Reflecting on 9/11, Britain’s Former Spy Chief Criticizes Iraq War and Proposes Talks with Al Qaeda

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“We are not women; we will keep fighting,” vowed Libya’s elusive despot Muammar Gaddafi in a message broadcast on Syrian TV on Sept. 1. A lecture delivered in London the same evening, for broadcast on Sept. 6 as part of the BBC’s 2011 Reith Lecture series Securing Freedom, illuminated the unintended kernel of truth to the Colonel’s bluster. As Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of Britain’s domestic spy service MI5, laid bare the scale of her opposition to the war in Iraq and her disdain for the term “war on terror” (the phrase “legitimizes terrorists as warriors,” she said), it was hard not to conclude that a lot of bloodshed could have been avoided if the men in charge had listened to her. A similar emotion was evoked by the first two lectures in the same series, which were given by Aung San Suu Kyi and set out the Nobel laureate’s reasons for meeting state violence with peaceful opposition.

You can see how Burma’s military rulers made the mistake of thinking they could silence the deceptively fragile and softly spoken Suu Kyi. It’s harder to imagine how anyone dared to defy Manningham-Buller. The Baroness (she was ennobled after her 2007 retirement from MI5) has the brisk air and stentorian tones of the sort of old-fashioned nanny to whom posh Brits traditionally entrusted their kids, knowing that the slightest sign of disobedience would be quelled by a cuff around the ear and bed without supper. Several members of the small invited audience who were brave—or foolhardy—enough to question Nanny’s views during the debate that followed her lecture earned cold looks and withering retorts. This apple evidently didn’t fall far from the tree: as TIME reported in 1962, Manningham-Buller’s father Reginald, a prominent Conservative politician, was widely known as “Sir Reginald Bullying-Manner.”

His formidable daughter bulldozed her way up the ranks in MI5, although, as she recalled, “in those days if you joined as a woman, you had a very clear career path…There were a whole lot of things you were not suitable to do.” By the time terrorists crashed hijacked aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Manningham-Buller had risen to deputy Director-General of the service. In her lecture, she described how, hours after the atrocity, with U.S. airspace closed, she and the heads of Britain’s two other intelligence organizations, MI6 and GCHQ, boarded a military flight bound for Andrews Air Force Base, to attend an emergency meeting with the CIA, the FBI and the NSA. That night, the spy chiefs sat in a garden and discussed the reasons for the attack and the best response to it. One of their number—Manningham-Buller didn’t reveal whether a Brit or an American—suggested that the “open sore” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was fueling anger against the west. There was an understanding, said Buller, that the attacks (“a crime, not an act of war…so I never felt it helpful to refer to a war on terror”) would lead to military action against al Qaeda strongholds. Such interventions, she observed, can buy time for a political process but “terrorism is resolved through economics and politics, not through arms and intelligence.”

If Manningham-Buller accepted the inevitability of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, she was never won over by the arguments for the invasion of Iraq. “The war was…a distraction against the pursuit of al Qaeda,” in her trenchant view. “Actions overseas have an impact at home and our involvement in Iraq spurred some young men to terror.” Why didn’t Tony Blair and George W. Bush pay heed to her opinions? “Governments do not do what the security services tell them,” she said. “Our job is to understand and advise. It is for government to make judgments.”

She will give two further Reith lectures, for broadcast on Sept. 13 and 20, delving more deeply into such issues as the wellsprings of terrorism and the impact of the Arab spring. She is also likely to draw more detailed lessons from Britain’s experience of Irish terror, which has helped to form her conviction that the only lasting way to stop terrorist activity is through negotiation. Could this mean sitting down with al Qaeda? Yes, said Manningham-Buller. “It is always better to talk to the people who are attacking you then attacking them, if you can.”

There will be many who consider the idea of negotiating with jihadists fanciful, and surprisingly so from this avatar of common sense. Yet with many of her insights proving accurate with hindsight, it’s unwise to dismiss the notion out of hand. And it certainly sounds no less probable than the boast of a U.S. politician Manningham-Buller declined to name who told her, of the supposed war on terror, “we’re going to win and we’re going to get all of them.” “Well how?” queried the former spy mistress in her severe, nannyish voice. It’s safe to bet that the chastened pol didn’t have an answer.