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a.k.a. Frances Fragos Townsend
Vulgar Betrayal, the most significant US government investigation into terrorist financing before 9/11, shuts down. FBI agent Robert Wright launched the investigation in 1996 (see 1996) and was removed from the investigation in late 1999 (see August 3, 1999). Apparently the investigation accomplished little after Wright’s departure. (Crogan 8/25/2004; Judicial Watch 12/15/2004; Robert G. Wright, Jr., v. Federal Bureau of Investigation 5/16/2005) A March 2000 affidavit named Yassin al-Qadi as a source of terrorist funds in Chicago, but no charges are brought against him. (Ross and Walker 12/19/2002) Mark Flessner, an assistant US attorney assigned to Vulgar Betrayal in 1996, later will recall, “Vulgar Betrayal was a case where the FBI’s intelligence agents would not cooperate with the criminal agents trying to put these guys in jail. They refused to let us arrest them. They only wanted to watch them conduct their business.” He will also claim that Frances Townsend, a Justice Department official working a variety of posts, helps close down the investigation. He will say Townsend did not share information but “deliberately obstructed it. And I found that very disconcerting.” He will claim that she completely supports FBI intelligence agents and refuses to share their information with the Vulgar Betrayal investigation. A federal grand jury was impaneled in 1996 to support Vulgar Betrayal, but without the information from FBI intelligence, Flessner did not have enough evidence to return indictments. “I couldn’t even get permission to do the basic things you do, such as collecting phone numbers from their targets’ incoming and outgoing calls, and addresses from their mail.” With the shut down of the investigation in 2000, Flessner will resign from the Justice Department in frustration. After 9/11, Townsend will be appointed President Bush’s Homeland Security Adviser and counterterrorism director for the National Security Council. (Crogan 8/25/2004)
Chief executive officers of telecommunications companies and financial institutions express reluctance to provide data about their customers to three government agencies, the CIA, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security. The CEOs have been providing telephone, Internet and financial records to the CIA and, through it, the NSA to support “black” intelligence operations for some time (see After July 11, 1997), but after 9/11 the FBI asks for the same information that the CIA is getting. Then, after it is established in late 2002, the Department of Homeland Security also wants the same information. The CEOs begin saying, “Look, we’ll do this once but not three times,” and prefer to give the information to the FBI, which has formal subpoenas. The dispute grows so serious that White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend has to mediate and summons FBI Director Robert Mueller and acting CIA Director John McLauglin to the White House to hammer the issue out. After a series of meetings, they agree to each appoint a senior official to coordinate, ensuring companies are not bombarded with multiple requests. (Woodward 2006, pp. 324-5)
US intelligence has long suspected the Al-Rajhi Bank for supporting radical militant causes. However, the US has not acted overtly against the Saudi bank because it is so large and influential, with an estimated $26 billion in assets and yearly profits of almost $2 billion in 2006. In mid-2003, a new CIA report details linkages between the bank and militants (see Before September 11, 2001), and suggests that the owners of the bank are aware of these links and have an extremist agenda (see Mid-2003). The US begins to rethink the quiet diplomacy approach. Deputies from the CIA, National Security Council, Treasury and State departments meet to discuss the problem. They debate officially listing the bank as a supporter of terrorism. They also consider the possibility of covert operations against the bank, such as interfering with the bank’s internal operations. Another possibility is working with other countries for more scrutiny and regulatory action against the bank. But ultimately, the Bush administration decides against all these options and chooses merely to continue privately exerting pressure on the Saudi government in hopes that the Saudis will do something. (Simpson 7/26/2007) In late 2004, Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend will make a secret visit to Saudi Arabia to put more pressure on the government to do something about the bank. (Calmes 10/1/2004) What the US has done regarding the bank since that time is unknown. The bank denies any ties to Islamic militancy.
White House political strategist Karl Rove returns a telephone call from conservative columnist Robert Novak. Rove has prepared for the call, assembling talking points and briefing materials (see July 7-8, 2003), some drawn from classified government personnel files provided by White House political director Matt Schlapp and other staffers. None of the materials directly involve Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA agent who Novak will “out” in a soon-to-be-published column (see July 14, 2003). Instead, Rove is preparing to discuss Frances Fragos Townsend, the newly appointed deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism. It is unclear whether Rove speaks with Novak on the evening of July 8 or during the day of July 9. (Waas 12/16/2005; Marcy Wheeler 2/12/2007)
Combating 'Rearguard' Effort to Undermine Townsend - President Bush has asked Rove to counter what he believes to be a “rearguard” effort within his own administration—led by senior members of Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff—to discredit Townsend and derail her appointment, perhaps because she was once a senior attorney in the Justice Department under then-President Clinton. Novak has been calling other White House officials about Townsend, and Rove intends to give him the White House slant on her: that President Bush, CIA Director George Tenet, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice all have full confidence in her. Part of the conversation is completely off the record, while other parts are on background, freeing Novak to quote Rove as a “senior administration official.” Novak will write his material on Townsend much as Rove lays it out for him. Reporter Murray Waas will later learn that opposition to Townsend within Cheney’s office is so intense that Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby, contemplates leaking damaging material about her to the press in an attempt to disrupt her appointment. Waas will write, “Libby’s tactics against Townsend appear to have paralleled those he took around the same period of time in attempting to blunt [former ambassador Joseph] Wilson’s criticism of the administration’s use of prewar intelligence.” Libby will indeed leak information on Townsend to selected Republicans in Congress, and they in turn will use that information to criticize her appointment. (Waas 12/16/2005)
Novak Broaches Subject of Plame Wilson - It is after they finish discussing Townsend that the submect of Valerie Plame Wilson comes up. Novak and Rove will both tell federal prosecutors that it is Novak who broaches the subject of Plame Wilson, saying he had heard that “Wilson’s wife” had been responsible for sending her husband on a CIA mission to Niger (see February 19, 2002, July 22, 2003, and October 17, 2003). According to later published accounts, Rove replies, “I heard that too.” Novak’s version of events will be slightly different, with him claiming Rove says, “Oh, you know about it.” Novak has already learned of Plame Wilson’s identity from White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (see July 7, 2003) and from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (see July 8, 2003). Novak tells Rove that he is still going to write a negative column on Townsend, but implies that he will also write about Wilson and his wife. “I think that you are going to be unhappy with something that I write,” he tells Rove, “and I think you are very much going to like something that I am about to write.” Novak’s July 10 column will attack Townsend as an “enemy within,” a Democratic partisan who will likely not be loyal to the Bush administration. Four days later, he will write his column exposing Plame Wilson as a CIA agent as part of his attack on Wilson’s credibility as a war critic. Investigators will be unable to independently verify that Novak, not Rove, first brought up the subject of Plame Wilson during their conversation; for his part, Rove will deny leaking Plame Wilson’s name to any reporter, and will deny even knowing who she is. (Johnston and Stevenson 7/15/2005; Stevenson 7/16/2005; Waas 12/16/2005)
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, frustrated with Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator L. Paul Bremer’s lack of cooperation and coordination with her office (see September 8, 2003 and December 2003 and After), forms the Iraq Stabilization Group (ISG) to oversee Bremer and settle disputes between the Defense and State Departments in governing Iraq. (Roberts 2008, pp. 130) According to unnamed White House officials, the ISG originated with President Bush’s frustration at the lack of progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “The president knows his legacy, and maybe his re-election, depends on getting this right,” says an administration official. “This is as close as anyone will come to acknowledging that it’s not working.” Defense Department officials deny that the ISG is designed to take power away from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “Don recognizes this is not what the Pentagon does best, and he is, in some ways, relieved to give up some of the authority here,” says one senior Pentagon official. In reality, both Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell are giving up some control over the reconstruction efforts to the White House, specifically to the National Security Council. Rice will oversee four coordinating committees, on counterterrorism efforts, economic development, political affairs in Iraq and media messaging. One of her deputies will run each committee, assisted by undersecretaries from State, Defense, and the Treasury Department, as well as representatives from the CIA. The counterterrorism committee will be run by Frances Fragos Townsend; the economic committee by Gary Edson; the political affairs committee by Robert Blackwill; and the communications committee by Anna Perez. (Sanger 10/6/2003) In May 2004, the Washington Post will report that the ISG is dysfunctional and ineffective almost from the outset; within months, all but Blackwill have been reassigned (Perez will leave Washington for a job with NBC), and a search of the White House Web site will find no mention of the ISG later than October 2003. (Milbank 5/18/2004)
Fran Townsend, deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, visits Abu Ghraib for approximately two hours. She is given a tour of the prison by Army Lt. Col. Steven Jordan. Townsend will later say that the purpose of her visit was to learn more about resistance against the US occupation and to ensure that information coming from the facility would be shared effectively among the various intelligence agencies. She will also say that she did not discuss interrogation methods, pressure military prison personnel to produce more intelligence, or witness any incidents of abuse. (Morrison and Diamond 6/17/2004)
In early August 2004, Bush administration officials make multiple television appearances to defend increased alert levels in three cities during the previous week (see August 1, 2004). They also highlight the administration’s focus on terror threats. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice says “You have to go out and warn. You have a duty to warn.” New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, appearing on the same program, says that he takes the warnings “very seriously,” adding that they “helped to make us even more alert.” However, retired General Wesley Clark, former NATO supreme commander and Democratic presidential nominee, says that the way in which the warnings are used “undercut the credibility of the system.” Former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke says the Bush administration’s warning system is “a laughingstock” among state, local and business officials he has talked to. He says that Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge “is not a good spokesman for this issue. When he says things like ‘Here’s a warning,’ then in the next breath says the president is doing a great job, that just raises suspicions.” (CNN 8/9/2004) Criticism of the terror alert system is wide-ranging. Robert Butterworth, a trauma psychologist in Los Angeles, says the alert system creates “anticipatory anxiety,” in which unnecessary fear is spread among the public. Others believe that the very nature of the system is counter-productive. Robert Pfaltzgraff, a security expert at Tufts University, says that the system could alert terrorists to the information discovered by US officials and could jeopardize sources. The alerts could also be used by terrorists to mislead US officials. “Everyone is looking at truck bombs, car bombs, and suicide bombers,” says Randall Larsen, CEO and founder of Homeland Security Associates; “How about if they planned a different kind of attack?” An increase in the alert level could also be seen as a challenge by a dedicated terrorist cell. “There’s going to be a core group of people who want to do it in any event, and might even view it is a dare to see if they can actually do it,” says Juliette Kayyem, a homeland security specialist at Harvard University. “Basically it’s been a failed system so far.” (Miller 8/4/2004)
The Washington Post reports that President Bush remains focused on the capture of top al-Qaeda leaders and has shown little interest in other counterterrorism efforts. The Post reports, “Bush conducts the war on terrorism above all as a global hunt for a cast of evil men he knows by name and photograph. He tracks progress in daily half-hour meetings that Richard A. Falkenrath, who sometimes attended them before departing recently as deputy homeland security adviser, described as ‘extremely granular, about individual guys.’” Falkenrath says, “This is a conversation he’s been having every day, more or less, with his senior advisers since September 11th.” It covers “the same people, over and over again.”
"Decapitate the Beast" - In 2002, the CIA identified about 30 al-Qaeda leaders known as “high-value targets,” and the Bush administration believed al-Qaeda would collapse without them. White House counterterrorism adviser Frances Townsend similarly says Bush’s strategy since 9/11 has been to “decapitate the beast.” She says the men on the list have “unique expertise, experience, or access.” Al-Qaeda may replace them, “but does that person have the same strength and leadership and capability? The answer is no. Maybe he acquires it on the job, but maybe not.” However, many counterterrorism experts increasingly believe that al-Qaeda has turned into more of an ideology than a hierarchical structure, and that the movement can easily survive the loss of its top leaders.
Crossing Names Off a List - Since shortly after 9/11, Bush has had a card containing a list of the names of the top al-Qaeda leaders, and he likes to personally cross them off the card whenever any are captured or killed. The Post says that Bush “mentions little else, save the Taliban’s expulsion from power, when describing progress against al-Qaeda. According to people who have briefed him, Bush still marks changes by hand” on his copy of list of leaders. He sees the issue largely in terms of a battle of wills between himself and al-Qaeda leaders, although he also focuses on removing the governments of countries he believes are state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iraq.
Bush Not Interested in Root Causes of Terrorism - Bush is uninterested in polls showing sharply rising anti-US sentiment overseas, particularly in Muslim countries. One high high-ranking national security official says of the increasing Muslim hostility to the US, “I don’t think it matters.” Many counterterrorism experts and officials disagree. Wayne Downing, Bush’s counterterrorism “tsar” from late 2001 until early 2004, says that Osama bin Laden has worked effectively to “convince the Islamic world the US is the common enemy.… We have done little or nothing [to combat this perception]. That is the big failure.” The Post says that “strong majorities of several dozen officers and officials who were interviewed… cite a long list of proposals to address terrorism at its roots that have not been carried out.” (Gellman and Linzer 10/22/2004)
Frances Townsend, Homeland Security Adviser to President Bush, tells the Club of Madrid, “State sponsors of terrorism such as Iran and Syria are with the terrorists and therefore against all of us.” She adds, “From this day forward the community of nations must be united in demanding a complete end to the state sponsorship of terrorism.” Praising Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, she refers to them as “ever stronger partners in the war against terror.” (India Monitor 3/3/2005)
As Katrina barrels towards the Gulf Coast, most of the top White House staff members are on vacation, taking advantage of President Bush’s five-week vacation at his Crawford, Texas ranch. Andrew Card, White House Chief of Staff, and a veteran crisis manager who managed the federal response to hurricanes under George H.W. Bush, is vacationing at his lakefront summer home in Maine. Vice President Dick Cheney is vacationing at his Wyoming ranch. Frances Townsend, the White House Homeland Security Advisor who reports to Bush on Homeland Security policy and combating terrorism matters, is vacationing as well. After Katrina sweeps through the Gulf Coast, she will attend several meetings in Washington, before leaving on a previously scheduled trip to Saudi Arabia where she will work on joint counterterrorism projects. Bush will urge Townsend to make the trip despite the unfolding Katrina disaster as a “signal to… the enemy” that the hurricane has not distracted Bush’s attention from terrorists, according to one report. Later, White House representatives will decline to identify the person in charge of preparing for the hurricane in Washington, maintaining that Bush and his aides can run the government just as well from their summer homes. “Andy Card is the chief of staff, and he was in close contact with everyone,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan will say at one point. “And the president is the one who’s in charge at the White House.” (Los Angeles Times 9/11/2005) On Tuesday, August 30, when asked to identify the person leading the White House’s response to Katrina, McClellan will reply that Joe Hagin, Deputy Chief of staff is the “point person in terms of overseeing efforts from the White House.” (White House 8/30/2005)
US and British counterterrorism officials argue over whether to arrest a group of Islamic extremists plotting to blow up airliners over the Atlantic in a Bojinka-style plot using liquid bombs (see August 10, 2006). (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 234-7; Roston and Myers 8/14/2006) Surveillance of the plotters is a British operation, but the US is kept fully informed and even President Bush is personally briefed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on July 28. (Booth 9/8/2009; Hayman 9/8/2009) Andy Hayman, assistant commissioner for specialist operations in the Metropolitan Police, will write in 2009: “Fearful for the safety of American lives, the US authorities had been getting edgy, seeking reassurance that this was not going to slip through our hands. We moved from having congenial conversations to eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations.” (Hayman 9/8/2009) In the end, a senior CIA official travels to Pakistan. There he induces the local authorities to arrest one of the plotters, Rashid Rauf, who is in that country (see Between July 28 and August 9, 2006), necessitating a wave of arrests in Britain. After the plot is revealed and some of the plotters are arrested, some British officials will complain that the US triggered the arrests too early, saying further investigation could have led to other accomplices. One US official will say that the missed opportunities leading up to 9/11 put US intelligence services more on edge. These charges initially meet with official denials. Frances Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, says: “[W]e worked together to protect our citizens from harm while ensuring that we gathered as much info as possible to bring the plotters to justice. There was no disagreement between US and [British] officials.” (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 234-7; Roston and Myers 8/14/2006) However, details of the dispute will become undeniably clear after the liquid bomb plotters are found guilty in Britain. (Booth 9/8/2009; Hayman 9/8/2009)
British police arrest 24 people in connection with a plot to blow up aircraft flying from Britain to the United States. Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson says the plot was “intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.” (CNN 8/10/2006) Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff describes the plot as “well-advanced and well-thought-out and… really resourced to succeed.” (MSNBC 8/10/2006) He also likens it to the foiled 1995 Bojinka plot, one portion of which involved blowing up up to a dozen airplanes over the ocean using liquid explosives smuggled onto the planes. (CNN 8/11/2006) The British threat warning level is raised to critical and London’s Heathrow Airport is closed to most European flights. US officials say the plot involved hiding liquid explosives in carry-on luggage, and up to 12 flights would have been targeted. A senior US congressional source says the plotters planned to carry sports drinks onto the flights, which would then be mixed with a gel-like substance. The explosives would be triggered by the electrical charge from an iPod or mobile phone. Administration officials say the plot involved British Airways, Continental, United, and American Airlines. The plotters intended to detonate the devices over New York, Washington, San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles. Officials say the plot demonstrates “very strong links to al-Qaeda” and was nearly operational. In the US, the Department of Homeland Security raises the terror threat to the highest level, red, meaning “severe,” for commercial flights originating in Britain and bound for the US. In addition, the threat level is raised to orange, or “high,” for all commercial flights operating in or coming to the US. (CNN 8/10/2006) British officials say the death toll could have exceeded the 2,700 of the September 11 attacks, with one source calling the plot “our 9/11.” The arrests were spurred by the detention in Pakistan of one of the plotters, Rashid Rauf. The Pakistanis arrested him at the behest of US Vice President Dick Cheney (see Before August 10, 2006 and Between July 28 and August 9, 2006). (Laville, Norton-Taylor, and Dodd 8/11/2006) Officials say some plotters already had tickets for flights and planned to stage test runs over the weekend. Despite the 24 arrests, five suspects in Britain are still being urgently hunted. One official says, “They didn’t get them all.” But British officials claim the arrests in London and Birmingham snare all the alleged “main players.” (MSNBC 8/10/2006) British Home Secretary John Reid says the operation is ongoing and more arrests may be made. US officials say the suspects are all British citizens between the ages of 17 and 35, with some being of Pakistani ethnicity. They add that some of the suspects had been monitored by British intelligence for several months. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of the Metropolitan Police Service Anti-Terrorist Branch, says the arrests follow an “unprecedented level of surveillance” over several months involving meetings, movements, travel, spending, and the aspirations of a large group of people. (CNN 8/10/2006)
Liquids, Gels, Electronics Banned from Flights - Homeland Security bans all liquids and gels except baby formula and prescription medications in the name of the ticket holder in carry-on luggage on all flights. Passengers traveling from and through British airports are temporarily permitted to only carry-on items on a restricted list. These items have to be carried in transparent plastic bags. No liquids can be carried on board, including liquid medications “unless verified as authentic.” All electronic items are also banned. (Detroit Free Press 8/10/2006)
Arrests, Alert Questioned - In the days following the security operation, the arrests will meet with some skepticism. Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail points to previous baseless terror scares in the US and Britain, as well as questioning the political motivations of the home secretary. (Glover 8/16/2006) Douglas Fraser of the Herald in Edinburgh suggests the “political component” of the operation has caused skepticism. He says the intelligence services are taking credit for foiling a major plot by “ramping up the level of public concern about the threat.” He notes that the timing coincides with an attempt by the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair to return to an issue it was defeated on before: increasing to 90 days the amount of time that people can be detained without charge in the case of alleged terrorist offenses. (Latham 8/18/2006) Sean O’Neill and Stewart Tendler of the London Times urge the public and the media to wait for solid evidence before accepting the version of events presented by the government. They say previous bungled anti-terror operations have put pressure on the authorities to build a solid case in public. (O?Neill and Tendler 8/12/2006) In response to these criticisms, intelligence services will be hesitant to release much information publicly, but confirm to The Guardian that surveillance and tips from informants pointed to a plot in the making. Police identify the explosives to be used in the plot as TATP (triacetone triperoxide) and HMTD (hexamethylene triperoxide diamine), both peroxide-based liquid explosives. (Laville 8/19/2006) Police will also reveal that the raids uncovered jihadist materials, receipts of Western Union money transfers, seven martyrdom videos, and the last will and testament of one plotter. (New York Times 8/28/2006)
Some Suspects to Be Released; Security Measures Probably Unnecessary - However, The Guardian does indicate that some of the arrested suspects are likely to be released and that the security measures instituted following the arrests are almost certainly unnecessary. (Laville 8/19/2006) Contradicting earlier reports, a senior British official will suggest an attack was not imminent, saying the suspects had not yet purchased any airline tickets. In fact, some do not even have passports. (Roston and Myers 8/14/2006) Over two and a half weeks after the arrests, a target date for the attacks and number of planes involved will still be undetermined by investigators. The estimate of 10 to 12 planes is characterized by officials as speculative and exaggerated. Clarke acknowledges the police are still investigating “the number, destination, and timing of the flights.” (New York Times 8/28/2006)
12 Suspects to Be Tried - Twelve suspects will be charged with terrorism offences near the end of August 2006. Trials are expected to start in January 2008 at the earliest. Prosecutor Colin Gibbs says he expects “a very long trial of [between] five and eight months.” (IOL 9/4/2006)
A new video is released featuring an audio statement by a man thought to be Osama bin Laden and a video will by one of the 9/11 hijackers, Waleed Alshehri. The man thought to be bin Laden urges sympathizers to join the “caravan of martyrs” and praises Alshehri, saying, “It is true that this young man was little in years, but the faith in his heart was big.” The audio message is accompanied by a still image of the man thought to be bin Laden, apparently taken from a video released a few days earlier (see September 7, 2007). It is unclear whether the audio message is new or was taped some time before release, although the speaker mentions the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 (see June 8, 2006). In the will, Alshehri warns the US, “We shall come at you from your front and back, your right and left.” He also criticizes the state of the Islamic world, “The condition of Islam at the present time makes one cry… in view of the weakness, humiliation, scorn and enslavement it is suffering because it neglected the obligations of Allah and His orders, and permitted His forbidden things and abandoned jihad in Allah’s path.” Homeland security adviser Frances Townsend says that the video is not important and that bin Laden is “virtually impotent.” However, MSNBC will comment, “Bin Laden’s new appearances underline the failure to find the terror leader that President Bush vowed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to take ‘dead or alive.’” (MSNBC 9/11/2007)
According to Time magazine, the CIA produces a report saying that Osama bin Laden has long-term kidney disease and may only have months to live. Time cites as its source “two US officials familiar with the report.” Allegedly, the CIA managed to get the names of some of the medications bin Laden is taking. How this was done is unclear. One of the sources says the report concluded, “Based on his current pharmaceutical intake, [we] would expect that he has no more than six to 18 months to live and impending kidney failure.” However, some observers will dispute the alleged report’s apparent claims. Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, will say, “It’s trying to make a diagnosis from thousands of miles away with only fragments of the medical chart.” Former Bush administration official Frances Fragos Townsend will add: “I’ve read all the same conflicting reports [on bin Laden’s health] that people have talked to you about. I never found one set of reporting more persuasive than another.” When Time breaks the story the next year, the CIA will even disavow the claims attributed to the report. “I have found no one here familiar with this alleged report or the analytic line it supposedly conveys,” says CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano. “The fact that anonymous sources attribute views to the CIA is not, by itself, reason to believe the agency actually holds those views.” (Calabresi 6/30/2009)
Al-Qaeda operative Jamal al-Badawi, considered one of the main planners of the USS Cole bombing (see October 12, 2000), turns himself in to Yemeni authorities on October 17, 2007. He had escaped a Yemeni prison the year before and had been sentenced to death in Yemen for his role in the bombing (see February 3, 2006). But on October 26, Yemeni authorities release him again in return for a pledge not to engage in any violent or al-Qaeda-related activity. Yemen often lets militants go free if they pledge not to attack within Yemen (see 2002 and After). The US has issued a $5 million reward for al-Badawi’s capture, but the Yemeni government refuses to extradite him. US officials are furious about the release, which is particularly galling because it comes just two days after President Bush’s top counterterrorism adviser Frances Townsend visits Yemen and praises the Yemeni government for their cooperation in fighting terrorism. The US had also just announced $20 million in new aid for Yemen, but threatens to cancel the aid due to al-Badawi’s release. Al-Badawi is put back in prison on October 29 and the aid program goes forward. However, US officials are dubious about al-Badawis’ real status. One official who visits him in prison gets the impression he was put in a prison cell just in time for the visit. (Isikoff 10/27/2007; Isikoff and Hosenball 10/31/2007; Worth 1/28/2008) In December 2007, a Yemeni newspaper reports that al-Badawi has again been seen roaming free in public. One source close to the Cole investigation will tell the Washington Post in 2008 that there is evidence that al-Badawi is still allowed to come and go from his prison cell. US officials have demanded to be able to conduct random inspections to make sure he stays in his cell, but apparently the Yemeni government has refused the demand. (Whitlock 5/4/2008)
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer interviews investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who recently alleged that an “executive assassination wing” operated out of the White House (see March 10, 2009). Blitzer notes that the entity Hersh cited, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), denies Hersh’s claim, and says, in Blitzer’s words, “their forces operate under established rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict.” The JSOC “has no command and control authorities over the US military,” the JSOC has told Blitzer. Additionally, former Bush national security expert Frances Townsend has denied Hersh’s claim.
Not New Reporting - Hersh tells Blitzer that though he has not written specifically about the “assassination wing,” he and others have written about the actions of the JSOC well before now. “[I]t’s a separately independent unit that does not report to Congress, at least in the years I know about.… It has been given executive authority by the president in as many as 12 countries to go in and kill we’re talking about high value targets. That’s absolutely correct.” He says that such actions are not only illegal, but have no basis in intelligence. “The idea that you’re telling a group of American combat soldiers,” he says, “[t]he idea that we have a unit set up who goes after high-value targets who up to a certain point I know for sure until very recently were clearing lists. That doesn’t mean Cheney has an assassination unit that he says I want to go get somebody. That’s how it sort of played out in the press. The idea that we have a unit that goes around and without reporting to Congress, Congress knows very little about this group, can’t get clearings, can’t get hearings, can’t get even a classified hearings on it. Congresspeople have told me this. Those are out and has authority for the president to go into a country without telling the CIA station chief or the ambassador and whack somebody and I’m sorry, Wolf, I have a lot of problems with that.”
Poor Choice of Phrase - Hersh says he regrets using the phrase “executive assassination wing,” because it is a “loaded phrase.” Word choice aside, Hersh says: “It comes down to the same thing, that you can—you’ve delegated authority to troops in the field to hit people on the basis of whatever intelligence they think is good and I can tell you it’s always not good and sometimes things get very bloody.… The bottom line is, it’s—if it were the way your little presentation set up, that everything was checked and cleared, in fact, it was an awful lot of delegation to this group, which does not brief the Congress. And this does raise profound questions of constitutional authority. It’s the same questions that have come up repeatedly in the Bush administration. That is a unitarian president, the notion that a president can do things without telling Congress and unilaterally. This is an extension of that issue.”
Implied Confirmation from Former Cheney Adviser - John Hannah, the former national security adviser to Vice President Cheney, says Hersh’s allegations are “not true,” but in his next statement, he seems to confirm Hersh’s allegations to an extent. Blitzer says: “Explain exactly what’s going on in terms of a list. Is there a list of terrorists, suspected terrorists, out there who can be assassinated?” Hannah replies: “There is—there’s clearly a group of people that go through a very extremely well-vetted process—interagency process, as I think was explained in your piece, that have committed acts of war against the United States, who are at war with the United States, or is suspected of planning operations of war against the United States, who authority is given, to our troops in the field in certain war theaters to capture or kill those individuals. That is certainly true.… Osama bin Laden and his number two are right at the top of the list. [The number of individuals to be assassinated] is a small group and the point is that it is very, very heavily vetted throughout the interagency process.” Hannah says that he has trouble believing that Congress was not aware of actions, presumably including possible assassinations, carried out by the JSOC: “I don’t know exactly what the consultations are with the Congress, but it’s hard for me to believe that those committee chairman and the leadership on the Hill involved in intelligence and armed services, if they want to know about these operations, cannot get that information through the Defense Department.” Asked if such assassinations are legal and Constitutional, Hannah says: “There is no question. And in a theater of war, when we are at war, and there’s no doubt, we are still at war against al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and on that Pakistani border, that our troops have the authority to go out after and capture and kill the enemy, including the leadership of the enemy.” (Blitzer 3/30/2009; Black 3/31/2009)
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