Russia Reaps Rewards From American Campaign

Rootin’ Tootin’ Putin

Vladimir Putin wasn’t a KGB agent for nothing. He’s all smiles while scarfing down George Bush’s chuck-wagon spread in Texas, but the wily Russian president is angling to become the real victor in the battle over Central Asia. Already Putin is threatening to undercut OPEC and win greater business with the U.S. by holding down the prices of his nation’s huge oil supply.

In addition, the once vanquished Russia now re-enters Afghanistan as a victor of sorts, positioned to play a growing role in the region, which it once controlled as the Soviet Union. Already there have been reports that in reaching an accord with the U.S. over Afghanistan, Russia wangled a piece of the Caspian Sea oil revenues. Russia, not the U.S., will end up the real heavyweight in Central Asia, while the U.S. concentrates on stamping out fires around the world.

There are other, less obvious benefits for Putin. By participating in the campaign against the Taliban, he has enabled Russia to hook itself inextricably into the Western alliance system. From that position, the country can push the U.S. to stop further NATO expansion into its areas of influence. It gains a sympathetic ear on Chechnya. Any sustained fighting in Central Asia — i.e., guerrilla attacks by the Taliban, not to mention pissed-off warlords — will require American military action from staging areas in border countries under Russian influence. That will turn the tables, with the U.S. now having to lean on its former enemy for help.

Opportunist Dems Call for War on Iraq

Hawks on the Left

Capitol Hill’s loudest voice for bombing Iraq? That would be Al Gore’s old running mate, Senator Joe Lieberman. The Connecticut pol heads a caucus of war-hawk Dems. Some of them are eyeing the 2004 presidential campaign, hoping to use the issue of Iraq to outflank Bush and look like a bunch of tough guys.

Lieberman argues the U.S. must be “unflinching in our determination” to “target Iraq as part of the war against terrorism.” Lieberman wants to push Bush into declaring it’s U.S. policy to remove Saddam Hussein. “He is not just a thorn in our sides, he is a threat to American lives,” he said between fundraisers in New Hampshire earlier this month. “If we give him a chance and don’t defeat him, he will truly attack us before long.”

Other Dems, backed by the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, want Bush to expand his war against terrorism. They don’t go as far as Lieberman, but Senator Joseph Biden, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with Massachusetts senator John Kerry, a Vietnam vet, have been calling for a wider effort. Kerry would move to dump Saddam if Iraq were discovered to be behind chemical and biological attacks. Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey also is counted among this group.

During House debate, New York’s Gary Ackerman argued after the terrorist attacks that as long as Hussein remained in power, the world would be at risk. “Attacking Iraq depends on whether we have evidence of its participation on September 11,” he told the Voice. “But if there are strong indications that Saddam Hussein had something to do with it, I would agree a thousand percent, and we should do whatever we have to do and blow the shit out of them.”

U.S. Needs Biowar Defense

Attention, Tom Ridge

America’s ballyhooed home-front campaign against bioterrorism is nowhere. Two months after the first anthrax letter arrived in Florida, the public health establishment still has no plans for dealing with a mass bioterrorist attack, nor have they made any real progress toward getting such plans.

“The general sentiment around Washington is that we’re not quite sure who’s in charge of what,” said Carole Zimmerman, spokesperson for the American Public Health Association. “Is it the secretary of HHS? Is it the CDC?”

Fewer than a quarter of all local public health service departments have plans for handling a new outbreak of bioterrorism, and there is no coordination among federal, state, and local public health units. “We know for a fact that local public health agencies are not prepared to deal with bioterrorism,” Zimmerman added. “They don’t have the basic tools to act as first responders. Their communication is unreliable; they don’t have pagers and cell phones or they don’t work.” She added, “The only reason New York City did so well with anthrax is that they’ve had so many rehearsals with the 60 to 70 cases of West Nile virus.”

Others agree. In the case of a mass attack, says Elin Gursky of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University, a key group for organizing the defense effort, “resources will be tapped out very quickly; labs will be overwhelmed, and our hospitals can’t deal with the inflow.”

Legislation sponsored in the Senate by Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican Bill Frist would give the administration $3.2 billion to fight bioterrorism, more than double Bush’s request. Much of the money would go to stockpiling vaccines, but some would be pumped into state and local efforts. The bill has just been introduced and doubtless will wend a leisurely way through the cost-cutting Congress.

David Rosner, a professor of history and public health at Columbia, thinks the nation will unfortunately find a military solution. “At the beginning of the century, public health officials acted like policemen, incarcerating people like Typhoid Mary on an island for 26 years because they were seen as dangerous,” he says. “I’m worried that the lines between public health and military action will be blurred. I’m worried about a lot of quarantining. The power of health fears can inflict real damage.”

When George Bush Courted the Taliban

Match Made in Washington

A new book published in Paris last week, Bin Laden, la Verité Interdite (“Bin Laden, the Forbidden Truth”), by French intelligence analysts Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie, claims a top FBI official told them the major obstacles to investigating terrorism are big oil companies and Saudi Arabia. This argument, seldom depicted in the U.S. press, holds that U.S. policy until September 11 was aimed at consolidating — not destroying — the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The idea was for Western interests to exploit Caspian Sea oil, which would be transported across Afghanistan to ports in Pakistan.

The negotiations continued in Washington and Islamabad through August, with the Taliban employing Laili Helms (see “The Accidental Operative,” June 19, 2001) to push their cause. Helms is a niece by marriage of Richard Helms, former CIA director. Since the September 11 attacks, she has essentially stopped answering calls from the press about her work representing the fundamentalist regime.

Other major discussions on the future of Afghanistan — tabbed 6 + 2, for the six nations surrounding Afghanistan, with the U.S. and Russia — were carried forward under UN auspices. At one moment during the negotiations, the U.S. representatives told the Taliban, “Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs,” Brisard told the Inter Press news service.

Brisard and Dasquie are big in the French spook world, with Brisard a former member of the secret service and author of a 1997 report on Al Qaeda, and Dasquie a respected journalist and publisher of a Web dope sheet called Intelligence Online.

Additional reporting: Sarah Park, Meritxell Mir, and Curtis Lang