It must be hard to be Colin Powell–that is, it must be tough to have to keep defending an administration that makes dramatic assertions untethered from known facts. But that’s what Powell, the (mostly) loyal lieutenant, was doing yesterday, as he shilled for his president regarding the supposed link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
Earlier in the day, the 9/11 commission issued a report that declared there was no evidence of any “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and al Qaeda. (For a summation and a to-the-point analysis, see my blog entry on this.) The day before that, George W. Bush offered his “best evidence” of such a link, but he botched the facts and misrepresented the truth. His “evidence” was, at best, flimsy. In fact, it could be considered evidence that there was no significant link between Hussein and al Qaeda. (For the stunning details, click here.) Remember, the purported al Qaeda-Hussein bond was a primary argument for Bush’s war. Prior to the invasion, Bush claimed that Hussein was an “immediate” threat because he possessed weapons of mass destruction and at any given moment could slip them to his good pals in al Qaeda. As Bush put it, “he’s a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda.” Without those WMDs, without the al Qaeda connection, what’s left of Bush’s main justification for the war?
After the 9/11 commission released its report dismissing the idea of an al Qaeda-Hussein partnership, I predicted the ensuing White House spin would be dizzying. And the first to run in circles was the Secretary of State. In an interview with Hafiz Mirazi of Al-Jazeera television, the following exchange occurred:
MirzaiI: Mr. Secretary, let me start first with the reports coming out of the conclusion of the 9/11 congressional investigative commission that they concluded that there is no evidence or critical evidence, whatsoever, of any link between al-Qaida and the regime of Saddam Hussein, or that Saddam Hussein did help al-Qaida in targeting the US. And the reports are saying this is in contradiction with the Bush administration. What would be your comment?
Powell: I have seen some press reports that suggest things like that, but I haven’t seen the 9/11 report yet. So until they actually do issue the report, it will be premature for me to comment on such a speculation. I think it’s better we all wait and see the report and see what it says.
Mirzai: But as far as the administration is concern, for the record now, it is still the US position of the administration that the regime of Saddam Hussein did help al-Qaida in targeting the US?
Powell: I think we have said, and it is clear, that there is a connection, and we have seen these connections between al-Qaida and the regime of Saddam Hussein and we stick with that. We have not said it was related to 9/11. So, you know, this is the commission that was looking into 9/11. But we have indicated that we have seen terrorist links with Saddam Hussein and his regime and some linkages with Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
After you read this article, check out David Corn’s NEW WEBLOG on the Bushlies.com site.
The 9/11 commission–an independent, bipartisan panel being managed by Philip Zelikow, a Bush I NSC official and a onetime coauthor with Condoleezza Rice–says there were some contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq (mainly years before 9/11) but that these did not lead to an alliance. In other words, contacts do not make a connection. But let’s flashback to a January 8, 2004 press conference in which Powell was asked about the alleged al Qaeda-Hussein relationship:
Question: On the subject of weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Secretary, one of the other conclusions of that [Carnegie Endowment for International Peace] report was that there was no evidence of a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida and that there was no evidence of a likelihood that he would transfer weapons to al-Qaida. What do you think about that, looking back? And I know that, you know, hindsight is 20/20, but to think back….Do you think that there were ways other than war to have handled this threat and that the–that it was not an imminent threat to the United States?
Powell: My presentation [to the UN Security Council] on the 5th of February  when I talked to this issue made it clear that we had seen some links and connections to terrorist organizations over time, and I focused on one particular case, Zawahiri, and I think that was a pretty solid case. [Editor’s note: he meant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.] There is not — you know, I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection, but I think the possibility of such connections did exist and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did.
So now, in the face of the 9/11 commission’s report, Powell says that “there is a connection.” But in January, he said that there was no “concrete evidence” and that only a “possibility of such connections did exist.” Which is it? And what will Bush say when asked about the commission’s finding?
UPDATE: Well, no sooner had I written the last sentence in the above paragraph, Bush did comment on the 9/11 commission’s reports. Following a meeting with his Cabinet at the White House, he declared, “There was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.” He added, “We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, for example, Iraqi intelligence officers met with bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda, in Sudan.”
But Bush is transforming contacts into a relationship. The commission’s point was that these contacts did not turn into a relationship. And if Iraqi intelligence agents did meet with bin Laden in Sudan, they did so before 1996, when bin Laden shifted his operations to Afghanistan. The existence of such contacts five years before 9/11 tells us nothing about any “relationship” that might have existed in the time before or after September 11.
Bush also said, Hussein “was a threat because he provided safe haven for a terrorist like al-Zarqawi who is still killing innocents inside Iraq.” Neoconservative supporters of the war have claimed that the (supposed) fact that Zarqawi received medical attention in Baghdad before the war indicates that he was in league with Hussein’s regime. But the Zarqawi-in-Baghdad episode remains sketchy. And, as I noted here, Zarqawi has been linked to Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist terrorist outfit that claimed it was opposed to Hussein and that (prior to the war) operated out of northern Iraq, in territory not controlled by Hussein’s regime.
By the way, on March 2, NBC News reported that “long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out [Zarqawi’s] terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself–but never pulled the trigger.” Three times in 2002 and 2003, according to this report, the Pentagon drew up plans to attack Zarqawi in his camp in northern Iraq. Yet the White House said no. According to NBC News, “Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.”
If this report was true, it should be big news. The White House had Zarqawi in its sights. Yet Bush officials believed that if they took him out, they would lose an argument for war. (At his presentation to the UN, Powell tried to use Zarqawi to link al Qaeda to Hussein.) So did politics trump a national security decision? Did the administration allow to roam free a terrorist who would become perhaps the biggest threat to American GIs in Iraqi today? Is Bush now playing politics with the truth by insisting there was a connection between al Qaeda and Hussein, even though the more objective members of the 9/11 commission–who have had access to the intelligence reporting on this dicey matter–have reviewed the record and found no compelling evidence of a signficant relationship?
At this point, if Bush–who keeps mischaracterizing the Zarqawi connection–wants anyone to believe him rather than the 9/11 commission, he better present hard and clear evidence. All that he offers is assertions and misrepresentations. No wonder he initially opposed the creation of the 9/11 commission. It can be awfully irritating to be confronted with a factual record and reasonable analysis.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN’S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, “This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research….[I]t does present a serious case for the president’s partisans to answer….Readers can hardly avoid drawing…troubling conclusions from Corn’s painstaking indictment.” The Los Angeles Times says, “David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case.” The Library Journal says, “Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations….Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough.” And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, “I’d like to tell you I’ve read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that’d be a lie.”