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March 26, 2004
Notes from the Pentagon

Flag dispute
U.S. Air Force members in Iraq are furious over a recent order to take down all American flags at Kirkuk air base to avoid offending Iraqis.

"The reason we were given is so we would not offend the Iraqi people," said Air Force Technical Sgt. Samuel D. Arbuckle. "We were told that we are not occupying this country. And apparently we are not in charge. Well, my question is this: If we are not in charge, then who is? Obviously the Iraqi people are not. The Iraqi people do not run any of these bases over here yet, and may not for quite some time."

To protest the order, members of the Kirkuk air base fire department continued to fly the Stars and Stripes every day.

"Today in a show of respect and honor especially for those who have fallen, we disobeyed the order and raised our flag, but less than an hour later we were ordered to take our flag down," Sgt. Arbuckle said Tuesday.

"The morale here is low, but our mission remains in focus. It is a slap in the face of those families back home who have lost loved ones. It is also a slap in the face for those who still remain here, not only protecting our people back home, but trying to make a difference here in the pursuit of freedom for the Iraqi people."

Sgt. Arbuckle said he would not mind flying the Iraqi flag together with the American flag. "But don't tell us that we can't show the respect for our flag, when so many have died in the name of freedom," he said. "The only people I think who would be offended, are the people who kill innocent women and children in the name of religion."

A copy of the order, states "all outside U.S. flags need to come down per [Central Command Air Force] guidance."

The order states that American flags can be displayed indoors and that "we are allowed to put the flag up for special days or events, but we can't have it up all the time implying that we are occupying Iraq."

One soldier responded: "Sir, when we carry the bodies of our fallen men and women to the aircraft for their final flight home, can we still drape the coffins with our flag, or will that still offend the people that we are dying for, so they can be liberated?"

Army Lt. Col. John Robinson, U.S. Central Command spokesman, said a new command policy is being developed and has been presented to commander Army Gen. John Abizaid.

One source said the draft policy calls for permitting deployed airmen, soldiers and Marines in Iraq to fly both the American flag and the Iraqi flag.

Ignored war plan
The Washington Times reported last week that Thomas Kuster, a former Army Green Beret who is a Pentagon policy-maker, submitted a top secret battle plan after the 1998 African embassy bombings. The plan called for a war on al Qaeda using special operations and the CIA. But his plan never got past his bosses in the policy shop, and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen stayed in the dark.

This week, the staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States released a report that confirmed The Times story about the plan from the office of assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict (SOLIC).

The staff report said the battle plan urged a "more aggressive counter terrorism posture" and warned of new "horrific attacks" for which "we will have no choice nor, unfortunately, will we have a plan."

The commission's report describes the sequence this way: "Allen Holmes, [the SOLIC assistant secretary], brought the paper to Undersecretary [Walter] Slocombe's chief deputy, Jan Lodal. The paper did not go further. Its lead author recalls being told by Holmes that Lodal thought it was too aggressive. Holmes cannot recall what was said, and Lodal cannot remember the episode or the paper at all."

The commission released the staff report on a day when its public hearing focused on what military options were considered between the August 1998 East African bombings and the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Ignoring evidence
Former counterterror czar Richard Clarke said during an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes" he never saw a single intelligence report linking al Qaeda to Baghdad.

Military sources to whom we've spoken say the statement is ridiculous. There are lists of intelligence reports linking al Qaeda operatives to Saddam Hussein's regime.

But don't take the word of confidential sources. Look at what William S. Cohen, the secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and Mr. Clarke's colleague, told the September 11 commission this week. Mr. Cohen was defending his decision to order a cruise missile attack on the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, where bin Laden lived until 1996.

"You had a plant that was built under the following circumstances," Mr. Cohen testified. "You had a manager that went to Baghdad. You had Osama bin Laden, who had funded, at least, the corporation; and you had traces of EMPTA [a precursor to VX gas]. And you did what? You did nothing? Is that a responsible activity on the part of the secretary of defense? And the answer is pretty clear."

Prescient presentation
Robert Andrews, the top official in the Pentagon office of special operations and low intensity conflict (SOLIC) on September 11, delivered some telling words less than a month before the attack. He left the office less than a year later.

"We avoided a clear choice between reactive and pre-emptive policies by building better barriers," Mr. Andrews said in a speech on "A New Strategy for Combating Terrorism."

"Force protection as our track record clearly shows is not enough. No matter how high our walls, no matter how keen our vigilance, terrorists will attack. And sooner or later, they will succeed. We simply cannot shield everything, everywhere, all the time.

"Terrorists have good reason to question the United States' credibility. We have not consistently held terrorists accountable. U.S. pressure on terrorist groups and their state sponsors has waxed and waned. Too often we have vowed that we will punish those involved. Too rarely we've done so."

Timid military
A staff report made public during a hearing this week of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States paints a picture of a timid military leadership under the Clinton administration that opposed using military forces against al Qaeda terrorists.

Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton, told the commission the military is "a great force" but operations are risky and could go sour such as in Iran and Somalia and lead to "an international embarrassment for the United States," the report said.

Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, U.S. Central Command commander under Mr. Clinton, also was criticized in the report for opposing missile strikes against al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan.

Gen. Zinni favored "a broad strategy to build up local counterterrorism capabilities in neighboring countries" using military assistance, the report said. Gen. Zinni told the commission that military strikes "would have little military effect and might threaten regional stability," the report said, noting that he had informed Gen. Shelton of his opposition.

Sending U.S. special operations commandos into Afghanistan also was dismissed as too risky, the report said.

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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