- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.

Old pros from America’s secretive world of espionage and counterterrorism emerged temporarily from the shadows to convene for a three-day “Intelligence Summit” in a downtown hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla., last week.

Joining them were a handful of allies from friendly countries — mostly from Israel — to discuss what they see as the No. 1 threat facing Western democracies, the ever-increasing form of militant Islam and its indiscriminate use of terrorism.

The summit gathered a mixed bag of spooks, former spooks from various agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and a many others with acronyms typically comprehensible only by those in the business.

The object of the “Summit” says John Loftus, the president of the Intelligence Summit, is “to bring together professionals from this nonconformist world and help them compare notes, make new contacts and to learn how to cut through the bureaucracy that often weighs down such elite forces.”

But the man who until recently was America’s chief master spy — John Negroponte — and who was given by President George W. Bush the position of director of central intelligence, a prestigious job from where he oversaw the functions of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, sees things very differently. Mr. Negroponte tried to prevent federal agents from attending the Florida conference, saying the government would not reimburse those who made the trip, said Mr. Loftus.

When asked to comment, Mr. Negroponte’s office at the State Department referred the issue to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. But a spokesman for the DNI chose not to comment.

Other participants who enjoy lucrative contracts with the U.S. government, such as some of the firms operating in Iraq, told United Press International they were warned the government would deny them future contracts if they participated in the Intelligence Summit, according to several participants.

And it appears the U.S. government may not be alone in trying to prevent its people from attending the Florida conference. Some participants told United Press International foreign agents had similar intent. Some participants told UPI they received threatening notes slipped under their hotel room doors.

One American who specializes in biological warfare has been paying particular attention to advances in the biowar arsenal being developed by a Middle Eastern country said she was followed on a trans-Atlantic flight by two agents from the country in question.

While the conference offered interesting insight into the world of terrorist tactics it had its shortcomings; and one can easily name two. First, was the fact that most, if not all panelists seemed to be preaching to the choir.

The conference, at times, had an air of a reunion of good ol’ boys; all in sync with the program, rather than a group of very serious professionals out to warn the Free World of the dangers facing democracies.

Among the several hundred attendees were a few former spies who were probably retired prematurely, or others who disagreed with the slow bureaucracy of the CIA and other government agencies. These questioned the logic of the U.S. State Department wanting to negotiate with what they term “rogue countries;” mainly Syria, Iran and North Korea.

Many would rather “not waste time” talking with governments they say will never keep their word. Instead, they would prefer to simply “kick butt,” as one speaker put it, and make realistic plans to enable regime change in Syria and Iran through assassinations and intimidation. His comments stirred applause and cheers.

But perhaps more important was the fact that while most panelists stressed the sources, logistics and strength of terrorist groups along with the need to be prepared in case of terrorist attack and the need to retaliate with overwhelming force, they failed to offer any long-term political solution to the crises facing the West.

For example, although much was said about Arab terrorism, no one ventured into the realm of why Arab and Muslim groups turned to violence. No one mentioned that al Qaeda, for example, was using the Palestinian cause as a recruiting poster to direct its hate against Israel and the United States.

No one, it seemed, tried to make the connection that al Qaeda was using the Palestinian cause. And just like no one mentioned that solving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute would go a along way in appeasing some of the Arab/Islamic world’s gripes against the West.

Meanwhile, the threats remain real. Such as one expert who revealed that Islamist groups with ties to al Qaeda are operating a network of stolen luxury cars from their base in Tampa, Fla., just miles from the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, the group tasked with eradicating the Islamist terrorist threat in the Middle East.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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