such nonsense.”

These and other frank communications by Mr. Libi have led intelligence analysts at the West Point center and elsewhere to pore over his videos like Kremlinologists looking for operational clues to Soviet intentions.

Mr. Libi began as a militant on a scholarly path, according to a Libyan man who says he knew him. His older brother, now imprisoned in Libya, had been a crucial figure in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whose members went to Afghanistan to help defeat the Soviet Union.

Mr. Libi, who went to Afghanistan in the early 1990s, was sent back to northern Africa to study Islam in Mauritania. When he returned two years later, Afghanistan was no longer a battleground for militant Libyans, but rather a haven: the Taliban controlled most of the country.

Mr. Libi’s training in warfare was minimal, and his early work as a preacher rarely touched on militant action, according to the Libyan man who said he had met Mr. Libi in Afghanistan, and who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns. “He started to visit training camps and talk about Shariah,” or Islamic law, this man said in a telephone interview, about “morals, etiquette, how to act.”

Then a year after 9/11, Mr. Libi was seized by Pakistani authorities and turned over to American authorities, who eventually put him in the Bagram prison.

In one video produced after their escape in 2005, Mr. Libi and his fellow fugitives recounted their breakout, crediting God with distracting their captors. A new version now circulating on jihadist Web sites re-enacts some of the escape with dramatic flair.

Mr. Libi, who has also used the names Hasan Qaiid and Yunis al-Sahrawi, is assumed to be in the Afghan-Pakistani border area.

He appears to have worked his way quickly into Al Qaeda’s inner circle. He was among the leaders who sent letters of rebuke to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the militant leader who was killed in Iraq in 2006, who they felt was undermining the group’s global strategy by killing too many civilians.

“I share with you your great jihad,” he wrote in a letter dated Nov. 20, 2005, according to a translation obtained from the West Point group. “I hope that you will lay open your heart for the acceptance of what I say.”

In subsequent video appearances, Mr. Libi cast himself as a utility man for Al Qaeda. He rebutted Muslim scholars who criticized suicide bombers in Algeria; he urged Muslims to carry out attacks in Europe in revenge for the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Asked to assess Mr. Libi’s stature, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, Dell L. Dailey, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant general, said in an e-mail message, “Abu Yahya is a senior Al Qaeda member, a top strategist for the group, and trusted and presented as one of the group’s most effective promoters of jihad.”

He has also become the leader of a Libyan contingent of fighters in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region, particularly after the death this year of another key militant who went by the name of Abu Laith al-Libi, said Evan F. Kohlmann, an analyst who testifies as a government witness in terrorism trials. (The two Mr. Libis were not related.)

Abu Yahya al-Libi’s most frank discussion of Al Qaeda’s information war with the West came in the video released last fall, “Dots of the Letters.”

In assessing the state of Islamic militancy worldwide, Mr. Libi dwelled on “defectors” who have denounced violence, internal spats among militants and fatwas or Islamic legal pronouncements, from moderate Muslims who seek to criminalize jihadists. He went so far as to specify six ways that the United States and its allies might try to exploit this disharmony through psychological warfare.

Efforts by the Pentagon to undermine Al Qaeda have intensified in recent months in Iraq, said military officials in Baghdad, including using imams to meet with American-held detainees for religious talks before they are released and publicizing militants who disavow their violent ways.

In his video last fall, Mr. Libi sought to brace Al Qaeda’s adherents for tactics like this, which he said would fail. The retractions of captured militants would be particularly ineffective, given their prisoner status, he argued.

“Tell me,” Mr. Libi said, “what do you expect from someone who sees the sword above him, the rug in front of him and the sheik dictating to him the proof and evidence for the obligation of obeying the ruler?”

Margot Williams contributed reporting.

    Rising Leader for Next Phase of Al Qaeda’s War, NYT 4.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/world/asia/04qaeda.html?hp






’03 U.S. Memo Approved Harsh Interrogations


April 2, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Justice Department in 2003 gave military interrogators broad authority to use extreme methods in questioning detainees and argued that wartime powers largely exempted interrogators from laws banning harsh treatment, according to a memorandum publicly disclosed on Tuesday.

In a sweeping legal brief written in March 2003, when the Pentagon was struggling to determine the appropriate limits for its interrogators, the Justice Department gave the Pentagon much of the same authority it had provided to the Central Intelligence Agency in a memorandum months earlier. Both memorandums were later rescinded by the Justice Department.

The disclosure of the 2003 document, a detailed 81-page opinion written by John C. Yoo, who at the time was the second-ranking official at the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, is likely to fuel the already intense debate about legal boundaries in the face of a continuing terrorist threat.

Mr. Yoo’s memorandum is the latest document to illuminate the legal foundation that Bush administration lawyers used after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to give the White House broad powers to capture, detain and interrogate suspects around the globe.

The thrust of Mr. Yoo’s brief has long been known, but its specific contents were revealed on Tuesday after government lawyers turned it over to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sought hundreds of documents from the Bush administration under the Freedom of Information Act.

Some legal scholars said Tuesday that they were amazed at the scope of the memorandum.

“This is a monument to executive supremacy and the imperial presidency,” said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School and the Washington College of Law at American University. “It’s also a road map for the Pentagon for fending off any prosecutions.”

The memorandum gave the military broad latitude to use harsh interrogation methods. It reasoned that federal laws prohibiting assault were not applicable to military interrogators dealing with members of Al Qaeda because of White House authority during wartime. It also argued that many American and international laws would not apply to interrogations overseas.

“Even if an interrogation method arguably were to violate a criminal statute, the Justice Department could not bring a prosecution because the statute would be unconstitutional as applied in this context,” it reads.

Justice Department lawyers later rescinded both Mr. Yoo’s memorandum and the similar one written for the C.I.A. in August 2002. In a book published last year, Jack Goldsmith, who as head of the Office of Legal Counsel made the decision to rescind the memorandums, criticized the documents, saying they had used careless legal reasoning to provide national security agencies with sweeping interrogation authority.

Written to William J. Haynes II, who at the time was the Pentagon’s general counsel, Mr. Yoo’s document was meant to give legal guidance to Defense Department lawyers as they wrestled with a list of interrogation methods for prisoners at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The document explains that Mr. Haynes had asked the Justice Department “to examine the legal standards governing military interrogations of alien unlawful combatants held outside the United States.”

The Pentagon was trying to set clear guidelines for military interrogators after Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, withdrew approval for some interrogation techniques opposed by some senior military lawyers.

Ultimately, Mr. Yoo’s memorandum provided the legal foundation for the group’s final report, which defended the use of harsh interrogation methods.

Similar to the document written for the C.I.A. in August 2002, Mr. Yoo’s memorandum offered a narrow definition of what constitutes torture.

“The victim must experience intense pain or suffering of the kind that is equivalent to the pain that would be associated with serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure or permanent damage resulting in a loss of significant body functions will likely result,” Mr. Yoo wrote.

Despite the wide latitude the document gave to the military, the Pentagon never authorized some of the harshest interrogation methods used by the C.I.A., including waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique.

Amrit Singh, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the Yoo memorandum seemed to give military interrogators “carte blanche” to use any techniques and suggested that it was the legal underpinning for abuses that occurred months later at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

No Pentagon investigations have found that any senior Bush administration officials were complicit in the abuse at Abu Ghraib.

The investigations did find, however, that for several years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon failed to set uniform standards for military interrogations worldwide.

Martin S. Lederman, a former lawyer for the Office of Legal Counsel who now teaches at Georgetown University, noted Tuesday night on the legal blog Balkinization that Mr. Yoo’s memorandum was issued on a Saturday one day after his boss, Jay S. Bybee, left the Justice Department.

Some legal experts and civil liberties groups have for years criticized the August 2002 memorandum written for the C.I.A. as overly expansive in the authority it gave the agency to interrogate detainees.

That memorandum was also written by Mr. Yoo, who is now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, but it was signed by Mr. Bybee and for several years has been commonly known as the Bybee memo.

It was prepared after an internal debate in the government about the methods used to extract information from Abu Zubaydah, one of Osama bin Laden’s top aides, after his capture in April 2002.

The document provided a legal foundation for coercive techniques used later against other high-ranking detainees, like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is believed to be the chief architect of the Sept. 11 attacks and was captured in early 2003.

The Detainee Treatment Act passed by Congress in 2005 required the Defense Department to restrict interrogation methods to those set out in the Army Field Manual, which bans coercive interrogations.

Last year, President Bush issued an executive order narrowing the list of approved techniques for the C.I.A. Intelligence officials have said that waterboarding is not on the list of currently approved techniques but that President Bush could authorize its use during an emergency.

Scott Shane contributed reporting.

    ’03 U.S. Memo Approved Harsh Interrogations, NYT, 2.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/02/washington/02terror.html?hp






Books of The Times

The Family That Spawned 9/11


April 1, 2008
The New York Times


Steve Coll’s riveting new book not only gives us the most psychologically detailed portrait of the brutal 9/11 mastermind yet, but in telling the epic story of Osama bin Laden’s extended family, it also reveals the crucial role that his relatives and their relationship with the royal house of Saud played in shaping his thinking, his ambitions, his technological expertise and his tactics.

“The Bin Ladens” uses the prism of one family to examine the mind-boggling, culture-rocking effects that sudden oil wealth had on Saudi Arabia, while shedding new light on the “troubled, compulsive, greed-inflected, secret-burdened” relationship that developed between that desert nation and the United States, and the conflicts many Saudis felt, pulled between the traditional pieties of their ancestors and the glittering temptations of the West.

It is a book that possesses the novelistic energy of a rags-to-riches family epic, following its sprawling cast of characters as they travel from Mecca and Medina to Las Vegas and Disney World, and yet, at the same time, it is a book that, in tracing the connections between the public and the private, the political and the personal, stands as a substantive bookend to Mr. Coll’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2004 book, “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the C.I.A., Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to Sept. 10, 2001.”

That earlier work focused on the rise of Islamic extremism during the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s in Afghanistan, where Mr. bin Laden first emerged as a leader, while this volume looks at the familial, cultural and political forces that shaped him as he came of age in Saudi Arabia.

Parts of Mr. Coll’s narrative are heavily indebted to other reporters’ pioneering work on this subject — most notably, Peter Bergen’s two books on Mr. bin Laden, and “The Looming Tower,” Lawrence Wright’s searing book about Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11. But by focusing on Mr. bin Laden’s conflicted relationship with his family and that family’s complicated relationship with the West, Mr. Coll, a staff writer for The New Yorker who also worked for many years at The Washington Post, has added fascinating new details to our understanding of how Mr. bin Laden evolved from a loyal family adjutant into an angry black sheep, intent on lashing out at the very people — the Saudi royal family and the United States of America — that his father and brothers had cultivated in their business dealings for years.

Just as recent books like Jacob Weisberg’s “Bush Tragedy” have underscored the role Oedipal rivalries may have played in George W. Bush’s presidency and his decision to go to war against Iraq, so this volume underscores the role that Freudian family dynamics may have played in Mr. bin Laden’s radicalization and his declaration of war against America.

Mr. Coll traces how Osama — who was still a boy when his father, Muhammad, was killed in an airplane accident in 1967 — found a succession of father figures in a series of radical mentors, including a high school gym teacher who involved him in an after-school Islamic study group and Abdullah Azzam, a charismatic scholar who introduced the young Osama to “the concept of transnational jihad.”

Mr. Coll’s book also traces a host of bizarre connections among its dramatis personae, suggesting that there are often less than six degrees of separation when it comes to the new globalized world of international finance. We learn, for instance, that Muhammad bin Laden began his rise by working as a bricklayer and mason for Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, which had been formed to manage the oil rights of the Standard Oil Company of California, and that the huge international company that the bin Ladens built would come to do business with well-known American firms like General Electric, and draw on advice from the law firm Baker Botts, headed by James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and Bush family adviser.

We also learn that Jim Bath, a former reserve pilot with the Texas Air National Guard who used to carouse with George W. Bush, later became a business partner in Houston with Salem bin Laden, Osama’s half-brother.

The ultimate self-made man, the family patriarch Muhammad bin Laden left an impoverished and deeply religious canyon village to seek his fortune (during an early interlude in the pilgrim city of Jeddah, he was so poor that he reportedly slept in a ditch he dug in the sand) and through a combination of skill, acumen and the assiduous cultivation of the royal family, became the king’s principal builder, overseeing renovations of sacred sites in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. He would bequeath to his children not just a fortune, but also what Mr. Coll calls a “transforming vision of ambition and religious faith in a borderless world.” His British-educated son, Salem, who took over the company after his death, would expand its international reach, and he would also embrace a Westernized, jet-set existence that allowed him to indulge his eccentricities to the fullest.

In fact, Salem emerges from this volume as a compelling, larger-than-life figure, a picaresque playboy, at once guileless, brilliant and self-indulgent, who held together the increasingly fractious bin Laden clan through sheer force of will and charisma. Salem, who dressed in jeans, loved airplanes and liked to play the harmonica, reportedly “paid a bandleader at an Academy Awards party in Los Angeles hundreds of dollars to let him sing ‘House of the Rising Sun’ in seven languages.”

Mr. Coll reports that Salem organized family expeditions to Las Vegas, shipped thousands of cases of Tabasco sauce back to Saudi Arabia and dreamed of marrying four women from four Western nations: his estate, he imagined, would resemble the United Nations, with four houses, one flying an American flag, one a German flag, one a French flag and one the Union Jack. Salem died in 1988 in a plane accident in Texas.

As for Osama bin Laden, Mr. Coll, like Mr. Wright in “The Looming Tower,” suggests that the Qaeda founder’s turn to international war against the United States was not inevitable. Mr. Coll writes that when the Saudi royal family agreed in the summer of 1990 to the arrival of American troops in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Mr. bin Laden “offered no public dissent” at the time, but “moved quickly with the rest of his family to protect his personal fortune against the possibility that the Al-Saud regime might collapse.” Although he had come to see himself as an “international Islamic guerrilla leader,” his views at the time, Mr. Coll writes, were still “nuanced, changeable and laced with contradictions.”

Increasingly at odds with the Saudi royal family, Mr. bin Laden left the kingdom in 1991 for the Sudan, where he bought a farm and raised horses and sunflowers while training jihadis (whom he sent to places like Bosnia). “Osama seemed to believe during this period,” Mr. Coll writes, “that he could have it all in Sudan — wives, children, business, horticulture, horse breeding, leisure, pious devotion and jihad — all of it buoyed by the deference and public reputation due a proper sheikh. He did not yet seem to grasp that his enterprise, particularly in its support for violence against governments friendly to or dependent upon the Al-Saud, might prove difficult to reconcile with the interests of his family in Jeddah.”

In June 1993, Mr. Coll reports, the family, most likely under pressure from the Saudi government, moved to expel Osama as a shareholder of the Muhammad bin Laden Company and the Saudi bin Laden Group. The following year the family publicly repudiated him, the Ministry of Interior announced that he had been formally stripped of his Saudi citizenship, and Mr. bin Laden began writing lengthy essays denouncing the royal family, which he circulated by fax.

By 1995, Mr. Coll writes, there was “a hint of King Lear in the wilderness” to his exile: he was out of money, one of his wives had divorced him, and his eldest son had left him to return to Saudi Arabia. Isolation fueled Mr. bin Laden’s self-righteousness, however, and his wrath increasingly focused on the United States, particularly after Washington put pressure on Sudan’s government to expel him from Khartoum, leading to his exile in 1996 back to the harsh lands of Afghanistan.

While he careered toward violence, other members of his family moved to strengthen their ties with the West. There were family investments in enterprises ranging from Iridium, a satellite communications network, to the Hard Rock Cafe franchise in the Middle East.

In the days after 9/11 Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador in Washington — who met with President Bush on the evening of September 13 — helped arrange (with F.B.I. permission) a special chartered plane flight to carry more than a dozen bin Ladens, some of whom had been living in the United States for years, back home to Saudi Arabia. Subsequent F.B.I. investigations “turned up no evidence of complicity by the bin Laden family in terrorist violence,” Mr. Coll writes, and a decision seems to have been made at the White House sometime early in 2002 that, barring the emergence of new evidence, “the U.S. government would not sanction the bin Laden family in any way because of its history with Osama.”

One F.B.I. analyst summed up the bureau’s assessment this way: there were “millions” of bin Ladens “running around” and “99.999999 percent of them are of the non-evil variety.”


An Arabian Family in the American Century
By Steve Coll
Illustrated. 671 pages. The Penguin Press. $35.

    The Family That Spawned 9/11, NYT, 1.4.2008,



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