Respond to this Article November 2003

The Weakest Link

Why the Bush administration insists against all evidence on an Iraq-al Qaeda connection.

By Spencer Ackerman

After weeks of plummeting public support for his handling of postwar Iraq, President Bush took the offensive last month. In a barrage of speeches, Bush and his senior aides argued fervently that the invasion was justified and the United States was making progress on the war's stated aims. But while it's true that the destruction of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror is an unqualified benefit, the rest of the administration's predictions about the war's aftermath have not panned out.

Any post-Saddam euphoria felt by the Iraqi people--who, Vice President Dick Cheney declared before the war, would greet U.S. troops "as liberators"--has given way to ambivalence, as a recent Gallup poll attests; meanwhile, American troops are fighting a protracted guerrilla war in central Iraq which claims, on average, the life of one soldier every day. The administration also promised that our allies would fall into line behind us once the war was over, that Iraqi oil would finance much of the country's reconstruction, and that neighboring despotic regimes would bend to our will. Instead, most of our traditional allies have refused to support our efforts with either troops or money; Iraqi oil production will almost certainly yield insufficient revenue to rebuild the country over the next few years; and Iran has apparently redoubled its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, while Syria and Saudi Arabia have allowed their own home-grown terrorists to flood into Iraq.

Most importantly, however, the Bush administration's chief justification for the war--that Saddam placed American security in "grave and gathering danger"--has slowly come unraveled. Before the war, the president and members of his administration argued that Saddam had large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and an ongoing nuclear program, and that he might provide such weapons to terrorists, specifically al Qaeda, who could then attack an American city and "leave no fingerprints," as Bush put it in a televised address last October. The first part of that equation did not long survive the fall of Baghdad. As actual weapons of mass destruction proved elusive after months of occupation, administration officials began to speak of the existence of weapons "programs." And when, after three months of searching, the 1,200-member team led by David Kay issued an interim report, it indicated that the few remaining components of Saddam's pre-Gulf War I weapons programs weren't likely to have yielded actual weapons while international sanctions remained in place. In light of this evidence, the administration resorted to legalisms. Cheney argued in a speech in mid-October that Kay's report "confirms a material breach by the former Iraqi regime of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441." But by abandoning the language of thousands of liters of VX, sarin, anthrax, and plague, at least they were no longer denying the obvious.

That can't be said, however, for the other half of the administration's doomsday scenario: Saddam's reputed partnership with al Qaeda. So intent were some in the White House to convince voters of such a connection that last September, Cheney raised the possibility that Saddam's regime had direct ties to the 9/11 hijackers on "Meet the Press." The speciousness of Cheney's statement was so apparent that the president himself found it necessary to note publicly that there was no evidence of such a link. But administration officials have continued to insist that there were clear connections between Iraq and al Qaeda. Even while distancing himself last September from Cheney's notion that Saddam had some role in the 9/11 attacks, for instance, Bush insisted that, "There's no question that Saddam Hussein had al Qaeda ties."

But the evidence for an active link between Saddam and al Qaeda is just as flimsy as the evidence for a reconstituted Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Just as the administration has evidence not of actual WMDs or even programs to manufacture them, but merely possible fragments of WMD programs, neither they have evidence of ties to al Qaeda, but of intentions to have such ties. And the more we know, the more it seems clear that bin Laden was uninterested in any overture from the Iraqi dictator. While most components of the administration's evidentiary case have been debunked, however, the press continues to broadcast its assertions without commentary. As a result, according to a late July Newsweek poll, 72 percent of Americans believe that "Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was harboring al Qaeda terrorists and helping them to develop chemical weapons." Insisting that such a partnership existed has allowed Bush to present the Iraq war as another battle in the ongoing war on terrorism-the war for which a broad national consensus exists, even as the administration's promises about Iraq fail to materialize.

Nevermind

Saddam was not without involvement in regional terrorism, supporting Palestinian attacks against Israel for years. But nearly every country in the region has done the same, from such rogues as Syria and Iran to such nominal allies as Saudi Arabia. When it comes to international terrorism directed at the United States, however, there is mounting evidence of Saudi complicity, but virtually none on Saddam.

Beginning in the fall of 2002, senior administration officials pointed to a terrorist named Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who runs a group called Ansar al Islam, as the human bridge between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. In his speech at the United Nations last February, Secretary of State Colin Powell charged that Iraq was "harbor[ing]" Zarqawi's group and that Zarqawi himself was "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants." But U.S. intelligence had already concluded last year that Zarqawi's ties to al Qaeda were informal at best. He "occasionally associated with al Qaeda adherents," as The Washington Post reported, but Zarqawi was not a "very senior al Qaeda leader," as President Bush had described him in an October 2002 speech. And if Zarqawi's ties to al Qaeda were loose, his ties to Saddam were practically non-existent. Far from being "harbored" by Saddam, Ansar al Islam operated out of northeastern Iraq, an area under Kurdish control that was being protected from Saddam's incursions by U.S. warplanes. Indeed, some of its members fought against Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war. Powell asserted that Saddam dispatched an agent to Ansar to forge an alliance with the Kurdish terrorists. If true, the far more likely explanation, however, is that the dictator had placed an agent in the group not to aid them, as Powell implied to the Security Council, but to keep tabs on a potential threat to his own regime.

If the evidence of a Zarqawi connection is thin, other administration claims are even thinner. Senior administration officials have, for example, continued to assert that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence official while planning the World Trade Center attacks. The claim is based on an October 2001 report from Czech Republic officials that such a meeting had occurred earlier that year. The Czech report prompted Cheney to declare, in December 2001, that "it's been pretty well confirmed that [Atta] did go to Prague, and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service." But by mid-2002, F.B.I. and C.I.A. officials who combed through thousands of documents concluded that Atta was almost certainly still in the United States in April 2001, when the meeting is supposed to have taken place. As a result-and reportedly despite Cheney's insistence-Powell's staff excised the claim from his U.N. presentation. Although senior Czech officials stand by the story, many Czech intelligence analysts no longer have confidence that the meeting took place. And for good reason: The allegation has only a single source-an Arab student who, in October 2001, recalled witnessing the meeting after pictures of Atta flooded the airwaves in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But despite the considered opinion of both American and Czech intelligence that the meeting never occurred, Cheney has continued to assert that the question remains unresolved, telling NBC's Tim Russert that "the Czechs alleged that Mohamed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack, but we've never been able to develop any more of that yet either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it."

The final piece of alleged evidence the administration presented before the war came in an October 2002 letter from C.I.A. Director George Tenet to Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), then chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, stating that "we have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade." But this was at best a disingenuous phrasing, the result of an administration whose senior officials placed significant pressure on its intelligence analysts to reach politically desirable conclusions. The contacts were not, as Tenet's language suggested, ongoing for the past 10 years. Most had occurred during the mid-1990s, in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. At that time, Sudan's Islamism had sent so many spies and terrorists flooding into Khartoum that the city resembled a jihadist version of the bar scene from Star Wars. There, some of the world's most infamous terrorists, such as Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mugniyah, frequently crossed paths with foreign intelligence agents, including, Tenet claimed, Iraq's. But even if Iraqi agents had had contact with al Qaeda operatives, notes one former intelligence official, "that's what all intelligence officers do. They try to get in touch with the bad guys, the enemies, and co-opt them in some way, with money or something else"-which is quite different from forging a working relationship. After all, for decades, C.I.A. agents tried to co-opt Soviet officials. That didn't mean Langley spies grew misty when they heard the strains of "The Internationale," nor did it make Kremlin officials long for "The Star Spangled Banner."

Phantom menace

After the fall of Iraq, Americans had a chance to test the administration's claims: Saddam's information ministry, with all its documented secrets, is now in the hands of the Army's Third Infantry Division. Here's what we have: three reports that, together, are not nothing, but almost nothing.

The first was obtained shortly after the fall of Baghdad in April, by journalists for the London Telegraph and the Toronto Star, who, combing through the ministry's wreckage, claimed to have unearthed documents that describe planning for a 1998 contact between Iraqi intelligence and bin Laden. The papers recommend "bring[ing] the envoy to Iraq because we may find in this envoy a way to maintain contacts with bin Laden." But, rather significantly, the documents "do not mention if any meeting took place," as the Telegraph puts it. (The administration has conspicuously declined to bring up the Telegraph and Star reports in its own defense, and American news services as well have for the most part ignored them.)

The second report came from Newsweek, which received an administration leak that, similarly, Iraqi official Farouk Hijazi spearheaded an overture to al Qaeda in 1998. Finally, that same year, according to administration officials interviewed by The Weekly Standard, Saddam paid $300,000 to Ayman Al Zawahiri, the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who soon afterward became bin Laden's right hand man.

None of these revelations is necessarily surprising in and of itself. Hijazi, for instance, has a powerful incentive to tell his U.S. captors what they want to hear. And by 1998, Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad was hemorrhaging money and besieged by Egypt's ruthless security services. Partly as a result, Zawahiri had folded his organization into the cash-flush al Qaeda, believing that such an arrangement was "the only solution to keeping the Jihad organization alive," as one of his fellow Jihad terrorists testified. It's hard to imagine the pauper Zawahiri turning away an open wallet.

But assume that all three reports are true. What do they actually reveal? That around 1998, Saddam's agents tried to build a relationship with al Qaeda. This is, it's worth noting, consistent with the prewar report that Iraqi intelligence operatives had met with al Qaeda terrorists in Khartoum. But the new information is telling in two respects. First, as far as we know, there were no significant contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda after 1998. Second, these Iraqi overtures do not appear to have been reciprocated. According to officials familiar with the debriefings of senior al Qaeda terrorists, especially 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his deputy Ramzi bin al-Shibh--who, unlike Hijazi, have no hope of gaining release from captivity-bin Laden was simply uninterested in cooperating with Saddam.

In fact, not only is there no evidence of a partnership between Saddam and al Qaeda; there is ample evidence that al Qaeda was actively hostile to Iraqi outreach. Rohan Gunaratna, director of terrorism research at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies and arguably the world's foremost expert on al Qaeda, has interviewed al Qaeda members personally and maintains ties with various national intelligence services. After the U.S. rout of the Taliban, he examined several thousand documents coming out of Afghanistan, including al Qaeda's video collection. After viewing 251 videos, says Gunaratna, "we could not find any evidence of al Qaeda links to Saddam Hussein or the Baghdad administration." Two videos that he watched in particular "speak of [Saddam] as a real monster and not a real Muslim," he adds. "I can't think in those videos Osama ever wanted any kind of association with Saddam Hussein." Just the facts?

All in all, says an ex-intelligence official who personally viewed the Iraq portfolio during the buildup to the war, the administration "never had and still doesn't have any evidence of Iraqi government cooperation with al Qaeda. Zero." The White House, however, continues to insist they do. That the administration knows its evidence is shaky and is beginning to panic is suggested by its latest assertion: In recent weeks, the White House has taken to arguing that, at the least, Hussein did have some connection to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. In recent interviews and congressional testimony, Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz have noted that Abdel Rahman Yasin, the only one of the 1993 conspirators to escape capture, sought refuge in Iraq. "The one bomber still at-large from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was sheltered in Iraq for 10 years, and we've learned more about him. The ties were there," Wolfowitz told "Good Morning America," declining to specify what new information he had in mind. Days later, Cheney repeated the claim for Russert: "Now, is there a connection between the Iraqi government and the original World Trade Center bombing in '93? We know, as I say, that one of the perpetrators of that act did, in fact, receive support from the Iraqi government after the fact." But the fact that Saddam gave Yasin shelter after the bombing-perhaps as part of his outreach to terrorists, perhaps to convince the region he remained defiant of the United States-does not tell us whether Saddam was involved in planning the bombing itself. And interrogations of Ramzi Yousef, an accomplice to Yasin now serving a life sentence in U.S. prison, have not produced evidence that Iraq was behind the first bombing, or that al Qaeda, a nascent force in 1993, was then in league with Baghdad. Absent information that the administration hasn't made public, the case for Saddam's involvement in the first World Trade Center bombings is even weaker than the case for his involvement in the second.

It's easy to understand why the Bush administration would continue to cling to its assertion of a Saddam-al Qaeda partnership when virtually all the evidence so far suggests that no such partnership ever existed. For one, the White House hasn't really been forced to back off. While the press and public expected to see weapons of mass destruction on TV--and took notice when they didn't--that hasn't been the case with Saddam's alleged al Qaeda ties. But more importantly, the administration has a powerful political incentive for maintaining that the partnership existed: Public support for the war is largely based on linking Iraq to the overall war on terrorism, and the alleged connection between Iraq and al Qaeda before the war is pivotal to keeping this connection alive. But if there was no real link between Saddam and al Qaeda before the invasion, there is now. Thousands of Jihadists have swarmed into Iraq and are now working with former Baathists to kill American troops. In a neat bit of phrasing, Bush has declared that "Iraq is now the central front" of the war on terror. The significant word in that sentence, of course, is "now."

Spencer Ackerman is an assistant editor of The New Republic..


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