The defenders of George W. Bush are having a difficult time with the 9/11 commission report that declared no “collaborative relationship” existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. Before the war, Bush claimed that one reason that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States was that he was “dealing with al Qaeda.” (He was referring to present-day “dealing.”) The 9/11 commission report challenges that key assertion. And the dogs of war have been barking since its release.
After Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell challenged the independent and bipartisan commission’s finding (see here), last night on CNBC, Vice President Cheney maintained the 9/11 commission’s conclusion was “not true.” He referred to the case of Musab Abu al-Zarqawi and claimed that Baghdad had given him sanctuary in 2002. Zarqawi, Cheney said, “was allowed to operate out of Baghdad. He ran the poisons factory in northern Iraq out of Baghdad, which became a safe harbor for Ansar al-Islam [a fundamentalist terrorist group]….There clearly was a relationship there that stretched back over that period of time to at least May of ’02.”
Zarqawi is a murderous thug. He apparently was the fellow who beheaded Nick Berg. He is accused of having killed an American in Jordan and being behind many of the post-invasion terrorism acts in Iraq. Supporters of the war–especially neocons–have pointed to his presumed presence in Baghdad before the war as strong evidence of an al Qaeda-Hussein connection. But the Zarqawi-in-Baghdad episode remain murky. At first, the story was that he had been in Baghdad to have a leg amputated. But a few weeks ago, at an American Enterprise Institute conference, Stephen Hayes, a writer for the Weekly Standard who has written a book on the purported al Qaeda-Iraq connection, told the audience that apparently the reason for Zarqawi’s stay in Baghdad was now believed to be a sinus or nasal problem.
It seems there needs to be more work on this front before the Zarqawi matter is resolved. And even though Zarqawi is routinely described as an al Qaeda associate, the true nature of his relationship to bin Laden is unclear. As I have previously noted, earlier this year, when Zarqawi asked al Qaeda for assistance in fomenting civil war in Iraq, al Qaeda, according to US intelligence officers, rejected his request. Also, the Ansar al-Islam band that Zarqawi worked with was based in northern Iraq, in territory not controlled by Baghdad. (Its leader also has said that this fundamentalist group was opposed to Hussein.) Northern Iraq was a “safe harbor” (as Cheney put it) for Ansar al-Islam in part because it was a US-enforced no-fly zone. Again as I previously noted, NBC reported that in 2002 and 2003, the Pentagon wanted to attack Zarqawi’s camp in northern Iraq, and the White House said no. If Zarqawi was indeed an al Qaeda partner and in league with Hussein, why not?
Before the war, CIA chief George Tenet told the Senate intelligence committee that while Zarqawi had received funds from bin Laden, he “conceives of himself as being quite independent” from al Qaeda and was not under al Qaeda’s control or direction. Tenet also said that Zarqawi and his associates were in Baghdad, but that Hussein’s regime did not operate, control or sponsor his network. ( Tenet, however, added, “It is inconceivable to us that the Iraqi intelligence service doesn’t know that they live there or what they’re doing.” He had nothing more concrete to say about this. )
This is not to say that there was no relationship at any time between Zarqawi and al Qaeda or that Zarqawi had no contacts with the Iraqi regime. The key issue is whether there was, as Bush melodramatically claimed, a working relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq before the invasion. The Zarqawi story–murky as it is– does not prove Bush’s assertion that al Qaeda and Hussein’s government were operational allies.
On CNBC, Cheney was asked by host Gloria Borger about the allegation that Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before September 11. On numerous occasions when he has been asked whether Iraq had anything to do with 9/11, Cheney has referred to this charge–even after the CIA and the FBI had investigated it and concluded the allegation was most likely untrue. On CNBC, Cheney said of the Atta-in-Prague story, “we’ve never been able to confirm it or to knock it down. We just don’t know.” Well, this may be a true statement in the most narrow of terms, for–to be epistemological about it–how do we ever know anything. But the 9/11 commission has joined the CIA and the FBI in saying this allegation is probably false. “Based on the evidence available–including investigation by Czech and US authorities plus detainee reporting–we do not believe such a meeting occurred,” the commission says. (And the US has had this particular Iraqi intelligence officer in its custody for about a year. Apparently he has denied the meeting took place.)
So after the CIA, the FBI and 9/11 commission conclude there is no evidence to back up this charge, how responsible is it for Cheney to continue to insist this matter remains an open question? Such stubbornness (to be polite about it) does not inspire confidence in the other arguments he puts forward regarding the purported al Qaeda-Iraq connection.
In discussing whether was a “general relationship” between Iraq and al Qaeda, Cheney claimed such an alliance was developed and that he “probably” has more information on this than the 9/11 commission. “In the fall of ’95 and again in the summer of ’96, bin Laden met with Iraqi intelligence service representatives at his farm in Sudan,” Cheney maintained. “Bin Laden asked for terror training from Iraq.”This assertion is mostly consistent with what the commission reports:
“A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Ladin in 1994. Bin Ladin is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons.”
Then the two stories diverge. Cheney said, “The Iraqi intelligence service responded; they deployed a bomb-making expert, a brigadier general in the Iraqi intelligence service.” But the commission notes, “Iraq apparently never responded.”
This is a major discrepancy. And Lee Hamilton, the Democratic vice-chairman of the commission, seems confused by it. On June 17, he remarked, “I must say I have trouble understanding the flap over this [the purported al Qaeda-Iraq relationship]. The Vice President is saying, I think, that there were connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s government. We don’t disagree with that, so it seems to me the sharp differences that the press has drawn — the media has drawn are not that apparent to me.” But Cheney–who does see a “sharp difference” between his position and the commission’s–has said these connections led to Iraq providing operational assistance; the commission concludes they did not.
Given Cheney’s prewar record of accuracy–he claimed Hussein had amassed WMDs to use against the United States, that Hussein had revived his nuclear weapons program–his statements on the contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq (and what came of them) cannot be accepted at face value. If the administration has evidence that Iraq did assist al Qaeda, it should produce it and resolve the question–especially because Bush, before the war, used this particular allegation to drum up support for the invasion of Iraq. He said, “Iraq has sent bombmaking and document forgery experts to work with al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.” He did not say that this had happened eight years earlier. But the administration owes it to the public to clear up this issue.
After you read this article, check out David Corn’s NEW WEBLOG on the Bushlies.com site.
The best spin so far has come from Andrew McCarthy, a former assistant US attorney who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others. Writing for National Review Online McCarthy argues that the commission’s report does not say what the media reported it says. What the commission really meant to say, McCarthy claims, is, “We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.” (Emphasis his.) Go back and read the paragraph in dispute. (Find it here.) It is quite hard to come up with McCarthy’s interpretation. Even Cheney noted that the commission had concluded there was no “general relationship”; he just happened to disagree with the finding. And yesterday, as a full dustup was under way, Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the commission (and a former Bush I National Security Council staffer who later cowrote a book with Condoleezza Rice and served on the Bush II transition team), observed that the report was referring to a lack of evidence of “operational” ties between Hussein and al Qaeda. The commission has not said it was only considering a relationship focused on anti-American attacks.
McCarthy also–breathlessly–points to a line that appeared in a 1998 indictment of bin Laden to disprove the 9/11 commission. It reads, “Al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq.” Conservative and neocon promoters of an al Qaeda-Iraq connection repeatedly wave this sentence in public.
As it happens, this sentence was addressed at the 9/11 commission hearing held on June 16. Trying to rescue the administration from the commission’s report, Fred Fielding, a Republican commissioner, asked Patrick Fitzgerald, now a US attorney in Illinois, who oversaw the 1998 African bombing case, about this May 1998 indictment. Fitzgerald told him that “when we superseded [that indictment], which meant we broadened the charges in the fall, we dropped that language.” He added, “I think we are in full agreement with the [9/11 commission] staff statement in terms of the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship at this time….I think the staff statement did an excellent job of representing…our current understanding.”
McCarthy did not mention this exchange or note that the Justice Department dropped that language apparently because it was unsure of the material. He does write, “I am not suggesting that bin Laden’s ties to Iraq were as extensive as his connections to Afghanistan. But as is the case with Iraq, no one has yet tied the Taliban to a direct attack on the United States, although no one doubts for a moment that deposing the Taliban post-9/11 was absolutely the right thing to do.” Yes it was– because the Taliban had a close partnership with al Qaeda and was permitting bin Laden and his murderers to operate from its territory.
The issue stirred up by the 9/11 commission is whether Bush overstated the threat from Iraq prior to the war. He claimed Hussein had WMDs and was at that moment in league (“dealing with”) al Qaeda. (In his May 1 speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, he called Hussein an “ally” of al Qaeda.) Challenged on this, the Bush administration and its allies point to “contacts” that occurred in the mid-1990s (which may or may not have led to anything), to an allegation dismissed by the CIA and the FBI about a single meeting in Prague (and unless one knows what was said in such a conversation, its relevance cannot be judged), and to an A-to-B-to-C connection supposedly involving Zarqawi as the missing, middle link.
All of this possible evidence–call them hints, clues, indications, unconnected dots–was reason to worry about al Qaeda and Iraq hooking up. But it does not prove the two were operational allies, as Bush suggested. He could have argued for war by saying that the prospect of an al Qaeda-Iraq alliance was too frightening and dangerous. That Hussein, who had WMDs in the past, might have some left over or might be developing new ones. That Hussein’s regime, which once had contacts with bin Laden, might forge an anti-American partnership with bin Laden. And that if this were to happen and Hussein did come to possess WMDs, the threat to the United States would be deadly serious. If Bush had presented this sort of case, then the public could have had an honest debate on the merits of going to war at that particular time.
This is not what Bush did. He misrepresented the known facts and used exaggerations to support his argument for war. And now he and his cheerleaders have to make the case for war with whatever bits of information (or misinformation) they can dig up. Isn’t that doing things backward?
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