Ever since the September 11 commission stated authoritatively what everyone knew already, namely that there is no evidence that Al Qaeda was in business with Saddam Hussein, a debate of a most peculiar character has unfolded.
Almost no facts–and none of importance–are under dispute. No one now claims that Iraq had anything to do with September 11, or any other attack on the United States, or even that Saddam’s regime had any joint undertaking whatsoever with Al Qaeda. Rather, the debate revolves around the definition of words. The highest officials of the executive branch of the government, as if re-baptizing it as an academic department of a university, have turned themselves into so many linguists. What is a “tie,” a “relationship,” a “link,” a “contact,” “cooperation”? On questions like these, the White House abounds in opinions.
The language of the report, as everyone knows, was that Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government had no “collaborative relationship.” Nor was there “any credible evidence” that the two organizations had “cooperated on any attacks against the United States.”
The New York Times, perhaps smarting from its recently confessed misreporting regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, editorially stated that “there was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11,” and demanded “an apology” to the American people from President Bush.
The Lexicographer in Chief and his Vice Lexicographer saw their opening and pounced. Bush stated that while the Administration had never “said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated” with Iraqi help, “we did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.” So, “the reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda [is] because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.” Cheney said that the “evidence is overwhelming” of a “relationship.”
The co-chairmen of the commission, former Governor Tom Kean and former Representative Lee Hamilton, seemed to try to smooth over the controversy by pointing out that they had not denied the existence of “ties,” only of collaboration.
What was now missing, however, from the Administration’s new self-defense were all the factual particulars that had given supposed substance to the charge of a relationship in the first place. No longer did the President claim, as he once had, that Saddam was “dealing” with Al Qaeda, or that Iraq “sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with Al Qaeda,” or “provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.” The only relevant facts left on the record were the negative ones described by the commission: Al Qaeda’s early attempts to attack Saddam, whose secular Arabism it despised, by helping Iraqi Kurds and its rejected attempt later to secure assistance from Saddam.