ABC’s of 9/11

Former U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine Refutes The Path to
9/11

by Sam Kornell

AP00101203270.jpgBarbara Bodine was not one of the 13
million Americans who tuned in to ABC’s The Path to 9/11 last
weekend. “I didn’t watch it,” the former Clinton administration
official said Monday morning, “and I have no plan to watch it.” The
two-part docudrama, which aired Sunday and Monday evenings, took to
the airwaves amid a storm of controversy. The first big television
miniseries about the 9/11 attacks, The Path was assailed as biased,
inaccurate, and irresponsible by members of the former Clinton
administration, the 9/11 commission, terrorism experts, and a
collection of the nation’s most respected historians. ABC
advertised the program — which was directed and partly financed by
reported right-wing Christian evangelicals — as a “historic
broadcast” based primarily on the findings of the 9/11
commission.

Yet according to critics — including Bill Clinton, Al Gore,
former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, and the star of the
film, Harvey Keitel — the docudrama crosses the line between
dramatizing events described in the 9/11 commission report, and
outright distorting and fabricating them. Richard Ben-Veniste, a
member of the 9/11 commission, watched the miniseries with several
other members of the commission before it was aired. He told the
New York Times, “As we were watching, we were trying to think how
they could have misinterpreted the 9/11 commission’s finding the
way that they had. They gave the impression that Clinton had not
given the green light to an operation that had been cleared by the
CIA to kill bin Laden.” In fact, the commission concluded that
Clinton had indeed given the go-ahead to the operation.

One of the Clinton administration officials excoriated by The
Path to 9/11 is Barbara Bodine. Bodine — who received her
bachelor’s degree from UCSB and served as its Diplomat in Residence
in 2002 — was Clinton’s ambassador to Yemen in 2000. During her
posting, the destroyer USS Cole was bombed in an Al Qaeda terrorist
attack at a Yemeni port, killing 17 sailors. In the ensuing
investigation, Bodine came into conflict with FBI agent John
O’Neill, the hero of The Path to 9/11. Bodine recently discussed
her take on the miniseries, what actually happened in Yemen, and
the failings of the Bush administration in the post-9/11 fight
against radical Islamic terrorism.

You were ambassador to Yemen in 2000, when the Cole was
hit. How does the miniseries portray the attack and its aftermath?
And what, in your view, really happened?
From what I
understand, the miniseries conveys the notion that there was not an
appreciation of the threat of terrorism to Americans; that the
entire administration was slow, unable, and unwilling to react;
that there was one person out there trying to do all the right
things, who was thwarted by the bureaucracy; that the bureaucracy
was largely the embassy and me; and that we were not cooperative
and not supportive of the investigation.

It simply isn’t true. That is a fundamental misrepresentation of
policy, my own actions, and the legal actions of the embassy in the
time I was in Yemen. One element of the distortion that I find very
unfortunate is the notion that there were very, very few people in
the U.S. government who understood the threat posed by Osama bin
Laden and Al Qaeda. In reality, the number of people who were
working on and deeply committed to finding the people directly
responsible for the Cole [i.e., Al Qaeda] was enormous — certainly
larger than one or two. It’s a disservice to the very broad
interagency effort that went into this process from the beginning.
While that American mythology of John O’Neill as the lone hero
riding into town might make great drama, it was really much broader
and deeper than that. In the case of the Cole, our basic motivation
was to make the investigation work, which meant looking at it
long-term and recognizing that we had to cooperate with the Yemeni
people and authorities.

So it was of the highest importance to establish a good
working relationship with the people in whose country the attack
occurred.
What [then FBI Director] Louis Freeh understood
when he showed up shortly after the attack was that the Yemenis
could operate on the street. They did a very good job of
identifying key places — the boat launch, the house where the bomb
was made — and identifying some of the low-level people very
quickly. There was no way we could do that. At the same time, the
Yemenis had no forensic or technical capability, and they couldn’t
take the case across borders, which we could. What you needed,
obviously, was both sides. … It was an example of police work,
diplomacy, and international cooperation coming together to help us
combat terrorism.

Almost immediately after 9/11, President Bush began
referring to the fight against terrorism as a war. Is that an apt
approach? Is it an issue to be addressed primarily by the
military?
I don’t think military might is a sufficient
tool. I think we are increasingly seeing that, with terrorism,
trying to address an unconventional threat with conventional
military means is not really going to work, and is certainly not
going to work in the long term. At one point [Defense Secretary
Donald] Rumsfeld, in a very famous memo to his staff, asked if we
were killing them [terrorists] faster than they were being created.
And the answer, of course, is that we will never be able to kill
them that fast, because we’re not getting at the roots of the
problem.

Personally, I do think we can win this. But we have to bring a
range of tools. There are times when you have to bring the
military — certainly to get rid of the Taliban and to shut down the
camps in Afghanistan. There are other times when you don’t. I think
an excellent example of this would be the British success in
breaking the airline plot. That was law enforcement, intelligence,
and even a bit of diplomacy. You could not have used a military
approach to get at that plot, unless we were planning on bombing
London. I think using war language gives a false promise to the
American people that there are a finite number of terrorists, and
that therefore, at some very distinct point, we will have killed
873 terrorists and taken care of the problem. It’s the canard,
“We’ve eliminated two-thirds of the leadership,” which implies that
the leadership structure is static. But as we’ve seen in Iraq, when
you get rid of one leader, another comes forward. We need to be
using far subtler tools. The Bush administration recently
embarked on a public relations campaign in which they strenuously
argue that Iraq is part of the larger fight against
terrorism.
If you simply look at the report that just came
out of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — the 9/11
report — and almost every other report out there, it’s clear that
when we went into Iraq in 2003, Iraq was not part of the terrorism
problem. There was no relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al
Qaeda; there was not even common cause. If we were really launching
a war on terrorism — if you grant the Bush administration
that — Iraq was not part of the problem. But now Iraq is at the
epicenter of jihadism. It is certainly one of the major recruiting
tools. It’s one of the basic, on-the-job training camps. It’s the
best thing that has ever happened to the jihadis. So we have made
Iraq the core element of the war on terrorism, but it was not when
we invaded in 2003.

When we assign responsibility for 9/11, where should we
look? First to the Bush administration, then the Clinton
administration? The reverse? Both equally? Neither?

There’s enough responsibility to go around. There’s not one even
small series of cataclysmic steps. I’m not sure I would get overly
focused on finding one or two people to blame for 9/11. I don’t
think it takes us forward. One of the things about Al Qaeda is that
they were probably the most adaptive terrorist group anyone has
ever seen. They were well beyond the envelope of innovation. Were
there things we could have done about how we were checking who was
getting on the planes, for instance? You can tear that apart
forever. I think it’s more important to sit down and try to figure
out why Al Qaeda and jihadism have been so resilient over the last
five years. The administration talks about how they’re obviously
doing something right because we haven’t been hit. Well, you could
have used that argument on September 10, 2001. I think we would be
much better served by trying to figure out why, despite — or
perhaps because of — everything we have done, jihadism is as
prevalent and strong as it is five years later. We’ve had five
years to address 9/11, and we haven’t successfully.

How do we successfully address jihadism? The
analogy I use sometimes is of a neighborhood that suddenly becomes
crime-infested. The cops come in and pick up the bad guys
immediately. But if they don’t figure out why this neighborhood has
suddenly become infested, they’re going to be picking up bad guys
forever. What are the conditions that have allowed jihadism to
survive and even grow in the last five years? I know to some people
this question sounds mushy, but we need to know. What are the
political, economic, and ideological drives behind this, and what
can reasonably be done? Is it a question of political
marginalization? Is it a question of economic stagnation? Is it a
question of personal alienation? I know these sound like big,
fluffy words. But something drives people to join the jihadi
movement. What are those reasons? Why are they susceptible to
recruitment? Until we clearly and honestly ask those questions,
we’re going to be chasing bad guys forever. This is soft power,
diplomacy, that whole range of non-quantifiable tools.

The other side of it is: Do we really understand this part of
the world? I don’t think we do. I’m not sure we really look at the
Middle East with the kind of nuance it needs and deserves. The
administration’s new term of art — Islamo-fascism — continues to
send a signal that we have declared war on an entire culture and
religion. If we have, we need to think about the consequences. And
if we haven’t, we need to think about our language.

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