Al-Qaeda Suspects Color White House Debate Over Iran
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
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.