The Ghost of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan
John Aravosis at AmericaBlog brings up the awful possibility, based on an ABC report, that the Public Relations-hungry Bush administration may have interfered with a British and Pakistani investigation of an al-Qaeda plot to bomb London that ties into July 7.
The question is whether Bush played politics with terror around the time of the Democratic National Convention in late July, 2004. Jim Lobe reminded us at the time that ‘ The New Republic weekly quoted Pakistani intelligence officials as saying the White House had asked them to announce the arrest or killing of any “high-value [al-Qaeda] target” any time between July 26 and 28, the first three days of the Democratic Convention. At the time, former CIA officer Robert Baer said the announcement made “no sense.” “To keep these guys off-balance, a lot of this stuff should be kept in secret. You get no benefit from announcing an arrest like this.” ‘
In response to White House pressure, the Pakistanis were in fact able to make an arrest, which was announced during the Democratic National Convention. That arrest, of a Tanzanian named Ahmad Khalfan Gheilani, in turn led to the capture of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a young computer expert who had old al-Qaeda documents on his laptop as well as a more recent archive of email correspondence with al-Qaeda in the UK. Among the old data were pre-9/11 plans for attacks in New York and elsewhere.
The Bush administration issued a heightened security alert just as the Democratic National Convention was ending. Many at the time suspected that this announcement was an unsubtle attempt to play to the general public’s perception of Bush as better at fighting terrorists than the Democrats. USA Today wrote:
“some questioned the timing and tone of Ridge’s Sunday news conference. Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean suggested it might have been an effort to bump Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry from the headlines after a convention in Boston that focused heavily on his credentials to be commander in chief. “I am concerned that every time something happens that’s not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism,” Dean told CNN. Kerry’s aides have said they do not believe the timing was politically motivated. But other Democrats have been quietly grumbling. And that prompted Ridge to proclaim Tuesday, for the second time in less than a month, that “we don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security.” The last time he said that, he was standing on the Boston waterfront, just days before Kerry’s political convention, answering charges he was hyping the possibility of terrorism around the convention to grab attention from Kerry. Some law enforcement officials worry that disclosing detailed information would tip off terrorists and dry up intelligence sources. But Ridge said the public has a right to know. “The detail, the sophistication, the thoroughness of this information, if you had access to it, you’d say we did the right thing,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not about politics. It’s about confidence in government telling you when they get the information.”
The information reported by Ridge was based on data that was three years old, raising real questions about how urgent such an announcement could possibly have been and raising further suspicions about the timing.
The announcement set off a frenzy of press interest in the basis for then Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge’s alarm. Either from a Bush administration source or from a Pakistani one (each government blames the other), they came up with the name of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a recently arrested al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan, and published it. But it turns out that the Pakistanis and the UK had “turned” Khan and were having him be in active email contact with the al-Qaeda network in the UK so as to track them down.
On August 3, the Bush administration released the name of Abu Eisa Khan, a suspected al-Qaeda operative in the UK who had been arrested. The motive for this shocking lapse in security procedure appears to have been the desire to trumpet a specific arrest.
All of these public pronouncements by the Americans infuriated the Pakistani and British police.
For the sake of three year old intelligence, the Bush administration had helped blow the first inside double agent the Pakistanis and the British had ever developed. The British had been preparing a set of indictments and pursuing the investigation, in part by using Khan. They were forced to move before they were ready. Some suspects escaped on hearing Naeem Noor Khan’s in the media. Of those who were arrested, several had to be released for lack of evidence against them.
Muhammad Sadique Khan, one of the July 7 bombers, was apparently connected to one of the suspects under surveillance in early August, 2004.
It would be really nice to think that Howard Dean’s dark suspicions were unwarranted. But we already saw in summer of 2003 how Karl Rove was willing to damage the CIA for petty political gain by leaking to the press the fact that Ambassador Joe Wilson’s wife worked for that agency. That Rove would have been eager to use the terror issue to blunt the impact of the Democratic National Convention is all too plausible. If he did so, he may well have gotten people killed.
The connection to the Noor Khan plot helps explain why Tony Blair and Jack Straw were so unequivocal about July 7 having been an al-Qaeda operation so soon after the blasts.