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"Everybody's Scratching Their Heads" Putin's Helpful Remarks

Putin’s Helpful Remarks

by GARY LEUPP

Friday, June 18, 2004. About 1:00 p.m.

Now this is really interesting. Vladimir Putin, in response to a journalist’s question during a visit to Kazakhstan, casually confirms an Interfax report, citing an unnamed Russian intelligence officer, that Russia passed on intelligence to the U,S., during the interval between 9-11 and the U.S. invasion, relating to an Iraqi attack threat. “I can confirm,” states the Russian president (and, by the way, former KGB chief), according to CNN, “that after the events of September 11, 2001, and up to the military operation in Iraq, Russian special services and Russian intelligence several times received … information that official organs of Saddam’s regime were preparing terrorist acts on the territory of the United States and beyond its borders, at U.S. military and civilian locations.”

Wow. Another blockbuster, maybe the biggest yet. Just when the Bushites seem in a corner, their claims of Iraq-al-Qaeda ties effectively discredited by journalists and the 9-11 Commission report, from an unlikely corner comes such welcome succor. And it’s so much better than mere evidence for Saddam-bin Laden cooperation. “Official organs of Saddam’s regime were preparing terrorist acts on the territory of the United States…!”

Voilà! Instant validation for the war; regardless of the true nature of Iraq-al Qaeda relations and the embarrassing WMDs issue. None further needed.

But, some preliminary questions:

Why didn’t Bush or Cheney mention this earlier, given the extraordinary utility of the report, especially in the face of doubts about the Iraqi threat mounting since the first several months of the invasion?

Did the Kremlin find the “information” credible, or was it just passing on “several” reports it might have suspected originated from doubtful sources anxious to encourage U.S. war plans?
Where did the information come from, and will we ever be able to find out if it originated with (say) Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, now on the outs with the Bush administration and suspected of collaborating with Iran?

Did the Russian government tell Washington, “We believe that the Iraqi government plans to attack you, but even so, we oppose your invasion of Iraq”?

Why does Mr. Putin, a very shrewd operator (repeat: former KGB chief), announce this to a journalist in Kazakhstan (following a security meeting with in Tashkent with Chinese, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajiki leaders designed in part to counter U.S. inroads into Central Asia) at this time?

The CNN story contains an ellipsis: “Russian intelligence several times received … information.” What’s left out of the Putin statement?

Why on earth would Baghdad, after 9-11, while the U.S. was planning to invade and occupy, and while in desperation Baghdad sought to avoid war by offering unprecedented concessions to the U.S., have been planning terrorist attacks on U.S. soil?

How much help does Putin’s statement lend Bush?

What help might Putin, in turn, receive?

Friday, about 5:30 p.m.

The plot thickens. Reuters reports: “Putin’s remarks looked certain to help President Bush, but officials at the State Department expressed bafflement, saying they knew of no such information from Russia.”

“‘Everybody’s scratching their heads,’ said one State Department official, who asked not to be named.”

One possible take on this (just thinking aloud here) is that Putin is trying to help Bush, as Reuters implies, but administration officials lack the alacrity to just fake it and say, “Oh, yeah, we had that information, but because of our bilateral intelligence agreements with Russia were unable to reveal it to the public until the Russians did” or some such nonsense sufficiently plausible to diehard Bush supporters.

As it is, whatever the Bushites do, Putin might be able to say, “Hey, I tried to help you” and thus strive to continue to curry favor as he undertakes controversial actions in Chechnya, and throughout the Russian Federation, which under other circumstances might invite U.S. criticism. He seems politically stronger than Bush right now, and like so many Russians, is a capable chess player. Bush perhaps does not understand chess, and may himself be scratching his head wondering how next to move.