Deep Denial Remains

Perhaps it is just as well to conclude regretfully that mere facts will seldom if ever hold much sway with people whose minds are already made up. In the wake of the report from the 9/11 commission to the effect that there is “no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States,” we ran an editorial suggesting that while this was hardly a shocking revelation, it did rather undermine the Bush administration’s prewar justifications for the invasion of Iraq, especially given the still-unfound weapons of mass destruction. This prompted an angry letter to the editor.

“The administration has never alleged collusion on attacks against America, on 9/11 or otherwise,” our correspondent wrote. “It has alleged general cooperation between Iraq and terrorist organizations and proclaimed Iraq a ‘growing threat.’ States that harbor and/or support terrorists are a real threat to America. Iran qualifies under that definition, as does Syria.”

“While we may never be able to defend ourselves against individual terrorists, they probably aren’t a threat to our way of life. However, a state that gives aid and comfort to terrorists is a threat to our way of life. Those states are now aware that we have a president who will make no distinction between terrorists and the states that harbor them.”

There is some evidence of disaffection among conservatives – and not just those long connected with Pat Buchanan and the crowd at his American Conservative magazine – over how badly the Iraq aftermath is going, but for some people the impulse to stay loyal to the Bush administration is apparently invincible. Apparently this impulse includes misremembering what the administration actually said during the run-up to the war.


To be sure, one must concede a few things to our letter-writer and to others who continue to believe as he does. The Bush administration – perhaps because it knew better, perhaps because it was simply hedging its bets – was generally vague about how closely it claimed Saddam was tied to bin Laden or al-Qaeda operatives, and never quite came out and claimed unequivocally that Saddam was in on the 9/11 attacks. It hinted strongly and repeatedly. It made much of little pieces of information, some of them accurate but some of them seriously mischaracterized, to bolster the claim that Iraq was a terrorism-sponsoring state, although most professionals in the CIA and State Department believed it had done nothing directed against the United States for about a decade prior to the invasion. It rhetorically transformed minuscule possible threats into gigantic looming near inevitabilities, playing skillfully upon the fears and uncertainties most Americans felt in the wake of 9/11. But it never was completely explicit about precisely what these threats were. And it almost always made much more of weapons of mass destruction than of ties (or implications of ties) to al-Qaeda.

For example, a Voice of America transcript on Oct. 2, 2002, said this:

“Iraq has longstanding ties to terrorist organizations. ‘And,’ said President Bush, ‘there are al-Qaeda terrorists inside Iraq. The regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and … could build one within a year.’ Not only does Iraq possess chemical and biological weapons, but it also has a track record of demonstrated use of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq used chemical weapons in its war against Iran. Iraq has fired ballistic missiles at Israel, Saudi Arabia, and at coalition forces during the Gulf War. Iraq has used poison gas against Iraqi ethnic groups, including Kurds. ‘The Iraq regime,’ said Mr. Bush, ‘practices the rape of women as a method of intimidation, and the torture of dissenters and their children.'”

None of these statements was a flat-out falsehood, but some were more like half-truths. The best information suggests that there was an al-Qaeda, or al-Qaeda-affiliated, camp in Iraq at the time, but that it was in the north, in the region controlled on a semi-autonomous basis by the Kurds, near the border with Iran. Saddam – in part because of the no-fly zone maintained by the U.S. and Britain – did not have effective control over the region. Whether he approved or disapproved of the camp being there we may yet discover, but he would have been hard-pressed to destroy it or drive the jihadists out.

There were numerous similar statements during the run-up to the war. The 48-hour-Saddam-leave-Iraq ultimatum on March 23, 2003, presidential message said: “The danger is clear: using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people in out country, or any other.” It didn’t say which terrorists, nor did it even say the danger was imminent.

On Feb. 11, 2003, before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, CIA Director George Tenet said: “Iraq is harboring senior members of a terrorist network led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a close associate of al-Qaeda. We know Zarqawi’s network was behind the poison plots in Europe, and we discussed earlier as well – Secretary Powell – the assassination of a U.S. State Department employee in Jordan.” Again, not quite an explicit claim that Saddam was working with or sponsoring Zarqawi, only that he was
“harboring” him.

President Bush on Feb. 8, 2003, (this and previous archived on the Carnegie Endowment Web site,, on the Iraq page): “Saddam Hussein has longstanding, direct and continuing ties to terrorist networks. Senior members of Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990s. Iraq has sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with al-Qaeda. Iraq has also provided al-Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training. And an al-Qaeda operative was sent to Iraq several times in the late 1990s for help in acquiring poisons and gases. We also know that Iraq is harboring a terrorist network headed by a senior al-Qaeda terrorist planner. This network runs a poison and explosive training camp in northeast Iraq, and many of its leaders are known to be in Baghdad.” Again, he walked right up to the brink of outright lies but generally avoided them. He certainly didn’t encourage the suggestion that if Iraq and al-Qaeda were closely or intimately associated, they would have met more than eight times in a decade.


And so on. Vice President Cheney came closest to explicit claims and explicit lies, but everybody in the administration, from Rumsfeld to Powell to Rice inflated the slim evidence of tenuous ties into a looming threat. “You wouldn’t want to wait for the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud over Manhattan,” became the mantra.

The 9/11 commission sees things rather differently:

“Bin Ladin [I use the commission spelling in a direct quote] also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan [he had moved there in 1991], despite his opposition to Hussein’s secular regime. Bin Ladin had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sudanese, to protect their own ties with Iraq, reportedly persuaded Bin Ladin to cease this support and arranged for contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda. A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three 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, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda also occurred after Bin Ladin had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior Bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al-Qaeda and Iraq. [Yes, yes, I know, they could have been lying, but read on.] We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”

No credible evidence. Just enough to spin into a threat if that was your intention, and laying the groundwork for war was more important to you than being scrupulous about the truth or placing scraps of information into a larger context.

To be sure, there is a fair amount of evidence – he bragged about it – that Saddam was supplying money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers sent to wreak havoc in Israel. That was a tie between Saddam and some terrorists. But those were terrorists deployed against Israel, and until a couple of recent incidents the Palestinians were very careful not to attack Americans or American buildings or interests in Israel. Financing those suicide bombers (or their families) may have been reprehensible, but it was hardly unique among Arab countries – our close friends the Saudis did so as well – and it posed no direct threat to the United States.


Our letter writer says the real danger comes from state-sponsored terrorism, not from the random individual terrorist. But al-Qaeda, almost all authorities agree, is the only organization to have carried out a successful attack on the United States, and here’s what the 9/11 commission has to say about sponsorship and funding:

“There is no convincing evidence that any government financially supported al-Qaeda before 9/11 (other than limited support provided by the Taliban after Bin Ladin first arrived in Afghanistan). Some governments may have turned a blind eye to al-Qaeda’s fundraising activities. Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al-Qaeda funding, but we found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials within the Saudi government funded al-Qaeda, Still, al-Qaeda found fertile fundraising ground in the Kingdom, where extreme religious views are common and charitable giving is essential to the culture and, until recently, subject to very limited oversight. The United States has never been a primary source of al-Qaeda funding, although some funds raised in the United States likely made their way to al-Qaeda. No persuasive evidence exists that al-Qaeda relied on the drug trade as an important source of revenue [other terrorist outfits certainly have] or funded itself through trafficking in diamonds from African states engaged in civil wars.”

So not only was al-Qaeda not state-sponsored, it sponsored a state. The 9/11 commission report, after estimating al-Qaeda annual expenses at about $30 million, that “The largest expense was payments to the Taliban, which totaled an estimated $10-20 million per year.” In another statement (Staff Statement Number 16) the commission says: “We estimate that the 9/11 attacks cost somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute.” However, “Our $400,000-$500,000 estimate does not include the cost of running the camps in Afghanistan where the hijackers were recruited and trained, or the cost of that training.”


The 9/11 commission suggests, as do many terrorism experts, that the al-Qaeda network is decentralized and less able to raise money these days. But that’s a two-edged sword. The very fact that al-Qaeda succeeded in attacking on U.S. soil, and bin Laden has not been captured or killed yet, suggests that a more dispersed and decentralized network could be more dangerous than one with a centralized command structure. We’ll see, I’m afraid – especially since bin Laden hasn’t been captured and the United States has wasted so many resources and alienated so many potential fanatics with the misadventure in Iraq – just how dangerous a decentralized non-state terror network can be.

At the least, the notion that a terrorist network has to be state-sponsored to be dangerous is a dangerous misconception. The U.S. knows how to deal with conventional state threats; it has the most massive and impressive military, by a long way (even if it is a bit overstretched just now) in the world, or that the world has ever seen. But it still doesn’t seem to know how to handle a non-state terrorist network. Shucks, the U.S. still can’t recruit anywhere near enough Arabic speakers to handle translation of key documents, let alone people who can move without arousing suspicion in a Muslim country or piece of backcountry.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).