Deep in the wilds of Orange County, in my home state of California, a woman named Gerrie Schipske is challenging long-time incumbent Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in the 46th district. Rohrabacher is one of Congress's more colorful figures. He's both very right-wing on foreign policy (and most other things) and also a reformed surfer/stoner. Reformed only on the drug part it seems: his website features a picture of the middle-aged congressman catching a wave.
Recently Schipske posted a press release on her website alleging that in April 2001 Rohrabacher had a secret meeting with then-Taliban Foreign Minister Ahmad Muttawakil in Doha, Qatar. He leaned on the Qatari government to arrange a get-together. And at the meeting, she says, Rohrabacher gave Muttawakil some documents and proceeded to discuss his "personal peace plan" with the Afghan Foreign Minister.
Now, I did a little research on this and based on my interviews and wire reports I've read, the story is actually true. In April 2001, Rohrabacher travelled to Doha, Qatar to attend a conference on "Free Markets and Democracy." While there, he met with a Taliban delegation led by Muttawakil. Al Jazeera reported that the two discussed Osama bin Laden, the situation of women and civil liberties. Rohrabacher told Agence France Presse that the conversation was "frank and open." And he told the Associated Press that Muttawakil's response to his plan was "thoughtful and inquisitive."
[Note: Needless to say, it's wrong to call the meeting 'secret' since Rohrabacher gave interviews about it at the time. 8/15/02-5:36PM]
Now the Logan Act prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. But that's a rather technical matter. So let's pass over that for the moment.
It turns out there's more. The Muttawakil meeting was attended by several members of the United States Congress, according to AP and AFP reports. Who those other members of Congress were is not clear. They don't seem to be jumping forward. Who are they? I'd like to know.
Still more interesting are the two groups who sponsored Rohrabacher's trip: the Egypt International Forum and the Islamic Institute. Those who follow Republican politics will recognize the Islamic Institute as the group Republican power broker Grover Norquist established to help corral American Muslims into the Republican party. Norquist has been a close friend and political ally of Karl Rove for a couple decades and he is now a close advisor to President Bush.
(The Islamic Institute and Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform are both run out of the same office in downtown Washington. For some of the details see Frank Foer's article Fevered Pitch: Grover Norquist's Strange Alliance with Radical Islam.)
Okay, a little more.
The Agence France Presse report implies that Khalid Suffari, head of the Islamic Institute, was at the meeting too. The AFP report says Suffari told an Al Jazeera reporter that "The position of the Taliban was flexible on most of the issues and the Afghan delegation showed itself to be ready for dialogue."
So this got me wondering. Was the meeting somehow under the auspices of the Islamic Institute? I wondered even more when I learned that Norquist himself was in Doha for the Free Markets and Democracy conference (See Norquist's October 3rd, 2001 OpEd in the Washington Times).
So today I called Norquist. Norquist told me that he was at the conference. But he denied being at the meeting with Muttawakil. "Dana ran into some guy who was a representative of the Afghan government," Norquist told me on Wednesday, "and since he [Rohrabacher] had worked in Afghanistan he sat down and talked to the guy. They literally met in the hallway. I just remembered Dana mentioning that he ran into these guys ... and he yelled at them about blowing up the Buddhist statues."
That sounds a little different from the press reports at the time. But that's his recollection.
So what exactly was going on here? Honestly, good question. Back in the eighties Norquist and Rohrabacher used to be known for what you might call extreme activism, basically heading out to remote spots in the Third World, mainly in Africa, and hooking up with various right-wing militias. Jonas Savimbi's group. Stuff like that. They both hung out in Afghanistan a bit too. And I suspect this was just more of the same. Still, given the context, you'd want to know who those other members of Congress at the meeting were, wouldn't you? And, again, given that this all happened only a few short months before 9/11, maybe Rohrabacher should give some accounting of just what he was up to.