The midnight ride of James Woolsey

The former CIA director presents himself as the Paul Revere of the terrorism age, trying to waken America to its greatest threat -- Saddam Hussein. Should we be listening?

Published December 20, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

If the United States finally decides to extend its war on terrorism all the way to Baghdad, it will be thanks in no small part to former CIA Director James Woolsey. While the Bush administration must speak circumspectly about a possible war with Saddam Hussein, Woolsey has become its unofficial point man in the growing war of words with the Iraqi dictator. In the past few weeks, Woolsey has been dispatched to London by the Pentagon to investigate possible links between Saddam and the Sept. 11 blood bath and has popped up on nearly every TV news program to argue the hawks' position on Iraq. While Secretary of State Colin Powell, leader of the administration's dovish faction, has tried to keep Woolsey at arm's length, his views are increasingly influential in the Bush White House.

Woolsey has not held government office since leaving the CIA in 1995, but this consummate Beltway insider has worked effectively over the years in Washington's shadow government. A conservative Democrat (or a liberal conservative, depending on where you stand), Woolsey has served on every commission and board that matters in the world of defense and national security, such as the Defense Policy Board and the Rumsfeld Commission on missile defense. He is widely respected in a town riven by spiteful feuds.

The former intelligence chief has not always been associated with the more hawkish wing of Washington's foreign policy elite. After numerous stints in top-level national security posts, Woolsey was appointed by President Clinton in 1993 to head the CIA. But Woolsey failed to penetrate Clinton's inner circle, which was overwhelmingly focused in the early years on domestic issues. After a disturbed man crashed a plane on the White House grounds in 1994, a joke made the rounds in Washington that it was Woolsey trying to get in to see the president. Disillusioned by Clinton's disregard for intelligence matters, Woolsey left the agency after a brief tenure and returned to civilian life as a partner at the powerful Washington law firm Shea and Gardner. (Under the terms of the United States' Foreign Agents Registration Act, the firm is registered as a foreign agent for the Iraqi National Congress.) He spent the rest of the Clinton presidency as something of a maverick, criticizing the administration on foreign policy and defense and even taking on the CIA itself by defending six Iraqi opposition members facing deportation to Iraq on national security grounds.

A longtime advocate of regime change in Iraq, since Sept. 11 Woolsey has been focusing on one thing and one thing only: making the case against Saddam Hussein.

Isn't the recent bin Laden tape a setback for those who want to shift the focus of the war against terrorism toward the removal of Saddam Hussein -- on the tape, the al-Qaida leader clearly boasts about his leadership in Sept. 11?

That's a particularly stupid conclusion. There is no sole-source contracting requirement for terrorism. Just because bin Laden was involved doesn't mean some state intelligence service was not involved.

So you still think that the U.S. should be concerned about Iraqi involvement in Sept. 11?

Certainly. First of all involvement in Sept. 11, or in the anthrax scare, should not at all be necessary for anyone to regard Iraq as a terrorist state that is a danger to its neighbors and the United States. Iraq was clearly responsible for the attempt to assassinate former President Bush in 1993. That's the reason President Clinton shot cruise missiles in the middle of the night into the empty buildings in Baghdad. Second, any objective observer is going to admit that Iraq has been working hard in weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological and nuclear, for the last number of years. That's the reason they cheated in the inspections before 1998 and that's the reason they have worked so hard to be freed from the inspections since then. Innumerable defectors and U.N. inspectors say that. I know of no objective observer who doesn't believe that.

We know the administration is split into two factions on Iraq. The more dovish wing, including many senior officials at the State Department, is critical of your position and the idea of waging a war on Iraq. Any clues on who is winning the internal debate?

I have no idea. I intentionally asked friends in the administration that they give me no feedback on any internal debate, so as not to be influenced. I have no idea and no idea what the president thinks.

But why should we go after every bad guy in the neighborhood?

I never said we should go after every bad guy. That is a straw man thrown up by those who don't want to confront the reality of what Iraq has been doing. With respect to a number of other countries, such as Iran, that are working on weapons of mass destruction, there are reasons to believe that there may be other ways to see a change in the government or regime. There have been mass demonstrations by young people recently against the Iranian regime, chanting "Death to Taliban in Kabul and in Tehran." There are many ways to skin a cat.

We may see a change in position by some former terrorist sponsoring states. For example [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi sounds very much like Tony Blair since Sept. 11. It's only the people who've made the decision from the beginning that they are not willing to deal with Iraq; they make the argument that if we deal with Iraq, we have to deal with everybody who may be working with weapons of mass destruction the same way.

Saddam seems like a tyrant who is more interested in survival than in suicidal confrontations. What makes you think he would ever use his weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. or Israel, knowing the response would be fatal?

Why accept the final judgment of your question -- namely that it's all right to let him achieve his goals and get stronger in the area of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles when in the past he showed that he'll use these capabilities to attack his neighbors? There is a difference between rationality and reasonable objectives. Hitler was very shrewd and rational, especially in foreign policy between 1933 and 1939. But he had a hideous objective to destroy everyone who was not Aryan. In this case, you have to distinguish between rationality and objectives. I don't accept anyone's judgment that Saddam Hussein will benignly hold onto these weapons, with no threat to use them, because he sort of likes to have them. It's a dangerous view.

Let's turn to Sept. 11. You've spent some time investigating possible Iraqi connections to the hijackers. What is there?

There are yet no smoking guns, but there are indicators that Iraq may well have been involved. First are the meeting or meetings between Mohammed Atta and [Mohammed] al-Ani of Iraqi intelligence in Prague as stated by Czech government. Second, press reports in the U.K. say that two of the other principal hijackers of Sept. 11 met with the Iraqi intelligence in the United Arab Emirates. Third, [there have been] many meetings between Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaida during the late '90s in Iraq and in Afghanistan, including the visit by Iraqi intelligence chief [Faruq] Hijazi. Four, [there are] five eyewitnesses -- three of them defectors and two of them American United Nations inspectors -- to different aspects of the training that has been taking place for years at Salman Pak on the southern edge of Baghdad. The training is separate for Iraqis and non-Iraqis to hijack an aircraft using knives. One can see an old Boeing 707 that Iraqi intelligence services used for this training on commercially available satellite reconnaissance. Again, none of these is a smoking gun, but it's the sort of evidence that adds up for those who think the link to Sept. 11 must be demonstrated. Personally, I don't think that's necessary.

A recent New York Times piece throws some doubt on the alleged meeting between Atta and an Iraqi agent in Prague. Does that undermine the argument that there might be a connection between Sept. 11 and Baghdad?

That story has been refuted by the Czech government.

Is the evidence you mention enough to indict the Iraqi regime in international law or even the court of public opinion?

There is no requirement that one does not use evidence that is hearsay. All intelligence, with very rare exceptions, is hearsay. But hearsay evidence is not admissible generally in a criminal trial. So applying criminal evidentiary standards and legal evidentiary standards to intelligence is particularly stupid. It's very important that people assess what evidence or material or information is available. For those who are interested in an Iraqi tie to Sept. 11 or to anthrax, there is some evidence. But I don't think this is necessary for the United States to decide that Iraq is a dangerous terrorist government that is working on weapons of mass destruction and that we must replace the Baathist regime there.

This is summed up as a hawkish position.

It's a wise position. It's up to the people who want to characterize it one way or the other.

Still, why do you advocate an all-out effort to topple Saddam? In the past, the U.S. dealt with him by sending occasional missiles of disapproval.

If I were to paraphrase Mr. Carville's slogan from the 1992 presidential campaign here, I'd say, "It's the regime, stupid." It makes no sense at all to simply bomb Iraq and try to take out its weapons of mass destruction and leave the regime in place. Saddam has quite cruelly hidden his weapons of mass destruction facilities underneath schools, hospitals and universities. He has also made them mobile so they can be moved around. For example, biological equipment is put within areas close to civilians. It would be extraordinarily difficult -- I think indeed impossible -- to do an effective job of taking out his facilities for weapons of mass destruction by bombing. One has to replace the regime.

There is a school of thought in Washington that argues that the best outcome for the U.S. would be a palace coup -- someone from within the regime or his own military to take over, rather than having Americans galvanize behind a military campaign.

A coup has never been a good idea in Iraq. The reason it makes no sense merely to replace him is that Iraq has never been vulnerable to a coup under his regime. He controls the people around him and when anyone seems to become at all threatening, he kills them. A palace coup is nearly impossible in Iraq.

So what are your plans for toppling the regime?

What one needs to do is to support the democratic opposition armed uprising in the North and the South; to destroy his land forces with air power, as has been demonstrated in Afghanistan to be extremely effective; and to look for defections from his regular army into the ranks of the rebels. That's a reasonable approach.

We are talking about one of the strongest armies in the region.

His army is half strength or less since 1991 and the only troops he can count on are the Republican Guard, and I'm not sure he can completely count on them. We've gone from having 10 percent smart weapons in 1991 to having 90 percent smart weapons in Afghanistan. The devastating impact of that has been clear to everyone. It now takes an average of two weapons to destroy a target, compared to 10 weapons 10 years ago.

You assign a key role to the Iraqi opposition, and particularly the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmad Chalabi, in overthrowing the regime there. But some -- again, including high-ranking State Department officials -- express doubts about the opposition's capacity to deliver this, especially given that they don't have a military presence on the ground.

These opponents of the INC are too cowardly to use their own names [in interviews and statements]. I am not. That should raise a question mark about the credibility of what they say about anybody.

It's hard to even imagine that the U.S. can topple Saddam without putting troops on the ground.

U.S. engagement has to be absolutely serious, but it doesn't need to be anywhere near the 500,000 troops that we used in the Gulf War. I think we could have American assistance and there has to be some ground forces over and above the special forces of the sort that have been used in Afghanistan ... Once we have destroyed his defenses, that means we have destroyed a great deal of his army and the Republican Guard from the air.

We are, of course, talking about a guy who has chemical, biological and at this point possibly nuclear capabilities. Who is to say he'll fight a future war your way? Isn't there a possibility that, given his capabilities, if attacked, Saddam Hussein could unleash a serious biological attack on neighboring countries?

For those who are afraid to confront Saddam today because he may have weapons of mass destruction, I'd ask them what makes them think it's going to get easier. It's getting worse every day in terms of his work on weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles of ever-longer ranges. That's why it's important to move against him sooner rather than later.

We've done a very bad thing in the 1990s by the Clinton administration being so feckless and flaccid in dealing with Iraq for eight years. We are in a much more dangerous situation today than we were eight, nine years ago. It'll be even more dangerous tomorrow.

During 1993-1995, you were part of that administration as the CIA chief. Wasn't what you called a "feckless and flaccid" policy in place at the time?

It started when President Clinton decided to respond to the attempt to assassinate former President Bush in the spring of 1993 merely by shooting two dozen cruise missiles into an empty building in the middle of the night. I think killing some night watchman and Iraqi cleaning women had the opposite effect on Saddam that one would want.

Were you not part of the group of advisors that decided on that action?

Those decisions were not made on the advice of the people who are involved with intelligence. Indeed, the intelligence agencies during the Clinton administration were told they were not to give policy advice.

But surely you cannot put the blame on the Clinton administration and try to keep out the CIA?

I can tell you that they were not instrumental in making any decision between 1993 and early 1995. After that you'll have to ask my successors. No advice of the intelligence agencies was asked at that decision.

Of course the first World Trade Center attack and the following investigation took place under your watch.

As far as the WTC bombing of 1993 was concerned, all the information that was collected by law enforcement was kept under grand jury secrecy. The intelligence agencies were not permitted by law to see it until the trials of conspirators like Ramzi Yousef were completed. That was the way that the Clinton administration chose to approach acts of terrorism. As law enforcement matters and not as acts of security.

You put a lot of blame on the Clinton administration. But doesn't the principal blame for Saddam's survival fall on the first Bush administration, which, instead of toppling him, left Saddam in place out of deference to regimes in the region, like the Saudis, that fear democracy in Iraq?

The first Bush administration made a serious error in judgment in not supporting Iraqi opposition after the war. The Clinton administration made eight years of that.

There is a theory that there are Iraqi fingerprints in the 1993 attack. You have recently suggested that evidence linking the 1993 WTC attack to Iraq was overlooked during the investigation process.

What I've said was that the original investigator for the FBI in 1993 to early 1994, Jim Fox, had those suspicions. After Fox was retired, the U.S. government prosecution veered off to another theory, namely that this was a network of terrorists inspired by the blind sheik [Omar Rahman], more or less abandoning the approach of looking for ties to Iraq. None of this was available to anyone outside the small circle of prosecutors and the FBI till after the trials were finished. That was a rule of law, not a policy decision.

Going back to the Iraq business: Opponents of attacking Iraq argue that containment might be a better tool than pursuing a military strategy.

What Saddam wants to do is to dominate that portion of the world, its oil supplies and his neighbors, and he is working hard on weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles in order to do it. He certainly would threaten American forces in the Middle East. As we said in the [congressional] Rumsfeld Commission, it would be a few years -- after North Korea and Iran -- before he is able to build several stage ballistic missiles that would reach the U.S. (Keep in mind that as poor a country as North Korea, which has nowhere near the wealth and scientific knowledge of Iraq, has been able to construct a three-stage missile.) People who believe that this problem is decades away are simply wrong and don't understand how ballistic missiles work.

Meanwhile we know very little about the inner workings of the Iraqi regime. How is our intelligence on Iraq these days?

Until early '95 it was reasonably good, but could have been better. A lot of useful information was turned up by U.N. inspectors. Since early 1995, you have to ask [former CIA Director John] Deutch and [current CIA Director George] Tenet.

No country in the Middle East today -- at least no Arab country -- supports attacking Iraq. What would such a step mean for U.S. interests in the region and to the U.S.-led coalition on terrorism?

I think one nutty way to make foreign policy is to collect a large number of nations and decide to do what the lowest common denominator wants. If you approach foreign policy and security policy that way, you'll never accomplish anything. What we have to do is to decide what is in our interests and what needs to be done and then go to the countries whose help we want -- and only Turkey's help is essential in this matter -- tell them what we want, and ask for their assistance. I've been in four different jobs in the executive branch over the years dealing with allies, and it's been my universal experience that allies respond far more helpfully when the United States takes a strong position of leadership than they do when the U.S. goes to them hat in hand and says, "We don't know what we want to do. What do you think?" It's an especially bad idea to start with the need for a numerically large coalition to do what the most fainthearted of those is willing to support.

Speaking of coalitions, much criticism has surfaced lately of the strongest U.S. ally in the region, Saudi Arabia. Do you think U.S. policy toward this regime needs to be reconsidered?

The Saudis are the last country I would go to hat in hand and go along with their initial inclination. The Saudis are a huge part of the problem that all good countries face as a result of what happened in this part of the world. The Saudis have exported a lot of money to support an extreme form of Islamist philosophy, if you can call it that. The madrasas they supported in Pakistan are a major source for the Taliban, and much of the money for al-Qaida has come from Saudi Arabia. We would ultimately be better off with a democratic Saudi Arabia than we would with a ruling family that has done what this one has and bought off the Islamic extremists and terrorists by pointing them towards us. Saudis deserve a very large part of the blame for Sept. 11, and I do not think we should do anything more with them right now than be cordial.

But a regime change in Iraq would ultimately destabilize the Saudi government.

The world would be much better off with democratic regimes in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Mideast. Those who believe we have to go along with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes because such and such a country or culture can't understand democracy are flatly wrong.

But we have yet to see an Islamic regime that is also a democracy. There isn't yet a democratic version of Islam.

Certainly there is. Look at Bangladesh. Look at the reforms on Bahrain. There are certain features of Islam that are different on this issue from other religions -- perhaps [there is] less of a tradition of the separation of church and state. But I don't see why Islamic countries can't be democracies. We owe the people the respect to let them figure out how to choose their rulers.

By Asla Aydintasbas

Asla Aydintasbas is a New York journalist. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times and other publications.

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Afghanistan Iraq Middle East Osama Bin Laden