U.S. isn’t seriously seeking truth about Cole bombing

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Wednesday, October 18, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — The terrorists who bombed the USS Cole in Aden climbed an important rung on the ladder of terrorism. Americans can no longer turn away from the ugly realities of the shadow war directed against their nation. Nor can they ignore the ineptness of U.S. responses.

The Aden massacre was an intelligence success of major proportions for at least one of America’s enemies in the Middle East. The tradecraft used shows it was not executed by a band of free-lancers who got lucky. It is no longer possible to treat a dozen years of high-profile terror attacks on U.S. targets as random, episodic and self-contained events that can be left to the normal procedures of criminal justice and government bureaucracy.

Modern terrorists climb the ladder of technology with determination. They progress from car bombs to nerve gas. They have moved on to packing a ton of sophisticated explosives on a small boat to slaughter U.S. sailors.

But a ladder of objectives is being climbed as well. American airliners, the World Trade Center in New York, United Nations headquarters, U.S. military barracks and embassies abroad — and now a warship — have been the actual or intended targets of bombers with roots in the Middle East.

Easy explanations are available: That’s the price of being a global superpower. Somebody somewhere is always going to be angry at you for treading on their culture. Bring the boys back home, or grin and bear it. Either answer will seemingly do.

But what if these targets are being attacked because of the principles and policies of the United States? What if the extensive state resources needed to infiltrate the Aden port operation and gather intelligence on the Cole’s movements were mobilized by a state friendly enough to Yemen and hostile enough to the United States to achieve the bombing of the Cole?

The outgoing administration has not made a serious effort to confront and answer similar questions in the earlier attacks. It has appointed ineffectual commissions and left anti-terror policy to mid-level bureaucrats at the National Security Council. A policy heavyweight, a Sam Nunn or a Warren Rudman, should be named to head up a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the operational failures that exposed the Cole to disaster and the larger questions about terrorism.

Bureaucracies instinctively understand when they are being asked to avoid forcing hard choices on leaders. And no president welcomes evidence that may require him to undertake acts of warfare in such murky circumstances.

President Bush faced such a choice shortly after his election in 1988 when Pan Am 103 was blown up over Scotland. His administration responded to evidence implicating Libya’s intelligence service by ruling out military retaliation and opting for economic sanctions and the slow path of criminal justice.

The sanctions, and the legal case finally brought against two Libyan underlings under Scottish law, were both unraveling as the Cole tragedy happened.

Investigative author Laurie Mylroie’s new book, "Study of Revenge," argues that significant leads that tie the Feb. 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center to Iraq have not been followed up effectively either.

Her case is far from airtight. But she advances what former CIA director James Woolsey calls "a testable hypothesis" that has studiously not been tested by the administration. After the attack on the Cole — on its way to enforce U.N. sanctions against Iraq — such views cannot be dismissed as Iraqophobia or paranoia.

Iraqi intelligence has long maintained a significant presence in the former British coaling station of Aden. The CIA upgraded its presence there in recent years to try to penetrate Saddam Hussein’s operations. And Saddam has long-standing political and financial ties with Yemeni leader Ali Abdallah Salih, who initially insisted the Cole explosion was just an accident.

That explanation echoes uncomfortably in my ears. In 1987 an Iraqi jet hit the USS Stark with an Exocet missile and killed 37 sailors. Saddam insisted that was an accident, and the Reagan administration quickly accepted his apology rather than aggressively pursue a difficult inquiry. The U.S. team sent to Baghdad meekly accepted the Iraqi refusal to allow it to question the attacking jet’s pilot.

Covering that pseudo investigation was my last trip to Baghdad. Three years later Saddam went to war against an American nation he was convinced would never respond to his aggression. Somewhere someone is watching the American response to the attack on the Cole and thinking about the future. So must America, without further illusion.

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