- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

When Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations Security Council last February to display the evidence against Saddam Hussein, pundits applauded the eloquence of his long and detailed indictment of the Iraqi dictator.

Using highly classified satellite imagery, transcribed recordings of conversations among Iraqi officials and information derived from allied human intelligence sources, Mr. Powell laid out the case for war.

At the time, many in the business of gathering and analyzing national security intelligence expressed astonishment and anxiety that America’s methods for collecting, evaluating and disseminating intelligence were being aired live, on international television for the world to see.

After Mr. Powell’s U.N. exposition, a former senior intelligence official told me “we gave away the store” and that he was “astounded at what the presentation revealed about our intelligence wherewithal.” Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed concern: “They frankly revealed more intelligence capabilities and assessment and sources and methods than I’ve ever seen.”

Senior Bush administration national security officials apparently believed the unprecedented display of intelligence would persuade global skeptics at the U.N. that the Americans and British were right about the threat Saddam posed.

Washington and London also believed such a presentation of “the facts” — by an official as admired as Mr. Powell — would help convince uneasy electorates in both nations that a pre-emptive war was the only sensible course.

Someone must have determined these considerations were more important than what the briefing would reveal to our adversaries — not just in Iraq, but in Jihadist terror cells from Indonesia to the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. Those making the decisions added up the costs and benefits — and came up with the wrong answer. The televised U.N. briefing on Feb. 5, 2003 was a mistake.

By the time Mr. Powell put those photos and decrypted Iraqi telephone and radio conversations on the air for the world to see, the French and Germans had already dug in their heels to buy time for Saddam. Unlike 1962, when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson stunned the world with never-before-seen U-2 photos of Soviet nuclear missiles being shipped to and installed in Cuba, there was little real hope Mr. Powell’s exposition would change their votes in the U.N. Security Council. So exposing to the world how the United States collects and uses intelligence was a major error.

Unfortunately, we haven’t learned from our mistakes. Last week, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, otherwise known as the “9-11 Commission,” held open hearings in Washington.

Former and current officials charged with protecting the country’s security were paraded before TV cameras to disclose what they knew about Osama bin Laden — and why we were unable to prevent the horrific attack on September 11, 2001.

For the commission, it was a frustrating exercise in Washington finger-pointing from the various witnesses who were sworn to tell the truth. For terrorists plotting their next attack on American citizens, it was another peek inside our past and current intelligence capabilities — and our vulnerabilities.

With the help of several commissioners, the self-serving Richard Clarke, counterterrorism coordinator during the Clinton administration — who was inexplicably left in place during the early Bush administration — used the forum to promote his new political attack book, “Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror.”

In an apparent effort to bolster the perception that only he had the gift of omniscience — he commenced his testimony with a cynical plea that he be “forgiven” for the attack.

Mr. Clarke’s bogus claim to clairvoyance is belied by numerous others — in and out of government — who were issuing warnings before September 11.

In July 2001, following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 assault on the USS Cole, and an ominous warning from Osama bin Laden, I wrote in this column: “It’s time to stop treating Osama bin Laden like a bank robber in Peoria. He has declared war on the United States, and we should give him what he wants: war. Those who aid and abet his cause — like the Taliban in Afghanistan, who have hidden him since 1996, and Saparmurat Niyazov in neighboring Turkmenistan — should be put on notice that we regard them to be his allies and treat them accordingly.”

Members of the September 11 Commission seem to agree with that assessment. But in challenging both the Clinton and Bush administrations for not going after al Qaeda forcefully enough, they also reveal much of our capabilities and limitations — from how long it takes to modify systems like Predator to adverse assessments of our present allies in Afghanistan. The response from representatives of both administrations is that prior to September 11, 2001, there was no stomach for war in Afghanistan.

In his book, Mr. Clarke praises Bill Clinton while condemning George W. Bush for “fail[ing] to act prior to September 11 on the threat from al Qaeda.” But when Mr. Bush acted to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam and engage the terrorist enemy thousands of miles from our shores — in Baghdad instead of Boston — Mr. Clarke was at the front of the presidential attack pack.

And in August 2002, while counterterrorism coordinator for President Bush, Mr. Clarke said, “There was no plan on al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.” He also at that time revealed that, three weeks after taking office, the new Bush team decided it would “increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, fivefold, to go after al Qaeda.”

One need only read the dust cover of Mr. Clarke’s book to understand how highly he thinks of himself. Mr. Clarke, it states, is “the one person who knows more about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda than anyone else in this country,” and Mr. Clarke knows “better than anyone, why we failed to prevent September 11.”

Unfortunately the commission, no matter how well intended, offered Mr. Clarke a grandstand to promote his screed — and yet another opportunity for our adversaries to glimpse how little we know about our remaining vulnerability to attack.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.

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