October 15, 2001
My Dunno Sheet
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
"Don't just write what you know," a great editor once instructed me about reporting an emerging story. "Make a list of what you don't know."
I came to call that a "dunno sheet." Abe Rosenthal's advice is again a useful reminder of how much is going on about which we have yet to learn. Here's part of my dunno sheet about the current hostilities:
1. With almost 700 suspects picked up in the U.S. and more in Europe, is anybody singing in jail? Have they been assigned wired Arabic-speaking cellmates? Are Muslim clerics being asked to help de-program any fanatics? Are we recruiting those we release for double-agent work?
2. How many secret "findings" were signed by Presidents Clinton and Bush since 1995 authorizing C.I.A. covert action in Afghanistan — and were those antiterrorist missions carried out?
3. How many U.S., British and possibly French commandos are reconnoitering in Afghanistan now, and have they made contact with anti- Qaeda Afghans or Taliban discontents willing to be bribed to reveal hideouts? Are commando-diplomats making deals with local warlords for them to be part of post-Taliban rule?
4. Has our bombing knocked out all Taliban broadcasting facilities? Has the Voice of America taken sides and broadcast Muslim clergy condemning as blasphemous the suicide-murderers' path to paradise? Are fearful Czechs trying to run Radio Free Europe out of Prague?
5. What vital information is being held back from the F.B.I. and C.I.A. by our Arab coalition "partners"? Did the U.S. share intelligence with Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian spymasters that compromised the few Western sources in the Arab world?
6. Has Prime Minister Tony Blair secretly told President Bush that — absent absolute proof of Saddam Hussein's participation in the Sept. 11 attack — he should count Britain out of any move on nuclear or germ weapons being produced in Iraq? Has planning for "Phase II" — the removal of Saddam — been iced at the Pentagon?
7. What rule of engagement has been given our special forces regarding Osama bin Laden and his top aides — to kill or to capture? Do the potential benefits to us of interrogation outweigh the benefit to him of a trial's world forum and subsequent slaughter of hostages?
8. What anti-terrorist help have the Saudis, Egyptians and Yemenis warned us not to ask them for, and what arguments are going on within the Bush administration about why we have so far supinely acceded to their demands?
9. What, if any, is the role of James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Edward Djerijian in trying to persuade Bush to appease "the Arab street" by pressuring Israel to give up its own war on terrorism? Will bin Laden's belated, televised embrace of the Palestinians panic the coalitionary White House into giving Hamas a terrorist victory that would further radicalize Muslims around the world?
10. What secret negotiations are underway with Russia to prevent the escape of Al Qaeda leadership to Chechnya? We want to stop that, but wouldn't bin Laden's presence give Vladimir Putin an excuse to obliterate all separatists there?
11. Since the two major stockpiles of anthrax spores are in Russia and Iraq, what help are Putin and his ex- K.G.B. associates giving us in tracking the source of terrorism's latest weapon?
12. With the Islamic Bomb in Pakistan's hands, and with unstable Indonesia ripe for radicalization, what feverish planning to enlist China's vast spy network is underway in our National Security Council — right now, in advance of Bush's trip to Shanghai?
I don't have the answers to this barrage of questions; indeed, that's why they are on the "dunno sheet." And when it comes to troop movements and the interrogation of suspects and the bribery of warlords, we should not know the answers yet because that might endanger lives.
But because the answers are hidden does not mean the answers do not exist. One by one, they will all spill out, in glorious or infuriating detail. Some will generate great pride and the awarding of medals for courage; others will cause much embarrassment, debate and the launching of Congressional investigations into "secret agreements."
Are we, as a nation, doing the right thing in counterattacking in great force? Yes. Are we forming alliances and cutting corners that will make us proud tomorrow? Dunno.Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company