WASHINGTON — Senior Pentagon officials who want to expand the war against terrorism to Iraq authorized a trip to Great Britain last month by former CIA director James Woolsey in search of evidence that Saddam Hussein played a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials told Knight Ridder.
The unusual, semi-official trip was at least the second such mission undertaken this year by Woolsey, a leading proponent of the theory that Iraq masterminded both the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and last month's suicide hijackings, said the officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The one-time CIA chief acted with the blessing of senior Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Under Secretary for Policy Douglas Feith, current and former U.S. officials said.
Wolfowitz's office did not respond to inquiries Wednesday about Woolsey's travels. Woolsey, in two telephone conversations this week, declined to discuss his trips to England last month and in February. "I have nothing to say about my trips to the U.K.," he said Wednesday.
A U.S. official who asked that neither his name nor his agency be identified said Woolsey traveled to Britain on a U.S. government plane in the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks, accompanied by a team of Justice and Defense Department officials. The former intelligence chief was seeking proof that the man who planned the first attack on the World Trade Center, who lived in England in the late 1980s, was an Iraqi agent, officials said.
Wolfowitz and several other officials have argued repeatedly in interagency meetings that the United States should bomb Iraq and topple Hussein after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and others have successfully deflected those arguments so far, arguing that such an attack would fracture the international coalition President Bush has assembled. Powell, Vice President Cheney and other U.S. and British officials have said there is no evidence linking Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mohammed Atta, one of the suicide hijackers, met with a low-level Iraqi intelligence officer, in Prague in June 2000, but U.S. officials said they don't know whether the meeting had anything to do with the terrorist attacks 13 months later. Woolsey's trips, however, suggest that the debate about whether, when and how to expand Bush's war on terrorism is far from over.
Wolfowitz and others at the Pentagon "are seized" with the idea that Iraq was behind the attacks, and want to finish the job Bush's father started in the 1991 Persian Gulf war by toppling Hussein, said a senior U.S. official. According to this theory, Iraq's intelligence apparatus supported Osama bin Laden, accused of sponsoring the terrorist attacks.
Former Secretary of State George Shultz on Wednesday added his voice to those who suspect Iraq was behind the Sept. 11 attacks that killed 5,600 people.
"I would be surprised if Saddam Hussein's fingerprints were not in some ways on this," Shultz was quoted as saying during an appearance in Seattle. "An Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein is basically a K-Mart for terrorist weapons."
Several officials said Woolsey's mission angered officials at the State Department and the CIA and left British authorities puzzled about whether he was representing the U.S. government.
"We don't need to deputize former DCIs to play gumshoe," said one official in Washington, using the acronym for Director of Central Intelligence.
The argument that Saddam was behind the 1993 attempt to topple the World Trade Center was advanced by scholar Laurie Mylroie in her book, "Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War against America." A new edition of the book, with a forward by Woolsey and an endorsement by Wolfowitz, is due in bookstores next week.
The man convicted of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing used the alias Ramzi Yousef but was arrested with a Pakistani passport bearing the name Abdul Basit. He is now in a U.S. prison.
Mylroie writes that Iraqi intelligence officers likely stole Basit's identity during Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, where a man named Abdul Basit lived at the time. She and Woolsey point to the fact that Basit and his family disappeared during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and to physical differences between Basit and the man in custody.
FBI and CIA specialists met with Mylroie in the mid-1990s to examine her evidence, but concluded there was nothing to it, said a former government official with knowledge of the events.
Those who believe Iraq was behind the 1993 attempts to topple the World Trade Center argue further that the Sept. 11 attacks were a successful try at finishing the job.
Woolsey, in an article in the New Republic magazine last month, said the only way to determine the truth is to "investigate the materials that Abdul Basit handled while in the United Kingdom in 1988 and 1989, which were taken into custody by Scotland Yard."
Woolsey went to England to determine whether Basit's fingerprints matched Yousef's, current and former officials said.
"It was implied that he was doing so on behalf of the U.S. government, but it doesn't appear it was coordinated through the U.S. Embassy" in London, one official said.
But another official said the former CIA chief "was careful not to hold himself out as representing the U.S. government in any way," but went "to look at some of the evidence that he thought had not been looked at carefully enough."
On at least one of the trips, Woolsey visited the Swansea Institute, a technical school in Wales where Basit studied, as well as the South Wales Constabulatory. The constabulatory contacted the legal attache at the U.S. Embassy in London to ask if Woolsey was acting in an official capacity, an official in Washington said.
The British "were intrigued" that a former CIA chief "was asking these questions," another official said.
Several of those with knowledge of the trips said they failed to produce any new evidence that Iraq was behind the attacks.
Mylroie disputed that, saying Woolsey has just penned a new forward to her book. "Otherwise, he would have backed off," she said.