Overshadowed by the presidential election, new information surrounding the USS Cole bombing raises critical questions regarding U.S. policy in the region, as well as the failure of U.S. officials to take necessary precautions before the attack and appropriate action afterwards.
An official Yemeni source has reported to investigators that the terrorist group--characterized as being non-Yemeni--seen as responsible for the Cole attack last October had previously attempted to hit a U.S. warship refueling in Aden, but failed when the terrorists' boat proved un-seaworthy. In addition, terrorists allegedly twice attempted to strike U.S. military mine clearance personnel within the past year.
These revelations raise two critical questions. First, is the Yemeni source reporting valid information, or is Yemen hyping the level of external involvement to deflect attention from its own civilian and government involvement? Subsequently, did the embassy and Central Intelligence Agency station recognize the danger and, if so, did they relay this information quickly to Washington and military planners? The embassy could ill afford to make inherently subjective security decisions on its own, without senior consultation; while providing a unique, direct perspective on Yemen-specific security issues, their closeness to the host country could actually inhibit objective analysis. On the other hand, if Washington were informed and no move to enhance security measures ensued, then a review of the communication between the embassy, the military and the intelligence community is essential.
A second set of more disturbing questions emerges if Yemen failed to pass threat information to the U.S. Although withholding such information would likely be intended to prevent American over-reaction and damage to U.S.-Yemeni relations, the consequences of such actions are measured in American dead. Having characterized the Yemeni government as a "strategic partner" beforehand, it seems that Ambassador Barbara K. Bodine--the highest-ranking U.S. official in Yemen--viewed it as a trustworthy partner willing to provide warnings on possible threats. If any information was withheld, this not only speaks to the Yemeni government's untrustworthiness, but also the ambassador's naivete and poor judgment. Host country agencies and assessments should never be the sole--or even primary--basis upon which American policy is analyzed and set.
Finally, interviews of the Cole's crew indicate that they were issued weapons without ammunition and instructed to take no hostile action unless fired upon. This is extraordinary in light of the known threat environment and long-standing Navy ship defense doctrine. It seems the lessons of the 1983 Beirut bombings and the fateful decision not to arm Marine guards at the Tehran Embassy in 1979 were not learned. Given the evidence, the Cole was apparently aware of the possibility of terrorist attack but not permitted to take preventive action because of a Navy order preventing the sailors from firing weapons for fear of political repercussions. This indicates negligence in the pursuit of a questionable diplomatic agenda and a lack of faith in the ship's crew to implement appropriate defensive procedures. Such blatant disregard for American lives is unacceptable. Regardless of whether the U.S. was aware of past attempts against American naval vessels or the de-miners, it is clear that the embassy in Yemen, the Navy and the ship's captain were clearly aware of the threat environment, one that included precedent for attacking U.S. military interests and a national context of violently anti-American groups. The onset of Palestinian-Israeli fighting and Baghdad's renewed efforts to break sanctions should only have heightened concerns.
With the recently concluded presidential race capturing everyone's attention, policy-makers and military leaders must not turn away from the task of determining which weaknesses--in leadership, doctrine, organization or all of the above--led to the USS Cole bombing and continue to threaten U.S. operations elsewhere in the region. Protecting American lives and combating terrorism must be based upon the seamless integration of intelligence into diplomatic and military decision-making. Political will, supported by the joining of sound intelligence collection and analysis with socioeconomic development programs, is the key to disrupting and destroying terrorist capacity. Washington needs to get its priorities straight. As the investigation proceeds, transparency is needed to boost the morale of our military men and women while assuring all Americans that their leaders have American interests--not political projects--at heart.
John D. Moore is a former terrorism analyst with the State Department and political-military analyst with the Department of Defense. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.