White House suppressed evidence of Iranís terrorism
Sent secret cable accusing Tehran of
1996 Khobar Towers attack, but kept it from public
By John Solomon - The Washington
Times - Monday, October 5, 2015
administration gathered enough evidence to send a top-secret communique accusing
Iran of facilitating the deadly 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist bombing, but
suppressed that information from the American public and some elements of U.S.
intelligence for fear it would lead to an outcry for reprisal, according to
documents and interviews.
Clinton left office, the intelligence pointing toward Iran's involvement in the
terror attack in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen and wounded
hundreds was deemed both extensive and "credible," memos show.
It included FBI
interviews with a half-dozen Saudi co-conspirators who revealed they got their
passports from the Iranian embassy in Damascus, reported to a top Iranian
general and were trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), officials told
The Washington Times.
about what the Clinton administration knew are taking on new significance with
the recent capture of the accused mastermind of the 1996 attack, which has
occurred in the shadows of the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran.
al-Mughassil was arrested in August returning to Lebanon from Iran, and his
apprehension has provided fresh evidence of Tehran's and Hezbollah's involvement
in the attack and their efforts to shield him from justice for two decades, U.S.
Director Louis Freeh told The Times that when he first sought the Clinton White
House's help to gain access to the Saudi suspects, he was repeatedly thwarted.
When he succeeded by going around Mr. Clinton and returned with the evidence, it
was dismissed as "hearsay," and he was asked not to spread it around
because the administration had made a policy decision to warm relations with
Tehran and didn't want to rock the boat, he said.
line was they weren't interested. They were not at all responsive to it,"
Mr. Freeh said about the evidence linking Iran to Khobar.
looking to change the relationships with the regime there, which is foreign
policy. And the FBI has nothing to do with that," he said in an interview.
"They didn't like that. But I did what I thought was proper."
Mr. Freeh made
similar allegations a decade ago when he wrote a book about his time in the FBI.
He was slammed by Clinton supporters, who accused him of being a partisan,
claimed the evidence against Iran was inconclusive and that the White House did
not try to thwart the probe.
But since that
time, substantial new information has emerged in declassified memos, oral
history interviews with retired government officials and other venues that
corroborate Mr. Freeh's account, including that the White House tried to cut off
the flow of evidence about Iran's involvement to certain elements of the
Chief among the
new evidence is a top-secret cable from summer 1999 showing that Mr. Clinton
told Iran's new and more moderate president at the time, Mohammad Khatami, that
the U.S. believed Iran had participated in the Khobar Towers truck bombing.
President Khatami from President Clinton: The United States Government has
received credible evidence that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard
Corps. (IRGC) along with members of Lebanese and Saudi Hizballah were directly
involved in the planning and execution of the terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia
of the Khobar Towers military resident complex," reads a declassified
version of the cable obtained by the National Security Archives group.
States views this in the gravest terms," the cable added. "We
acknowledge that the bombing occurred prior to your election. Those responsible,
however, have yet to face justice for this crime. And the IRGC may be involved
in planning for further terrorist attacks against American citizens. The
involvement of the IRGC in terrorist activity and planning aboard remains a
cause of deep concern to us."
for Mr. Clinton declined to comment on the record for this story.
Today, there is
little doubt in U.S. circles that Iran and its Saudi Hezbollah arm participated
in the deadly Khobar Towers attack. Shortly after Mr. Clinton left office, an
indictment was issued against Mr. Mughassil that cited the IRGC's assistance.
And in 2006 a federal judge ruled in a civil case brought by families of the
Khobar victims that Iran was liable for hundreds of millions of dollars for its
role in the attack.
about what Mr. Clinton knew about Iran's involvement and what was kept from the
public could have implications on the campaign trail for his wife Hillary's
emerging Iran policy. Seeking the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Mrs.
Clinton has embraced the controversial nuclear deal she helped start with Iran
as secretary of state but also declared she wouldn't hesitate to use military
force if Tehran cheats.
It was the
specter of public pressure for such a military engagement, however, that
concerned her husband's White House after a link to Iran in the Khobar Towers
case was established.
told The Times that Mr. Clinton originally ordered the military to create a
contingency plan for a formidable retaliatory strike on Iran, and in 1997 gave
permission to the CIA to conduct Operation Sapphire that disrupted the
activities of Iranian intelligence officers in several countries.
But with the
1997 election bringing about a new moderate leadership in Tehran, Mr. Clinton
tried instead to handle the matter privately in summer 1999, hoping that a new
Iranian leader at the time would renounce terrorism and cooperate in the Khobar
case after signaling a desire to moderate relations with America.
responded with a harsh denial, backed by its more radical theocratic ruling
elite, and it even threatened to make public the cable Mr. Clinton had sent the
Iranian leader. At the same time, the Iranians also made clear in their response
that they did not harbor ill will or intention against the United States at the
The threat of
going public alarmed top U.S. advisers, who feared the disclosure would lead to
public pressure inside the United States to retaliate against Iran militarily or
diplomatically, contemporaneous memos show.
Iranians make good on their threats to release the text of our letter, we are
going to face intense pressure to take action," top aide Kenneth Pollack
wrote in a Sept. 15, 1999, memo routed through White House aide Bruce Riedel to
then-National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.
Mr. Riedel, who
was instrumental in facilitating the top-secret cable to Iran, and Mr. Pollack
are now both scholars at the Brookings Institution. They did not return calls
and emails Monday seeking comment. But in his 2014 book, Mr. Pollack
unequivocally linked the Khobar attack to Iran.
Khobar Towers blast was an Iranian response to an $18 million increase in the
U.S. covert action budget against Iran in 1995," Mr. Pollack wrote.
"The Iranians apparently saw it as a declaration of covert war and may have
destroyed the Khobar Towers complex as a way of warning the United States of the
consequences of such a campaign."
Flow of intel
aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the evidence pointing to Iranian
involvement had become substantial by 1999. Still, some in the administration
worried it was not solid enough to warrant military action, and might have been
exaggerated by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-Shia rivalry with Iran. They argued
that working for moderation with Mr. Khatami was a better alternative than
blaming it for an attack that happened under an earlier regime, the former aides
there was little doubt Tehran was involved but worried about the American
public's appetite for a military action against Iran and the possibility it
would unleash a wider terror war, the former aides explained.
case, the White House opted to downplay the concerns, suggesting in public that
the evidence linking Iran was "fragmentary" or uncertain. Behind the
scenes, steps were also taken to restrict the flow of any further evidence that
Iran assisted the Khobar attack, according to interviews with law enforcement
and intelligence officials.
At the time, the
FBI and the State Department's intelligence arm were gathering significant new
cooperation from Saudi authorities that pointed toward Iranian involvement. But
suddenly the flow of information was stopped, officials told The Times.
seeing a line of traffic that led us toward Iranian involvement, and suddenly
that traffic was cut off," recalled Wayne White, a career intelligence
officer inside the State Department from 1979 to 2005 who served as deputy
director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research's Office
of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia.
Mr. White and
other colleagues first disclosed the stopped flow of intelligence during an oral
history project for a career diplomats group, and he agreed to recount the
details to The Times. During the Clinton administration, his team was
responsible for intelligence inside State for Iran, Iraq, the Middle East and
North Africa, and was taking a lead role in the Khobar probe as well as
evaluating other regional terrorism threats.
intelligence flow stopped on Iran's involvement in Khobar, Mr. White said he
made a "very heated demand up the chain of command."
"We did not
sit idly by and accept this," he said in an interview. "When we found
out we and the originating agency were being denied intelligence, we went
upstairs to the front office to find out what was happening and to let them know
we were outraged."
Mr. White said
his team tried several different ways to try to get intelligence flowing again,
including seeking a deal to restrict the information to the secretary of state
or a senior deputy. Eventually, he said, he learned the blockade had been
ordered by Mr. Clinton's top national security aide.
found out the stream had been cut off by Sandy Berger, and the original agency
producing the intelligence was struggling to work around the roadblock," he
Mr. Berger, who
later was convicted of trying to smuggle Clinton-era classified documents about
terrorism out of the National Archives, now works for a consulting firm in
Washington. His office said he was unavailable for comment.
account was confirmed to The Times by foreign diplomats and several U.S. law
enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the matter, including former FBI
Mr. Freeh said
when his agents returned from Saudi Arabia in 2000 with clear-cut statements
from the co-conspirators about Iran's involvement, he went to see Mr. Berger and
was instructed not to disseminate the information.
'Who knows about this?' And I said, 'Excuse me?' 'So, who knows about it?' he
says. 'Well,' I said, 'the attorney general of the United States, me, you, about
50 FBI agents and the Saudi government,'" Mr. Freeh recalled.
said, 'it's just hearsay.' And I said, 'Well, with all due respect, it's not
hearsay. It would be a statement by a co-conspirator in furtherance of a
conspiracy and would come into court under the rules of evidence,'" he
Mr. Freeh said
he first began encountering resistance to making a case against Iran when he
first wanted to send the agents to Saudi Arabia a year earlier.
were told by the Saudis was the only way that we can do this is if your
president asks the king or the crown prince for this access," he said.
"And if so, we can probably deliver it at that level. But we can't do it at
spent a number of months, more than a number of months, writing talking points
for the president. We'd give them to Sandy Berger, and the president would then
have whatever meetings he would have with the king or crown prince. And the word
kept coming back to us that he never raised the talking points.
back to the White House and say we are told the talking points, the requests,
weren't raised. And we would get a variety of different answers," he
continued. "But the bottom line was we couldn't get the president to raise
this. So what I did was I contacted former President George H.W. Bush. He had a
very good relationship with the Saudis. I explained to him what my dilemma was
and asked if he would contact the Saudis. And he did."
Mr. Freeh said
he witnessed another example of the Clinton administration showing deference to
Iran that he feared risked national security.
encouraging me not to do surveillances on the cultural teams and athletic teams
that were starting to come in from Iran," he said. "And I refused as
director, saying we had good evidence that the Iranians had put their agents on
these wrestling teams and they were coming into the U.S. to contact
Mr. White said
his intelligence analysts didn't want Iran to have been behind the Khobar Towers
attack because it would have serious long-term ramifications for America. But
once the evidence established a link, it was wrong for the information to be cut
off for political reasons, he said.
polluted the entire intelligence process, which is not supposed to be interfered
with in any way with political priorities," he said. "You cannot
provide your intelligence community selective intelligence without corrupting
the process, and that was an outrage."
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