May 10, 2004
2WATCH List: Contractors, KSM, Hambali, Afghan Elections And More
Here's a look at some national security-related stories that are likely to be of growing interest over the next few weeks.
The issue of private contractors first broke onto the radar screen with the killing of four American civilians in Fallujah. It quickly became apparent that "private contractor" is often a euphemism for "professional mercenary" in the Iraq theater. The Abu Ghraib abuse report raised the story's profile substantially with allegations that private contractors gave orders related to the graphic photos of guards mistreating prisoners. News reports thus far have only scraped the surface of the "private contractor" story which may well reach bombshell proportions by the time the U.S. election rolls around.
Although it's still much too soon to tell, there are some rumblings in the reporting on this story which suggest there are only shaky grounds for the arrest of an Oregon lawyer as a co-conspirator in the 3/11 attack. If that proves to be the case, it will be yet another embarrassment for the Justice Department, which has not distinguished itself with any impressive convictions of terrorists since September 11. Isn't terrorism the department's top priority now?
This is a major, major story which could have significant consequences when it moves from being an "ABC Exclusive" into the public domain. Sometimes big stories don't spread quickly when they're broken exclusively by a single news outlet. Witness the several days lag between 60 Minutes II airing the Abu Ghraib pictures and everyone else picking the story up, or the explosive Oklahoma City bombing reports from the Associated Press which have been virtually ignored by TV news outlets.
If al Qaeda is affecting elections in Madrid, how much more so will they affect elections in Afghanistan? A high-profile disaster in the September elections in Afghanistan would have significant ramifications for the November elections in the U.S.
Expect to see the U.S. Congress demand full disclosure of the treatment, location and conditions of high-profile al Qaeda detainees over the next two to three months. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah will be of primary interest to watchdogs, since their detentions are considered among the government's most protected secrets and since the U.S. had claimed it extracted a great deal of vital information from both of these hardened al Qaeda lieutenants. Another top AQ leader who has apparently been talking freely is Hambali, who may become very high profile over the next month, as the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia have been asking (with increasing stridency) to interrogate him themselves.
Keep an eye on this one. While it's early in the investigation, and Russia is not especially transparent in such matters, al Qaeda has been targeting political leaders in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for some time, including multiple attempts to hit Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf within the last year. The only reason it hasn't hit a Western leader yet is plain bad luck Ramzi Yousef was caught just before attempting to assassinate the pope, and he plotted unsuccessfully to kill Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto and U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Contact J.M. Berger: