In an article entitled, “The Case of the Misunderstood Memo,” published by Slate, Daniel Benjamin has written, what is so far, the best analysis of the Feith memo. And well he should!
Benjamin observed the rise of al-Qaeda as the National Security Council's director for counter-terrorism during the Clinton administration and co-authored The Age of Sacred Terror. I am reading that book now and have so far found it to be a phenomenal introduction to the Islamic perception of the west and review of the failure of U.S. intelligence in the years leading up to 9-11. More on the book later.
When revealed in Stephen L. Hayes’ "Case Closed" story three weeks ago, the Feith memo generated a lot of excitement, but little real analysis. Benjamin succinctly summarizes, that despite many calls for “some real reporting on the matter,” all we have gotten is “a passing look” by some big publications.
The piece has elicited one genuinely interesting column from the Washington Post's David Ignatius, who revealed that the United States and Britain had a highly placed informant in Iraqi intelligence "who told them before the war that in the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein had indeed considered such an operational relationship with bin Laden—and then decided against it."Benjamin, like many of us following the Feith memo, is frustrated because a fuller airing is necessary to bring clarity to the issue of possible a possible collaboration between al-Qaeda and Iraq.
The few beat reporters who cover the intelligence community called their sources and were told there was nothing new ....
Benjamin finds “glaring mistakes in the analytic material” in Hayes” article, but is not sure whether the errors were originally Feith's or Hayes'. Two examples: First, what is referred to as Bin Laden's "fatwa on the plight of Iraq" was in fact the famous "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," and second, some of the material presented in the Hayes article insinuates that Iraq staged the Khobar Towers bombing, when two administrations have laid the blame at 's door.
Benjamin acknowledges that there were a lot of meetings between Iraqis and jihadists and that some jihadists lived in or traveled through Iraq. According to Benjamin what is disputed is whether the meetings went anywhere.
Benjamin agrees with Hayes that “the Feith memo ‘just skims the surface of the reports of Iraq-al Qaeda connections.’”
The large sampling provided in his article, he [Hayes] believes, destroys critics' arguments "that links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden have been routinely 'exaggerated' for political purposes; that hawks 'cherry-picked' bits of intelligence and tendentiously presented these to the American public."Benjamin goes on to point out that after all that time and much analysis little has been found that was solid enough to present in public.
Of course there are more reports. When your intelligence service relays, as it should, everything short of sightings of Bin Laden on the moon, 50 reports of varying quality do not amount to much. The remaining material, many who are familiar with it believe, does not confirm the Hayes-Feith version but points in the other direction.
Putting all the disparate pieces together and trying to construct a coherent picture—yes, connecting the dots—is harder still, requiring a mastery of all the material.
One thing intelligence analysts do as they evaluate a body of information is keep in mind the context. This is worth attempting in the case of the Feith memo, too, because while much of the material may be new to the public, most of it has been bouncing around the government since well before the invasion of Iraq.
Compare the Feith memo with Colin Powell's U.N. speech, which was preceded by the most thorough evaluation of the intelligence ever conducted by the Bush administration. Remarkably little on the ties between al-Qaida and Iraq made it into that speech.Perhaps lack of good sources is the best explanation of why, after three weeks, Benjamin’s article is the best the mainstream media can provide. You can find my posts following the Feith memo story here.
This is perilous business. Making a judgment about Iraq-al-Qaida ties on the basis of the sections presented by Hayes would be like accepting a high-school biology student's reading of a CAT scan.
Strangely, however, there has been little inquiry into the Iraq-al-Qaida relationship. The press has had a difficult time taking this issue any further since so few reporters have good sources in the intelligence community.