Friday, July 23, 2004

The threat of Islamist extremists taking over Pakistan or Saudi Arabia is real and could “fundamentally change the balance of security in the world,” September 11 commission member John F. Lehman said yesterday.

How the United States treats the delicate balance of pro-American governments and radical Muslim forces in those two nations is critical to the success of U.S. strategy on terrorism, Mr. Lehman said during a meeting with reporters at The Washington Times.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia “are not our enemies,” he said. “If they are to fall into our enemies’ hands, it would fundamentally change the balance and have enormous impact on our economy.”

His remarks came one day after the September 11 commission delivered its 567-page final report with a thorough account of terrorism and the plot leading to the hijackings, and a multitude of recommendations for protecting against future attacks.

The report calls for open confrontation of the “problems” in the U.S.-Saudi relationship and, in general, urges the United States to define its message to Muslim governments. Challenging the nation to “engage the struggle of ideas,” the report also calls for funding literacy programs in the Arab world while also recognizing that “Arab and Muslim audiences rely on satellite television and radio.”

Mr. Lehman yesterday said he was appalled by how little money the United States spends to broadcast its message in local languages. Regarding Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, “the United States must take a very high priority and sophisticated approach to dealing with both countries because the politics internally to each are very unstable, with very strong Islamist forces at work,” he said.

Suggesting the two nations are sitting atop a fault line between secularism and fundamentalism, Mr. Lehman pondered what grave consequences would result should either tip toward the latter. “In the case of Saudi Arabia, it could well lead to a total cutoff of oil,” he said. “In Pakistan, they have hundreds of nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Lehman, who served as Navy secretary under President Reagan, was one of five Republicans on the 10-member September 11 panel, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Drawing from more than 2 million classified documents, the final report includes previously classified bits of material, which alone may dramatically affect U.S. foreign policy.

It concludes that while Iran might have aided the September 11 plot, Iraq provided no operational help in the attack. A furor started last month over that issue, when a commission staffers said in a preliminary report that there was no “collaborative relationship” between al Qaeda and Iraq.

The earlier report prompted front-page stories in many newspapers, and Bush administration critics seized on the statement. But Mr. Lehman yesterday said commissioners hadn’t given that portion a close reading and, after a more thorough examination, decided that it wasn’t accurate. The final report uses slightly different language, saying there was “no collaborative operational relationship.”

“I didn’t disagree with what they said because I didn’t focus on it. All of us had by then assumed there were 10 years of these contacts and that clearly this was more than just courtesy calls and invitations to tea,” Mr. Lehman said. “It went on during the Sudan period and it went on in the Afghanistan period. So when it came time for the final report, we said we’ve got to put more of this intelligence in.”

While he added that he supported President Bush’s actions against Saddam Hussein, Mr. Lehman cautioned against spending time debating Iraq’s involvement in the September 11 attacks. “Too many people have spent too much time and effort trying to draw that link, as if it was Iraqi intelligence that organized it, and it was not,” he said.

The war in Iraq apparently has done little to improve U.S.-Arab relations. According to a June 30 Zogby International poll, 94 percent of people in Saudi Arabia had negative feelings toward the United States, an increase of more than 20 percent since a similar poll two years ago.

The September 11 commission attempted to give fresh insight into complex social dynamics in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Both are described as havens for madrassas, Islamic religious schools teaching a fundamentalist form of Islam called Wahhabism.

Citing a police commander in Karachi, Pakistan, who said 859 religious schools teach more than 200,000 children in that city alone, the final report concludes many madrassas “are the only opportunity available for an education, but some have been used as incubators for violent extremism.”

Regarding Saudi Arabia, the report notes that while Saudi leaders worked with U.S. initiatives aimed at the Taliban or Pakistan before September 11, “Saudi Arabia’s society was a place where al Qaeda raised money directly from individuals and through charities.”

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and the report maintains, “Saudi Arabia is now locked in mortal combat with al Qaeda,” with recent months seeing regular clashes between the terror network and Saudi police. Terrorists also are active in Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf narrowly escaped assassination in December when five bombs exploded under a bridge seconds after he passed over it.

The September 11 commission raised questions about the level to which some elements of the Pakistani government may sympathize with fundamentalists. While the final report says “Musharraf’s government represents the best hope for stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” it also notes that “vast unpoliced regions make Pakistan attractive to extremists.”

However, the report also outlines Pakistan’s assistance in arresting more than 500 al Qaeda operatives and Taliban members, and sending armed forces into frontier provinces along the northwest border with Afghanistan — where Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, “have reportedly taken refuge.” It also clearly urges the United States to sustain present aid levels to Pakistan extending “from military aid to support for better education.”

The report now moves to Congress, where it so far has received a better reception than seemed possible just a few weeks ago; Republicans then were warning that the September 11 commission was destroying its own credibility with a high public profile and conflicts of interest.

Mr. Lehman yesterday said that even House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, “who feared this would be turned into a political bludgeon against the president, made very favorable remarks” this week.

And among commissioners themselves, who seemed bitterly divided just months ago during several raucous public hearings, Mr. Lehman said there was actually a meeting of minds. “If you were to take a recording of our meetings in the first nine months … and compare it to the final nine months, [it was] totally different, because the weight of evidence created such a clear picture of what happened,” he said. “The area for debate and supposition, hypothesis, kept getting narrower and narrower.”

Now, he said, the report’s recommendations — including a new Cabinet-level official in charge of intelligence — depend on Mr. Bush’s enthusiasm for the report, and whether he is willing to take on the entrenched bureaucracy.

“It will come under tremendous pressure from CIA, from FBI, from all of the agencies, perhaps from [the Department of] Defense, at least some of the defense agencies, all of whom are going to lose some autonomy. Not power. In fact, they’ll all increase in power, but they’ll lose their freedom,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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