Yesterday’s Thoughts

October 13, 2005

Is this a fact?

Andrew Sullivan is impressed by the latest intelligence release from the Director of National Intelligence.

It purports to be a letter “between two senior al Qa’ida leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that was obtained during counterterrorism operations in Iraq, ” from July 9, 2005.

The letter paints a picture of a Jihad aimed at “the establishment of a caliphate in the manner of the Prophet” centered in Iraq and extended to the secular countries bordering Iraq. They are planning what will happen after the anticipated American withdrawal from Iraq, and are particulary concerned with the secular and Shia Iraqis.

The DNI summarizes the letter:

Among the letter’s highlights are discussions indicating:

* The centrality of the war in Iraq for the global jihad.

* From al Qa’ida’s point of view, the war does not end with an American departure.

* An acknowledgment of the appeal of democracy to the Iraqis.

* The strategic vision of inevitable conflict, with a tacit recognition of current political dynamics in Iraq; with a call by al-Zawahiri for political action equal to military action.

* The need to maintain popular support at least until jihadist rule has been established.

* Admission that more than half the struggle is taking place “in the battlefield of the media.”

From where I sit, there a quite a few unanswered questions about this document. In no particular order,

  • Where did this document come from? The DNI website claims, “the United States Government has the highest confidence in the letter’s authenticity.” Ok. Is this the same “highest confidence” that they had about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the war? Essentially this is a letter from one anonymous person to another anonymous person. This evidence is obviously inadmissible in a court of law. It should also be inadmissible in the court of public opinion. The only people who will believe this are already convinced.
  • John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence, was the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations on the day when Colin Powell went up there to make his unsupported claims of weapons of mass destruction. Was he involved in the crafting of that speech? Did he listen to it? Does he think that just because the United State Government claims to have “highest confidence” that anyone else would be inclined to believe it?
  • Was Ahmad Chalabi responsible for this letter? I always thought, without any evidence beyond probablity, that Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress and/or other parties with similar interests were responsible for some of those radio intercepts that Powell made so much of at the UN. Is there any reason to believe that the Unitied States Government is any less gullable today than they were in 2002. Maybe, but this particular document doesn’t show it.
  • Why is this document being released? It’s not exactly like this administration has sought to keep everyone up to speed on events in Iraq or the War on Terror. They have kept a famously tight rein on information. Can we see the rest of the intelligence from Iraq to confirm that this isn’t another example of cherry picking intelligence.
  • What does the phrase “a letter between two senior al Qa’ida leaders” mean? Does the DNI speak English? Letters go from one person and to another. “Between” implies a two way exchange, but this is only one letter. Is there another letter that is not being released? Why not? There is clearly some level of debate going on here. The letter writer mentions that the recipient may see things differently. Is there a letter that lays that out?
  • The previous point might be a small one, but the only reason that I noticed it was because the claim that this was “a letter between two senior al Qa’ida leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, ” seems to be contradicted by the internal evidence of the letter itself. The next to last paragraph states, “By God, if by chance you’re going to Fallujah, send greetings to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.” If I send you a letter, I don’t end it with, “If you happen to be in the neighborhood, say hello to yourself.” Maybe there is more than one Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or this is a code phrase, or a ruse, but the DNI should be explaining this. Explaining it would probably require them publishing the other letter “between” which advances an alternate interpretion which isn’t a friendly to the administrations preconceptions though.
  • What’s with the Word document? It is full of random characters. It is supposed to be the English translation, but there seem to be non-English characters in random spots. For instance the last paragraph on page 2 has this snippet, “and the sublime goal that the Prophet @ left to his companions {.” Is this just me?
  • Why did they publish the Arabic in pdf format and the English translation as a Word document? The Arabic is a scan, but it is still notable that the document was put on the web as a word document. Hey DNI, html is really a good format for documents on the Internet.

All in all, I see no reason to believe that isn’t just another part of the scripted (or is it unscripted?) attempt to sell the need for and success of the Iraqi War. If you already thought that the war was a good idea (Hi Andrew!) and you aren’t skeptical of facts that appear to support your opinion (Hi Human!) then this will serve as confirmation.

Everyone else will have to either ignore this completely, or spend the time to confim or discredit it. Confirmation will probably be impossible since the DNI is unlikely to come forward with the required facts. Discrediting will merely be difficult.

My take is that this has the same stink of being cherry picked, planted or made up as all of the other evidence that has been presented for public consumpton as justification for the war.

Update: October 14, 2005 2:10 PDT – Juan Cole is also suspicious of the letter. He focuses on the internal text and notes some phrasings a Sunni speaker would use and catches a discrepancy about Zawahiri’s relationship with Zarqawi.

I think I missed the strongest stink smell of this letter. This is another John McCain’s black baby smear. The release of this letter has been timed to be close enough to the Iraqi elections to influence the vote, but to not allow time for detailed third-party confirmation or rebuttal.

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