FIGHTING TERROR BY ATTACKING... SOUTH AMERICA?

Days after 9/11, a senior Pentagon official lamented the lack of good targets in Afghanistan and proposed instead U.S. military attacks in South America or Southeast Asia as "a surprise to the terrorists," according to a footnote in the recent 9/11 Commission Report. The unsigned top-secret memo, which the panel's report said appears to have been written by Defense Under Secretary Douglas Feith, is one of several Pentagon documents uncovered by the commission which advance unorthodox ideas for the war on terror. The memo suggested "hitting targets outside the Middle East in the initial offensive" or a "non-Al Qaeda target like Iraq," the panel's report states. U.S. attacks in Latin America and Southeast Asia were portrayed as a way to catch the terrorists off guard when they were expecting an assault on Afghanistan.

The memo's content, NEWSWEEK has learned, was in part the product of ideas from a two-man secret Pentagon intelligence unit appointed by Feith after 9/11: veteran defense analyst Michael Maloof and Mideast expert David Wurmser, now a top foreign-policy aide to Dick Cheney. Maloof and Wurmser saw links between international terror groups that the CIA and other intelligence agencies dismissed. They argued that an attack on terrorists in South America--for example, a remote region on the border of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil where intelligence reports said Iranian-backed Hizbullah had a presence--would have ripple effects on other terrorist operations. The proposals were floated to top foreign-policy advisers. But White House officials stress they were regarded warily and never adopted.

Other proposals got greater traction. The 9/11 Commission says the idea of attacking Iraq also was pushed in a Sept. 17 memo by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz argued that the odds were "far more" than one in 10 that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, citing in part theories by controversial academic Laurie Mylroie that Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was an Iraqi intelligence agent. (The commission's report found "no credible evidence" that Iraq was behind the 1993 attack--and no Iraqi involvement in 9/11. A Wolfowitz aide said the memo "did not talk about theories, but facts.") Still, critics say, the ideas put forward by Wolfowitz, Feith and others in the Pentagon set the stage for the war in Iraq. The 9/11 Commission plans to put more aspects of the government's secret war on terror into the public domain this month, including a report on the role of Saudi-backed charities in financing Al Qaeda.

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