I had missed this recent article by Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball in Newsweek on yet more of the ridiculous efforts Paul Wolfowitz and others in the administration have gone to to find that Holy Grail of the neocon knighthood, the fabled Iraq-al Qaida link.
Some of the antics from the Round Table at 17th & M are more comic than truly troubling, and ones we’ve heard of before — like the secret mission they sent Jim Woolsey on to Swansea, Wales to verify Laurie Mylroie’s endlessly discredited theory that Saddam was behind the first attack on World Trade Center in 1993.
There’s no need to get too bogged down in the details. But Mylroie’s theory rests in part on a claim of faked identities that makes Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the attack, into an Iraqi agent. I knew about Woolsey’s trip. I didn’t know, or perhaps had just forgotten, that his efforts apparently conclusively debunked Mylroie’s theory.
One more thought on Mylroie et al. One point that is seldom noted, or too quietly if at all, is that while the neocons and their press defenders endlessly charge their critics with peddling ‘conspiracy theories’ about them, they themselves hold tenaciously to a series of crackpot theories that make the more wild-eyed interpretations of the Kennedy assassination sound cautious, judicious and restrained by comparison.
In any case, what’s new in the Newsweek article is that sending Woolsey on this little spy mission to Wales wasn’t the only gambit they tried. And the other was far more serious. Wolfowitz apparently repeatedly pushed to have Yousef retroactively declared an ‘enemy combatant’ in the war on terror so that he could be taken out of the custody of the federal prison system, placed into military custody and presumably sweated or have his fingernails peeled back until he copped to all Mylroie’s ridiculousness.
It takes a moment to unravel the tangle of bad values, bad instincts and poor judgment here. But let’s give it a crack.
First there’s this matter of the rule of law.
One of the challenges of really believing in the rule of law is that really sticking to it very frequently means going by the book and following proper procedures even in the case of thoroughly bad actors. Certainly, Yousef is close to as bad as they come. So there’s some awkwardness perhaps in pointing out that though the guy has been sentenced to solitary confinement for the rest of his life, you can’t just pull him out of our criminal justice system and upend five hundred years of legal precedent on a whim.
And this matter of a whim is an important point.
I remember back just after 9/11 going through some thought experiments in my head over these questions — and living in Washington just after 9/11 and during the anthrax scare, these thought experiments took on a palpable urgency. In any case, the question was, what if we had someone in custody who we knew had knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack? How far would we go to make him talk?
As the saying goes, the constitution is not a suicide pact. Certainly, in extremis, there must be things we would do in such circumstances, that would never be allowable under normal conditions. I’m not saying what those things would be. And the question itself is one I find troubling. But the sort of terrorist threat we face is one that transcends normal criminal law enforcement.
In any case, think of the difference between that and going back and pulling a federal criminal inmate out of the criminal justice system to make him admit that Saddam was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. To my mind, all the difference in the world.
And here you have the kernel of the problem with these folks: the combustible mix of poor judgment, a rich ideological fantasy life and pervasive disrespect for the rule of a law. It’s a very dangerous combination.