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U.S. revokes security clearance for Pentagon employee

By Warren P. Strobel

11/06/03: (Knight Ridder Newspapers)

WASHINGTON - A veteran Pentagon employee who was a key player in the effort to find links between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida has been stripped of his security clearance, according to senior U.S. officials. 

The employee, F. Michael Maloof, is associated with a Lebanese-American businessman who is under federal investigation for possible involvement in a gun-running scheme to Liberia, the West African nation embroiled in civil war. The businessman, Imad El Haje, approached Maloof on behalf of Syria to seek help in arranging a communications channel between Syria and the Defense Department. 

Maloof is close to influential foreign policy hawks inside and outside government, some of whom lobbied vigorously to get his clearance restored despite objections from government security officers, one official said. 

The officials involved all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified matters. 

Maloof is a Pentagon veteran who has made a career of attempting to suppress the trade in high-tech goods with military uses. He was awarded the Defense Department's Distinguished Civilian Service Award. 

The battle over Maloof's access to government secrets appears to be part of a larger struggle in the Bush administration over control of intelligence and foreign policy. 

On one side are officials who say senior Pentagon civilians are conducting foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, outside of established channels on the basis of questionable intelligence. On the other are hawks who say the State Department, the CIA and others don't fully appreciate the threats the United States faces. 

Maloof, contacted three times, declined comment, but his backers contend that his superiors at the Defense Department cleared his contact with El Haje. One person close to Maloof said he had informed his Pentagon superiors about his dealings with El Haje, terming it a "sensitive relationship" that could benefit U.S. security in the Middle East. 

Maloof is on administrative leave and hasn't been charged with wrongdoing. Those close to him contend that his clearances were pulled in retaliation for challenging the official assessment that there were no operational terrorist links between al-Qaida and Iraq. 

Maloof was part of a two-man team created at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to find such links. The team was a predecessor to the Pentagon's controversial Office of Special Plans. 

Maloof and David Wurmser, who's now an aide to Undersecretary of State John Bolton, claimed they had found evidence that Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups, as well as secular Islamic countries, cooperate to harm the United States despite their many differences. 

Pentagon officials briefed the CIA on the team's findings in August 2002. CIA Director George Tenet sat in on part of the briefing. 

Most intelligence analysts and terrorism specialists vigorously dispute that any operational ties exist between Iraq and al-Qaida. One senior official said no new evidence of active cooperation between them had been found since the United States invaded Iraq. 

After Maloof's clearances were revoked in December 2001, several individuals close to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld came to his defense and wrote supporting letters, officials said. They included Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's No. 3 civilian, who oversees the Office of Special Plans, and Richard Perle, a top outside adviser and former chairman of the influential Defense Policy Board, a group of outsiders who advise the defense secretary. 

The action was on appeal until late May 2003, when the appeal was rejected.

An individual close to Maloof charged that the action was payback for Maloof's work, which challenged the official orthodoxy. 

"We were able to show that they had not done their work, they had not done their analysis," said the individual. The lifting of Maloof's security clearance "is definitely retaliation," he said. There "was an ongoing battle" between security professionals and the "forces of political incorrectness," a senior official said. 

Other U.S. officials disputed that the action was politically motivated. 

The FBI and the Customs Service are investigating El Haje, a onetime associate of Liberian President Charles Taylor. The investigation is probing allegations of possible gun running into Liberia, which would violate a United Nations embargo that official U.S. policy honors. 

El Haje, who's believed to be in Beirut, Lebanon, was detained at Washington Dulles International Airport outside Washington on Jan. 28 for attempting to export a .45-caliber handgun without a license. According to one account, he paid a small administrative fine, but faced no criminal charge. 

Repeated attempts to reach El Haje through his firm, American Underwriters Group, in Vienna, Va., and Beirut, were unsuccessful. 

Copyright: Knight Ridder News

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