Richard Miniter and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross team up to address three myths circulated in the media about Zarqawi in connection with his death: “Making victory rhyme with defeat.” With respect to the proposition that the United States “created” Zarqawi, they write:
The day after Zarqawi’s death, London’s Daily Mail noted: “The great irony of the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is that it was the United States who helped make him so infamous. . . . [T]hanks to the West’s desire to put a face to an ideology they could not understand, his name was automatically linked to almost every outrage perpetrated in Iraq.”
This theme was also sounded in the American press. Newsweek found, “Zarqawi’s infamy was, at least to some degree, a creation of the U.S. government, whose spokesmen seized on him as the visible face of Al Qaeda in Iraq–and living proof that the war in Iraq was the main battlefield in the grander global war on terror.”
But Zarqawi was a figure the U.S. government stumbled upon, rather than raised up. A lone State Department official noticed an NSA intercept of a phone call from Zarqawi, who was in Iraq, to one of the assassins of USAID diplomat Lawrence Foley. (Foley was murdered in his driveway in Amman, Jordan in 2002). Zarqawi was congratulating the killer. The official, whom we have interviewed, said he then began to wonder who Zarqawi was. (The NSA wasn’t tracking Zarqawi at the time, but was tracing those who phoned the assassins to find out if there was a new group targeting diplomats. There was: Zarqawi’s.) Then he noticed that Zarqawi was an al Qaeda operative and that he made the phone call from Iraq–more than a year before the Iraq war began.
The point is that Zarqawi, based in Iraq, had ordered the death of U.S. officials while he was essentially unknown to the American intelligence community. The State Department official forwarded the NSA intercept to a number of others at State and Defense. Later, he learned that his email was used by senior Defense Department officials to champion the idea that Zarqawi deserved a prominent place in U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s U.N. address.
Following the Powell speech, Zarqawi was all but forgotten by U.S. officials. Ambassador Paul L. Bremer’s exhaustive memoir My Year in Iraq contains only nine stray references to Zarqawi, and virtually all of them are merely citations of news reports. During a discussion with Bremer about the insurgency in November 2003, he talked extensively about Syrian and Iranian involvement, but did not mention Zarqawi.
It was Zarqawi’s repeated and spectacular attacks against allied forces in Iraq, culminating in his May 2004 beheading of Nicholas Berg, that seized the Bush administration’s attention.
Rewarded with the media spotlight, Zarqawi committed more atrocities, beheading Eugene Armstrong and Ken Bigley. If anything, it was the American media’s sustained coverage of Zarqawi’s butchery that made him an international figure–not the Bush administration.
UPDATE: Michael Ledeen writes to take issue:
I know there is very little hope of teaching anything to anyone. But the Miniter-Gartensteen review of who knew what about Zarqawi is really too much for me. I wrote about Zarqawi in 2002, providing chapter and verse about the evidence used to convict terrorists in Germany and Italy. That evidence had been collected for quite some time, and it showed that Zarqawi had created a European terror network while he was based in Tehran. There were confessions, intercepts, the whole nine yards.
Our government certainly knew about this information. So it wasn’t an “accident” at all, it came from the work of European intelligence and law enforcement people. And I’d be very surprised if the Jordanians did not know all this as well.
None of that appears in the [Miniter/Gartenstein-Ross column] as the dramatic fact of Zarqawi’s Iranian base (which really explodes the myth of the intractable Sunni/Shi’ite war) is inconvenient for everyone who insists on focusing on Iraq alone. And also for an administration that still believes we can win a regional war (that most certainly involves Iran) by playing defense in one country.