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Capital Games | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

The CIA's Turn? UPDATED

Is it the CIA's turn?

For weeks, the FBI has been excoriated for having failed to follow 9/11-related leads unearthed by field agents months before the airliner attacks. In response to the criticism, FBI Director Robert Mueller III was recently compelled to announce an extensive reorganization of the FBI and to embrace Coleen Rowley, an FBI agent in Minneapolis, who wrote Mueller a scorching letter--later leaked--that detailed numerous problems within the bureau. (The changes at the FBI will provide more latitude--perhaps too much--to field agents, even though a key foul-up occurred because FBI headquarters failed to coordinate two different field investigations.)

While Mueller and the FBI have been in the hot seat, other key agencies that contributed to the US government screw-up on September 11--most notably, the CIA and the Pentagon--have not drawn much fire. The Agency failed to act on intelligence from the mid-90s indicating Osama bin Laden's network was interested in a 9/11-type plot. The Pentagon did not prepare for such an assault. But George Tenet and Donald Rumsfeld, and their respective bureaucracies, escaped crucifixion, let alone harsh words. There were no demands for reorganization or an examination of the bureaucratic culture at either CIA headquarters or the Pentagon.

Now comes the news the CIA engaged in its own boneheaded move. As first reported by Newsweek this week, the CIA, having spied on a meeting of al Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000, tracked one of these suspected terrorist to the United States and discovered another already possessed a multiple-entry visa allowing him to enter and leave the United States at will, and the agency did nothing with this information. The two men--Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar--went about their business in the United States for months, opening bank accounts and obtaining driver's licenses in their own names, enrolling in aviation schools, before they walked on to Flight 77 on September 11 and presumably helped crash it into the Pentagon.

For about nineteen months, according to Newsweek, the CIA did not notify the FBI, the State Department or the Immigration and Naturalization Service about the pair. The two men were not added to the watch list used by the State Department and INS to screen visa applicants. Neither name was red-flagged until August 23, 2001--when the CIA did contact the other agencies about Almihdhar, who, by then, was already in the United States. (Almihdhar's visa had expired in late 2000, but the State Department, left clueless by the CIA, had okayed a new one for him.) The FBI only then began searching for the two men, not realizing it had but nineteen days to locate them.

Before the latest news broke, it was publicly known that Almidhdar had been at the terrorist summit in Malaysia. Apparently his attendance there was not sufficient to place him on the watch list. Yet the new report notes the CIA was aware Alhazmi had flown from the meeting to Los Angeles, and the CIA later learned Almihdhar had done the same. It also knew then that Almihdhar had frequently entered the United States--a factor that could have qualified him for placement on the watch list.

The day after the Newsweek story made front-page headlines, the CIA struck back. Citing internal email, unnamed CIA officials, speaking to The Washington Post, noted that the agency had routinely told an FBI counterterrorism contact in January 2000 that Almihdhar was on his way to the al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia and that he possessed a US visa that would permit multiple entries. (This information, though, presumably was not shared with the State Department and the INS.)

The Post placed the CIA's rebuttal on the front-page. But the CIA's defense contained several holes. By its own account, it still had not informed the FBI that Almihdhar flew to the United States right after the Kuala Lumpur confab. Nor did the CIA tell the FBI that Alhazmi was in the United States, after the agency learned that in March 2000 from a foreign intelligence service. "No one picked up on that," a senior official told the Post. The headline on the Post article--"CIA Gave FBI Warning On Hijacker"--was slightly misleading. It turns out the CIA had passed a piece of information--not a warning--to the bureau about one of the two men. But the agency had not told the FBI that either were in the United States. The headline could have as easily read, "CIA Failed To Follow Intelligence on 9/11 Hijacker."

The United States, it seems, missed out on two possible actions that might have changed the course of events. Had the CIA told the FBI that two foreign nationals who had attended a terrorist convention had entered the United States, the bureau could have attempted to track the men and uncovered who-knows what. During their time in the United States, Alhazmi and Almihdhar had frequent contacts with at least five other 9/11 hijackers, two of whom had their 9/11 airline tickets purchased by alleged mastermind Mohamed Atta. Perhaps a close watch of the two would have led the bureau to suss out something was up. That is, if the bureau could have effectively handled such an investigation.

The other action the United States never had the opportunity to take was to deny Alhazmi and Almihdhar entry to the United States after they had participated in the terrorist get-together. Maybe bin Laden and Atta would have replaced them easily. Maybe not.

This latest revelation prompted an inevitable round of recriminations. "There's no question we could have tied all 19 hijackers together," an unnamed FBI official told Newsweek. The not-too-hidden message: we at the bureau are not the only ones who messed up. But a senior intelligence official huffed to the Post, "The notion that we were withholding information from the FBI is absurd." On ABC's This Week, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, "The information we now have does not indicate that there was a substantial likelihood of detecting this." Note his prudent, CYA use of the word "substantial." How about a "reasonable chance"? It would have been nice if the United States law enforcement, intelligence and security apparatus had had a fighting chance against the 19 mass-murderers of September 11. But Ashcroft was echoing the official line. In February, Tenet testified before Congress that the CIA had done no wrong and that 9/11 was not due to a "failure of attention, and discipline, and focus, and consistent effort." Except for Senator Richard Shelby, a Democrat-turned Republican from Alabama, few members of Congress have raised any 9/11-linked questions about the CIA and Tenet's leadership there.

Would Tenet now say the CIA deserves no criticism for mishandling the Alhazmi/Almihdhar leads? Will the congressional intelligence committees force him to explain this episode publicly? For years, the spies have received an easier ride on the Hill than their comrades-competitors in the bureau. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has long had the FBI in his crosshairs. He's called for an investigation of senior FBI officials and has said "their heads should roll," if it turns out they failed to properly warn Mueller, who took over the bureau a week before 9/11. What of the CIA? Will there be a similar accounting of actions in Langley?

To date, the Bush White House has done nothing but embrace Tenet and has not encouraged a vigorous investigation of the intelligence community's pre-9/11 performance. Majority Leader Tom Daschle says that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney asked him to oppose any inquiry into pre-9/11 intelligence failures. The White House denies this and claims it supports the mostly-secret probe by the congressional intelligence committees. But even if that is true, there is no indication that after September 11, Bush was dismayed by the intelligence community's pre-9/11 record and ordered an examination of its failings. He's the President, he doesn't have to wait for or rely upon Congress. He could have instructed the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the Intelligence Oversight Board or the CIA's own inspector general to assess what had happened. As far as we know, he took a pass and decided to concentrate on the war at hand. In his view, it didn't matter whether--and how--the $30-billion-a-year intelligence community had botched its primary mission, not even as billions in extra dollars were being appropriated for the CIA and other agencies.

As a dazed and confused FBI attracted flak for months, the senior managers at CIA headquarters--officially dubbed the George Bush Center for Intelligence in 1999--skated by. Now they have hit a rough patch. Let's see how much political protection comes from naming a building for the president's father.

The September 11 X-Files

On March 25, during a Pacifica radio interview, Representative Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, said, "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11.... What did this Administration know, and when did it know it about the events of September 11? Who else knew and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?" McKinney was not merely asking if there had been an intelligence failure. She was suggesting--though not asserting--that the US government had foreknowledge of the specific attacks and either did not do enough to prevent them or, much worse, permitted them to occur for some foul reason. Senator Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat from her state, called her comments "loony." House minority leader Dick Gephardt noted that he disagreed with her. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer quipped, "The congresswoman must be running for the Hall of Fame of the Grassy Knoll Society." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called her a "nut." Two months later, after it was revealed that George W. Bush had received an intelligence briefing a month before September 11 in which he informed told Osama bin Laden was interested in both hijacking airplanes and striking directly at the United States, McKinney claimed vindication. But that new piece of information did not support the explosive notion she had unfurled earlier--that the Bush Administration and/or other unnamed parties had been in a position to warn New Yorkers and had elected not to do so.

With her radio interview, McKinney became something of a spokesperson for people who question the official story of September 11. As the Constitution's editorial page blasted her, its website ran an unscientific poll and found that 46 percent said, "I think officials knew it was coming." Out there--beyond newspaper conference rooms and Congressional offices--alternative scenarios and conspiracy theories have been zapping across the Internet for months. George W. Bush did it. The Mossad did it. The CIA did it. Or they purposely did not thwart the assault--either to have an excuse for war, to increase the military budget or to replace the Taliban with a government sympathetic to the West and the oil industry. The theories claim that secret agendas either caused the attacks or drove the post-9/11 response, and these dark accounts have found an audience of passionate devotees.

I learned this after I wrote a column dismissing various 9/11 conspiracy theories. I expressed doubt that the Bush Administration would kill or allow the murder of thousands of American citizens to achieve a political or economic aim. (How could Karl Rove spin that, if a leak ever occurred?) Having covered the national security community for years, I didn't believe any government agency could execute a plot requiring the coordination of the FBI, the CIA, the INS, the FAA, the NTSB, the Pentagon and others. And--no small matter--there was no direct evidence that anything of such a diabolical nature had transpired.

Hundreds of angry e-mails poured in. Some accused me of being a sophisticated CIA disinformation agent. Others claimed I was hopelessly naive. (Could I be both?) Much of it concerned two men, Michael Ruppert and Delmart "Mike" Vreeland. Ruppert, a former Los Angeles cop, runs a website that has cornered a large piece of the alternative-9/11 market. An American who was jailed in Canada, Vreeland claims to be a US naval intelligence officer who tried to warn the authorities before the attacks. Ruppert cites Vreeland to back up his allegation that the CIA had "foreknowledge" of the 9/11 attacks and that there is a strong case for "criminal complicity on the part of the U.S. government in their execution." My article discounted their claims. But, I discovered, the two men had a loyal--and vocal--following. They were being booked on Pacifica stations. Ruppert was selling a video and giving speeches around the world. (In February, he filled a theater in Sacramento.) I decided to take a second--and deeper--look at the pair and key pieces of the 9/11 conspiracy movement.

The Ex-Cop Who Connects the Dot

By his own account, Ruppert has long been a purveyor of amazing tales. In 1981 he told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner a bizarre story about himself: While a cop in the 1970s, he fell in love with a mysterious woman who, he came to believe, was working with the mob and US intelligence. Only after she left him, Ruppert said, did he figure out that his girlfriend had been a CIA officer coordinating a deal in which organized crime thugs were transporting weapons to Kurdish counterrevolutionaries in Iran in exchange for heroin. In an interview with the newspaper, the woman denied Ruppert's account and questioned his mental stability. Whatever the truth of his encounter with this woman, the relationship apparently extracted a toll on Ruppert. In 1978 he resigned from the force, claiming that the department had not protected him when his life was threatened. According to records posted on Ruppert's site, his commanding officer called his service "for the most part, outstanding." But the CO also said Ruppert was hampered by an "over-concern with organized crime activity and a feeling that his life was endangered by individuals connected to organized crime. This problem resulted in Officer Ruppert voluntarily committing himself to psychiatric care last year.... any attempts to rejoin the Department by Officer Ruppert should be approved only after a thorough psychiatric examination."

In 1996 Ruppert showed up at a community meeting in Los Angeles concerning charges that the CIA had been in league with crack cocaine dealers in the United States. There Ruppert claimed the agency had tried to recruit him in the 1970s to "protect CIA drug operations" in South Central Los Angeles--an allegation that was missing from the guns-and-drugs story published in 1981. In 1998 he launched his From the Wilderness alternative newsletter, which examines what he considers to be the hidden currents of international economics and national security untouched by other media. On March 31 of last year, for instance, he published a report on an economic conference in Moscow where the opening speaker was a fellow who works for Lyndon LaRouche, the conspiracy-theorist/political cult leader. "I share a near universal respect of the LaRouche organization's detailed and precise research," Ruppert wrote. "I have not, however, always agreed with [its] conclusions." Ruppert claims that twenty members of Congress subscribe to his newsletter.

Ruppert is not a reporter. He mostly assembles facts--or purported facts--from various news sources and then makes connections. The proof is not in any one piece--say, a White House memo detailing an arms-for-hostages trade. The proof is in the line drawn between the dots. His masterwork is a timeline of fifty-one events (at last count) that, he believes, demonstrate that the CIA knew of the attacks in advance and that the US government probably had a hand in them. Ruppert titled his timeline "Oh Lucy!--You Gotta Lotta 'Splaining To Do."

In the timeline he notes that transnational oil companies invested billions of dollars to gain access to the oil reserves of Central America and that they expressed interest in a trans-Afghanistan pipeline between 1991 and 1998. He lists trips made to Saudi Arabia in 1998 and 2000 by former President George Bush on behalf of the Carlyle Group investment firm. On September 7, 2001, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed an order restructuring the state's response to acts of terrorism. There's a German online news agency report from September 14 claiming that an Iranian man had called US law enforcement to warn of the attack earlier that summer. The list cries out, "Don't you see?" Oil companies wanted a stable and pro-Western regime in Afghanistan. Warnings were not heeded. Daddy Bush had dealings in Saudi Arabia. Brother Jeb was getting ready for a terrible event. It can only mean one thing: The US government designed the attacks or let them happen so it could go to war on behalf of oil interests.

Space prevents a complete dissection of all Ruppert's dots. But in several instances, he misrepresents his source material. Item number 8 says that in February 2001, UPI reported that the National Security Agency had "broken bin Laden's encrypted communications." That would suggest the US government could have picked up word of the coming assault. But the actual story noted not that the US government had gained the capacity to eavesdrop on bin Laden at will but that it had "gone into foreign bank accounts [of bin Laden's organization] and deleted or transferred funds, and jammed or blocked the group's cell or satellite phones." Item number 9, based on a Los Angeles Times story, says the Bush Administration gave $43 million in aid to the Taliban in May 2001, "purportedly" to assist farmers starving since the destruction of their opium crop. Purportedly? Was the administration paying off the Taliban for something else? That is what Ruppert is hinting. The newspaper, though, reported that all US funds "are channeled through the United Nations and international agencies," not handed to the Taliban. Unless Ruppert can show that was not the case, this dot has no particular significance. What if Washington funded international programs assisting Afghan farmers? With his timeline, Ruppert implies far more than he proves. It is a document for those already predisposed to believe that world events are determined by secret, mind-boggling conspiracies of the powerful, by people too influential and wily to be caught but who leave a trail that can be decoded by a few brave outsiders who know where and how to look.

The "Spy" Who Tried To Warn Us?

Ruppert can claim one truly original find: Delmart "Mike" Vreeland. He is the flesh on the bones of Ruppert's the-dots-show-all timeline. On December 6, 2000, Vreeland, then 34, was arrested in Canada and charged with fraud, forgery, threatening death or bodily harm, and obstructing a peace officer. At the time, he was wanted on multiple warrants in the United States--for forgery, counterfeiting, larceny, unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, narcotics, reckless endangerment, arson, and grand theft. Months earlier, the Detroit News, citing law enforcement authorities, had reported that Vreeland was an experienced identity thief. While Vreeland was in jail in Toronto, law enforcement officials in Michigan began extradition proceedings.

On October 7, 2001, Vreeland, who was fighting extradition, submitted an exhibit in a Canadian court that he says shows he knew 9/11 was coming. And, Ruppert argues, this is proof that US intelligence was aware of the coming attacks. The document is a page of handwritten notes. There is a list that includes the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower and the White House. Below that a sentence reads, "Let one happen--stop the rest." Elsewhere is a hard-to -decipher collection of phrases and names. Vreeland claims he wrote this in mid-August 2001, while in prison, and had it placed in a locked storage box by prison guards. He says the note was opened on September 14 in front of prison officials. Immediately, his lawyers were summoned to the prison, according to one of them, Rocco Galati, and the jail officials dispatched the note to Ottawa.

Vreeland's believers, including Ruppert, refer to this note as a "warning letter." It is no such thing and, though tantalizing, holds no specific information related to the 9/11 assaults. There is no date mentioned, no obvious reference to a set of perpetrators. In a telephone interview with me, Vreeland said this document was not written as an alert. He claimed that throughout the summer of 2001, he was composing a thirty-seven-page memo to Adm. Vernon Clark, Chief of Naval Operations, and that this page contains the notes he kept during this process. What of the memo to Clark? Vreeland won't share it, maintaining that he wrote in such a manner that only its intended recipient would truly understand what it said. Who can confirm the note was indeed what he had placed in storage prior to September 11? Is it possible some sort of switch was pulled? Vreeland maintains that during court proceedings, five officials of the Canadian jail affirmed that he had passed this document to the guards prior to September 11. When I asked for their names, Vreeland said the judge had sealed those records. Kevin Wilson, a Canadian federal prosecutor handling the extradition case, and Galati, Vreeland's lawyer, say no seal has been ordered.

The note is one small piece of Vreeland's very big Alias-like story. He claims he was a US naval intelligence officer sent to Russia in September 2000 on a sensitive mission: to obtain design documents related to a Russian weapon system that could defeat a US missile defense system. He swiped copies of the documents and altered the originals so the Russian system wouldn't work. As one court decision states, "According to [Vreeland], he was sent to Russia to authenticate these documents because he had originally conceived of the theory behind this [anti-Star Wars] technology, when working for the US Navy in 1986." While in Moscow, he also snagged other top-secret documents that, he claims, foretold the September 11 attacks. And now the US government, the Russian secret police, organized crime and corrupt law enforcement officials are after him. As one Canadian judge noted, "No summary of the complex allegations of multiple concurrent conspiracies...can do justice to [Vreeland's] own description."

Ruppert and Vreeland assert that Canadian court records back up Vreeland. But court decisions in his case have questioned his credibility. In one, Judge Archie Campbell observed, "There is not even a threshold showing of any air of reality to the vast conspiracy alleged by the applicant." Judge John Macdonald wrote, "I find that the Applicant is an imaginative and manipulative person who has little regard for the truth.... the testimony that he developed the theory for anti-Star Wars technology in 1986, based on high school courses, personal interest and perhaps a law clerk's course and a 'Bachelor of Political Science' degree is simply incredible." Nor did he he believe Vreeland was a spy or that he had smuggled documents out of Russia. Macdonald, though, did state that the US records submitted in court regarding Vreeland's criminal record were "terse, incomplete and confusing," and he noted that the sloppiness of the filing might suggest the Michigan criminal charges were "trumped up." But he was not convinced of that, explaining "I see no reasonable basis in the evidence for inferring that the Michigan charges are 'trumped up.'"

It's not surprising those records might be a mess. After I first wrote about Vreeland, I received an e-mail from Terry Weems, who identified himself as Vreeland's half-brother. He claimed Vreeland was a longtime con man who had preyed on his own family. Weems sent copies of police reports his wife had filed in Alabama accusing Vreeland of falsely using her name to buy office supplies and cell phones in August 2000. Weems provided me a list of law enforcement officers who were pursuing Vreeland in several states. I began calling these people and examining state and county records. There was much to check.

According to Michigan Department of Corrections records, Vreeland was in and out of prison several times from 1988 to 1999, having been convicted of assorted crimes, including breaking and entering, receiving stolen property, forgery and writing bad checks. In 1997 he was arrested in Virginia for conspiring to bribe a police officer and intimidating a witness, court records say. He failed to show up in court there. In Florida he was arrested in 1998 on two felony counts of grand theft. In one instance he had purchased a yacht with a check written on a nonexistent account. He was sentenced to three years of probation. The Florida Department of Corrections currently lists him as an absconder. In 1998 he was pursued by the Sheffield, Alabama, police force for stealing about $20,000 in music equipment. Charges were eventually dismissed after some of the property was recovered and Vreeland agreed to pay restitution. In the course of his investigation, Sheffield Detective Greg Ray pulled Vreeland's criminal file; it was twenty pages long. "He had to really try to be a criminal to get such a history," Ray says. A 1999 report filed by a Michigan probation agent said of Vreeland, "The defendant has 9 known felony convictions and 5 more felony charges are now pending in various Courts. However, the full extent of his criminal record may never be known because he has more than a dozen identified Aliases and arrests or police contacts in 5 different states."

Michigan state police records (sent to me by Weems, Vreeland's half-brother) show that in 1997, while Vreeland was in jail after being arrested on a bad-check charge, he wrote a letter to the St. Clair Shores Police Department warning that his brother-in-law was going to burn down his own restaurant. The letter was dated five days prior to a fire that occurred at the restaurant, but it was postmarked three days after the fire. "Do you see a pattern here?" Weems asks.

Judge Campbell called Vreeland a "man who appears on this evidentiary record to be nothing more than a petty fraudsman with a vivid imagination." But Ruppert dismisses Vreeland's past, noting he has "a very confusing criminal arrest record--some of it very contradictory and apparently fabricated." When I interviewed Vreeland, he said, "I have never legally been convicted of anything in the United States of America." And, he added, he has never been in prison.

There are two odd bounces in this case. Vreeland claims that in Moscow he worked with a Canadian Embassy employee named Marc Bastien. Unfortunately, this cannot be confirmed by Bastien. He was found dead in Moscow on December, 12, 2000--while Vreeland was in jail in Toronto. At the time of his death, Canadian authorities announced Bastien died of natural causes, but Vreeland later claimed Bastien had been murdered. Then, this past January, the Quebec coroner said Bastein died after drinking a mixture of alcohol and clopazine, an antidepressant, and he noted that Bastien may have been poisoned--or may have been offered the medication to fight a hangover. Had Vreeland really known something about this death, or had he made a good guess about a fellow whose death was covered in the Canadian media? And during a courtroom proceeding, at Vreeland's insistence, the judge allowed his counsel to place a call to the Pentagon. The operator who answered confirmed that a Lieutenant D. Vreeland was listed in the phone directory. Afterward, Canadian prosecutors claimed that information from the US government indicated that a person purporting to be Lieutenant D. Vreeland had earlier sent an e-mail to a telephone operator at the Pentagon, saying he would temporarily be occupying a Pentagon office and requesting that this be reflected in the listings. Could a fellow in a Toronto jail have scammed the Pentagon telephone system?

In March the Canadian criminal charges against Vreeland were dropped, and he was allowed to post bail. Explaining why charges were removed, Paul McDermott, a provincial prosecutor, says his office considered the pending extradition matter the priority. Vreeland's extradition hearing is scheduled for September.

To believe Vreeland's scribbles mean anything, one must believe his claim to be a veteran intelligence operative sent to Moscow on an improbable top-secret, high-tech mission (change design documents to neutralize an entire technology) during which he stumbled upon documents (which he has not revealed) showing that 9/11 was going to happen. To believe that, one must believe he is a victim of a massive disinformation campaign, involving his family, law enforcement officers and defense lawyers across the country, two state corrections departments, county clerk offices in ten or so counties, the Canadian justice system and various parts of the US government. And one must believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of detailed court, county, prison and state records have been forged. It is easier to believe that a well-versed con man got lucky with the Bastien death/murder, was able to arrange a stunt with the Pentagon switchboard and either wrote a sketchy note before September 11 that could be interpreted afterward as relevant or penned the note following the disaster and convinced prison guards he had written it previously. Michigan detective John Meiers, who's been chasing Vreeland for two years, says, "The bottom line: Delmart Vreeland is a con man. He's conned everyone he comes into contact with. That's why he's wanted.... He keeps going back into court for hearings because he doesn't want to come back here. He knows he's going to prison, and he's fighting. In the interim, he's coming up with a variety of stories."

The Rest of It

The Vreeland case--despite the attention it has drawn--is not the centerpiece of all 9/11 conspiracy theories. There is much more: A CIA officer supposedly met with bin Laden in July 2001 in Dubai. Before September 11, parties unknown engaged in a frenzy of short-selling involving the stock of American Airlines, United Airlines and dozens of other companies affected by the attacks. The Pentagon was not actually hit by an airliner. Flight 93--the fourth plane--did not crash in Pennsylvania; it was shot down. The Bush Administration, in talks with the Taliban, warned that war was coming. And that's not a complete run-down.

Some of the lingering questions or peculiar facts warrant more attention than others. There was a boost in short-selling. But does that suggest the US government ignored a clear warning? Or might the more obvious explanation be true--that people close to Osama bin Laden were tipped off and took advantage of that inside information? Ronald Blekicki, who publishes Microcap Analyst, an online investment publication, says most of the short-selling occurred overseas--and escaped notice in the United States. If that type of trading had happened in the US markets, he explains, it would have stirred rumors about the companies involved. "Everyone on the exchanges would have known about it," he explains. "My best guess is that the people who profited were reasonably wealthy individuals in the inner circle of bin Laden and the Taliban." What is curious, though, is that news of the investigations into the short-selling has taken a quick-fade. Neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Chicago Board Options Exchange will say whether they are still investigating trading practices prior to September 11. And there has been no word from Congress or the Bush Administration on this topic. Suspicious minds, no doubt, can view the public absence of government interest as evidence of something amiss. In this instance, the lack of a credible official investigation creates much space for the disciples of conspiracy theories.

No airliner at the Pentagon? You can find websites devoted to that thesis. Another site, called www.flight93crash.com, offers a sober look at the anomalies that have led people to wonder if that last plane, the one in Pennsylvania, was blasted out of the sky.

The alleged CIA-bin Laden meeting in Dubai has attracted intense notice in alternative-9/11 circles. The story first appeared In Le Figaro, a French newspaper, on October 31, 2001, in an article by freelancer Alexandra Richard. Citing an unnamed "partner of the administration of the American Hospital in Dubai," she maintained that bin Laden was treated at the hospital for ten days. Her story also asserted that "the local CIA agent...was seen taking the main elevator of the hospital to go to bin Laden's hospital room" and "bragged to a few friends about having visited bin Laden," but she provided no source for these details. The hospital categorically denies bin Laden was there. Even if a meeting occurred, that would not necessarily indicate the CIA was aware of bin Laden's plot. Such news, though, would be a huge embarrassment and prompt many awkward questions. But the meeting's existence--unattached to a single identifiable source--can only be regarded as iffy.

Two French authors, Jean-Charles Brisard, a former intelligence employee, and Guillaume Dasquie, a journalist, have written a book, Bin Laden; the Forbidden Truth, in which they maintain that the 9/11 attacks were the "outcome" of "private and risky discussions" between the United States and the Taliban "concerning geostrategic oil interests." As they see it, Washington, driven by fealty to Big Oil, threatened the Taliban with military action and replacement, as it was pursuing Osama bin Laden and seeking a regime in Afghanistan that would cooperate with oil firms. In response to Washington's heavy-handed tactics, the two suggest, bin Laden and the Taliban decided to strike first. This double theory--it's-all-about-oil and Washington provoked the attack--has resonated on anti-Bush websites. To prove their case, the French men attach sinister motives to a United Nations initiative to settle the political and military strife in Afghanistan. Citing a UN report, they depict this effort as "negotiations" between the Taliban and the United States, in which the Americans aimed to replace the Taliban with the former King. Yet a fair reading of the UN report shows that the endeavor--conducted by the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan--was a multilateral attempt to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan that involved discussions with the various sides in that country. It was not geared toward reinstalling ex-King Mohammad Zahir Shah.

Brisard and Dasquie's most dramatic charge is that former Pakistani foreign minister Niaz Naik, who attended one of a series of international conferences held by the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan, says that at the July 2001 meeting a "US official" threatened the Taliban, "Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs." (This portion of the book is similar to an earlier article in the British Guardian, in which Naik additionally noted that the Pakistani government relayed Naik's impression of this US threat to the Taliban.) The Taliban, though, were not present at the session, which was held in Berlin, and the three American representatives there were former US officials. One of the reps, Tom Simons, a past US Ambassador to Pakistan who spent thirty-five years in the foreign service, recalls no such threat but acknowledges that the Americans did note that if Washington determined bin Laden was behind the USS Cole bombing in Yemen, the Afghans obviously could expect the Bush Administration to strike bin Laden. That would hardly have been a remark to cause bin Laden to arrange quickly a pre-emptive assault. Simons--who says he was not interviewed by the French authors--believes Naik misheard the Americans on this point. Whether Naik did or not, the French authors, at best, suggest a line of inquiry rather than come close to validating their contention. (Brisard and Dasquie also argue--without offering an abundance of evidence--that the United States, by design, did not vigorously pursue bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network because doing so clashed with other diplomatic priorities, most notably, cozying up to the oil autocrats of Saudi Arabia.)

Official accounts ought not to be absorbed without scrutiny. Clandestine agendas and unacknowledged geostrategic factors--such as oil--may well shape George W. Bush's war on terrorism. And there are questions that have gone unaswered. For example, on September 12, 2001, a brief story in Izvestia, the Moscow-based newspaper, citing unnamed sources, reported that Moscow had warned Washington of the 9/11 attacks weeks earlier. Was such a warning actually transmitted? If so, who issued the warning and who received it? But questions are not equivalent to proof. As of now, there is not confirmable evidence to argue that the conventional take on September 11--bin Laden surprise-attacked America as part of a jihad, and a caught-off-guard United States struck back--is actually a cover story.

Without conspiracy theories, there is much to wonder about September 11. The CIA and the FBI had indications, if not specific clues, that something was coming and did not piece them together. Government agencies tasked to protect the United States failed. US air defenses performed extraordinarily poorly--even though there had been signs for at least five years that Al Qaeda was considering a 9/11-type scheme. Afterward, neither the Bush Administration nor Congress rushed to investigate. In fact, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle maintains that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both told him in January they opposed any Congressional investigation of 9/11. (The White House denies this.) Congress finally greenlighted an inquiry, but the investigation bogged down as the Congressional investigators complained that the CIA and the Justice Department were impeding their efforts.

One problem with conspiracy theorizing is that it can distract from the true and (sometimes mundane) misdeeds and mistakes of government. But when the government is reluctant to probe its own errors, it opens the door wider for those who would turn anomalies into theories or spin curious fact--or speculation--into outlandish explanation. Not that all who do so need much encouragement. September 11 was so traumatic, so large, that there will always be people who look to color it--or exploit it--by adding more drama and intrigue, who seek to discern hidden meanings, who desire to make more sense of the awful act. And there will be people who want to believe them.

The 9/11 Warning Game--Blame for Bush and Many Others

The question is not the 1970s cliché, What did the President know and when did he know it? The appropriate query is, What did US intelligence know-and what did the President know and do about that?

The flap over the August 6, 2001, intelligence briefing of George W. Bush-in which he was told that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network was interested in hijackings and looking to strike the United States directly-should not have focused on whether the President ignored that information and missed the chance to prevent the September 11 strikes. Still, a political dust-up ensued, as the White House, overreacting to the overreaction of the Democrats, went into full-spin mode. The crucial issue was broached when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stated, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center."

Actually, it was predicted, and the recent hullabaloo called attention to the sad fact that the Clinton and the Bush II national security establishments did not heed hints going back to 1995. In that year a terrorist arrested in the Philippines said bin Laden operatives were considering a plot to bomb airliners and fly a plane into CIA headquarters-information shared with the United States. Two weeks before that arrest, Algerian terrorists linked to Al Qaeda hijacked a plane, hoping to crash it into the Eiffel Tower (French commandos killed the hijackers at a refueling stop).

From 1995 on, US intelligence and the military should have taken steps to detect and prevent a 9/11-like scheme. There was enough information in the system to cause the US air command to draw up plans for dealing with an airliner-turned-missile and to prompt the CIA and the FBI (and other intelligence outfits) to seek intelligence related to plots of this type. Apparently nothing of the sort happened. Not even when terrorism experts continued to raise airliner attacks as a possibility. In 1998 terrorism analysts briefed Federal Aviation Administration security officials on scenarios in which terrorists flew planes into US nuclear plants or commandeered Federal Express cargo planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol and other targets. In 1999 a report prepared for the National Intelligence Council noted that Al Qaeda suicide bombers could fly an aircraft filled with explosives into the Pentagon, CIA headquarters or the White House.

In 2001 the FBI-not looking for signs of a suicide-bombing plot-failed to recognize the significance of information its agents received while investigating foreign students at a Phoenix flight school and Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national enrolled in a Minnesota aviation school, later charged with participating in the 9/11 conspiracy. In July Italian authorities warned the United States that bin Laden agents might try to attack Bush and other Western leaders at the Genoa summit using an airliner.

True, these leads were small pieces of data among the massive amounts of material swept up by the sprawling intelligence system. But what's the point of spending more than $30 billion annually on spies and high-tech eavesdropping if the system can't sort out the valuable nuggets? Hindsight is indeed easy. The Bush and Clinton administrations, based on what's now known, don't deserve to be faulted for not discovering the 9/11 plot. But both failed to oversee the intelligence and law-enforcement communities and make sure they were pointed in the right direction.

There is evidence that the Bush team didn't move quickly on the counterterrorism front. Newsweek reported that Attorney General John Ashcroft prodded the FBI to concentrate on violent crime, drugs and child porn more than on counterterrorism (a story the JusticeDepartment denied). And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened to veto a move that shifted $600 million from the anti-ballistic missile program to antiterrorism. Was there a counterterrorism policy delay? Other questions linger. In July 2001 Richard Clarke, then the National Security Council official in charge of counterterrorism, put out an urgent alert, placing the government at its highest state of readiness for a possible terrorist attack. The alert faded six weeks later. What triggered it? What caused the stand-down? Should there have been a follow-up?

The multiple failures of policy, imagination and coordination over two administrations should be investigated. To assign blame? Accountability does have its place in a democracy. The public has a right to know who messed up and to be assured that those who did aren't in a position to commit further mistakes. The point, of course, is to learn from those mistakes and to be able to tell the public the failures have been addressed. Does the intelligence system deserve more billions, as Bush has requested, without demonstrating that it can use the money wisely?

After 9/11 the Bush Administration didn't rush to examine what went wrong. We're too busy fighting the war, it said, while urging Congress not to pursue the matter. Belatedly, Congress authorized a joint investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees, two panels that traditionally have been cozy with the intelligence crowd. That probe has gotten off to a terrible start-the investigators fighting among themselves over whether to examine government failures or to concentrate on how best to reorganize the intelligence system and accusing the CIA and the Justice Department of not cooperating. One positive consequence of the maelstrom over the August 6 briefing is that it has prompted more calls for an independent commission, which Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have been advocating. Yet so far no inquiry is committed to mounting a no-holds-barred examination and to conducting as much of it as possible in public.

"I don't have any problem with a legitimate debate over the performance of our intelligence agencies," said Vice President Cheney. But he has opposed sharing the August 6 briefing with Congress. How can there be worthwhile debate without information? After all, the recent tussle began when the press sensed that the White House had withheld a significant-or intriguing-fact. And how can there be information without investigation? The issue is not what Bush knew-but why he didn't know, and whether his Administration took sufficient steps before and after that awful day to deal with the failings of the agencies that are supposed to thwart and protect.

The bin Laden Warning: Why Did Bush Keep It a Secret?

By the way, we, uh, forgot to mention, that in August of 2001, while the President was taking a long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, the CIA told him that, uh, Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack an airliner as part of some, who-knows-what terrorist action against the United States.

That is, in essence, how the Bush White House confirmed the CBS News report that broke this story Wednesday night. The White House was quick to say the CIA intelligence did not refer to anything as diabolical as a quadruple-hijacking that transformed airliners into weapons of mass destruction. That's probably true. But this latest news follows recent reports that an FBI agent in Phoenix in July 2001 had written a classified memo noting a "strong connection" between a group of Middle Eastern aviation students he was investigating and bin Laden's al Qaeda, and that one of the FBI agents trying to figure out the intentions of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested at a flight school in August 2001, had speculated he might be planning to fly an airliner into the World Trade Center.

Before conspiracy theorists run away with this latest revelation, it is important to note its true significance.

First, the news raises an obvious question, is there anything else the White House is not telling us? Bush and his lieutenants kept word of the CIA briefing secret for eight months. Why did they not disclose this earlier? In January and February, The Washington Post published an eight-part series by Bob Woodward and Dan Balz on how the President and his aides responded to the September 11 attacks. The articles--a mostly positive account--were largely drawn from interviews with Bush and senior officials. Funny, none of them mentioned that a month before the attacks, the CIA had told the President, via the daily briefing it prepares for him, there was reason to worry about a bin Laden action. It is a good bet that at one point on that awful day the President or the other aides who generally have access to the CIA's daily briefing--Vice President Dick Cheney, CIA director George Tenet, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, and chief of staff Andrew Card--recalled that warning.

The Post series did report, "Through much of the summer, Tenet had grown increasingly troubled by the prospect of a major terrorist attack against the United States. There was too much chatter in the intelligence system and repeated reports of threats were costing him sleep....Everywhere he went, the message was the same: Something big is coming. But for all his fears, intelligence officials could never pinpoint when or where an attack might hit." But in this administration-provided account, there was no sign the CIA had informed Bush it was on the lookout for a bin Laden hijacking. Presumably, none of Woodward and Balz's insider-sources felt that was worth sharing.

Once again, the Bush crowd has demonstrated its fondness for secrecy. And for spinning. When Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, facing a combative press corps, was asked why the adminstration had not revealed that Bush received this warning, he reminded the reporters the real issue was that "the fault lies with Osama bin Laden and the terrorists." Later in the day, Rice, up against the White House reporters, repeatedly depicted the CIA briefing as an unexceptional act during which Bush was merely told that bin Laden could be interested in hijacking. It's common sense that a terrorist might be considering a hijacking, she added. But CIA daily briefings are supposed to include noteworthy material for the President, not obvious, generalized information. Let's hope the CIA is not wasting the President's time by reminding him terrorists sometimes hijack airplanes.

Certainly, there was an understandable reason for the White House to be mum until now. If the public had learned of the briefing, questions would be asked. Which brings us to the other significance of this disclosure: it provides Congress an additional--and well-defined--avenue for its investigation of the national security community's performance prior to September 11.

Belatedly, Congress in February moved to have the intelligence committees of the House and Senate conduct a joint investigation into what went wrong before the attacks. (The decision came after the Bush White House earlier asked Congress not to pursue this topic quickly.) In doing so, Congress eschewed the suggestion made by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman that a blue-ribbon panel outside Congress conduct the investigation. Instead, the mission was handed to committees that have traditionally maintained cozy relations with the intelligence services. And the probe has gotten off to a slow and bumpy start. The first lead investigator, Britt Snider, quit the post, after getting into an internal tussle for not alerting the committees he had hired someone under investigation for failing a CIA lie-detector exam. (Snider, a former CIA inspector general, may not have been the right fellow for the job, since he is a longtime friend and colleague of Tenet, and Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, has had Tenet in the crosshairs since September 11.) Then news leaked that the Justice Department and the CIA were not fully cooperating with the investigation.

Assuming the inquiry gets on track, the committee investigators should thoroughly examine that August intelligence briefing. They ought to be able to trace it backward and determine what went into this report. What was the sourcing? How did the CIA gather this information? How did it follow up? Did it make a serious effort to learn more about this hijacking plot? If so, what was done? If not, why not? This is an important trail for the investigators to follow, inch by inch. Perhaps the CIA did everything it could and, still, was unable to unearth a clear tip-off. But maybe opportunities were missed. The public deserves to know.

Second-guessing is easy, but it is tragic that the Phoenix FBI report (suspects in a terrorist investigation linked to al Qaeda are attending flight school), the mysterious Moussaoui case (a suspicious fellow, enrolled in a flight school, is up to something, maybe crashing an airliner into the World Trade Towers), and the CIA warning (bin Laden is planning a terrorist action) were never placed side-by-side on the same desk. Had they been, that might not have spelled out what was coming. But it could have made other information seem more relevant or helped the CIA and FBI locate additional pieces of this secret puzzle. The inability of the intelligence community to coordinate its information streams--not even within the FBI was the Phoenix report passed to the office investigating Moussaoui--is troubling. Is there a point to spending $30 billion-plus dollars a year for a sweeping intelligence system--and Congress is in the process of approving a multibillion dollar boost--if that system cannot discern and efficiently handle the nuggets it does manage to obtain?

Fidel and Bioweapons: Move Over Iraq?

A few days ago, I was on a television show arguing there was nothing wrong with ex-President Jimmy Carter visiting Cuba, and the host kept exclaiming, "But they're making biological weapons, they're making biological weapons." Credit the Bush administration with a job well done--propaganda job, that is.

Several days before Carter's trip, John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control, in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, "The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort" and has "provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states."

Those certainly are fighting words. If Cuba is indeed developing such weaponry and sharing it with the "axis of evil," that would make it a target in George W. Bush's war on terrorism. After all, why bother first with Iraq, if a rogue-sympathizer is producing weapons of mass destruction 90 miles from Miami? Such a threat should compel immediate attention.

But the Bush administration provided no evidence. When President John Kennedy took a stand against Cuba for accepting Soviet nuclear missiles in 1962, he produced overhead reconnaissance photos showing the missile bases. Bolton merely says the United States "believes" Cuba is developing these weapons. The issue of "dual-use" items (which can be used for weapon or non-weapon purposes) is often a slippery matter. Trucks, to be simple about it, can carry bombs or humanitarian relief. Incubators can cook up life-saving vaccines or deadly germs.

Cuban defector Jose de la Fuente, who was director of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, has said Cuba sold sophisticated biotechnology to Iran that could be used to treat heart attacks and viral diseases and develop vaccines. And he has been concerned Iran could try to use these biotechnologies to develop weapons, But, according to the Miami Herald, de la Fuente also said that he had no cause to question the Cubans' intent in this transaction and could not say the technology sold had been used for anything other than medical purposes.

When the Bush administration hurls such an explosive charge, it should offer proof, or, at least, further explanation. How advanced is any Cuban bioweapons program? Is it offensive, rather than defensive, in nature? (Who knows where the still-at-large American anthrax culprit will strike next?) What "dual-use" technology sales pose problems? Does the Bush administration know more than de la Fuente?

The fact that it was Bolton who unleashed this allegation does not inspire confidence. He is the conservative mole in Colin Powell's otherwise not-so-rightwing State Department. He recently led the effort to have the administration renounce the United States' endorsement of the International Criminal Court. Earlier this year, he single-handedly tried to change a cornerstone of US nonproliferation policy by declaring the administration no longer believed it was important to state that the United States, in general, would not use nuclear weapons against nations that do not possess such weapons. A State Department spokesman had to rush to the rescue and assert that Bolton had not really said what he said. [See Capital Games: "Bush's New Nuclear Weapons Plan: A Shot at Nonproliferation". And to learn how Bolton recently escaped a scandal, see Capital Games: "Taiwangate: A Fallout-Free Scandal".]

If the Bush Administration had truly wanted to convince the public--and had the goods to do so--it could have had Colin Powell raise the subject and share the reasons for fretting. Even though Powell did support Bolton's comments, after a dust-up ensued, cynics still had ample cause to believe the goal was to throw a handful of sand in Carter's face before he hit Havana. Powell, according to the Orlando Sentinel, told reporters the Bush administration was "concerned" because Cuba "has the capacity and capability to conduct such research." Possessing the capability is different from doing the deed.

Last year, Ken Alibek, a senior scientist who defected from the Soviet Union's biological weapons program, told a congressional committee that he believed Cuba, with its advance biotech abilities, could produce genetically modified germ weapons. But he did not claim this was being done. In a 1999 book, Alibek said his boss in the Soviet weapons program thought Cuba was engaged in bioweapons activities, but Alibek acknowledged that was unconfirmed opinion. When Alibek's book came out, the State Department said, "We have no evidence that Cuba is stockpiling or has mass-produced any BW [biological warfare] agents."

Carter maintains that before his visit, he repeatedly asked Bush administration officials if any evidence showed Cuba "has been involved in sharing any information to any other country on Earth that could be used for terrorist purposes." He says, "the answer from our experts on intelligence was no."

There may well be cause for worry. Perhaps there have been recent developments. Carter visiting a biotech site and saying he saw no sign of weapons activities does not mean much. But the manner in which the administration has handled this topic smacks more of Florida-centric politics than national security. It also is reminiscent of a tactic used by the Reagan administration: the Exaggerated Claim. (I am being polite by not using the more common but cliched term, the Big Lie.) During the 1980s, when the Reaganites were supporting the anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua and the leftist-fighting armies of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, they often made wild allegations that proved to be untrue. At one news conference, President Reagan claimed the Sandinistas had forced "the entire Jewish community" to flee. Not true--said Jews in Managua. Reagan claimed "top Nicaraguan officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking." His own Drug Enforcement Administration said otherwise. When reporters at The Washington Post and The New York Times revealed (all-too accurately) that the El Salvador military had massacred hundreds of peasants, the Reagan administration denied the reports and tried to discredit the journalists. With plenty of former Reaganite warriors holding positions in the Bush the Second administration--including Bolton--the Bush gang does not deserve to be taken at its word on these sort of hot-button controversies. As Reagan famously said, "Trust, but verify."

After Bolton's speech, The Washington Post reported, "Some administration officials, convinced that Cuba has an active germ warfare program, have been pressing to make the evidence public, but guardians of the information have worried that its release would compromise US intelligence sources, according to more than one official." This is common for Washington. We'd like to tell you, but we can't. It is also a dodge for governing responsibly. As with Iraq, should the Bush administration be inclined to lead the nation into confrontation with another country--and justify its actions before the world--it has to offer more than words, more than "we believe." If the US government declares another nation a threat to Americans, it ought to present a case, not merely an assertion. Fidel Castro may be able to rule by proclamation. George W. Bush--and John Bolton--should not.

Crusader: Intrigue and Backstabbing In the House of Bush

It's a tale of big guns and a big gun. It's a Bush family melodrama, a story of personal connections, possible backstabbing and multiple intrigues, a Washington soap opera. And it's all about an 80-ton mobile artillery system dubbed the Crusader.

Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in something of a sneak attack, announced he wanted to cancel the $11 billion program. This was major news. The Pentagon almost never deep-sixes a major weapons program. The Army, whose baby this is, was understandably shocked. The Crusader was eight years in development. The Pentagon had decided last year to keep the program going, even though some critics--in and out of the military--had complained the heavy gun, which fires a 155 mm shell, was a Cold War relic of not much use in contemporary warfare.

Immediately after Rumsfeld targeted the Crusader, the Army initiated a rearguard operation against Rumsfeld by lobbying members of Congress to save the Crusader. The SecDef was not pleased. "I have a minimum of high regard for that kind of behavior," he growled. He ordered the Army inspector general to investigate--and caught in the crosshairs was Thomas White, the already-beleaguered secretary of the Army. White had been quoted by an ally, Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma (where the Crusader would be built), as saying he was "in a fight to save [the] Crusader within the building," meaning the Pentagon.

This was not a good time for White to be on the wrong side of Rumsfeld. In earlier installments of As the Pentagon Turns, we learned that White, a former Enron executive, was responsible for one of the bankrupt company's most problematic (financially and ethically) divisions, failed to divest his Enron stock in a timely manner and misled members of Congress about it, and reportedly used official aircraft for non-official business. [See the previous "Capital Games" column: "W's Biggest Enron Liability: The Case Against Thomas White".] White seems to have survived the flaps over his travel and his less-than-truthful statements to Congress, but the Justice Department supposedly is still investigating White for insider trading concerning his Enron holdings. He is on the ledge--and he just pissed off the guy who can pull him in.

White also had the bad sense--and bad manners--to win the latest tussle on the Crusader. During a late night mark-up on May 1, the House Armed Services Committee--which was reviewing the $52 billion budget hike for the Pentagon--added a provision to the military authorization bill to preserve $475 million in funding for the Crusader. It undid Rumsfeld's proposed cancellation. This was not a shocker. Members of Congress, mindful of the jobs produced by arms contracts, are often more reluctant to cut weapons than the Pentagonists. The civilian in charge of the Pentagon--that would be Rumsfeld--was bested by the Army and Congress. Then on May 6, a senior Pentagon official, speaking for Rumsfeld, reiterated Rumsfeld's position: "The Crusader is dead." And the next day, Rumsfeld voiced his support for White: "He's doing a good job. He has my confidence."

Yet there are more budget rounds on Capital Hill ahead for the Crusader. Will White and Rumsfeld remain at odds? In past confrontations of this sort, Congress has sided with the individual service and succeeded in forcing the Pentagon to buy weapons it did not desire.

The Rumsfeld-White pas de deux was only one delicious plot-line at work. Consider the manufacturer of the Crusader: United Defense Industries. It is the Army's fifth-largest contractor, and it is controlled by the Carlyle Group, an investment firm that is practically surgically attached to the House of Bush. Daddy Bush is a senior adviser to the Carlyle Group, making lots of money by giving speeches and opening doors overseas for Carlyle. James Baker, Bush I's former secretary of state, is a top Carlyle executive. He also masterminded W's legal team during the Florida recount mess. Moreover, Frank Carlucci, the Reagan-Bush secretary of defense who is chairman of Carlyle, is a close pal of Rumsfeld. The two were on the wrestling team at Princeton.

These connections have caused good-government advocates and conspiracy theorists to wonder if Bush II has been motivated to render policy decisions which would benefit Carlyle. Which would also benefit his father and W's own family, assuming Daddy Bush doesn't leave his multimillion-dollar estate only to son Neil. On the web and elsewhere, you can find suggestions (or outright assertions) that, in the aftermath of 9/11, Bush is waging the war on terrorism and expanding the Pentagon budget to fatten the Carlyle Group--which was already doing very nicely, averaging more than 34 percent on its $12.5 billion in investments. In fact, last year it did look as if Carlyle had cashed in on September 11 and its Bush contacts.

Two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, United Defense--which had revised the Crusader design and had waged a lobbying campaign on the Hill, oiled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions--signed a deal with the Army for a $665 million contract to complete development of the Crusader, now weighing in at a more slender 40 tons. On December 13, Congress fully funded the program. The next day Carlyle took United Defense Industries public. Its stock offering had listed the Crusader contract and the 9/11 attacks as selling points. The IPO was a whopping success, and the Carlyle Group earned $237 million in this deal.

Pentagon decisions certainly had helped Carlyle, for the Crusader system was a critical part of the turnaround Carlyle had achieved at United Defense. Carlyle rejected suggestions that its ties to prominent Bushies had anything to do with its good fortune. Spokesman Chris Ullman told The Los Angeles Times, "I can assure you [Frank Carlucci] doesn't lobby. That's the last thing he'd do. You'd have to know Carlucci to know he'd never do that, and you'd have to know Rumsfeld to know it wouldn't matter."

Might that have been truth, not spin? By spitting into the eye of the Crusader recently, Rumsfeld sent the stock of United Defense Industries tumbling 15 percent. That couldn't have made Carlucci, his old mat-mate, or Daddy Bush, Baker, and anyone else at Carlyle happy. So does that mean the Carlyle Group, with its behind-the-scenes clout, does not have the Bush II Administration fully in its pocket?

Cynics can still find reasons to be suspicious. Rumsfeld, after all, did not strike at the Crusader until after United Defense Industries went public. And when he did move to smother this program, he certainly had reason to expect that legislators on the Hill would cram the money back in--whether or not they were egged on by his less-than-loyal secretary of the Army. But after suggesting last week that the Army had thirty days to consider alternative designs for the Crusader, Rumsfeld then pulled the plug. That demonstrated his seriousness about ridding the Pentagon of unnecessary weapons (that is, unnecessary in Rumsfeld's book). What remains to be seen is the seriousness of the inquiry into White's end-run (not Enron) on the Crusader front.

This saga is not over. In coming installments of the Crusader mini-series, look for the roles (cameo or otherwise) played by George W. Bush and his Office of Management and Budget, as members of Congress rally behind the Crusader. Will the President and OMB back up Rumsfeld? Or will they overrule him? Perhaps Bush should recuse himself. This is a financially significant matter for the company that enriches both his father and the man who engineered his crucial triumph in the Florida post-election battle.

As of now, there are no signs from the Bush White House. But it is clear no matter what direction this story takes, it can only end one way: Thomas White getting a job at the Carlyle Group.

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God, Make W Faster Than a Speeding Bullet?

Do you think Americans should ask God to grant George W. Bush the power to fly? House majority whip Tom DeLay, the ability to predict the future? Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, X-ray vision? In a prayer written for the National Day of Prayer, May 2, the Reverend Lloyd Olgivie, the Senate chaplain, asks God to "bless our President, Congress, and all our leaders with supernatural power." He didn't beseech God to endow them with strength and wisdom--a more reasonable request--but to make them superheroes.

The National Day of Prayer (or NDP, as it is known to religion insiders) is an annual event established by an act of Congress five decades ago. The point was to encourage Americans to pray for their nation--at least once every twelve months. Each year, the president and the governors issue proclamations encouraging such importuning. And the NDP has become a major ritual for the religious right. For years, the National Day of Prayer Task Force--a nonprofit group run by Shirley Dobson, the wife of religious right leader James Dobson--has been pushing this prayer-holiday and organizing events.

This year, Dobson's NDP Task Force claimed it had 40,000 volunteers and coordinators putting together prayer events--including what the group called a "national observance" at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DC. Its website noted that the headliners booked for the Washington gathering were radio evangelist Ravi Zacharias and youth evangelist Josh McDowell, both advocates of apologetics--which Marshall calls "a branch of theology devoted to the defense of the divine origin and authority of Christianity." That is, the belief that Christianity is the only way. The other main draw: virtue-czar and Ariel Sharon-backer William Bennett.

Anything wrong with this? The NDP Task Force states, "this government-sanctioned day is offered to all Americans." Yet the national observance, organized by the task force, was hardly designed to reflect the diverse religious nature of the United States--or even that of Christianity. This is not surprising, for on its website, the NDP Task Force also says its efforts "are executed in alignment with its Christian beliefs." Which means a group that is devoted to a certain type of evangelical Christianity and that excludes others from its commemoration of the Day of Prayer was given the privilege of hosting the day's main event in a congressional facility. (In 1999, the NDP Task Force said that every one of its volunteers "must be a Christian" with a "personal relationship with Christ.") And the prayer Olgivie, a Presbyterian, wrote--which the NDP Task Force promoted as the prayer to read at noon--said, "We commit ourselves to be faithful to You as Sovereign of our land and as our personal Lord and Savior." Such an invocation, with its reference to "Savior," smacked of a Christian devotional.

A secularist has reason to question the basic premise of the National Day of Prayer. Should Congress, the president, and governors officially encourage religious worship? Might that undermine the separation of church and state? But, moreover, the NDP Task Force has angled to turn the NDP into a day of Christian prayer. And government officials have gone along. US appeals court Judge David Sentelle, Representative Mike McIntyre, a North Carolina Democrat, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, and Captain Leroy Gilbert, the Coast Guard chaplain, were scheduled to participate in the Washington event--which would highlight a Christian-oriented prayer written by a government-paid chaplain.

The NDP Task Force cites a long history of support for a prayer day. The Continental Congress asked the colonies to pray for wisdom as the new country was being formed. In 1863, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for a day of "humiliation, fasting, and prayer." In 1952, a congressional act, signed by President Truman, declared an annual day of prayer. And in 1988, President Reagan approved an amended law that set the first Thursday of every May as the day for America to pray.

But some founders were not keen on this sort of government promotion of religion. James Madison opposed governmental "religious proclamations" for several reasons, including, "They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion." And Thomas Jefferson, in an 1808 letter to the Reverend Samuel Miller, said, "Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the General Government." He was even against recommending a day of fasting and prayer. Doing so, he explained, would "indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from." He was worried that even a suggestion from the government could be taken the wrong way: "It must be meant, too, that this recommendation [of a day of prayer] is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription, perhaps in public opinion."

At the moment, Jefferson and Madison are losing the debate. Shirley Dobson and Pat Robertson are winning. But what these founders might have feared--a national prayer day slipping into a day that emphasizes one religion over another--has been happening.

I called the Reverend Olgivie to ask him about his prayer--its Christian nature, and its call for supernatural powers for Bush and others. The fellow who answered the phone at his Senate office said the Reverend was too busy to talk. This aide refused to give me his full name or to provide budget information for Olgivie's office. "It's in the public records," he said and turned down my request for assistance in locating the figure. (For the record, the amount is $288,000.) I can understand why Olgivie, a former California television minister, might be shy around reporters. Last year, The Wall Street Journal published a piece on him revealing that his Senate office had accepted tens of thousands of dollars from Christian nonprofits, some of which was used to buy copies of his books he then distributed around the Senate.

Still, I would like to hear Olgivie explain his prayer, particularly what supernatural powers he wants to see bestowed upon the president. Might it help to have Congress pass legislation suggesting a particular course of action in this regard? Such an act, of course, would have to be non-binding..

Searching for "Moral Clarity"

If the rightwing had actual cheerleaders, they would be chanting, "What do we want? Moral clarity! When do we want it? Now." In recent weeks, "moral clarity" has become the buzz-phrase for conservatives upset with President Bush's less-than-wholehearted effort to pressure Ariel Sharon and to revive talks between Israelis and the Palestinians.

A quick tour: Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, says Bush has "lost moral clarity on terror." The Weekly Standard's William Kristol and Robert Kagan complain Bush's Middle East policy "wasn't exactly moral clarity." Thomas Hendriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, writes, "George W. Bush has witnessed the moral clarity of his post-September 11 vision confounded by the deepening crisis between Israelis and Palestinians." Arch-hawk and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu huffs that Bush had shown a lack of "moral clarity" in the Middle East crisis. Senator Joseph Lieberman, joining this choir, grouses that Bush's call for an end to Israeli military action in the West Bank "muddled our moral clarity" in the war against terrorism. And author and self-proclaimed virtue-czar William Bennett asserts, "We cannot stand between them [the Israelis and the Palestinians] without losing the moral clarity of Mr. Bush's earlier message." By the way, Bennett has a new book out: Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism.

This moral clarity thing has really caught on. When a reporter asked a demonstrator at a pro-Israel rally in Washington what he wanted, the fellow said, "We hope President Bush will show the same moral clarity [on the Middle East] that he has shown in the fight against al Qaeda." At a pro-Palestinian rally, a counter-protester backing Israel said he was "supporting President Bush's war on terrorism and the moral clarity he brings."

To be clear about it, moral clarity has come to mean, let Sharon do whatever he wants on the West Bank. After all, the argument goes, if Bush could portray his post-9/11 war in black-and-white terms (you're with us or you're agin' us; we blast away at terrorists and anyone who harbors or winks at them wherever and whenever we find them), then why cannot Sharon do the same? And why should Bush have anything to do with Palestinians--including Yasser Arafat--who can be linked to terrorism or who have not done enough to prevent terrorism? The MC police, who crave a full-force Israeli offensive, have been trying to appeal to Bush by shoving his Bush Doctrine in his face ("look--see, see?-- you said this") and by cloaking their strategic aim with a noble term. Who's for moral cloudiness?

But moral clarity are weasel words when used in this fashion. They negate nuance. They suggest there is a simple and straightforward solution to a difficult foreign policy challenge (blow away the so-called Palestinian terrorist infrastructure without regard to the damage done to civilians or the prospects for negotiations). When Bush finally decided to get involved--way too late--he gazed at the Middle East and saw a conflict not defined by either/or. Not white hats and black hats, as with his war on terrorism. And that has driven the MC crowd bonkers.

It could be that the MCers are having some impact. After Secretary of State Colin Powell returned from his not-very-successful trip to the Middle East--and after Sharon had defied Bush's call for an immediate withdrawal--Bush pronounced Sharon a "man of peace." Not even pro-Sharon hawks in Israel would say that of the person who was found indirectly responsible for massacres at refugee camps in the 1980s and whose troops recently stormed through the Jenin refugee camp, killing civilians. Sharon is supported in Israel precisely because he is a man of war--and many Israelis desire such a leader at this point in time. Sure, it's possible that Sharon might prefer peace (on his terms) over war. But what moral clarity comes from calling a militarist a "man of peace"?

Another interesting twist on moral clarity came when deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz spoke at that pro-Israel rally at the Capitol. For most of the event, speakers from across the political spectrum--Netanyahu, Bennett, Hillary Clinton, Dick Armey, Rudy Giuliani, Dick Gephardt, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney--voiced support for Israel and its current government. Many were trying to MC the Bushies into dropping their somewhat more-balanced view. Wolfowitz, the hawk's hawk in the Bush Administration, was not there to pressure his own boss. He expressed the administration's solidarity with Israel. But he dared to tell the crowd that "innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying as well" as Israelis and that "we deplore the deliberate killing of innocents, and I believe in my heart that the majority of Palestinians do so as well." The crowd booed; demonstrators shouted, "No double standard! No double standard!" When Wolfowitz spoke of a Palestinian state, the crowd jeered. He got the bum's rush.

Where is moral clarity when it comes to recognizing suffering on the Palestinian side--even when it is depicted in the gentle terms used by Wolfowitz? Afterward, there were no howls from the right (or from Democrats) that Wolfowitz was mistreated, that he was MC-PCed. If a government official had been booed off the stage by Arab-Americans at a pro-Palestinian rally (if one would even attend), you can bet that the cable TV shoutfests would be all over that story. And why was it that only a hawk--not a liberal Democrat or a labor leader--referred to Palestinians in human terms, who expressed compassion for innocents killed on the Palestinian side? (I won't get carried away here, for Wolfowitz, who hungers for war on Iraq, has not publicly expressed such sentiments concerning civilians killed or maimed by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan.)

Moral clarity, as Bush has learned recently, is easier preached than practiced. When Colin Powell appeared on Meet the Press on April 21, he refused to call Sharon a "man of peace," he declined to criticize Sharon's slow and partial withdrawal, and he said that the Bush Administration would not consider taking ex-President Jimmy Carter's advice and consider cutting off aid to Israel. But at the same time, he noted that "in order to help the people in Jenin," Washington was sending the refugee camp 800 family-sized tents for "people who have lost their homes," water purification equipment, several thousand disease prevention kits, and ordnance demolition teams.

I waited for Tim Russert to ask the obvious question: What's wrong with this picture: the United States supplies Israel with weaponry needed for its offensive on the West Bank, it threatens no cutback in such assistance when Israel uses these military supplies for an operation the Bush Administration deems wrong, and then Washington spends more taxpayer dollars to help the people harmed by the Israeli attack? Isn't this odd? Wouldn't it make more sense for the United States to do all it could to prevent the violence at the git-go? Russert never got around to this query. But, indirectly, an absurd point was made: the United States ends up paying, in part, for the destruction and the cleanup. Not much clarity there. But would the MC gang have the United States do nothing after the Israeli assault on Jenin? After all, in the MC view (per the Bush Doctrine), these Palestinians are living side-by-side with terrorists--their sons, cousins, nieces, etc.-- and, in many cases, supporting them.

Moral clarity, as hurled by conservatives and Democratic hawks, is an attractive-sounding but disingenuous concept. It is an attempt to bully the president, to deny complexities, and to turn the Middle East conflict into a comic-book face-off that offers only one policy option: all-out war.

Taiwangate: A Fallout-Free Scandal

Some scandals find traction in Washington, others fizzle. The Taiwangate affair--which involves a $100 million secret Taiwan government slush fund that financed intelligence, propaganda, and influence activities within the United States and elsewhere--seems to be in the latter category at the moment. The beneficiaries of the lack of attention include three prominent Bush appointees at the State Department who, before joining the Bush administration, received money from this account. And one of these officials, John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, submitted pro-Taiwan testimony to Congress in the 1990s without revealing he was a paid consultant to Taiwan. His work for Taiwan, it turns out, was financed by this slush fund.

On April 2, The Nation reported that news stories out of Asia, citing leaked classified documents, showed that former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui had established an illegal covert fund when he was in office and that several million dollars from it apparently were used to pay for a pro-Taiwan lobbying campaign in Washington mounted by Cassidy and Associates, a powerful lobbying firm. The clandestine account, according to the Asian media reports, underwrote the travels of Carl Ford, Jr., a former senior CIA analyst who was a consultant to the Cassidy and Associates effort. The Pacific Forum, the Honolulu-based armed of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also received money--perhaps $100,000--from the slush fund, when James Kelly, a past National Security Council officer, headed the Forum. Forty-thousand dollars of that money, CSIS confirmed, was sent to Harvard to cover the costs of a fellowship for a former Japanese defense official. In May 2001, Bush appointed Ford to be assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, and Kelly to be assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. (For more details, see the "Capital Games" dispatch preceding this one, "Taiwangate?--Bush Appointees Linked to Secret Slush Funds.")

On April 5, The Washington Post published a similar story, reporting that Taiwanese officials said the fund had paid $30,000 to John Bolton for research papers he wrote in the mid-1990s on how Taiwan could win readmission into the United Nations.

Neither the State Department nor the three State officials who reportedly received money from Lee's slush fund have felt compelled to make a statement regarding the scandal. None of the officials would answer any questions from The Nation or the Post on the matter.

The day the Post story appeared, a reporter at the daily State Department briefing asked Philip Reeker, the deputy spokesman for the department, to comment on the Post's article and the involvement of "State Department officials like John Bolton and Jim Kelly" in the slush fund.

"No, I don't think I read the story," Reeker said, "and I don't think we would comment on things that involve people prior to their work at the State Department, their official capacity. So that is just not something we would have anything on."

Didn't read a front-page story on a massive and secret Taiwanese endeavor to obtain influence in the United States and other nations that mentions three senior State Department officials by name? Reeker should be canned for that. But it does not take too keen an observer to see the damage-control strategy being employed. Bolton, Ford and Kelly refuse to take calls, while the State Department flacks say this all happened before we--and the three men--got here, so it's none of our business. And everyone hopes there are no more revelations and the story fades.

That's not a bad strategy, so far. Bolton and Company might be able to ride this out without much discomfort.

But the Taiwangate stories out of Asia also revive an issue Bolton encountered during his March 29, 2001, confirmation hearing held by the Senate foreign relations committee. During that session, he was asked if he had ever served as consultant to the Taiwanese government. Bolton said he was paid $10,000 a year in 1994, 1995 and 1996 by Taiwan to write research papers on Taiwan-U.N. membership issues. With Lee's slush fund still a secret, there was no reason for senators to question Bolton about the ultimate source of the payments. Instead, Democratic senators were more interested in whether Bolton--who had previously called for U.S. recognition of Taiwan as a separate nation (thus, opposing the U.S. official position of "one-China") and who had received money from Taiwan--would have to recuse himself from Taiwan-related issues. Bolton provided the obligatory reassurances. The Democrats were also concerned with his arch-conservative approach to arms control and foreign policy issues. (They had cause to fear. See the March 11, 2002, "Capital Games" dispatch below, "Bush's New Nuclear Weapon Plan: A Shot at Nonproliferation.") For his part, Senator Jesse Helms, then chairman of the committee, declared, "John Bolton is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon, or what the Bible describes as the final battle between good and evil in this world."

Bolton acknowledged his financial connection to Taiwan, but he did not mention he had previously appeared before Congress and given testimony supporting Taiwan without revealing then he was on that nation's payroll. On July 14, 1994, and August 3, 1995, Bolton testified before the House foreign affairs committee. Each time he identified himself as a former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. (At the second appearance, he also referred to himself as president of the National Policy Forum, a conservative think tank.) His prepared testimony for each session began the same way: "I believe that the United States should support the efforts of the Republic of China on Taiwan to become a full member of the United Nations." In neither instance did he note he was a paid adviser to the Taiwan government.

Shouldn't Bolton have told the House committee in 1994 and 1995 that he was a consultant to Taiwan--that he was not only a policy advocate with a long-term interest in the subject? These appearances also raise the question of whether he should have registered as a foreign agent. At the time of his confirmation hearing last year, a "source close to the State Department" told The Washington Post that Bolton, a lawyer, had been exempted from registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act because he was "providing legal services." Indeed, the Justice Department's Foreign Agents Registration Unit notes on its website that "lawyers engaged in legal representation of foreign principals in the courts or similar type proceedings" are exempt. But Bolton was not representing Taiwan within a legal forum, and the Justice Department unit says a lawyer is exempt "so long as the attorney does not try to influence policy at the behest of his client." Bolton was obviously hoping to influence policy when he came before the House foreign affairs committee. But was he doing so on behalf of Taiwan?

According to that "source close to the State Department," Bolton claimed he was not paid or directed by Taiwan to testify before the House committee. Still, this is a matter Bolton should address himself. And Bolton, Carl Ford, and Jim Kelly ought to respond about their role--witting or unwitting--in Taiwan's secret campaign to gain influence in Washington and elsewhere. Doesn't the American public deserve to know what Taiwan was up to? Whether it took advantage of past and future U.S. officials? Moreover, the State Department and President Bush should have something to say about Taiwan's clandestine project to shape U.S. policy. Yet there is little pressure on any of these parties to talk. A search of the major U.S. newspapers turns up no references to the Taiwan scandal after the Post piece.

The scandal out of Taiwan is ripe for congressional digging. How far was the slush slopped? Were any other former or current U.S. officials exploited by Taiwan? And think of it this way: what would the Republicans have done had three senior Clinton State Department officials been handed money from a foreign leader's secret operations account? Taiwangate has been causing much noise in Asia. But not even a page-one story in the Post is enough to stir a fuss here. How lucky for the Taiwangate Three--and the man who appointed them.

Taiwangate?--Bush Appointees Linked to Secret Slush Funds UPDATE

[FOR TWO UPDATES, SCROLL TO THE END.]

Allegations that a past president of Taiwan illegally set up a $100 million secret slush fund to pay for overseas intelligence, propaganda, and influence operations are causing ripples that have reached into the Bush Administration.

At the end of March, Next, a Hong Kong magazine, and the China Times, a daily newspaper in Taiwan, reported that classified documents indicated Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's president in the late 1990s, established a secret account in the National Security Bureau to underwrite various activities, including running spy networks in China and elsewhere. The articles, which noted the NSB had made payments to Japanese officials (including former prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto) and which identified Taiwanese intelligence officials stationed abroad, detonated a scandal in Taiwan.

The government did not challenge the veracity of the reports, and the Taiwanese news media reported Taiwan's security services were recalling personnel from outposts around the world, including those in the United State, Japan, France and China. The Next magazine reporter who broke the story, Hsieh Zhong-liang, was charged with breaching national security and banned from leaving the country; his magazine's office was raided by the police. Hsieh wouldn't reveal the source who provided the documents, but other journalists speculated the information had come from a former National Security Bureau finance officer who is on the run and alleged to have embezzled $5.5 million. The leaks embarrassed the current government, which is controlled by the Democratic Progressive Party, for the DPP is allied with the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a pro-independence party led by ex-President Lee. Amid all the fuss, Lee called off a trip to the United States.

The scandal has tainted two senior Bush appointees in the State Department. Sing Tao Daily, a Hong Kong newspaper, reported that Lee used the secret account--which had not been approved by Parliament--to pay Cassidy and Associates, one of Washington's largest lobbying firms, to work for Taiwan, and the newspaper said the slush fund had covered the costs of trips made to Taiwan by Carl Ford Jr., a Cassidy and Associates consultant. Ford is now assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research.

Sing Tao, citing the classified documents, also reported James Kelly, whom Bush last May appointed assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, received money from this fund when he headed the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based think tank that is an arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is based in Washington, DC. Sing Tao maintained Lee drew $100,000 from the clandestine account in February 1999 to pay the Pacific Forum to support former Japanese Vice-Defense Minister Masahiro Akiyama's study at Harvard University.

Both Ford and Kelly are significant players in crafting Bush Administration policy on Taiwan. Ford is a longtime expert on Chinese affairs. He was a China analyst with the CIA in the 1970s and the CIA's National Intelligence Officer for East Asia in 1985. He has been a Capitol Hill staffer, a Pentagon official, and a prominent advocate of U.S. military assistance to Taiwan. Kelly was director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration. He also served in the Pentagon in the early 1980s.

In 1999 and 2000, Ford was indeed a consultant to Cassidy and Associates, according to Justice Department records and a spokesman for the firm. During this time, Cassidy and Associates was mounting a vigorous campaign on Taiwan's behalf, lobbying Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House and producing pro-Taiwan media materials, including a website, position papers, and a newsletter. (This was a joint effort with its sister company, Powell Tate.) Ford wrote op-eds, letters-to the editor and testified before Congress in support of Taiwan's positions, usually identified as a consultant to the Taiwan Research Institute, a think tank based in that country and associated with Lee's party. In the spring of 2000, as the Clinton administration was pondering whether to sell Aegis destroyers to Taiwan, Ford circulated a memo in Washington arguing that a leaked Pentagon report showed Taiwan needed the "Aegis and other systems to offset Beijing's ballooning arsenal."

A spokesman for Cassidy and Associates says the firm was paid for its pro-Taiwan efforts by the Taiwan Research Institute. Justice Department records show that Cassidy and Associates received $3.2 million from 1997 to 2000 for this work. "It was our understanding that the TRI money came from private sources," says the Cassidy and Associates spokesman. "TRI, to us, was a private, nongovernmental think tank. They engaged us and they paid us."

But perhaps the money was part of an undercover government effort to influence politics and policy in the United States. Which would mean that Cassidy and Associates, whether it realized it or not, was fronting for a secret propaganda operation conducted by a foreign leader. Does it make any difference to Cassidy and Associates that the payments may have come from a slush fund, funneled through a research institute? "That's a metaphysical question," the spokesman replies. "I'm not sure it makes any sense for me to respond." Did Ford take trips to and from Taiwan as part of his work on Cassidy and Associate's Taiwan account? "We really don't get into that sort of information on our contacts with clients," the Cassidy and Associates spokesman says. (If you're wondering why the Cassidy and Associates spokesman is not named here, it's because the person said he would talk only if I agreed not to identify him.)

Jay Farrar, a spokesman for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says his think tank has examined its financial records and found no transactions between any Taiwanese government entity and the Pacific Forum or the CSIS that correspond to the allegations in the Asian media. He asserts there was no evidence "in our records" of any payment made by Pacific Forum or CSIS to Harvard University. CSIS has received general support funding from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office ($250,000 or more in 2001), Farrar says. But he notes this is a governmental office that routinely makes grants overseas. "We don't see any funds from the NSB," he adds. Farrar does note CSIS and Pacific Forum employees are free to do outside consulting: "Jim Kelly had that same opportunity when he was at Pacific Forum; he may have taken advantage of that." But Farrar says that CSIS has no knowledge whether Kelly did and that CSIS has not had any "formal contact" with Kelly regarding the Taiwan allegations. Has CSIS asked the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office if the money it gave CSIS may have come from Lee's secret slush fund? No, says Farrar, remarking, "It's an interesting prospect to go back and ask people who gave you money, is this legal or not?"

Neither Ford nor Kelly will address the media reports from Asia. A woman answering the phone in Ford's office said he has "no comment" and would not take questions on the subject. Kelly's office referred me to a spokesman at the State Department who said, "There will be no response from my office. This has nothing to do with the State Department."

Shouldn't the State Department have some response? To recap: news reports in Taiwan and Hong Kong, citing classified government records, say that as part of ex-President Lee's covert campaign to win friends and influence governments around the world, key members of the pro-Taiwan lobby in the United States received money, wittingly or not, from a slush fund. And two alleged to have done so are currently high-level U.S. government officials.

During the campaign finance scandal of the Clinton administration, there was much huffing--mostly among Republicans--about a supposed Chinese campaign to shape politics in the United States. The more rabid rightwingers accused Bill Clinton of selling out the United States to Beijing. But several of the so-called Chinese connections tracked back to Taiwan, not China, and firm evidence of a Chinese plot never fully materialized. (There were hints.) With the recent media reports out of Taiwan, there is a much stronger case that it was Taiwan that utilized illegal and covert funds to influence U.S. policy--as well as policy in other nations. But there has yet been no outrage here. The U.S. media has not caught on to the story, and Ford, Kelly and the State Department have been able to get away with their no-comments-at-all response.

Perhaps the say-nothing strategy will work. But the story might not be over. Professor Wu Yu-shan of the National Taiwan University tells the BBC that he expects the leaks will "go on and on."

NOW FOR AN UPDATE:

Two days after saying that CSIS had no records of any transactions involving the Pacific Forum, Harvard University and Masahiro Akiyama (the former Japanese defense official), Jay Farrar called to note that a "more fulsome search" found that the Pacific Forum did provide money to Harvard on behalf of Akiyama.

In December 1999, according to a statement produced by Farrar, the Pacific Forum "was asked" to help find Akiyama a fellowship, and the think tank agreed to do so. Subsequently, the Pacific Forum received $50,000 from the Taiwan Transportation Machinery Corporation, via the firm's president R.T. Peng. The forum sent $40,000 to Harvard and kept the remaining $10,000 in its general administration fund.

In June 2000, R.T. Peng and the his company contributed another $50,000 to the Pacific Forum to support its work, according to the CSIS statement. And Peng and the Taiwan Transportation Machinery Corporation made $25,000 donations to the Pacific Forum's general fund in 1998 and 1999.

According to Farrar, CSIS does not know who requested the Pacific Forum assist Akiyama. He says that the CSIS still has not asked Jim Kelly anything about this arrangement. Has CSIS spoken to Peng about the source of the funds used to pay for Akiyama's Harvard fellowship? "No," replies Farrar. Will CSIS be conducting an additional inquiry into the matter? "We don't have any reason to," Farrar says.

The CSIS statement does not note that Peng sits on the board of the Pacific Forum and has been a close adviser to former President Lee, helping him particularly in diplomatic matters concerning Japan. The news accounts out of Taiwan and Hong Kong and CSIS's accounting records raise the possibility a board member of the Pacific Forum served as a conduit for money from a government slush fund used by Lee to do an underhanded favor for a former senior-level Japanese government official. That ought to merit further attention from CSIS. And was Kelly aware he was being used in this fashion? His involvement--and Carl Ford's connection to the scandal--should prompt a State Department inquiry.

AND THE LATEST UPDATE:

On April 5, The Washington Post published a front-page story, "Secret Taiwan Fund Sought Friends, Influence Abroad," that covered most of what The Nation reported above. The piece, by John Pomfret, a Beijing correspondent for the paper, provided additional information. Pomfret, who interviewed past and present officials in Taipei, reported that the secret slush fund was divided into seven components, and one called Mingde ("Clear Virtue," in English) handled projects involving the United States and Japan. One Taiwanese official told Pomfret that Taiwan regularly funded research by U.S. academics on Taiwan, subsidized conferences conducted by U.S. think tanks (such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute), and paid for trips to Taiwan taken by congressional aides. But the story does not indicate if all of this activity was supported by the secret slush fund. This official remarked, "We know there is a revolving door in Washington. So we follow the careers of people and hope we can cooperate."

One success on this front for the Taiwanese involved John Bolton, now undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. During his confirmation hearing last year, Bolton, a hawk who has for years championed Taiwan, said that in the mid-1990s he received $30,000 from the Taiwan government to write three research papers on how Taiwan might win its way back into the United Nations. Bolton defended the payments and said they would not affect his judgment in office. According to the Post, the money for these reports came from the slush fund. During the period he was receiving these payments, Bolton twice testified before Congress in favor of Taiwan's readmission into the U.N.

It's not likely that Bolton pushed ardently pro-Taiwan positions because of the payments. Taiwan was, more probably, rewarding a right-wing ally already on its side. But Bolton should be asked what he understood about the source of the money for these reports, and he ought to be questioned about any other institutional ties he has had with Taiwan. Does it compromise the political system to have foreign policy experts testifying before Congress who have been paid via the slush fund of an overseas government? But Bolton would not talk to the Post.

The Post article noted that the Mingde project targeted other Americans to befriend, including Paul Wolfowitz, now the deputy defense secretary, and Kurt Campbell, a deputy assistant defense secretary in the Clinton administration. But there's no evidence slush fund money went to either, and a Wolfowitz spokesman said Wolfowitz did not know of any connection between himself and the Taiwan fund.

Beyond the United States, Lee and his lieutenants spread the secret money to win support. Pomfret reports Panama's government was given $11 million for hosting Lee in 1997, Nicaragua was slipped $10 million to build a palace for its president, and that about $20 million was passed to the African National Congress in South Africa to help it repay campaign debts.

To date, three top Bush appointees in the State Department have been tarred by the scandal. When will these officials and the State Department feel compelled to address the controversy? Were other American hawks on Taiwan's secret payroll, knowingly or not? Will Congress become interested enough to examine Taiwan's extensive covert influence campaign? How far will the slush spread?

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