Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Tracking W's war on terror

New York Daily News
Tracking W's war on terror
Insiders debate author's account of Al Qaeda hunt

WASHINGTON - The severed head brought here on a Learjet in 2002 supposedly belonged to Al Qaeda's No.2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Afghan tribesmen hoping to collect $25 million said the prayer callous on the forehead was proof of Zawahiri's identity.

President Bush even joked that he hoped agents would show him the skull, according to the new book, "The One Percent Doctrine."

But DNA tests proved that it wasn't the hoped-for victory against terrorists, just a mud-covered head of some hapless Afghan. It was quietly shipped off to an FBI warehouse on Staten Island.

Author Ron Suskind's account of Bush's war on terror has added to the catalogue of exasperating dead ends, suspects that turned out to be ghosts, and scrambles to thwart crank threats in the murky war on terror.

The book also has sparked debate among shadow warriors about incidents Suskind reveals, such as the 2003 plot to pump cyanide gas into New York City subways.

Few top U.S. counterterrorism officials knew about the plot and many deny Suskind's claim that a panicky Bush White House sent "alerts through the government."

One reason for the lack of alarm was that soon after discovering Al Qaeda blueprints for a homemade cyanide sprayer, the feds learned Zawahiri had nixed the plot because "it wasn't big enough," a former CIA official told the Daily News.

The device was also an unreliable weapon of mass destruction. "Cyanide is sexy, but difficult to weaponize," a senior counterterrorism official said.

The cyanide plot demonstrates that Al Qaeda also goes down a lot of dead ends, but the U.S. often responded to rumors of plots by mobilizing its agents or with unnerving public alerts.

"They have fantasies of poisoning a water supply. You can't imagine how difficult that would be. Did they fantasize about a cyanide attack? Most likely," the counterterrorism official said.

Al Qaeda, while lethal, is like a think tank concocting countless ways to kill Americans - yet few ideas go "operational," which became plain once top terrorists were captured and interrogated after 9/11.

"There was frequently a blurred distinction between reality and myth because a lot of Al Qaeda 'ideas' were simply that - ideas," said an official who monitored interrogations.

Some ideas that reached the planning stage - like a plan to cut the Brooklyn Bridge's suspension cables - often seem absurdly difficult to pull off. One official said, "The difference between planning to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a cable cutter and doing it is a distance of considerable imagination."

Suskind also claims terrorist Abu Zubaydah, caught in 2002, was built up by the Bush administration as a top Al Qaeda planner. In actuality, Suskind claims, Zubaydah was a midlevel associate who was quite insane and fed the CIA bogus plots.

But sources with direct knowledge of his interrogation insist Zubaydah was lucid and difficult to crack.

"He was tough and smart," said an agency veteran.

Sources concede Zubaydah knew about ideas, but not operations and fed the CIA disinformation. But he eventually revealed Al Qaeda's interest in a nuclear bomb and gassing subways.