In America’s war on terrorism, the first U.S. casualty was the First Amendment. The military, the Bush administration and the media itself have squelched important information about the war in Afghanistan since it began on September 11.

Asked at a press conference whether he would lie to the media about the war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated this statement by Winston Churchill about misleading information disseminated before and during the D-Day invasion: “Sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.”
Unfortunately, Rumsfeld has been the major source of information about the war as reporters’ access to the battlefield has been extremely limited. “They plan to fight the war and then tell the press and the public how it turned out afterwards,” CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre complained. Others wonder, though, if the American press would tell the full story of the war even if it were free to do so.

As Tony Burman, the executive director at Canada’s CBC News, told the recent Newsworld conference in Barcelona: “It’s depressing to see the jingoism which is part of the spirit of the U.S. is influencing editorial decision-making.” Burman said watching U.S. news and European network coverage was like watching “two different wars.”

Few if any protests have been made by the usually vociferous American press corps about the Bush administration’s tough press restrictions or how their editors are softening their stories. “It is as if the First Amendment has been put on ice while America is at war, the very moment when it is most necessary to use it,” one British journalist observed.

British journalists, thankfully, are journalists of a different color. They don’t take no for an answer and report what they see, regardless of whose toes they step on. Consider this poignant piece by Richard Lloyd Parry of the Independent about his visit to the Afghan village of Kamo Ado on December 4:

“The village where nothing happened is reached by a steep climb at the end of a rattling three-hour drive along a stony road. Until nothing happened here, early on the morning of Saturday and again the following day, it was a large village with a small graveyard, but now that has been reversed. The cemetery on the hill contains 40 freshly dug graves, unmarked and identical. And the village of Kama Ado has ceased to exist.

“Many of the homes here are just deep conical craters in the earth. The rest are cracked open, split like crushed cardboard boxes. At the moment when nothing happened, the villagers of Kama Ado were taking their early morning meal, before sunrise and the beginning of the Ramadan fast. And there in the rubble, dented and ripped, are tokens of the simple daily lives they led.

“A contorted tin kettle, turned almost inside out by the blast; a collection of charred cooking pots; and the fragments of an old-fashioned pedal-operated sewing machine. A split metal chest contains scraps of children’s clothes in cheap bright nylon.

“In another room are the only riches that these people had, six dead cows lying higgledy-piggledy and distended by decay. And all this is very strange because, on Saturday morning – when American B-52s unloaded dozen of bombs that killed 115 men, women and children – nothing happened.

“We know this because the U.S. Department of Defense told us so. That evening, a Pentagon representative, questioned about reports of civilian casualties in eastern Afghanistan, explained that they were not true, because the U.S. is meticulous in selecting only military targets associated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network. Subsequent Pentagon utterances on the subject have wobbled somewhat, but there has been no retraction of that initial decisive statement: “It just didn’t happen.”

On December 10, The Independent printed an equally compelling article by esteemed foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, who has been covering Afghanistan’s wars longer than some of those fighting the current version have been alive.

“They started by shaking hands,” Fisk wrote. We said, “Salaam aleikum” – peace be upon you – then the first pebbles flew past my face. A small boy tried to grab my bag. Then another. Then someone punched me in the back. Then young men broke my glasses, began smashing stones into my face and head. I couldn’t see for the blood pouring down my forehead and swamping my eyes. And even then, I understood. I couldn’t blame them for what they were doing. In fact, if I were the Afghan refugees of Kila Abdullah, close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, I would have done just the same to Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find….

“I had spent more than two and a half decades reporting the humiliation and misery of the Muslim world and now their anger had embraced me too. Or had it? . . . I realized . . . the Afghan men and boys who had attacked me … should never have done so but [their] brutality was entirely the product of others, of us – of we who had armed their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the “War for Civilization” just a few miles away and then bombed their homes and ripped up their families and called them “collateral damage.”

“So I thought I should write about what happened to us in this fearful, silly, bloody, tiny incident. I feared other versions would produce a different narrative, of how a British journalist was “beaten up by a mob of Afghan refugees.”

“And of course, that’s the point. The people who were assaulted were the Afghans, the scars inflicted by us – by B-52s, not by them. And I’ll say it again. If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah, I would have done just what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.”

You won’t find many articles like that in America’s mainstream press. As a result, the American people have been greatly shortchanged on information about the war on terrorism. Here are some other examples of the kind of important information that, for the most part, has been virtually ignored by supposedly the freest press in the world:

Warnings Ignored

U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies received warning signals at least three months before the September 11 attacks that terrorists were planning to hijack commercial aircraft to use as weapons to attack important symbols of American culture, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reported on September 13.

The newspaper, quoting unnamed German intelligence sources, said that the Echelon spy network was being used to collect information about the terrorist threats, and that U.K. intelligence services apparently also had advance warning. Although the warnings were taken seriously, the newspaper said there was disagreement on how such attacks could be prevented and no preventive steps were taken.

As important as that story should have seemed two days after the shocking attacks in New York and Washington, it barely made a blip on the radar screens of the American press. It did no better before September 11.

Leslie H. Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tells the story of how, on, July 26, 1999, then-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen published an op-ed article in The Washington Post in which he warned of an imminent terrorist attack against the United States. That evening, Gelb watched all the major TV news shows to see if they reported Cohen’s warning. They didn’t, of course. With both the government and news media ignoring warnings of a terrorist attack, is it any wonder America wasn’t prepared for what happened on September 11?

Did CIA ‘hero’ start riot?

When CIA Agent Johnny “Mike Spann became the first American fatality in Afghanistan after being killed in a riot at the Qala-i-Jhangi fort near Mazar-i-Sharif, the American news media immediately labeled him an “American hero.” British journalists, on the other hand, reported that Spann was the person who apparently provoked the riot.

The BBC’s authoritative domestic television program Newsnight interviewed Oliver August, correspondent for The Times of London, who said that Spann and his CIA colleague, Dave, were thought to have set off the violence by aggressively interrogating foreign Taliban prisoners about why they were in Afghanistan. August claimed one prisoner jumped forward and answered, “We’re here to kill you.” August said Spann then pulled his gun and his CIA colleague shot three prisoners dead before losing control over the situation. August said Spann was then “kicked, beaten and bitten to death” at the start of a riot that lasted four days and left more than 500 people dead.

Oil’s role surfaces

Did the Bush administration tell the FBI to back off its investigations of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network while it worked to obtain access to the huge oil and gas reserves in Central Asia?

That question has been raised in news outlets around the world — with the notable exception of those in the United States — since the allegation was recently raised on a respected BBC news show and in a new book by two French intelligence analysts.

The BBC story aired November 6 on Newsnight, the network’s premier current affairs program. The report, which echoed an earlier story in The Guardian, said that, in addition to blocking the FBI’s investigation of bin Laden himself, the Bush administration quashed an investigation of two of his brothers and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), a suspected terrorist front in Falls Church, Virginia, to which they were connected.

“The U.S. Treasury has not frozen WAMY’s assets, and when we talked to them, they insisted they are a charity,” said Newsnight reporter Greg Palast, an American journalist who says he moved to Great Britain to do the kind of reporting he couldn’t do at home. “Yet, just weeks ago, Pakistan expelled WAMY operatives. And India claimed that WAMY was funding an organization linked to bombings in Kashmir. And the Philippines military has accused WAMY of funding Muslim insurgency.

“Just days after the hijackers took off from Boston aiming for the Twin Towers, a special charter flight out of the same airport whisked 11 members of Osama bin Laden’s family off to Saudi Arabia. That did not concern the White House… Their official line is that the bin Ladens are above suspicion apart from Osama, the black sheep, who, they say hijacked the family name. That’s fortunate for the Bush family and the Saudi royal household, whose links with the bin Ladens could otherwise prove embarrassing.”

Palast said he had uncovered a long history of “shadowy connections” between the State Department, the CIA and the Saudis. He then aired an interview with Michael Springman, former head of the American visa bureau in Jeddah

“In Saudi Arabia I was repeatedly ordered by high level State Department officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants, Springman said.

“These were, essentially, people who had no ties either to Saudi Arabia or to their own country. I complained bitterly at the time there. I returned to the US, I complained to the State Department here, to the General Accounting Office, to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and to the Inspector General’s office. I was met with silence.

“What I was protesting was, in reality, an effort to bring recruits, rounded up by Osama Bin Laden, to the U.S. for terrorist training by the CIA. They would then be returned to Afghanistan to fight against the then-Soviets. The attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 did not shake the State Department’s faith in the Saudis, nor did the attack on American barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia three years later, in which 19 Americans died. FBI agents began to feel their investigation was being obstructed. Would you be surprised to find out that FBI agents are a bit frustrated that they can’t be looking into some Saudi connections?”

“I would never be surprised with that,’ responded attorney Michael Wildes, who represents a Saudi diplomat who defected to the United States with 14,000 documents that Wildes claims implicates Saudi citizens in financing terrorism and more. “They’re cut off at the hip sometimes by supervisors or given shots that are being called from Washington at the highest levels.”

Wildes said he met with FBI agents who told him they were not permitted to read his defector-client’s documents

“Take these with you,” Wildes said he told the agents. “‘We’re not going to charge for the copies. Keep them. Do something with them. Get some bad guys with them.’ They refused.”

Reporter Palast noted that, “In the hall of mirrors that is the U.S. intelligence community, Wildes, a former U.S. federal attorney, said the FBI field agents wanted the documents, but they were told to “see no evil.”

“You see a difference between the rank-and-file counterintelligence agents, who are regarded by some as the motor pool of the FBI, who drive following diplomats, and the people who are getting the shots called at the highest level of our government, who have a different agenda — it’s unconscionable,” Wildes said.

Palast said that the State Department “wanted to keep the pro-American Saudi royal family in control of the world’s biggest oil spigot, even at the price of turning a blind eye to any terrorist connection so long as America was safe.” He added that, in recent years, CIA operatives had other reasons for not exposing Saudi-backed suspects. At that point Palast introduced Joe Trento, author of The Secret History of the CIA.

“If you recruited somebody who is a member of a terrorist organization, who happens to make his way here to the U.S., and even though you’re not in touch with that person anymore but you have used him in the past, it would be unseemly if he were arrested by the FBI and word got back that he’d once been on the payroll of the CIA,” Trento said. “What we’re talking about is blowback. What we’re talking about is embarrassing, career-destroying blowback for intelligence officials.”

Palast also repeated a previously denied claim that George W. Bush’s first success came with a company financed by bin Laden’s older brother, Salem. “Young George also received fees as director of a subsidiary of Carlyle Corporation, a little-known private company which has, in just a few years of its founding, become one of America’s biggest defense contractors,” Palast said. “His father, Bush Senior, is also a paid adviser. And what became embarrassing was the revelation that the bin Ladens held a stake in Carlyle, sold just after September 11.”

The newly published book in France goes even further with its accusations. It claims the Bush administration stymied the FBI’s terrorism investigations at the behest of American oil interest while it negotiated a deal to aid the Taliban regime in return for access to the oil and gas reserves in Central Asia and, later, the turning over of bin Laden.

In Bin Laden, La Verite Interdite (Bin Laden, the Forbidden Truth), Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie say the FBI’s deputy director for counterterrorism, John O’Neill, resigned in July to protest the administration’s obstruction of the agency’s investigation just as it was closing in on bin Laden. “The main obstacles to investigating] Islamic terrorism were U.S. oil corporate interests and the role played by Saudi Arabia in it,” O’Neill reportedly told the authors. Ironically, O’Neill then took a job as security director of the World Trade Center and was killed in the September 11 terrorist attack on the complex.

Brisard says O’Neill, who investigated all the bombings bin Laden was suspected of being behind, complained bitterly to him in interviews last summer that the State Department and the oil lobby stymied attempts to tie bin Laden to the attacks. The final straw for O’Neill came when U.S. ambassador forced O’Neill and his agents out of Yemen when they were close to linking bin Laden to the attack on the USS Cole.

The authors say Khalid bin Mahfouz, the former chairman of the kingdom’s largest bank, is a good example of the high-level-support bin Laden has received in Saudi Arabia. Brisard and Dasquie note that Mahfouz, whom they call “the banker of terror” is now under house arrest in the Saudi resort of Taif after the FBI and CIA accused him of indirectly diverting $2 billion to bin Laden.

Brisard and Dasquie say the chief motive for the United States to make peace with the Taliban was oil. They note that the landlocked former Soviet republics of Central Asia — especially Kazakhstan — have huge oil and gas reserves. But because Russia has refused to allow American companies to move the reserves through Russian pipelines and construction of a pipeline through Iran would be risky, they say, a pipeline through Afghanistan made the most sense.

The authors say that Chevron, of which Condoleeza Rice once was a director, is deeply involved in Kazakhstan and eager to have a safe pipeline to a shipping port. In 1995, they say, Houston-based Unocal signed a contract to export natural gas through a $3 billion pipeline that would go from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan — if the latter could be stabilized politically.

The book says that Laila Helms, a part-Afghan niece of former CIA Director Richard Helms, played a key role in bringing the two sides together. Helms brought a top adviser to the Taliban to Washington this past March, where he met with top officials at the CIA and the State Department.

“Several meetings took place this year, under the arbitration of Francesc Vendrell, personal representative of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, to discuss the situation in Afghanistan,” the book adds. “Representatives of the U.S. government and Russia and the six countries that border with Afghanistan were present at these meetings. Sometimes, representatives of the Taliban also sat around the table.”

Naif Naik, former Pakistani minister for foreign affairs, said on French television that during a meeting in Berlin in July, the discussions focused on the formation of a government of national unity in Afghanistan. “”If the Taliban had accepted this coalition, they would have immediately received international economic aid and the pipelines from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would have come,” Naik said. When the Taliban balked at the idea of a coalition government, Naik added, Tom Simons, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, threatened both the Taliban and Pakistan. “Simons said, ‘either the Taliban behave as they ought to, or Pakistan convinces them to do so, or we will use another option.’ The words Simons used were ‘a military operation, ‘” Naik said.

At that point, the book says, the Taliban walked out of the talks. If the Taliban had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks, they no longer had any reason to stop them or to warn the United States they were imminent.

As fantastic as the book’s charges are, they fit nicely with reports by several major newspapers. In February, The Times of London reported that the Taliban offered to extradite bin Laden to a third country long before the September 11 attacks. In September, The Toronto Star reported on an allegedly cozy relationship between Bush administration and the Taliban. In November, The Washington Post — the most aggressive American newspaper on this story — reported that Sudan had offered in 1996 to extradite bin Laden to Saudi Arabia, where he was wanted for attacks on U.S. servicemen.

Instead, the United States agreed with Sudan’s later decision to ship bin Laden and his followers to remote, strife-torn, Afghanistan, where it was assumed they would be relatively harmless. The official reason for U.S. reluctance to have bin laden extradited to Saudi Arabia was that, because of the Saudi’s interference in the FBI investigation, it wasn’t sure he could be successfully prosecuted in an American court.

What all this suggests is that bin Laden was given a free hand because of bin Laden’s protectors in Washington and Saudi Arabia. That could explain why the Bush administration is so adamant that it would rather see bin Laden dead than sitting alive in the witness chair of an open American courtroom.

The other question this raises is: If the Taliban offered to extradite bin Laden in February — an offer repeated after the September 11 attacks — is this war the result of American ineptness and deference to the slippery oil industry?

Do drugs have role, too?

Chip Elliott of The Moscow Times takes exception to those who say the Afghan war is “just about oil.” He says it’s also about drugs.

“Although we must now hail the warlords of the Northern Alliance as noble defenders of civilization, the fact is that for some time they have also functioned as one of the world’s biggest drug-dealing operations,” Elliott wrote recently. “Indeed, one of the main sticking points between the holy warriors of the alliance and their ideological brethren in the Taliban has been control of the profitable poppy, which by God’s grace grows so plentifully in a land otherwise bereft of natural resources. (Always excepting the production of corpses.)

“In the good old days, when the mujahedin were united against the Soviet devil, all shared equally in the drug-running trade, under the benevolent eye of that great lubricator of illicit commerce, the CIA. When the Northern Alliance was driven from Kabul — having killed 50,000 of the city’s inhabitants during its civilized rule — the Taliban seized the lion’s share of Afghanistan’s opium production. The noble lords managed to hold on to several prize fields in the north, however, and together with avaricious Taliban, they helped fuel a worldwide rise in heroin traffic.”

With the defeat of the Taliban, Elliott wrote, Afghanistan’s bountiful southern fields are also “there for the plucking.” Afghan farmers Elliot said, can plant wheat, get $20 per hectare or plant opium, and get $8,000.

“Needless to say, the poppy replanting has already begun,” Elliott wrote. “Come harvest time, the drug lords — sorry, the noble warlords — will take their cut and ship the dope off to pollute the minds of decadent infidels in the West. Ah, the spoils of victory!”

Pakistan plays both sides

In late November, a half-dozen or more Pakistani air force cargo planes were seen landing in the Taliban-held city of Kunduz, where they evacuated hundreds of non-Afghan soldiers who had fought the United States and the Northern Alliance. As hard as it is to believe, the United States apparently missed the whole operation. When asked about the mysterious airlift at a Pentagon briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did his usual dance of denial. “I have received absolutely no information that would verify or validate statements about airplanes moving in or out. I doubt them,” Rumsfeld said.

Reports about the airlift first appeared in the Indian press, which cited unusual radar contacts and the removal of Pakistani troops out of Kunduz. Pakistan had hundreds of military advisers in Afghanistan before September 11 helping the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance. Hundreds more former soldiers actively joined Taliban regiments, and many Pakistani volunteers were among the legions of al-Qaida. So, a Pakistani evacuation of troops fighting for one side while the Pakistani government supposedly supported the American side was no big surprise to those who know how things work in Northern Asia. Rumsfeld, unfortunately, must not be one of them.

In another example of Pakistan’s duplicity, the European press reported that, one month after Pakistan agreed to end its support of the Taliban; its intelligence agency was still providing safe passage for weapons and ammunition to them.

On Oct. 8 and again on Oct. 12, Pakistani border guards at a checkpoint in the Khyber Pass waved on convoys headed into Afghanistan rifles, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers for the Taliban. Pakistan’s top spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, had long provided safe passage to armadas of truckers and smugglers who supplied a mountain of weapons to the Taliban. But the policy was supposed to have changed in September.

A senior Pakistani intelligence official admitted that the convoys contained arms for the Taliban, but said that it was the last such shipment and that Pakistan has lived up to its commitment to the United States since then.

Martin Yant is the author of Desert Mirage: The True Story of the Gulf War.

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