Times : Terror trial blown away - and it's all George Bush's fault

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Terror trial blown away - and it's all George Bush's fault

The collapse last week of the London trial against the men accused of a plot to blow up airliners can be traced back to a peevish president desperate for a poll fillip

Ron Suskind | September 14, 2008

‘Thank you, that’s fine for today,” George W Bush says, as he dismisses a half-dozen attendees of his morning intelligence briefing and settles behind the world’s most famous desk. He’s agitated, doing his best to get things in order before he leaves for his annual August vacation.

It is July 27, 2006. His best-laid plans for this summer are already in tatters. It was to be a season to focus on his strengths, with the mid-term elections just over three months away. Except everything, and everyone, has been conspiring against him. His poll numbers are in the basement. Casualties in Iraq have been steadily rising. Israel is sinking deeper each day into a disastrous engagement with a stronger-than-expected Hezbollah. It’s a mess.

What’s driving Bush’s calculations at the moment is the just-finished intelligence briefing. It involved a plot that he’s been hearing about for some time. The British have been working it since last year: a major terrorist cell in the suburbs of London. While it’s their case — they’ve made that very clear — US involvement has deepened as the tentacles of the cell have spread across Britain and into Pakistan.

With about 40 suspects sending plenty of e-mails and making calls, the Brits have had to rely on what Bush likes to call the “firepower of Fort Meade”, the massive National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance complex in the Maryland hills.

In the past few days, electronic surveillance has revealed, finally, the nature of the plot: airliners taking off from Heathrow carrying explosives and heading for the US east coast. Talk among the suspects has indicated that it could involve as many as a dozen planes blowing up over American cities. That would make it the biggest plot since 9/11 — the so-called second wave that Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, have been waiting for all these years.

Reports of all kinds have been coming to Bush’s desk as the US anti-terrorism machine has secretly ratcheted up. Mike Chertoff, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, is working his intelligence unit around the clock; NSA’s working overtime; and the CIA is doing what it can, especially with its sources in Pakistan.

This morning’s briefers said, however, that the British are advising the United States to sit back and take a deep breath. The Brits have been stressing that this may be just early logistical talk, that they have these suspects so completely wired that they can’t sneeze without generating an electronic dispatch and that no one is doing anything that would pass for an active operation.

Bush has heard this before. Patience, patience. The British are saying that all the time; and that they’re better at intelligence work than the United States — they’ve been doing it longer, they have experience with the IRA’s terrorist network and they’re especially well placed in target communities such as the Pakistanis and the Saudis.

The United States is too anxious and trigger-happy, the Brits complain, given to picking up some bit of an overheard conversation and then sweeping up suspects. Tony Blair said in a recent conversation with Bush that this was “the error of relying on the capability you have rather than developing the capability you need”.

The Brits, after their experience in Northern Ireland, are starting to believe that the key is to treat this not as a titanic ideological struggle, but rather as a law enforcement issue. This requires being patient enough to get the evidence — usually once a plot has matured — with which to build a viable case in open court. But waiting doesn’t feel right to Bush, not now. It could take six months or longer — who knows? — until this plot becomes operational.

Blair is flying to Washington late tonight. They have a full morning planned for tomorrow, a long meeting and then a joint press conference. Blair is a good man, and they’ve covered for each other plenty of times. Blair will come through.

The meeting with Blair next morning happens not to go well, however. When Bush brings up the airliner plot and expresses his desire to snap the trap shut, Blair is unmoved. He says he’s quite clear about the position of his people — Eliza Manningham-Buller, the imperious head of MI5, domestic intelligence; and John Scarlett, the chief of MI6, the foreign service. They seem to have prepared Blair for just this kind of push from the Americans.

It’s not just that this is a UK operation, Blair says, and that nearly 2,000 British operatives have been working it for nearly a year. It’s also that if they’re patient, at some point they’ll be “at the ready” when the plotters seek “green light” approval from Al-Qaeda’s chiefs. It’s too large a plot for them not to.

After Blair leaves, Bush tells Cheney about his dissatisfaction. Cheney receives the message clearly, as he’s received many others over the years. No one needs to create any memos, which some historian might dig up. In a private two-man exchange, there is an understanding. This is the way their relationship works, especially on the most sensitive matters, which Bush will want to deny if he’s ever confronted.

So, as Bush packs up and arrives at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Cheney makes provisions. It’s all tightly held. No one can know what’s under way — no one, certainly, in the foreign policy establishment and not even most top officials in the intelligence community.

If this were run on a split screen, one image would be a man slipping into Islamabad in darkness in early August. The man is Jose Rodriguez, the director of operations at the CIA, the agency’s number four and the head of all clandestine operations and CIA stations around the world.

Outside Cheney’s office, virtually no one knows that Rodriguez has been dispatched to Islamabad. It is not, however, Pakistan’s powerful Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, that Rodriguez and Cheney are concerned about. It’s that British intelligence will discover Rodriguez’s presence through its sources in Pakistan or those in the US intelligence community.

His mission is to pass information secretly to a selected Pakistani intelligence official, who will summarily arrest one Rashid Rauf, the man suspected of being the Pakistani contact for the British airline plotters. Rodriguez then has to get out of the country undetected.

He manages this, and Rauf is quietly apprehended. As a whisper of the arrest spreads to a few top officials in British intelligence — first in Islamabad and then in London — they curse, throw ashtrays and scream bloody murder. They know the Pakistanis would never have moved on Rauf without first checking with them. And, God knows, the Brits didn’t give the order.

This was their investigation. They might have made arrests in a week or in a month. Clearly the hijackers were moving into some next stage of planning, but many inside the British intelligence and law enforcement communities were beginning to suspect it was more experimentation than anything resembling a dry run. If so, taking them down too early would leave investigators with insufficient evidence to prosecute effectively.

As for Rauf, he was wanted for murder in the UK. The Brits had been preparing a case — with plenty of evidence — for the Pakistani police to arrest him and have him extradited to England for trial. Instead, he gets picked up by the notorious ISI, by which he’ll be either tortured or feted — depending on ISI’s complicated views of the matter — and rendered unsuitable for public trial in the UK or anywhere else. His arrest lights a fuse that will swiftly blow apart their entire investigation.

Top US officials are perplexed. No one, beyond a half-dozen people in the US government, several of them among Cheney’s national security team, knows who is responsible. Not everyone is upset, though. Bush suddenly is in a very good mood. He’d seemed a bit glum when he first arrived in Crawford, aides said. By Tuesday August 8, he is notably ebullient. Pumped up, Bush hits the phones, making preparations for some political jaunts over the coming days to assist beleaguered Republican candidates. He knows he’ll be able to deliver something for them, an August surprise, something very good for the protectors of America.

Next day Cheney decides he wants to do a surprise press briefing from his vacation home in the Wyoming hills. The previous evening, an anti-war candidate defeated Joe Lieberman, the pro-war senator, in Connecticut’s Democratic primary. Cheney, notably strident, says this will encourage “Al-Qaeda types”. He suggests Democrats think America “can retreat behind our oceans and . . . be safe here at home, which clearly we know we won’t — we can’t be”.

Now he just has to sit in his vacation home and wait for events to catch up with his words.

Everything becomes clear in the early hours of August 10. An associate of Rauf’s in Pakistan alerts one of his British contacts that Rauf has been arrested — a conversation that is picked up by electronic surveillance shared by the UK and the United States. As the plotters panic, British police race across metropolitan London, rounding up more than 20 suspects in a few hours, shutting down a year-long operation in what can only be called a frenzy.

The haul from a suburban safe house leads the police to believe the plotters had begun to experiment with ways to get explosives aboard the airliners. In a general way, they’d started to examine the pattern of flight schedules to the United States. In other words, early planning stages — the most valuable time for British agents to sit and wait, tug the net gently and watch for the arrival of “operational readiness”, when the plotters would seek permission from on high.

The most knowledgeable British anti-terrorism officials are the most outraged. Before dawn breaks in the UK, they’re already assessing the damage from what one calls a “forced, foolish hastiness”. But the White House already has a media strategy in place to leverage news of the thwarted attack, “the worst since 9/11”. All that’s left to do is wait a few hours until sunrise, when the arrests will hit the US news cycles and the president and vice-president can register surprise about how right they’ve been all along, about everything.

© Ron Suskind 2008

Extracted from The Way of the World by Ron Suskind, published by Simon & Schuster at £17.99. Copies can be ordered for £16.19, including postage, from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585