Jewish World Review Nov. 28, 2001/ 13 Kislev 5762

Wesley Pruden

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The spies go AWOL
when Kabul falls -- AFTER September 11, when the director of the CIA learned about the threat of terrorism in the newspapers, "Western intelligence agencies" were told to get with the program.

The president and his men were caught unaware because "Western intelligence agencies" had no agents on the ground in Afghanistan. They had spent years and untold billions of dollars on spy satellites, computer networks, electronic surveillance gizmos to read e-mail and cellular telephone calls and lots of other neat (and expensive) stuff. Indeed, so much of what the CIA learns is collected from newspaper clippings that the director of the agency ought to be called the Pastemaster General.

The president (and the rest of us) were told that this wouldn't happen again. President Bush, who is sometimes generous to a fault in overlooking the failures of loyalists who mean well, declined to cashier George Tenet for the intelligence fiasco of September 11, on the strength of fresh promises to do really, really better.

What we've seen since are press releases, in the form of breathless puff pieces in The Washington Post by Mortuary Bob Woodward, the agency's main man in the media. The story line is that the CIA went into Afghanistan first, to make the war safe for the Army's Special Operations teams and to clear the land for the Marines, who landed at Kandahar over the weekend.

Mortuary Bob, who enjoys a curious relationship with the agency, reported 10 days ago that the CIA had mounted "a hidden war," whose existence "has not been previously disclosed," operating in "a central combat role." The dispatch bore the usual marks of an elaborately planted story, designed to divert attention from failures and to make the performance of certain people look better than it actually was.

When Kabul fell on Nov. 13 scavengers descended on the city, stripping the houses of top al Qaeda and Taliban lieutenants and commanders and finding all sorts of documents and clues to what Osama bin Laden has been up to, and what the prospects are for more deadly mischief. You might think - you might hope - that these scavengers were agents of the "Western intelligence agencies." Unfortunately, most of them were newspaper and magazine correspondents, accompanied by Afghan souvenir seekers and street hustlers. We can only hope that somewhere in the vast intelligence complex at Langley a diligent spy is busy with scissors and paste pot, clipping articles from newspapers.

If so, he should look up the Economist, the authoritative British journal, for Nov. 24, and a dispatch titled "In the house of anthrax." The Economist's man in Kabul tells of finding the headquarters of a Pakistani organization called Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (UTN) in a modest house in a fashionable neighborhood in Kabul. UTN is the front for a leading Pakistani nuclear scientist, identified as a specialist in plutonium technology. The scientist, Bashiruddin Mahmood, has been arrested twice by Pakistani authorities and twice released after extensive interrogation. Here's what the Economist correspondent found:

"An upstairs room of the house had been used as a workshop. What appeared to be a Russian rocket had been disassembled, and a canister labeled 'helium' had been left on the worktop. On the floor were multiple copies of documents about anthrax downloaded from the Internet, and details about the American army's vaccination plans for its troops. ...

"On a desk was a cassette box labeled 'Jihad,' with the name of Osama bin Laden handwritten along the spine. Most chilling of all, however, were the mass of calculations and drawings in felt pen that filled up a white board of the sort used in classrooms. There were several designs for a long thin balloon, something like a weather balloon, with lines and arrows indicating a suggested height of 10km (33,000 feet). There was also a sketch of a jet fighter flying toward the balloon alongside the words: 'Your days are limited! Bang.' This, like the documents, was written in English."

Someone, perhaps a leading nuclear scientist who worked on Pakistan's nuclear bomb, was clearly working on a helium-powered bomb carrying anthrax, perhaps to be detonated over New York City or Washington.

All sorts of stuff has been stripped out of houses in Kabul since it fell to Northern Alliance troops a fortnight ago. Some of the stuff was no doubt worthless. Much was not. But where were the "Western intelligence agencies" when dozens of correspondents were rifling through crates and boxes of documents, including notebooks with names and addresses of al Qaeda contacts in the West? They seemed to be AWOL once more. It's enough to chill every paste pot at Langley.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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