A Look Back

After the events of September 11, 2001 everyone who had the slightest interest in politics and public affairs became somewhat more interested in issues of foreign policy and national security. In particular, questions about al-Qaeda and international terrorism that had previously been somewhat obscure leaped to the forefront of the public consciousness. In those confusing times, many turned to the country’s stock of prestigious public affairs magazines seeking enlightenment. And of the people who took that course, some proportion — myself included — turned to The New Republic which was, at the time, a well-regarded weekly magazine of the center-left. Its editors decided that what the public needed to read was James Woolsey recycling a version of Laurie Mylroie’s conspiracy theories — an argument that the initial focus on Osama bin Laden was misplaced and that attention should turn instead to Saddam Hussein who, according to Woolsey, was in fact responsible for many terrorist attacks that had been wrongly attributed to al-Qaeda. Woolsey argued that “investigators should revisit the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center” and then they would see the correctness of the Saddam-centric worldview.

As Peter Bergan has pointed out there’s no evidence to support the Woolsey/Mylroie theory of the case:

Moreover, Mylroie’s broader contention that the first Trade Center attack was an Iraqi plot is, to put it mildly, not shared by the intelligence and law-enforcement officials familiar with the subsequent investigation. Vince Cannistraro, who headed the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorist Center in the early 1990s, told me, “My view is that Laurie has an obsession with Iraq and trying to link Saddam to global terrorism. Years of strenuous effort to prove the case have been unavailing.” Ken Pollack, a former C.I.A. analyst, scarcely to be described as “soft” on Saddam — his book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq made the most authoritative argument for toppling the dictator — dismissed Mylroie’s theories to me: “The NSC [National Security Council] had the intelligence community look very hard at the allegations that the Iraqis were behind the 1993 Trade Center attack. Finding those links would have been very beneficial to the U.S. government at the time, but the intelligence community said that there were no such links.”

Mary Jo White, the no-nonsense U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted both the Trade Center case and the al Qaeda bombers behind the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, told me that there was no evidence to support Mylroie’s claims: “We investigated the Trade Center attack thoroughly, and other than the evidence that Ramzi Yousef traveled on a phony Iraqi passport, that was the only connection to Iraq.” Neil Herman, the F.B.I. official who headed the Trade Center probe, explained that following the attacks, one of the lower-level conspirators, Abdul Rahman Yasin, did flee New York to live with a family member in Baghdad: “The one glaring connection that can’t be overlooked is Yasin. We pursued that on every level, traced him to a relative and a location, and we made overtures to get him back.” However, Herman says that Yasin’s presence in Baghdad does not mean Iraq sponsored the attack: “We looked at that rather extensively. There were no ties to the Iraqi government.” In sum, by the mid-’90s, the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, the F.B.I., the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, the C.I.A., the N.S.C., and the State Department had all found no evidence implicating the Iraqi government in the first Trade Center attack.


But at The New Republic there are no editorial standards whatsoever when the aim is supporting a hawkish foreign policy, so the editors decided to publish Woolsey’s article and help mislead TNR’s audience.