Tenet v. Perle II

In his latest blast at George Tenet published in Friday’s Washington Post, “How the CIA Failed America,” Richard Perle demonstrates once again why much of what he says or writes should be tested not only against a fact-based (as opposed to, perhaps, a Feith-based) reality that may sometimes approximate truth, but also against his own previous statements and writings.

You will recall that the latest argument began when Perle’s protégé, ‘Weekly Standard’ editor Bill Kristol reported April 29 that Tenet had made a “stunning error” in the very first pages of his new book, ‘At the Center of the Storm,’ by citing an alleged September 12 encounter with Perle at the White House in which Perle told him, “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.”

The problem with that account, wrote Kristol with barely disguised glee, was that Perle was in France on September 12 and didn’t return until the 15th. “Perle in any case categorically denies to ‘The Weekly Standard’ ever having said any such thing to Tenet, while coming out of the White House or anywhere else,’’ he added.

Tenet has since conceded that the encounter may have taken place later that week. “…I may have gotten the days wrong, but I know I got the substance of that conversation correct,” he said on NBC’s ‘Today’ show April 30.

Asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last Friday, however, Perle against insisted that he “never said the things that (Tenet) attributes to me.” Asked specifically about whether he may have said, “Iraq has to pay the price for what happened yesterday,” however, Perle, after repeating his denial, qualified it by noting that he ‘’would not have said ‘yesterday’” – an obvious point since Tenet had already admitted that the encounter may indeed not have taken place on Sep 12.

At that point in the interview, Blitzer played a video clip from the September 16, 2001, ‘Crossfire’ in which Perle called for action against Iraq and asserted, ‘’We do know …that Saddam Hussein has ties to Osama bin Laden.”

As this blog tried to show in the first ‘Tenet v. Perle’ his ‘Crossfire’ appearance was one of a number of similar public exhortations by Perle in the days that followed 9/11, culminating in his signature on the September 20 open letter from Kristol’s Project for the New American Century that called for “a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power… even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the (9/11) attack…”

Faced with the published record, Perle now appears to have retreated from his initial blanket denials of what Tenet quoted him as saying. In his op-ed in the Post Friday, he carefully distinguishes between the two sentences that Tenet originally quoted him as saying. ‘’(The) two statements,” he writes, “are not at all the same: that Iraq was responsible for Sept 11 – which I never said – and that removing Saddam Hussein before he could share chemical, biological or nuclear weapons with terrorists had become an urgent matter, which I did say.”

So, having admitted that he may indeed have declared Iraq should be a target (Perle also insisted to Wolf Blitzer that he never had any conversation with Tenet outside the White House, but, for the first time, he failed to explicitly rule out such an encounter in Friday’s op-ed), Perle now takes issue only with the three words in the second sentence. “I did not tell Tenet that Iraq was responsible for the Sept 11 attacks, not then [Sept 12], not ever,” he wrote Friday.

A review of the record reveals that, on this point, Perle may be literally correct. I know of no declarative statement by Perle that Iraq was indeed responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

But Perle’s serial use of innuendo – particularly in repeatedly pushing the story that 9/11’s operational mastermind, Mohamed Atta, met a senior Iraqi intelligence official, Ahmad Samir al-Ani, at a Prague café in April, 2001 — to suggest Iraqi responsibility for the attacks was a major feature of his statements and writings within weeks of 9/11 itself.

(Of course, his friend and fellow-member of the Defense Policy Board, James Woolsey, was even more outspoken about both the alleged Prague meeting and Iraqi responsibility for 9/11. See “And Then There Was Woolsey”. Indeed, Woolsey’s constant public assertions of Iraq’s alleged links for 9/11 – presumably made in DPB meetings chaired by Perle, as well as in the media – give the lie to Perle’s video-taped declaration in response to an anti-war activist on his own “The Case for War” production that aired last month on PBS: “I didn’t hear statements to the effect that Iraq was responsible for 9/11.”)

He first raised the Prague meeting in an interview published by the Chicago Sun-Times on October 21, 2001, when he was asked by Linda Frum (the sister of Perle’s American Enterprise Institute (AEI) colleague and co-author, David Frum) what Washington should do if alleged state sponsors of terrorism could not be persuaded to change their ways.

“It may be necessary to destroy two of these regimes before the others understand that we’re serious,” he replied. “I have my own candidate for who’s next [after Afghanistan]. Iraq is working assiduously on weapons of mass destruction, and we know, for example, that Iraqi intelligence officers met with Mohamed Atta in Prague.”

In a November 21, 2001, article run by the Gannett New Service, he and Woolsey were identified as “among those in the federal intelligentsia who suspect Saddam had something to do with Sept. 11 and perhaps the anthrax postal assault that followed.

“Perle noted that ‘enough of a linkage has been established’ between Iraq and al-Qaida, bin Laden’s base group,” Gannett reported. “He pointed to recent statements by Czech leaders that a high-ranking Iraqi intelligence agent, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, was expelled from Prague following an April meeting with Mohamed Atta — the suicide pilot the FBI has tagged as the field captain of the Sept. 11 hijackings.

“…Woolsey also noted the meeting. “Maybe Iraqi intelligence and the chief bomber of Sept. 11 like Prague’s beautiful architecture,” he said sarcastically. “But at some point, it seems to me, we begin to get to at least a strong likelihood Iraq has been involved in some way.”

In an op-ed published by the New York Times December 28, 2001, Perle argued that Saddam Hussein “…operates a terrorist training facility at Salman Pak complete with a passenger aircraft cabin for training in hijacking.

“His collaboration with terrorists is well documented. Evidence of a meeting in Prague between a senior Iraqi intelligence agent and Mohamed Atta, the Sept. 11 ringleader, is convincing.”

(Perle, incidentally, also charged Saddam with running a vast, secret nuclear programme in this op-ed, a charge Vice President Dick Cheney would echo for the first time three months later, in March, not, as is commonly believed, in August, 2002.

On May 1, 2002, Perle appeared on Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” program in which he challenged at length ‘Newsweek’s’ Michael Isikoff recent report that the Atta-in-Prague story had been thoroughly debunked by the intelligence community.

“… I think Mike Isikoff’s information on this is wrong. I’m quite confident the meeting took place. We know a great deal about the circumstances of the meeting, although we don’t know what was said in the meeting. There was a pretty positive identification made of Mr. Atta after his pictures appeared in the press following 9/11. I don’t know why there are people discouraging the view…”

“…[T]hat meeting was observed by the Czech intelligence agent who was following the Iraqi intelligence agent. Subsequent to September 11, when Mohamed Atta’s photograph appeared around the world, that Czech intelligence agent said:
“The man that I couldn’t identify at the time was Mohamed Atta.”

“That’s good enough for me.”

Having planted the suggestion of an Iraqi relationship with Atta, however, Perle was careful to deny that he was saying Iraq was involved in 9/11: “I did not say that the decision to go after Saddam Hussein turns on whether Saddam was involved in September 11. I don’t believe that. I’ve never said that.”

On May 10, 2002, however, he again stressed his certainty that the meeting took place, telling the ‘Chicago Tribune’ on that date, “The evidence – for the meeting – is overwhelming, as convincing now as it was then,” Perle is quoted as saying. “People who are raising questions now are just slinking about, not doing so openly. Why? They have their own policy agenda, which is to limit the president’s options.”

On October 7, 2002, just as Congress was debating the pending war resolution, Perle went beyond his previous assertions on CNN’s ‘Crossfire’, asserting not only that the intelligence community was “wrong” about their conclusion that the Prague meeting did not take place, but also that, “…[T]there are other indications of other meetings with other members of al Qaeda including hijackers and intelligence officials from Iraq.

“…What I said is that there is evidence that I find compelling that there were meetings between Czech intelligence, Mohammed Atta, and other hijackers. Now whether that constitutes a role in 9/11, that’s a matter of judgment.

“And I can’t tell you it is because I don’t know. But how would we know if he did?”

Perle was still at it the following July, after U.S. forces captured al-Ani, the Iraqi official who allegedly met with Atta in Prague. The July 9, 2003, edition of the ‘Washington Post’ descirbes Perle as “hopeful al-Ani’s capture will lead to a corroboration of his stance.”

“If he chose to, he could confirm the meeting with Atta,” Perle said. “It would be nice to see that laid to rest. There’s a lot he could tell us.”

“Of course, a lot depends on who is doing the interrogating,” said Perle, adding he fears that if it were the CIA, it could skew the interrogation so as to play down the evidence that the alleged meeting with Atta occurred.”

Apparently, that was precisely what happened.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.