Rogue Statesman

Congressman Dana Rohrabachers absolutely crazy, quite possibly illegal back-channel chats with the villains of Sept. 11

Photo courtesy Congressman Dana Rohrbacher

"[Rohrabacher] says the Taliban are devout traditionalists—not terrorists or revolutionaries. He believes a Taliban takeover [of Afghanistan] would be a positive development."

—Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 1996 issue

In the hours after the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, fear loomed that the federal government had fallen into disarray and would be impotent to stop additional attacks. It didn't help that President George W. Bush hid for several hours at military installations in middle America or that a Bush staffer claimed (without evidence) that Air Force One was a target of foreign terrorists. Members of a special House Intelligence subcommittee on international terrorism evacuated the U.S. Capitol and, in hopes of calming public anxiety, called an emergency press conference.

"Today's vicious attacks were clearly intended to instill fear, cause panic and kill innocent Americans in large numbers," said Representative Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia), head of the House terrorism group. "If terrorists believe they could shut down the U.S. government and paralyze the American people, they were simply mistaken. The government is functioning."

Then Chambliss turned to a bigger question: How could Middle Eastern terrorists hijack four loaded passenger jets and convert them into missiles without any detection by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies?

"Obviously, nobody knew that this threat was imminent in the way that it happened," Chambliss said. "But terrorism throughout the world, particularly directed at Americans, has been in existence for any number of years. And our committee is striving hard to ensure that we provide the best intelligence possible to hopefully ensure that these types of incidents don't ever happen again."

California's Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat in Chambliss' group, expressed sadness at the death toll but struck a confident note. "Understand that we are getting you the information as fast as we can and that we're taking the steps necessary to protect you and your families from further harm," said Harman (D-Redondo Beach). "The bottom line here is that the U.S. is strong."

But Chambliss and Harman's hope to present a rosy, bipartisan façade for the national C-SPAN audience faded quickly. Representative Dana Rohrabacher—not a member of the terrorism committee—appeared and demanded to speak. Unlike his colleagues, the Huntington Beach Republican had no plans to offer sweet-sounding reassurances.

"Listen! Hold on!" said Rohrabacher. "I am a bigger expert on Afghanistan than any member of Congress."

As a speechwriter and special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher played a key role in the late 1980s getting money and arms, including U.S.-made Stinger missiles, to Afghan holy warriors, then at war with the Soviet Union. He once bragged of being "certainly a major player" in a coalition inside the White House that supported anyone "opposing Communist domination around the world." In November 1988, he even visited the Afghan front lines during a five-day hike with an armed mujahideen patrol in eastern Afghanistan. Among those fighters he encountered, he later recalled, were "Saudi Arabians under a crazy commander named bin Laden."

Rohrabacher carried that record to a C-SPAN microphone on Sept. 11. "Let me just tell you, this is not just a day of infamy; this is a tragedy," he said. "It's a day of disgrace." Excoriating the intelligence community, he demanded to know, "Where's the FBI? Where's the CIA?" and asked how they would explain their "catastrophic incompetence."

"I've been begging people to do something about Afghanistan," he said. "And I said if we didn't do anything about the Taliban, we would pay a dear price."

The next day, The Orange County Register reported in a top story, "Horror and Hindsight," that the terrorist attacks "could turn out to be a horrific told-you-so" for Rohrabacher. To make sure his "angry" comments were amplified, the congressman granted multiple television, radio and newspaper interviews and authored an unsolicited column that carried this note: "A must read. You will be livid over the level of incompetency [sic] in our intelligence agencies." In it, Rohrabacher claimed that the Clinton administration—out of office for eight months when the attacks occurred—had ignored his pleas not to negotiate with the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic party controlling most of Afghanistan since 1996. (A hardcore partisan Republican, Rohrabacher remained silent about numerous meetings between George W. Bush's advisors and the Taliban throughout 2001.) On Sept. 17, 2001, the congressman declared, "There is rage in my soul."

Right-wing organizations across the nation immediately picked up on Rohrabacher's anti-Taliban, anti-Clinton statements and hailed him a "hero."

In fact, Rohrabacher's post-Sept. 11 finger-pointing was a fraud designed to distract attention from his own ongoing meddling in the foreign-policy nightmare. Federal documents reviewed by the Weekly show that Rohrabacher maintained a cordial, behind-the-scenes relationship with Osama bin Laden's associates in the Middle East—even while he mouthed his most severe anti-Taliban comments at public forums across the U.S. There's worse: despite the federal Logan Act ban on unauthorized individual attempts to conduct American foreign policy, the congressman dangerously acted as a self-appointed secretary of state, constructing what foreign-affairs experts call a "dual tract" policy with the Taliban.

A veteran U.S. foreign-policy expert told the Weekly, "If Dana's right-wing fans knew the truth about his actual, working relationship with the Taliban and its representatives in the Middle East and in the United States, they wouldn't be so happy."

Nowadays, Rohrabacher and his numerous aides are quick to provide copies of the congressman's pre-Sept. 11 rants against the Taliban. They will tell you that he labeled them "a pack of dogs killing anyone" and "the most anti-Western, anti-female, anti-human rights regime in the world." They will also show you records of the congressman berating Clinton administration foreign-policy advisors for misreading Taliban intentions and for trying to negotiate peace in Afghanistan with the militant Islamic group's Mullah Mohammed Omar, a bin Laden associate.

What they won't mention is that Rohrabacher also once lobbied shamelessly for the Taliban. A November/December 1996 article in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reported, "The potential rise of power of the Taliban does not alarm Rohrabacher" because the congressman believes the "Taliban could provide stability in an area where chaos was creating a real threat to the U.S." Later in the article, Rohrabacher claimed that:

Taliban leaders are "not terrorists or revolutionaries." Media reports documenting the Taliban's harsh, radical beliefs were "nonsense." The Taliban would develop a "disciplined, moral society" that did not harbor terrorists. The Taliban posed no threat to the U.S.

Although he continues to describe himself as an expert on Afghan history and politics, Rohrabacher was obviously dead wrong on all counts.

Evidence of Rohrabacher's attempts to conduct his own foreign policy became public on April 10, 2001, not in the U.S., but in the Middle East. On that day, ignoring his own lack of official authority, Rohrabacher opened negotiations with the Taliban at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar, ostensibly for a "Free Markets and Democracy" conference. There, Rohrabacher secretly met with Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, an advisor to Mullah Omar. Diplomatic sources claim Muttawakil sought the congressman's assistance in increasing U.S. aid—already more than $100 million annually—to Afghanistan and indicated that the Taliban would not hand over bin Laden, wanted by the Clinton administration for the fatal bombings of two American embassies in Africa and the USS Cole. For his part, Rohrabacher handed Muttawakil his unsolicited plans for war-torn Afghanistan. "We examined a peace plan," he laconically told reporters in Qatar.

To this day, the congressman has refused to divulge the contents of his plan. However, several diplomatic sources say it's likely he asked the extremists to let former Afghan King Zahir Shah return as the figurehead of a new coalition government. In numerous speeches before and after Sept. 11, Rohrabacher has claimed the move would help stabilize Afghanistan for an important purpose: the construction of an oil pipeline there. In return, the plan would reportedly have allowed the Taliban to maintain power until "free" elections could be called.

The idea was outlandish and even provocative. Though he is a member of the same ethnic tribe as the Taliban leadership, the 87-year-old exiled former king—who lost his throne in 1973—is known not for his appreciation of democracy, but for his coziness to Western corporate interests. With good reason, he was considered a U.S. puppet by the Taliban.

After Taliban-related terrorists attacked the U.S. last September, Rohrabacher associates worked hard to downplay the Qatar meeting. Republican strategist Grover Norquist told a reporter that the congressman had accidentally encountered the Taliban official in a hotel hallway.

But that preposterous assertion is contradicted by much evidence:

•Qatari government officials who told Al-Jazeera television on April 10, 2001, that Rohrabacher sought the meeting in advance and that they had assisted in the arrangements. Muttawakil said he agreed to the meeting "on the basis of allowing each party to express their point of view."

•The congressman himself told other Middle Eastern news outlets that his discussions with the Taliban were "frank and open" and their officials were "thoughtful and inquisitive." Hardly a casual chat in the hallway.

•Similarly, in an interview with Agence France-Presse, Rohrabacher's entourage described the meeting as "a high-level talk."

What's remarkable is not only Rohrabacher's attempt to rewrite history after Sept. 11, but there's also his glaring naivete, evident in his bungling assessment of the Qatar meeting. One member of his entourage, Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the Islamic Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group that partially bankrolled Rohrabacher's trip, said he was impressed by how "flexible" Taliban officials appeared. Rohrabacher came away equally impressed. He announced he would travel to Afghanistan to work out details with the Taliban.

But Rohrabacher was out of his league. In the Afghan capital of Kabul the next day, Muttawakil presented Rohrabacher's plan to the Taliban. Mullah Omar immediately issued a statement denouncing American efforts to orchestrate a new Afghanistan government. "The infidel world is not letting Muslims form a government of their own choice," he declared.

More darkly, 137 miles east across the border in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden measured the distance between Rohrabacher and diplomatic reality. "I issue a call to the young generation to get ready for the holy war and to prepare for that in Afghanistan," he said during an April 11, 2001, pro-Taliban rally in Peshawar broadcast throughout the region. "I appeal to you to teach Muslims that there is no honor except in holy war." The hard-line crowd of 200,000 carried pictures of burning American flags and chanted, "U.S., listen to us! We are the death of you!"

While Rohrabacher waxed optimistic, American diplomats became increasingly suspicious of the Taliban. On April 27, 2001, the U.S. State Department officially rebuked Rohrabacher's meddling. Alan Eastham, assistant secretary of state for South Asia, told reporters that while the congressman belongs to the president's Republican party, he did not have authorization for a diplomatic mission. Rohrabacher "did not inform us in advance of his plans with the Taliban," Eastham said.

News of Rohrabacher's Qatar meeting with the Taliban was unreported in the U.S. for 16 months. Then, last month, Gerrie Schipske—Rohrabacher's Democratic challenger in the November elections—issued a press release calling the congressman's unauthorized discussions "not only illegal but dangerous to our country." She believes he violated the Logan Act by meddling in American foreign policy and should be prosecuted.

"It is simply outrageous that this rogue congressman engaged in negotiations with the Taliban," Schipske said. "He needs to explain why he tried to cut a deal on his own and what he promised the Taliban during the meeting."

According to Schipske, Rohrabacher also lied to Congress about his April 2001 trip to Qatar. "He told the House that he was attending a conference. He did not disclose the meeting with the Taliban. Members of Congress are only allowed to accept paid trips that are connected with their official duties. Negotiating with Osama bin Laden's protégé isn't one of them."

Despite Rohrabacher's own April 2001 overseas admission of his Taliban dalliance, only a few media outlets on the East Coast picked up Schipske's press release. Mainstream news organizations in Orange County—including the Los Angeles Times and the Register—have so far ignored this tale of international intrigue. (For the record, the Times OClikely still reels from the congressman's wrath over its reports of his role in a 1996 voter-fraud scandal; the Register is Rohrabacher's ideological soulmate and former employer.)

"It's amazing that the local media won't touch this story," said Schipske. "I guess either it's hard to imagine Dana Rohrabacher negotiating with the Taliban or the story is just too big for them."

Research assistance provided by Anthony Pignataro.

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