Bush-Taliban allegations remain cloudy

By MIKE KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent   |   Feb. 27, 2002 at 7:05 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- A book recently published in France makes two remarkable claims: The Bush administration was negotiating an oil pipeline with the Taliban until last summer; and the late John O'Neill, the nemesis of Osama bin Laden, had resigned from the FBI's war against terrorism protesting that the administration's oil policy was obstructing his investigation.

If true, the revelations would recast history.

However, the White House has categorically denied the alleged Taliban negotiations to United Press International, and the denial leaves little room for shades of gray. And those who worked with O'Neill and knew him best at the FBI cast doubt on the quotes attributed to him and his alleged reasons for leaving the bureau.

The book, "Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth," by intelligence analysts Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie has not been published in English, but made something of an international splash when it was published in Paris in November 2001. For those who read French, the book is available from Amazon for 19 euros.

News accounts in the United States about the allegations in the book, including this one, were gleaned from reviews and media reports in Europe and elsewhere.

Both authors are in their 30s, and each has an impressive reporting resume in Europe with obvious access to "des sources confidentielles."

Almost immediately following the terror attacks, various scenarios were floated by political activists to news organizations purporting to "prove" that the Sept. 11 catastrophes were directly attributable to policy or tactical failures by President Bill Clinton or even Vice President Al Gore.

Unlike those scenarios, the French book could not easily be dismissed as partisan flacking because of the stature of its authors and the depth of its research.

The book claims that Bush administration policy was driven by White House connections to the oil industry, and when the purported negotiations for the pipeline from the Central Asian oilfields through Afghanistan broke down, the administration threatened military action against Afghanistan before Sept. 11.

When governments don't want to face up to unpleasant facts, officials usually refuse to confirm or deny them, hiding behind national security considerations. Or officials will construct their responses into a framework that appears to deny an allegation, but actually leaves room for a different interpretation.

However, when it comes to the question of negotiating with the Taliban for an oil pipeline or anything else prior to Sept. 11, the White House is unequivocal.

"There's just absolutely nothing to it; it's just incorrect," a spokesman for the National Security Council said earlier this month. "Not true," he added for emphasis.

Few administration critics would accept such a denial, even a blanket denial, without further proof. However, Taliban representatives held several news conferences in Pakistan during November to denounce the United States, and not once did they mention U.S. blackmail on the pipeline issue.

John O'Neill's motives for resigning from the FBI, and the quotes in the book attributed to him, are somewhat harder to assess.

Along with nearly 3,000 others, O'Neill was killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11.

In his three decades with the FBI, O'Neill was a near legend in the counter-terrorism field.

He put together the team that captured Ramzi Yousef in Pakistan on charges of participating in the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. According to The New Yorker magazine, he constructed the theory, eventually accepted by investigators, that TWA 800 was brought down off Long Island in 1996 by the ignition of leaking fuel, not a terrorist attack.

Also in 1996, he helped lead the FBI investigation into the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, where 19 U.S. service members were killed.

In 1997, he headed the national security division in the FBI's massive New York Field Office. From that post, he organized the huge international investigation into the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. The bombings killed 12 Americans, more than 200 Africans and injured thousands more.

The investigation of the East Africa bombings led to the indictment in New York of bin Laden and 16 of his associates.

O'Neill was also heavily involved in trying to head off suspected terrorist attacks in the United States during the millennium celebrations of Jan. 1, 2000.

Throughout it all, O'Neill kept bin Laden in his sights as link after link connected al Qaida to the atrocities.

But O'Neill was to encounter his most frustrating investigation in October 2000, when the U.S.S. Cole was rammed by suicide bombers in a small craft as the warship docked in Yemen. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed.

There were a number of reports that O'Neill's FBI team was in conflict with the Yemenis and the State Department. Generally, O'Neill and the FBI were criticized for being too aggressive, and eventually the effort in Yemen was scaled down. The FBI said the drawdown was ordered by Director Louis Freeh following death threats against American personnel.

Some media reports since then have said that O'Neill was pulled from Yemen at the request of the State Department. "That is definitely not true," Dale Watson, chief of the FBI's counter-terrorism division said earlier this month.

Last summer, O'Neill resigned from the FBI to take a higher-paying job: security director for the World Trade Center.

Watson and other top FBI officials say they do not know for sure why O'Neill resigned. He was known to have been disappointed not to have been made an assistant director of the bureau.

One FBI official who talked extensively about O'Neill was Mike Rolince, formerly chief of the FBI's international terrorism section at bureau headquarters. Now special agent in charge of the criminal division of the FBI's Washington Field Office, Rolince knew O'Neill well and worked closely with him for years.

The French authors claim O'Neill told them in conversations last summer that the U.S. oil companies and Saudi Arabia were influencing the administration and blocking efforts to come to grips with bin Laden and al Qaida.

"That doesn't sound like something that John would say," Rolince told UPI. " ... I can't think of any interference, real or imagined, that was a direct result of (administration) oil policy."

Rolince said he, O'Neill and others had to reach out on occasion to other parts of the government for help in dealing with foreign officials as they conducted investigations. "We've asked for help, and on many occasions the NSC (National Security Council), the DCI (George Tenet, director of central intelligence) were willing to broker those conversations."

Could oil policy or other national interests have blocked a particular avenue of investigation "somewhere along the line? Perhaps," Rolince said, "but I am not aware of it."

Did O'Neill resign in protest?

"Absolutely not," Rolince said, adding that he traveled to Saudi Arabia and Jordan with O'Neill during his last years at the FBI. "He would have gone then if the proper job would have been offered. He made no bones about the fact that he would have liked to have been chosen as assistant director (for counter-terrorism before leaving the bureau). But he was waiting for the right moment."

Rolince said O'Neill talked about leaving the FBI for 12 to 18 months before resigning for the better-paying security director job last summer.

In addition to the doubts at the FBI, of course, O'Neill is not around to confirm or deny the quotes attributed to him by the French authors.

O'Neill was in his office on the 34th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower when the hijacked American Airlines flight crashed into the floors above him. Like thousands of others, he made it out safely. Like hundreds of others, he ran back into the complex to help with the evacuation.

His body was recovered from the rubble 11 days later.

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