Scheuer: Bush Let Zarqawi Get Away

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden team, gives credence to a longstanding claim that the Bush administration “deliberately passed up repeated opportunities to kill the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, before the March 2003 US-led invasion of that country.”

He told [Australian Broadcasting Company’s] Four Corners that during 2002, the Bush Administration received detailed intelligence about Zarqawi’s training camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Mr Scheuer claims that a July 2002 plan to destroy the camp lapsed because “it was more important not to give the Europeans the impression we were gunslingers”. “Mr Bush had Zarqawi in his sights almost every day for a year before the invasion of Iraq and he didn’t shoot because they were wining and dining the French in an effort to get them to assist us in the invasion of Iraq,” he told Four Corners. “Almost every day we sent a package to the White House that had overhead imagery of the house he was staying in. It was a terrorist training camp . . . experimenting with ricin and anthrax . . . any collateral damage there would have been terrorists.”

Considering that Scheuer ceased being head of the bin Laden division in 1999, has since written two books about our efforts against al Qaeda, has written numerous op-eds, and appeared on dozens of television interviews since then, I’m viewing his claims somewhat more dubiously than Kevin Drum. Not to mention that Scheuer, while possessed of many keen insights on Islamist terrorism, is something of a crank.

Still, it’s not inconceivable that opportunities arose to kill Zarqawi and a political calculation was made not to do it. Scheuer has repeatedly claimed that the Clinton administration did the same with bin Laden. His own analysis is that, “The world is lousy with Arab princes. And if we could have got Osama bin Laden, and saved at some point down the road 3,000 American lives, a few less Arab princes would have been OK in my book.” In my book as well. Then again, killing some Arab princes might eventually lead to something much worse than 3000 dead Americans and, in any rate, it’s not as if 9/11 were a known alternative outcome.

I can’t imagine a political analysis that would justify not killing Zarqawi given what we know now. It’s quite conceivable, though, that it appeared rational given what we knew in 2002.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DaveD says:

    Maybe dropping a load on Zarqawi at the time would have blown any chances of recruiting allies for the invasion of Iraq. In retrospect, it is likely there is nothing even obsequious the US could have done to bring the likes of France on board. I doubt that killing Zarqawi would have changed the course of our invasion of Iraq. You have already made the valid point in this post that one could similarly criticize previous administrations for not having done the necessary job on bin Laden.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    But it has the ring of truthiness!

  3. Patrick McGuire says:

    It’s not Bin Laden or Zarqawi that really matters. Kill them off and there will be someone else ready to step up and take their place. These people are like cockroaches, you can kill then all you want but there are always more in the shadows.

  4. maha says:

    I can�t imagine a political analysis that would justify not killing Zarqawi given what we know now. It�s quite conceivable, though, that it appeared rational given what we knew in 2002.

    James: The problem with that theory is that back in 2002 Zarqawi was one of the chief links in White House claims that al Qaeda was working with Saddam Hussein. Also, This WaPo story quotes President Bush:

    In October 2002, Bush described Zarqawi, a Palestinian born in Jordan, as “one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks.”

    Granted, per today’s news story one of the proposals to attack Zarqawi was made earlier, in July, but per Fred Kaplan in Slate, other proposals were made in October 2002 and January 2003. Kaplan also wrote,

    This camp was in the Kurdish enclave of Iraq. The U.S. military had been mounting airstrikes against various targets throughout Iraq�mainly air-defense sites�for the previous few years. It would not have been a major escalation to destroy this camp, especially after the war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. The Kurds, whose autonomy had been shielded by U.S. air power since the end of the 1991 war, wouldn’t have minded and could even have helped.

    You’ll have to work a little harder to come up with an excuse for Dear Leader, I’m afraid.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Barbara: I’m not making excuses. I don’t know what the rationale was, making evaluation rather difficult. I merely note that it’s not implausible that there was a defensible rationale, just as there may have been when Clinton let bin Laden go.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Clinton failed to go after Bin Laden pre 9/11. That broken record is getting a bit tired. After all, 9/11 “changed everything”, right?

    “What we knew” in 2002, at least from the prospective of the Bush admin, was that starting a war in Iraq super seeded all other considerations, including going after Al-Qaeda.

  7. Jem says:

    I canâ??t imagine a political analysis that would justify not killing Zarqawi given what we know now. Itâ??s quite conceivable, though, that it appeared rational given what we knew in 2002.

    You’re probably right about the political analysis–knowing what we know now. Of course, we had no prospect of knowing how successful Zarqawi might be in rallying support for his desired outcome.

    On the military side, note that having solid information that a given village is Zarqawi’s headquarters is a very different thing from having current, reliable information about which hut he’s in at any given moment. We don’t do saturation bombing anymore–and even if we did, knowing precisely where someone is at any given type only happens when you have physical control of that person (i.e., they’re in custody) or an insider with excellent access and a means to give you “real-time” updates on his position. And this is true whether your plan is to bomb or to use Special Operation Forces for a “snatch” operation.