William Safire, New York Times columnist, doesn’t know what he’s talking (or writing) about. Who says? The New York Times.
Underneath the headline, “Found: A Smoking Gun,” Safire on February 11 wrote a column that maintained a “clear link” existed between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. A from-the-start supporter of the war in Iraq, Safire was declaring that one of Bush’s main rationales for the invasion–a supposed operational relationship between Al Qaeda and Hussein’s regime–was solid. In doing so, he was taking on all those who have challenged or questioned this Bush claim–a long list that even includes the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House intelligence committee who last September concluded that the prewar intelligence did not contain information to support the charge that Hussein had been in league with bin Laden.
What did Safire base his case-closed pronouncement upon? A New York Times story that had appeared a day earlier. Written by reporter Dexter Filkins (in Baghdad) and also based on reporting done by Douglas Jehl (in Washington), the front-pager revealed that the Kurds had intercepted a courier for Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist terrorist group that had been based in northern Iraq. The messenger, Hassan Ghul, had on him a CD-ROM that contained a seventeen-page document that appeared to be a letter from the head of Ansar al-Islam, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to Al Qaeda requesting assistance. Ansar al-Islam wanted to start an Iraqi civil war by attacking Shi’ite Muslims, and Zarqawi was hoping Al Qaeda would help him.
A-ha, exclaimed Safire, here was the proof that Safire himself was correct when he wrote on September 24, 2001–“not two weeks after 9/11″–that Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam. And he praised the work of the reporters involved. But Safire was molding facts more than he was marshaling them.
The actual New York Times story Safire relied upon said that the letter was not evidence of a link between al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam. Filkins’ dispatch noted that if the document was authentic, it would “constitute the strongest evidence to date of contacts between extremists in Iraq and Al Qaeda. But it does not speak to the debate about whether there was a Qaeda presence in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era, nor is there any mention [in the request for help] of a collaboration with Hussein loyalists.”
Safire ignored this important qualifier. In his column, he referred to Ansar al-Islam as an “Qaeda affiliate” and approvingly quoted George W. Bush describing Zarqawi before the war as an “Al Qaeda leader.” But Safire did not mention that when CIA chief George Tenet testified before the Senate intelligence committee in February 2003, Tenet said that while the CIA believed Ansar al-Islam had received funding from Al Qaeda, Zarqawi considered himself and his network “quite independent” of Al Qaeda. Receiving money from Al Qaeda might qualify Ansar al-Islam as an “affiliate,” but according to Tenet’s testimony Zarqawi was no “Al Qaeda leader.”