US Ambassador Impedes Bin Laden Manhunt

Richard Miniter reports in the New York SunHow a Lone Diplomat Compromised the Hunt for Bin Laden:”

Ambassador Nancy Powell, America's representative in Pakistan, refused to allow the distribution in Pakistan of wanted posters, matchbooks, and other items advertising America's $25 million reward for information leading to the capture of Mr. bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders.
Instead, thousands of matchbooks, posters, and other material—printed at taxpayer expense and translated into Urdu, Pashto, and other local languages—remained “impounded” on American Embassy grounds from 2002 to 2004, according to Rep. Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois.

Wow. I can't understand why a US Ambassador would intervene in a open effort to capture Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda terrorists.

Mr. Kirk discovered Ms. Powell's unusual order in January 2004 and, over the past year, launched a series of behind-the-scenes moves that culminated in a blunt conversation with President Bush aboard Air Force One, the removal of the ambassador, and congressional approval for reinvigorating the hunt for Mr. bin Laden.

Looks like she got fired (actually she ended up being recalled to Foggy Bottom). But why did it happen?

Mr. Kirk accidentally learned of Ms. Powell's impoundment policy as part of an official congressional delegation visiting Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, in January 2004.

Ouch. In addition to “why did it happen?” I'd like to know why to took so long to notice?

Mr. Kirk said that he raised the issue directly with the ambassador. According to the congressman, she replied that she had “six top priorities” and finding Mr. bin Laden was only one of them. She listed other priorities: securing supply lines for American and allied forces in Afghanistan, shutting down the network of nuclear proliferator A. Q. Khan, preventing a nuclear war between Pakistan and India, and forestalling a radical Islamic takeover of the government of Pakistan, a key American ally.

Those are good objectives, but it's really hard for anyone (or any organization) to focus on six priorities. However, it seems (to me) like the distribution of materials promoting a reward for turning in Al Qaeda members could be easily delegated. Dealing with the leads from the program would certainly be extra work, but surely it would be considered valuable enough to ask for more people to do it.

High-level managers that claim to have too many priorities bother me. They should delegate better and spend their time securing resources necessary for those to whom they delegate as well as establishing broad policy for their organizations.

A senior State Department official confirmed that the meeting between Mr. Kirk and Ms. Powell did occur and that the ambassador did review the embassy's top six priorities, but the official said that “counterterrorism was the no. 1 priority.”

There's a clear expectation there. If it wasn't clear enough, the President was saying the same thing. I can't imagine Colin Powell softening that message either.

This same official apparently engaged in damage control, given the opportunity:

The senior State Department official denied that Ms. Powell had restricted the distribution of materials touting the reward for Mr. bin Laden and other “high value targets.” That program—known as Rewards for Justice—was discontinued in Pakistan prior to Ms. Powell's 2002 arrival because it was “ineffective,” the senior official said. At the time, the Rewards for Justice program was widely used by other American embassies farther from the center of America's operations to kill or capture key Al Qaeda leaders.

“Ineffective” compared to some other program, perhaps, but more effective than no program at all. If there was a resource issue, Ms. Powell should have indicated that. Perhaps that's where she was going with her “six top priorities” but that was definitely the wrong thing to say.

Meanwhile, our intrepid congressman went on the warpath and gained an audience.

When Mr. Bush asked the congressman to join him aboard Air Force One for a campaign stop in Mr. Kirk's suburban Chicago district in July 2004, the lawmaker saw his chance. He told the president about his ambassador impounding materials that could lead to the capture of Mr. bin Laden. “Bush was very cautious,” Mr. Kirk recalled. The president did not betray an immediate response. “When one of his people is concerned, he likes to take his time and investigate.”

Results? Ms. Powell returns to Foggy Bottom in November of 2004 and is replaced by Ryan Crocker. Crocker's changes were significant:

The American Embassy in Islamabad now boasts a 24-hour call center to receive tips. The center is manned by two locals, both of whom speak the three major languages of Pakistan, and supervised by a Diplomatic Security officer. Embassy staff recently launched a 12-week radio and television campaign alerting residents that, in the words of one 30-second Urdu-language radio spot, they “may be eligible for a reward of up to $25 million for information leading to the arrest of known international terrorists.” About 25 calls were received in February 2005, the center's first full month of operation.

So perhaps Rewards for Justice was ineffective, but a similar program seems to be in operation now. Congressman Kirk spearheaded legislation to increase the reward to $50 million, as well.

Richard Miniter has written extensively on counterterrorism in the Clinton and Bush administrations in his books Losing Bin Laden and Shadow War. I haven't read them, but I did hear an interview with him on the Victoria Taft show here in Portland. He seemed to know what he was talking about.

(Hat tip to Little Green Footballs.)

Update: Richard Miniter has relaunched his blog Miniter's Notebook.

Update2: I'm adding this to the Beltway Traffic Jam.

3/29/2005 Update: Tigerhawk, to his own surprise, defends the State Department in his analysis of this article. links:

Josh Poulson

Posted Monday, Mar 28 2005 11:53 AM

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Ambassador Powell, Pakistan and Matchbooks

A followup to “US Ambassador Impedes Bin Laden Manhunt.” Richard Miniter's story, “How a Lone Diplomat Compromised the Hunt for Bin Laden,” got a reaction out of the State Department. Miniter covers the response in his blog: So ... [Read more]

Josh's Weblog

Linked Wednesday, Mar 30 2005 10:53 PM


There are 3 comments on this entry.

Thank you Josh for posting this article.

I must say that I find this behaviour totally appaling.



Posted Tuesday, Mar 29 2005 08:44 AM

Thanks for the link, Josh. Nice blog.


Posted Tuesday, Mar 29 2005 03:31 PM

Yup and well, Nancy is gone now.

She fumbled the ball on Dr, Khan as well.

An American Expat in Southeast Asia


Posted Friday, Apr 1 2005 11:43 PM

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