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Al-Qaeda Suspects Color White House Debate Over Iran

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/09/AR2007020902294.html?referrer=email Al-Qaeda Suspects Color White House Debate Over Iran By
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 10, 2007
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      Al-Qaeda Suspects Color White House Debate Over Iran

      By Dafna Linzer
      Washington Post Staff Writer
      Saturday, February 10, 2007; Page A01

      Last week, the CIA sent an urgent report to President
      Bush's National Security Council: Iranian authorities
      had arrested two al-Qaeda operatives traveling through
      Iran on their way from Pakistan to Iraq. The suspects
      were caught along a well-worn, if little-noticed,
      route for militants determined to fight U.S. troops on
      Iraqi soil, according to a senior intelligence

      The arrests were presented to Bush's senior policy
      advisers as evidence that Iran appears committed to
      stopping al-Qaeda foot traffic across its borders, the
      intelligence official said. That assessment comes at a
      time when the Bush administration, in an effort to
      push for further U.N. sanctions on the Islamic
      republic, is preparing to publicly accuse Tehran of
      cooperating with and harboring al-Qaeda suspects.

      The strategy has sparked a growing debate within the
      administration and the intelligence community,
      according to U.S. intelligence and government
      officials. One faction is pressing for more economic
      embargoes against Iran, including asset freezes and
      travel bans for the country's top leaders. But several
      senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials
      worry that a public push regarding the al-Qaeda
      suspects held in Iran could jeopardize U.S.
      intelligence-gathering and prompt the Iranians to free
      some of the most wanted individuals.

      "There was real debate about all this," said one
      counterterrorism official. "If we go public, the
      Iranians could turn them loose." The official added:
      "At this point, we know where these guys are and at
      least they are off the streets. We could lose them for
      years if we go down this path."

      The administration's planned diplomatic offensive is
      part of an effort to pressure Tehran from multiple
      directions. Bush has given the U.S. military the
      authority to kill or capture Iranian government agents
      working with Shiite militias inside Iraq. Yesterday,
      Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said serial numbers
      and markings on some explosives used in Iraq indicate
      that the material came from Iran, but he offered no

      With the aim of shaking Tehran's commitment to its
      nuclear program, Bush also approved last fall secret
      operations to target Iranian influence in southern
      Lebanon, in western Afghanistan, in the Palestinian
      territories and inside Iran. The new strategy, a
      senior administration official said, aims to portray
      Iran as a "terror-producing country, instead of an
      oil-producing country," with links to al-Qaeda,
      Hezbollah and death squads in Iraq.

      U.S. officials have asserted for years that several
      dozen al-Qaeda fighters, including Osama bin Laden's
      son, slipped across the Afghan border into Iran as
      U.S. troops hunted for the perpetrators of the Sept.
      11, 2001, attacks. U.S. and allied intelligence
      services, which have monitored the men's presence
      inside Iran, reported that Tehran was holding them
      under house arrest as bargaining chips for potential
      deals with Washington.

      Last fall, Bush administration officials asked the CIA
      to compile a list of those suspects so the White House
      could publicize their presence. For years, the
      administration has not revealed their names, in part
      because it sought to protect its intelligence sources
      but also because at the time the U.S. government was
      concealing the identities of suspects it was holding
      in secret CIA custody.

      But the names of some of the men in Iran have become
      public, including "high-value" targets such as
      al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith of Kuwait and
      Saif al-Adel of Egypt. U.S. intelligence officials
      said they are members of the "al-Qaeda operational
      management committee." U.S. intelligence officials
      said there are suspicions, but no proof, that one of
      them may have been involved from afar in planning an
      attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May 2003.
      Intelligence officials said bin Laden's son Saad is
      also being held with the other men in Iran.

      Five administration officials were made available for
      interviews for this story on the condition that they
      not be identified. Other officials who spoke without
      permission -- including senior officials, career
      analysts and policymakers -- said their standing with
      the White House would be at risk if they were quoted
      by name.

      The State Department, Pentagon and CIA referred all
      questions about the story to the National Security
      Council. In a written response to questions, NSC
      spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: "Iran's sponsorship of
      terrorism is one of the reasons for the sanctions now
      against it. We note that U.N. Security Council
      resolutions already oblige all states to ensure that
      members of terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, are
      brought to justice."

      Since al-Qaeda fighters began streaming into Iran from
      Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, Tehran had turned
      over hundreds of people to U.S. allies and provided
      U.S. intelligence with the names, photographs and
      fingerprints of those it held in custody, according to
      senior U.S. intelligence and administration officials.
      In early 2003, it offered to hand over the remaining
      high-value targets directly to the United States if
      Washington would turn over a group of exiled Iranian
      militants hiding in Iraq.

      Some of Bush's top advisers pushed for the trade,
      arguing that taking custody of bin Laden's son and the
      others would produce new leads on al-Qaeda. They were
      also willing to trade away the exiles -- members of a
      group on the State Department's terrorist list -- who
      had aligned with Saddam Hussein in an effort to
      overthrow the Iranian government.

      Officials have said Bush ultimately rejected the
      exchange on the advice of Vice President Cheney and
      then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who argued
      that any engagement would legitimize Iran and other
      state sponsors of terrorism. Bush's National Security
      Council agreed to accept information from Iran on
      al-Qaeda but offer nothing in return, officials said.

      But no information has been forthcoming, intelligence
      officials said. One official said the CIA and the
      Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency have disagreed
      over how effectively the Iranians are controlling
      al-Qaeda members and whether the Tehran government is
      aware of the extent of al-Qaeda movements through the

      Nevertheless, administration officials said they are
      determined to press Iran on the matter.

      "We are not convinced that the Iranians have been
      honest or open about the level or degree of al-Qaeda
      presence in their midst," said one Bush adviser who
      was instrumental in coming up with a more
      confrontational U.S. approach to Iran. "They have not
      made proper accounting with respect to U.N.
      resolutions, have not been clear about who is in
      detention and have not been clear as to what is
      happening to individuals who might be in custody."

      Bush administration officials pointed to U.N. Security
      Council Resolutions 1267 and 1373, which state that
      harboring al-Qaeda members constitutes a threat to
      international peace and security, and authorize force
      to combat that threat. The resolutions compel nations
      to share any information on al-Qaeda suspects and give
      the United Nations authority to freeze the assets of
      suspects and those who provide them with safe haven.

      Two U.S. officials said the administration plans to
      argue that Iran is violating those resolutions. A team
      of senior U.S. officials has been holding briefings
      for visiting European diplomats on the issue while
      administration lawyers prepare options for holding
      Iran in violation of U.N. resolutions.

      "We've started a more aggressive and major attempt to
      try to convince other countries to use their influence
      on this issue," a senior U.S. diplomat said. "Until
      now, the Europeans have been focused on the nuclear
      issue and we want this high up on the agenda."

      But another government official predicted that no
      European country would support a call on Iran to turn
      the al-Qaeda group over to U.S. military detention at
      Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a facility widely condemned by
      Washington's closest allies. In the past year, U.S.
      officials said they successfully pushed Egypt, Kuwait
      and Saudi Arabia to seek extradition of their citizens
      held in Iran, but Tehran rebuffed the requests.
      Administration officials said they interpreted the
      refusal as evidence of cooperation between the Iranian
      government and the group.

      "We'd be happy to see them face trial anywhere," a
      senior administration official said.

      Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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