Threat assessment

Interview | Disinformation author Richard Miniter debunks 9/11 myths

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2005

Last month a 14-letter word emerged like an obscene blast from the past: "Vietnamization."

That was supposedly what America faces in Iraq, but a new book by Richard Miniter, Disinformation (Regnery, 2005), calls the Iraq = Vietnam equation one of 22 "media myths."

For the United States, Mr. Miniter points out, the Vietnam War started small and ended up large, as North Vietnam's effort escalated from guerrilla warfare to tanks and infantry-division assaults. The Iraq War, though, began with U.S. soldiers quickly defeating tanks and infantry and now facing guerrillas, but not many of them: We are actively opposed by probably 10,000 fighters in Iraq, compared to the 1 million-100 times as many-under North Vietnam's control in 1973. In Vietnam the United States was a counter-revolutionary force upholding a corrupt regime and facing the popular Ho Chi Minh, but in Iraq we are bringing about a revolution against generations of oppressors, while facing terrorist thugs who now wage war against their own people. Mr. Miniter discussed this and other "myths."

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WORLD We've heard a lot about the threat posed by suitcase-size nuclear bombs. Why do you tell us not to worry?

MINITER There are only two independent sources for all of the suitcase nuke stories: Russian Gen. Alexander Lebed and Stanislev Lunev, a Russian defector. Lebed made alarming claims on 60 Minutes and in other news outlets-all of them mutually contradictory. He also had a reputation for big drinks and tall tales. What's more, the Russian officials responsible for safeguarding that nation's nuclear weapons were quick to deny Mr. Lebed's account, pointing out that neither he nor his staff bothered to make any inquiries of the military or the officers in charge of the weapons repositories.

Lebed is now dead. As for the second source, Mr. Lunev admitted to me that he had never actually seen a suitcase nuke. He had no idea if any were missing. Further investigation revealed that the entire class of portable atomic weapons, built by both the United States and the USSR, were dismantled in accordance with a 1991 treaty. American officials from the Department of Energy supervised the destruction of all of these weapons. It is impossible for terrorists to buy or steal weapons that no longer exist.

WORLD The mainstream media have told us repeatedly that there was no tie between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Do you disagree?

MINITER The accumulation of evidence compiled in government reports has not been disputed or refuted, only ignored by the majority of the media. There are four categories of proven connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda: meetings, money, training, and personnel.

Starting with meetings: Osama bin Laden met at least eight times with officers of Iraqi intelligence. Perhaps the most dramatic of these meetings occurred in 1996 when the director of Iraq's external intelligence service made a rare journey outside Iraq to visit Mr. bin Laden in Sudan. Britain's leading left-liberal newspaper, The Guardian, reported that a senior Iraqi intelligence officer traveled to Afghanistan in December 1998 to offer Mr. bin Laden asylum in Iraq.

As for money, captured Iraqi documents reveal payments from Iraq to al-Qaeda front groups. As for training, new evidence has emerged that Iraq trained al-Qaeda operatives to make poison gases and to hijack airplanes. Finally, personnel: The mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing entered the United States on an Iraqi passport and another of the 1993 bombers fled to Iraq, where he received a government job.

WORLD According to distinguished professors, poverty causes terrorism and the most effective way to fight terrorism is to step up U.S. foreign aid to governments of poor countries. What's your view of the poverty-terrorism link?

MINITER Poverty does not cause terrorism. For the past 150 years, terrorism has been an upper-middle-class activity. That is certainly true of al-Qaeda. Virtually all al-Qaeda come from intact middle-class families and 63 percent of them have attended college, compared to 6 percent of the Third World population. Some 73 percent are married, according to a study performed by Marc Sageman, a former CIA official who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. For better or for worse, they are among the best and the brightest that the Arab world has to offer. It is not poverty that causes terrorism, but ideology.

Interestingly, fighting poverty can provoke terrorism. It is no mystery why terrorists target aid workers, doctors, teachers, and missionaries. They see infrastructure improvements as a challenge to them in "their" area. So they usually step up attacks and target new buildings and personnel in response. It does not mean that we should not do our best to alleviate the suffering of our fellow man, only that we should be under no illusions that good works diminish terrorism.


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