As former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke tells it in his book "Against All Enemies," an international alert to be on the lookout for terrorists played a role in Ressam's capture at a Port Angeles ferry terminal in December 1999, his car loaded with bomb-making material.
But national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, in her testimony before the Sept. 11 commission last week, discounted Clarke's version and credited a savvy U.S. customs agent, Diana Dean.
Dean stopped Ressam because "she sniffed something about Ressam. They saw that something was wrong" — not because of some security alert, Rice testified.
The debate over Ressam's capture encapsulates the controversy between Clarke and the Bush administration over which president — Clinton or Bush — took the threat of al-Qaida more seriously, and whether either administration did enough before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Disputing Clarke's claim, Rice testified customs agents "weren't actually on alert."
At least one of the agents who helped apprehend Ressam sides with Rice's version of events.
Moreover, others involved in the Ressam case say Clarke's book contains factual errors and wrongly implies national-security officials knew of Ressam's plan to set a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport long before they actually did.
"I've found the exchange over Ressam one of the more interesting aspects of this debate," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign-policy studies and homeland security at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "This whole 'shaking-the-trees' concept has become fascinating," he said, referring to the notion that law enforcement was on the lookout for terrorists.
Ressam's arrest came on President Clinton's watch. Early that month, Clarke wrote in his book, the United States had learned terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden were planning as many as 15 attacks on Americans worldwide as the millennium approached.
Clarke, who worked for both Clinton and Bush, said he convened the Counter-terrorism Security Group, which he chaired, and sent out warnings both overseas and to local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies around the country to be on heightened alert for suspicious activity. "And then we waited," he wrote.
"The break came in an unlikely location," Clarke wrote, describing Ressam's arrest by customs agents during a "routine screening."
According to a former customs agent who was involved, Clarke's version, laid out in one chapter of his book, wrongly implies they were on "heightened alert" and somehow looking for terrorists.
"No," was the terse reply of Michael Chapman, one of the customs agents who arrested Ressam, when asked if he was aware of a security alert.
"We were on no more alert than we're always on. That is a matter of public record," said Chapman, now a Clallam County commissioner.
A review of the trial testimony of Chapman, Dean and two other U.S. customs agents involved in the arrest turned up no reference to a security alert.
Rather, it supports Chapman's assessment that agents thought Ressam was smuggling drugs when they opened the trunk of his rental car and found bags of white powder buried in the spare-tire well. Only after finding several plastic black boxes, containing watches wired to circuit boards, did anyone suspect a bomb.
Dean has said repeatedly she singled Ressam out for a closer look because he was nervous, fumbling and sweating. Ressam has since told agents he was sick, and federal sources have confirmed Ressam had apparently gotten malaria while at terrorist-training camps in Afghanistan.
Clarke's version of that night contains other errors. Some of them are minor. But one implies national-security officials knew more about Ressam's plans than they could have at the time:
• Clarke wrote that Ressam bolted and left his car on the ferry. In fact, Ressam drove off the ferry and ran when he was stopped for inspection.
• Clarke reported Dean ran after Ressam. Actually, two other agents gave chase.
• More significantly, Clarke wrote that agents had found "explosives and a map of the Los Angeles International Airport" in the car, implying the threat to the airport was known almost immediately.
There was no map in the car. A map of Greater Los Angeles was found days later in Ressam's apartment in Montreal. Nobody had a clue for nearly 11 months that Los Angeles was a target.
Circles scrawled on the map around three L.A.-area airports weren't found until October 2000, after the document had been turned over to the FBI. It wasn't until Ressam began cooperating in May 2001 that his actual target was known for sure.
In fact, in the weeks after Ressam's capture, officials in Seattle were so unsure about his actual target that then-Mayor Paul Schell canceled the city's popular New Year's Eve celebration at Seattle Center, thinking the Space Needle could be a target.
• Clarke reported Canadians had somehow "missed" the existence of Ressam's cell of radical Algerian Muslims in Montreal and that, after Ressam's arrest, the Canadian government cooperated.
According to testimony at Ressam's trial and interviews with Canadian intelligence officials, Ressam and the cell in Montreal had been under surveillance for at least two years before Ressam's arrest. But the Canadian Security Intelligence Service never told anyone.
U.S. prosecutors have complained bitterly about Canada's foot-dragging as the Ressam case proceeded. Canadian prosecutors blocked U.S. access to at least one crucial witness — an Algerian who gave Ressam a gun and talked about blowing up Jews in Montreal.
Indeed, the U.S. came within hours of dropping charges against Ressam on the eve of his March 2001 trial because the Canadian government attempted to withdraw the witnesses.
King County Superior Court Judge Steven Gonzalez, who, in 2001, was one of three federal prosecutors who tried Ressam in Los Angeles, agreed some of Clarke's assertions "are not consistent with the evidence at trial."
Martha Levin, a publicist at Free Press, the Simon & Schuster subsidiary that published "Against All Enemies," said Clarke had no comment about the errors. "Free Press makes it a policy not to discuss internal editorial processes," she said.
Another Brookings scholar, Stephen Hess, a senior fellow on governmental studies and an authority on Washington and the media, said errors in memoirs are not unusual or particularly significant unless they affect the broader point or conclusion the author is drawing.
"So it's hard to say what the significance of these errors are," Hess added. "Whether you agree with him or not, I don't think anybody has accused Dick Clarke of being sloppy."
And Clarke's conclusion remains valid. Al-Qaida, he wrote, was here — and actively attempting to attack the United States.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com