When Mansoor Ijaz asked Mitt Romney about having a Muslim in his cabinet, several enterprising bloggers found a 1997 piece documenting that he gave money to the Clintons. This prompted a blogo-storm of speculation: Who is Ijaz? Is he a Democratic plant? And so on.
Ijaz’s real story is far stranger and more interesting, and when you get to the end you will know Ijaz’s motivation for putting Romney in the crosshairs.
I have known Ijaz for years. He was a source for one of my bestselling books “Losing bin Laden,” where some of this material first appeared, and I have interviewed him on a number of terror subjects since 2003. Let’s back up to Ijaz’s emergence as a political player.
On the receiving line at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in October 1993, some forty couples had written $10,000 checks for the privilege of shaking President Clinton’s hand. Among them was a self-made millionaire named Musawer Mansoor Ijaz, a native-born American citizen of Pakistani origin with combed-back jet-black hair, a groomed mustache, and the ability to write large checks. He had developed the CARAT computer system that enabled institutional and private investors to make hundreds of millions of dollars. As a result, within four years of leaving a Harvard-MIT graduate program, he was worth millions.
Ijaz remembers the moment that he first met Clinton precisely. Clinton grabbed his hand and pulled him close. “We need more people like you in the Democratic Party,” Clinton boomed. The implied compliment surprised and delighted him.
Then the president spotted Ijaz’s then-wife, Yasmine. The leader of the Free World smiled at her and said, “Well, he-lllo.” Five years before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Clinton’s tone did not cause a nervous titter. Instead, Clinton’s attention to women was often seen as flattering.
Clinton’s eyes darted back to Ijaz. “Do you have a business card?” he asked. The President of United States was asking for his card. It was a trademark Clinton move, but it touched Ijaz. Triumphantly, he handed the card to the president. Impressed by Clinton’s instantaneous interest in him, Ijaz was elated and ready to embark on one of the most unusual adventures in private diplomacy in American history. Ijaz’s odyssey was fueled by campaign donations-on a massive scale. Between October 1993 and October 1996, he would contribute some $250,000 of his own funds to the Democratic Party’s various campaign committees, and raise almost as much again from American Muslims.
Ijaz helped raise more than $200,000 from events held at his penthouse, alone. By 1998, Ijaz says he raised (from all sources) some $900,000 for the Democratic Party. As a major donor, he quickly became a “friend of Bill.”
In turn, Ijaz would eventually bring the president several secret offers from foreign governments to disrupt terror networks and to arrest Osama bin Laden. The first came from Sudan.
In the Clinton years, the involvement of business executives in overseas intelligence and foreign relations reached a whole new level. In some cases, check writers became unofficial ambassadors, setting U.S. policy toward their favorite countries. There were many men like Ijaz. Others used their access to promote oil deals and to win export licenses-while Ijaz wanted to use his access to fight radical Islam.
Private diplomacy by campaign donors was tolerated and even encouraged by the Clinton White House. As long as the money kept pouring in.
Of course, private diplomacy has its risks. Donors may have secret agendas that differ sharply from the administration’s or from the interests of the nation. Or they may subtly misrepresent government policy to foreign leaders and accidentally scuttle promising diplomatic initiatives. In a worst-case scenario, foreign officials may believe that a visiting executive speaks for the United States. This is a particular problem in the developing world, where policy is often made on the basis of personal connections and the friend of the president is often more powerful than a cabinet member. The leaders of developing nations often assume that Washington works the way Islamabad or Khartoum does. This is why most administrations zealously guard their sovereign right to conduct foreign policy and forbid private diplomacy. Used adroitly, private diplomacy can have benefits. It allows the president more options than he might have through official channels. If a private initiative succeeds, the president can claim credit. If it fails, he can back away and say it was never the policy of his administration. Still, using businessmen as private diplomats must be done carefully. “They never understood,” Ijaz told me (in 2003), “what I as an American Muslim, who understood Muslim extremism, could do for them.”
Certainly, Ijaz liked the role. As an unofficial envoy, Ijaz would travel regularly to Sudan, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates. He would then report back to Clinton’s chief of staff or the National Security Advisor. Ijaz showed me scores of confidential memos and e-mails to White House officials, as well as responses from Chief of Staff John Podesta and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger.
Ijaz had a mission. It coincided with Bill Clinton’s rise to power, and accelerated during Clinton’s unacknowledged duel with Osama bin Laden. Ijaz facilitated a number of real offers from foreign governments to stop bin Laden-offers the Clinton Administration did not accept. And the issue was not Ijaz, but the Clinton Administration’s refusal to work with the government of Sudan. The search by Berger and others for Ijaz’s motivations distracts from the more fundamental questions that they should have asked: How significant were the offers? And why weren’t they accepted? After all, even a small chance of stopping bin Laden might have saved thousands of lives.
While the outlines of Ijaz’s odyssey have appeared in a few places in the press, I am the first to put together the full story. (See my book, “Losing Bin Laden” for a lot more about Ijaz.) Failing to grasp the series of offers from the leaders of Sudan, Clinton later said, “was the greatest mistake of my presidency.”
Mansoor Ijaz first heard the name “Osama bin Laden” in April 1996, more than two years after he first met President Clinton.
“Let me just tell you one thing up front. I am an American. I do not believe that my government is telling such a big lie that you guys can sit here and claim that you are not doing anything wrong,” Ijaz said.
Looking at him was Hassan al-Turabi, the speaker of Sudan’s parliament and the intellectual leader of the National Islamic Front, which had seized power in Khartoum in 1989. Turabi hoped to create a model Islamic state, where the Koran would prevail as law, and peace would reign as a gift from Allah. Instead, the civil war with the Christian and animist South dragged on as it had (with pauses) since 1955. Sudan remained one of the poorest nations on Earth. Sudan’s open-door policy for Muslim terrorists, pushed by Turabi, meant that the nation was increasingly isolated in the world.
They talked extensively about bin Laden. Turabi said that he respected him as a devout Muslim and a good businessman. But Turabi did not like him as a person, Lt. Gen Gutbi al-Mahdi, a Sudanese friend of Turabi, told me. Al-Mahdi headed Sudan’s intelligence services in the 1990s. Mahdi recalls Turabi commenting bitterly about bin Laden’s lack of conversational range. “With him, it is always jihad, jihad, jihad,” Turabi dismissively told al-Mahdi.
Turabi agreed to meet bin Laden only a handful of times, Mahdi recalls. Bin Laden’s terrorist attacks could be overlooked by Turabi, but not his lack of conversational charms. Then, an argument between Turabi and Ijaz began. Turabi mentioned an American “non-paper,” the unsigned document on blank letterhead sent by a government to communicate a message, often a threat. “It is designed to be deniable,” former U.S. State Department director of East African affairs, David Shinn, told me. Shinn confirmed that U.S. ambassadors had delivered two such threatening “non-papers” to Sudan, one in 1993 and one in 1995. Turabi refused to give Ijaz the details of the letter, but Turabi’s advisor, Sanousi, did, and he was furious. “Let me tell you what they said to us. That damn ambassador came into our office and he put the letter in front of us and he said ‘read this.’”
That “damn ambassador” was Donald Petterson, the U.S. ambassador to Sudan from 1991 to 1995. The text of the non-paper as unambiguously threatening-and the Clinton Administration later denied its existence. Luftur Khan reminded Ijaz of his conversation at the State Department.
“You ought to tell Turabi what he said.” Ijaz was silent. Turabi leaned forward.
“You mean it was a threat?”
“Well it’s not exactly a threat, more of an admonition,” Ijaz temporized.
“My real purpose here as an American is to find a way to reverse this very dangerous trend that has started in my father’s home country [Pakistan] and that you apparently are helping to propagate by bringing these guys together” at the annual Popular Arab Islamic Conference. Turabi grew angry. “Look, your government calls these things terrorist planning sessions. For me these are sessions for them to vent their steam. They get their aggravation out, at least they’re not going to go kill somebody somewhere.” To believe Turabi on this point, one would have to think that terrorists are driven by anger and frustration, instead of cold, ideological calculation.
And then Sanousi interrupted with a threat of his own. “If you come to the Sudan, welcome. We will make Vietnam look like a picnic for you,” he said.
Turabi continued. “See, now, this is why we have so many problems with your government. We try to send a message and it gets blocked at the lowest level. We send a message at a higher level and it falls back down to the lower level. People are not willing to read, or even listen, to what we have to say, much less analyze it.”
Ijaz and Turabi would meet five times over the next seven days. Ijaz urged the Sudanese parliamentary leader to write a letter to President Clinton proposing full cooperation with America’s efforts to stop global terrorism. Turabi agreed. The financier and the parliamentarian spent hours writing and rewriting drafts.
A few days later, a fax machine in the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, grumbled to life. The U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Tim Carney, had been working out of Kenya ever since the U.S. embassy in Khartoum had been “vacated” in February 1996. Then the fax appeared. It was sent on Turabi’s personal letterhead and seemed to offer warmer relations with the United States.
This was the breakthrough he had been hoping for. Carney said he sent it simultaneously to three different places: the State Department, the CIA, and the National Security Council at the White House. The ambassador might as well have sent it to the dead letter office.
Deputy National Security Advisor Sandy Berger was not happy. He summoned “Citizen Ijaz” to his White House office. On August 21, 1996, Berger and Susan Rice, then in charge of African Affairs at the National Security Council, were loaded for bear. Ijaz recounts the conversation this way:
“So what were you doing there?” Berger thundered. “And why did you feel compelled to get this letter written?”
Berger had evidently forgotten that he had been briefed about Ijaz’s planned trip to Sudan. Ijaz explained what had happened in Khartoum. Berger became cool and analytical. “What does this letter really mean? What is it trying to say? What is he really trying to say to us?”
Ijaz explained that the Sudanese wanted a new relationship with the U.S. and offered to share their intelligence on Osama bin Laden. Neither Berger nor Rice said anything. Not a word.
Then Ijaz had questions of his own. “I understand that we delivered some sort of a non paper threat to the government in Sudan. How is it, Sandy, that the U.S. government gets away with making those types of threats?” Ijaz asked. “When you trample the ego of a nation, that nation is going to react. And these are all people that would love to go to Allah tomorrow if they can.”
Berger stared back at him. “Mansoor, I don’t believe that incident ever took place.”
In this case, either Berger was lying or Berger’s boss, National Security Advisor Tony Lake, hadn’t told his deputy about it.
Ijaz decided to up the stakes. “Sandy, what are you going to do if I go back to the Sudan and I get that piece of paper and bring it back to you?”
Berger laughed as he rose from his chair, signaling the end of the meeting. “Go get it and then we’ll talk about it.”
Ijaz returned to Sudan a few days later. When he returned, he carried a copy.
On September 13, 1996, Ijaz sent Berger a confidential memo. He attached a copy of the threatening letter that Berger had said did not exist.
Several days later, Berger phoned Ijaz’s office in New York. Ijaz remembers it as a short conversation. The deputy national security advisor said, according to Ijaz, “Let’s look at all of this after the election.”
Meanwhile, the consummate “friend of Bill” had a more important task to do, at least in the eyes of the White House. In a few days, Ijaz was hosting a fundraiser for Vice President Al Gore at his Manhattan penthouse. That September 1996 event raised some $200,000 for the Clinton-Gore reelection effort.
Mansoor Ijaz and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir were sitting in the shade, in Bashir’s private residence. Ijaz tried a bold move. He proposed that the Sudanese make an unconditional offer to share intelligence with Washington. Bashir insisted that he could never get such an open-ended initiative through his nation’s parliament, which was then largely controlled by hard-line Islamic clerics. And he doubted it would work anyway. (Months later, Sudan would make a plain, no-strings attached offer to share its intelligence. It didn’t work.)
“Look, you are a well-intentioned young man,” Bashir said. “But this is not the first time” that Sudan has tried to re-establish friendly ties with the United States.
Then came the bombshell. “Are you aware that I sent General Fatih Erwa to Washington to discuss bin Laden’s extradition to Saudi Arabia?”
Then, Bashir explained, Sudan made an offer to send bin Laden to the United States. Neither offer was accepted.
Ijaz was shocked. No one at the White House had mentioned these diplomatic moves to him.
Within days, Ijaz was handed carefully redacted extracts from Sudan’s intelligence reports. Ijaz says that he was shown complete copies of the passports of bin Laden’s top operatives. He saw passport numbers, copies of photographs, visas, dates of travel, plane tickets. He was also shown extensive Arabic-language reports about the movements of bin Laden’s men, the assessment of their characters, and their role in al Qaeda. (I was later shown and received copies of similar documents in Khartoum.) With this intelligence, the CIA and the FBI would have had the names and travel histories of hundreds of al Qaeda members. Many of these same names would turn up after terrorist explosions killed a score of American diplomats and embassy staffers in the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Berger’s response to the detailed Sudanese intel? “Very interesting, we’ll deal with this after the  elections are over.”
But nothing changed after President Clinton’s victory in the 1996 election. The quicksand of the Clinton White House swallowed up the promising policy change.
Bureaucratic infighting had saved bin Laden again.
And Ijaz had played his unique part. I am sure he had hoped to reprise it in the Romney Administration. That was the real meaning of the question about a Muslim in the Romney cabinet: would there be a place for someone like Ijaz, who is burning to do officially what he has done unofficially for years.