National Geographic's recent special on 9/11 reflected the CIA's spin on the world. It was filled with conjecture based on bad sources, and a few outright falsehoods. As is the case with so many CIA products, it avoided the distinction between what we know and what the U.S. government wants to believe. In doing so, it gave the impression that we know things that we do not.
Here are a few illustrations.
The program claims that in the 1980s, Peshawar was swarming with CIA agents. In fact, there were exactly zero in direct contact with the Mujahideen there (or anywhere else). The Islamabad CIA station had one-and-a-half full-time staff working on Afghanistan, and did so exclusively through Pakistan's security service, the ISI. This was agency policy. The first introductions between CIA officers and the Mujahideen were not even made until October 1984.
The program quoted the CIA line that Osama bin Laden escaped to Pakistan. Not only is there no evidence for this, but there is no evidence of bin Laden's continued existence after November 2001. This, after the world's most thorough manhunt. The several bin Laden tapes have never been credible, and no reputable person claims to have seen him.
National Geographic gave the impression that bin Laden was the focal point, the deus ex machina, of anti--U.S. terrorism. This is the CIA's view, rooted in an eagerness to exonerate Third Word governments from responsibility for terrorism. The CIA would have us believe that private entities like al-Qaeda manipulate vast state intelligence servicesnot the other way around. Not surprisingly, the CIA draws evidence for this view from the intelligence services of states like Syria, Egypt, and yes, until 2003, Iraq. These state agencies dish up intelligence from terrorists outfits because they have infiltrated every one. They manipulate the groups against other state rivals and against us. And yet the CIA still assumes the information is disinterested.
The CIA's principal fault in its intelligence collection has always been that its "case officers," who are not actually agents, play at intelligence. Case officers have neither the policies, the skills, nor the courage to undertake real undercover work. And so they take what they are told and call it good.
Experience demonstrates that the CIA often thinks it has the upper hand while being taken for a ride by foreign serviceshostiles and "friendlies" alike. When we have actually come upon intelligence windfalls, like Germany's Stasi files, we have discovered that nearly all the CIA's agents were actually were working for the other side. Most recently, the CIA's vaunted ROCKSTARS operation in Iraqon the basis of which part of the April 2003 attack was plannedturns out to have been managed by Saddam.
The role of states in terrorismIraq, Syria, Iran, the PLOis at the heart of disputes over U.S. foreign policy. Yet the CIA has bent over backwards to deny their role. The program reflects this. It first states that Ramzi Youssef arrived in the U.S. "with a perfectly forged Iraqi passport." The photocopy we have, however, shows no evidence of forgery, meaning that the guy came from Baghdad (and returned there) as someone known and accepted by the Iraqi authorities. Why believethe CIA's and the program's unspoken assumptionthat he's neither Ramzi Youssef nor Iraqi?
According to the CIA (accepted by National Geographic) his real name and unforged identity are supposedly reflected in the Kuwaiti document he presented to New York's Pakistani consulate while obtaining the passport he used to leave the U.S. after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And it is only on the basis of that presumed identity (one Abdul Karim), that he can be believed to beas CIA believes and the program statedKhalid Sheikh Mohammed's nephew. The trouble is that Karim's document says that he's is 5' 8" tall, whereas Ramzi Youssef, sitting in the federal pen in Colorado, is 6' tall.
The program mentions that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's interrogation "provided details" of the 9/11 plot. Embellishment is more accurate. He shed light on nothing. He talked a lot about bin Laden's alleged day--to-day involvement, but everything we independently know points to him as the plot's director. In fact, Mohammed, along with Youssef/Karim, were involved in the conspiracy before either met bin Laden. The money for both came from another of Mohammed's "nephews." Why did they do it? The program suggests Islamic motives. But neither Mohammed's nor Youssef lived Islamic lives. Because bin Laden told them? But they were doing it before.
There is no doubt that a number of Islamic radicals were recruited for the plot. It is not clear by whom, with what understanding, or with what documentation. But one thing is beyond doubt, and it wasn't mentioned in the program: According to surveillance cameras, the faces of nine or so of the hijackers who boarded the planes of September 11 did not correspond to the names on their visas. In fact, one Saudi identified as a hijacker called a TV station to say that he was alive, had nothing to do with the plot, and had reported his passport stolen in Denver two years before.
The National Geographic program not only left out key information, but reaffirmed the impressionentirely misleadingthat terrorism has nothing to do with states. The CIA's continues to press this point onto the American people. We can only wish that the agency worked as craftily with America's enemies.