Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Khobar Towers terrorist attack of 1996 and Dinesh D'Souza's ludicrous take on it

Testosterone Man: Dinesh D'Souza

Wonky Muse pointed out the other day conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza's latest schtick, which is to say that the violent Sunni Salafist groups like Al Qaida are correct in being disgusted by the degeneracy of American culture. The fact that his article and interviews promoting it sound like the same kind of crackpot reasoning that you could hear any time over the last seventy years or so from far-right cranks doesn't stop the press from treating him like a Serious Person.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, published this op-ed by D'Souza:
How the left led us into 9/11 01/18/07. In this one, he focuses not on culture-war jive talk but instead tells us how Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton caused the 9/11 attacks, relying on a stock militaristic assumption that foreign policy consists of military actions and military posturing to demonstrate the vast quantities of one's own testosterone. Here's a sample:

Bin Laden saw his theory of American weakness vindicated during the Clinton era. In 1993, Islamic radicals bombed the World Trade Center. The Clinton administration did little. In 1996, Muslim terrorists attacked the Khobar Towers facility on a U.S. base in Saudi Arabia. No response. In 1998, Al Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. Clinton responded with a few perfunctory strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan. These did no real harm to Al Qaeda and only strengthened the perception of American ineptitude. In 2000, Islamic radicals bombed the U.S. destroyer Cole. Again, the Clinton team failed to act. By his own admission, Bin Laden concluded that his suspicion of American pusillanimity and weakness was correct. He became emboldened to plot the 9/11 attacks.
Now, on the one hand, it's a shame to risk validating Bircher-type drivel by bothering to argue with it. On the other hand, in today's media culture fools like this are given a respectful hearing for the most crackpot claims.

So here I'm going to focus on one event, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 Americans. The Clinton administration pressed Saudi Arabia hard to produce evidence, which the Saudis were reluctant to do. Eventually, enough evidence was accumulated to indict several men for participation in the bombing. The bombing was linked to an Iranian-backed Shi'a group in Saudi Arabia, and there were suggestions never clearly documented (at least from what's in the public record) that Iranian officials were directly involved in planning and/or directing the attack. Clinton began preparing for war against Iran, telling advisors, "I don't want any pissant half-measures." Vice President Al Gore chewed out a Saudi prince for their obstructionism. Old Man Bush even got into the act to pressure his pal "Bandar Bush" to cooperate with the investigation. And prior to whatever they may have been doing in the Iraq War, no further terrorist attacks linked to the Iranians were perpetrated against American targets. More details below.

First of all, it's worth remembering that Al Qaida is a Sunni Salafist group that was not involved in the Shi'a attack on Khobar Towers. Al Qaida regards Shi'a as not real Muslims, heretics, devil-worshippers, whatever. They don't like them. (Although Osama bin Laden in his public message of 01/04/04, "Resist the New Rome", did criticize the US for backing Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88.)

Richard Clarke talks about the Khobar Towers incident at some length in his book Against All Enemies (2004), in a chapter called "The Almost War, 1996".

He relates briefly the position of the US under the Reagan administration of supporting Saddam Hussein's Iraq against Iran in the long war they fought in the 1980s. Near the end, the US briefly became an actual naval belligerent on the side of Saddam's Iraq. Clarke relates one aspect of that involvement:

Defending oil tankers, the U.S. Navy had engaged in firegights with Iranian ships and aircraft. Then, in 1989, in the middle of such a firefight with Iranian small boats, the USS Vincennes had mistaken an Iran Air passenger plane for an attacking Iranian fighter plane, and shot it down, killing 290 civilians.
Given  the sloppy reporting of our "press corps" and the fact that serious newspapers like the Los Angeles Times print cheap propaganda from people like Dinesh D'Souza, the extent of the American support of Saddam's Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War is not very well known. Is D'Souza even aware that the US was an actual co-belligerent in that war for a time?

People in the Middle East, both governments and the public, have a better memory for such things becaues it affects them so directly. D'Souza talks about something like the Khobar Towers event as though it fell from the heavens. The neocon habit of talking about terrorism in terms of Good and Evil helps obscure the real-world context of such events, too. Fine, let's label the Khobar Towers attack Evil Terrorism. But to actually understand it, we need to know more than chanting "evil, evil, evil".

After the Iran-Iraq War, Clarke relates that Iran extended the Hizbullah (Party of God) terrorist/activists Shi'a group from Lebanon and Palestine to countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Brazil and even Uruguay. Meanwhile, the US piled on more and more sanctions against Iran. As Clarke writes, "Congress and the [Old Man Bush] Administration competed with each other in originating further sanctions against Iran, while Hezbollah activity only mounted."

The Clinton administration in 1995 instituted a prohibition against subsidiaries of US companies trading in oil from Iran. This scuttled a billion-dollar arrangement Conoco was negotiating with Iran. The oil industry was not pleased about this. Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney opposed this set of sanctions.

Also in 1995, Congress made "a secret appropriation to fund covert action by the CIA aimed at the Iranian regime", Clarke writes.

In 1996, the government of Bahrain busted a group of Shi'a apparently connected with an Iranian-supported group Hizbullah-Bahrain, providing more evidence of Iranian efforts to subvert other regimes.

Clarke describes the Khobar attack this way:

In the Eastern Province [of Saudi Arabia], where most of the minority Shi'a lived, the U.S. Air Force had been given a high-rise housing complext near the village of Khobar. On June 25, 1996, it was attacked by terroirsts using a devastating truck bomb. Nineteen Americans died.

In fact, Khobar was the second attack on a U.S. military facility in Saudi Arabia. InNovember 1995, the Riyadhheadquarters of the U.S. military training mission to the Saudi National Guard had been bombed, killing five Americans. Within days, the Saudi authorities had arrested four men, obtained their confessions, and executed them. Despite U.S. appeals to hold up the executions so that an American investigation could be completed, the Saudis decapitated the four. The Saudis provided scant details about who they were or why they had acted.
The 1995 incident was to prove to be a prelude to the obstacles that Clarke and other officials of the Clinton administration would face in investigating the Khobar Towers deaths. That investigation was complicated by Saudi diplomacy and the personal hostility of FBI Director Louis Freeh to Bill Clinton. Eventually Old Man Bush intervened with his friend Prince Bandar, aka, "Bandar Bush", the longtime Saudi Ambassador to the US, and got the Saudis to agree to let the FBI listen in on some interrogations. "Bandar Bush" encouraged Freeh to think the Clinton administration was dragging its feet on the investigation, a charge Freeh was happy to publicize later.

Even prior to the Khobar Towers incident, Clarke writes, "Freeh had told senior FBI officer that the White House staff [including Clarke] were all 'politicals' who could not be trusted". But Freeh took an intense interest in this case, although he had little experience in foreign affairs. Clarke worked with the FBI's well-regarded antiterrorism expert John O'Neill, who was later to die in the 9/11 attacks in New York, where he was then working for a private firm and was in charge of security for the World Trade Center. Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon write in The Age of Sacred Terror (2002):

O'Neill and Dick Clarke took to each other quickly, coming to see each other as the only ones who had registered the true danger of al-Qaeda. Like Clarke, O'Neill was known to have rough edges. During the early stages of the Khobar investigation, he came to believe that Freeh was being manipulated by the Saudis. On a flight back from Saudi Arabia, Freeh remarked about what a productive visit it had been. O'Neill replie, "You call that a good visit?"
Clarke relates:

O'Neill told me he was struck by the contrast between the fawning protocal the Saudis showed to Freeh and their mendacity whenever the conversation got around to the investigation. Freeh, according to O'Neill, did not seem to detect the duplicity.
While the Saudis played to US suspicions that Iran was behind the attack, they never produced much solid evidence. "Bandar Bush" gave Freeh the impression that he was the only administration official who really cared about cracking the case.

But despite the hostility of the Sunni House of Saud to theocratic, Shi'a Iran, they did not want to see the US attack Iran at that time. Clarke argues that the Saudis were reluctant to cooperate with the US on the case because:

The attack had revealed an internal vulnerability in the Kingdom, the armed opposition of Shi'a Muslims from the Eastern Province. The Saudis did not want that embarrassment publicly revealed.
Benjamin and Simon write:

The Saudis eventually confirmed Washington's suspicions that high-level Iranians were involved and that some of the Saudi perpetrators were thought to be living in Tehran. But the Saudis never delivered enough information, and little, if anything, that could stand up in a courtroom, where the use of intelligence as evidence is problematic in the best of circumstances. With the United States impatient to make indictments, the Saudis balked at cooperating. In a series of meetings between Sandy Berger, then deputy national security adviser, the senior NSC aides for Middle East affairs, and Bandar bin Sultan ["Bandar Bush"], Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, the Saudi repeatedly demanded to know what the United States would do with information Riyadh gave it and whether the administration would attack Iran. The U.S. officials said the only thing they could: not knowing what the information was, and unwilling to prejudge future developments, they did not know what decisions would be taken. But before pursuing any action, they promised to consult with the Saudis. For the Saudis, that was not good enough. An elaborate dance began in which FBI officials, including Director Louis Freeh himself, shuttled to Saudi Arabia to increase the pressure. They would extract pledges of help from their senior Saudi counterparts, but after the FBI officials returned to Washington, little that could be called cooperation was forthcoming.
They also relate that when the FBI did puttogether indictments against perpetrators that were eventually apprehended, Freeh was so hostile to Clinton that he stalled bringing the indictments until the Cheney-Bush administration was in office. Though the indictments referred "to unnamed Iranian officials who were said to have assisted Saudi Hezbollah," they write, the Saudis stonewalling had prevented them from obtaining solid evidence:

Freeh, in his hatred of Clinton, had lost touch either with the standards of evidence required in federal courts, or with the foreign policy dimension of the case, or both.
The roles played by "Bandar Bush" and Louis Freeh are worth remembering. Clarke writes:

I learned that Bandar had explained to Freeh that the White House did not want the Saudis to cooperate with Freeh. Clinton, Bandar claimed, did not want the evidence that Iran had bombed an American Air Force base; Clinton did not want to go to war with Iran. Freeh believed it. It fit with his own dim view of the President, the man to whom he owed his rapid elevation from a low-level federal job in New York. In the White House, we heard that Freeh began to repeat Bandar's explanation for the failed Khobar investigation, telling Congressmen and reporters of the supposed Clinton cover-up.
In fact, the Clinton administration pressed the Saudis hard on the case and eventually got enough evidence for the indictments that Freeh stalled until 2001. Clarke relates the following:

The White House pressure on the Saudis to cooperate in the investigation continued over three years, with letters from the President and demarches by National Security Advisors Lake and Berger. Vice President Gore demonstrated his famous temper in one such meeting, pounding on the table and asking a Saudi prince what sort of country hid the identity of people who had killed American military personnel stationed in that country defending it and its royal family.
Ooooo... let's go over that again:

Vice President Gore .. pound[ed] on the table and ask[ed] a Saudi prince what sort of country hid the identity of people who had killed American military personnel stationed in that country defending it and its royal family.
I wonder if Our Dear LeaderBush ever confronted his buddy "Bandar Bush" in that way? Please.

Clarke also writes:

While Freeh had been pursuing the Saudis, the White House had been preparing for war. We had convinced Tony Lake that Iran launched the Khobar attack, and CIA soon agreed and suggested that further Iranian-sponsored terrorism against the U.S. was likely. Clinton told us that if it came to using force against Iran, "I don't want any pissant half-measures." Lake convened what he called the Small Group. CIA Director Deutch, Defense Secretary William Perry, Secretary of State Christopher, and the Vice Presidents National Security Advisor, Leon Feurth, to examine options. (my emphasis)
In fact, the Khobar Towers attack was the last one aimed against American interests for which Iran can be plausibly assumed to be responsibile. (At least until the Iraq War, although I haven't seen any convincing evidence that Iran is instigating individual attacks against the US.) In 1996, Mohammad Khatami was elected President of Iran. Although the Iranian presidency has little direct responsibility for foreign affairs, for whatever reason after Khobar the Iranian government backed off supporting such attacks.

So, the Clinton administration pressed the Saudis, was seriously considering the option of going to war with Iran without "any pissant half-measures", and in the end managed to apprehend a number of the suspected perpetrators and Iranian-backed attacks against the US ended.

Obviously, that's not macho enough for Real Men like Dinesh D'Souza. Hey, maybe we should have used the excuse to go to war with Iraq!

Maybe D'Souza will still get that war against Iran, anyway:
Escalation Against Iran: The Pieces Are Being Put in Place by Col Sam Gardiner Counterpunch 01/16/07. Cheney and Bush aren't so much into that solve-the-problem-and-avoid-war kind of thing that D'Souza finds so wimpy.


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