WASHINGTON In a direct challenge to recent assertions by both President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the special bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against New York and the Pentagon has found “no credible evidence” of any operational link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
While the commission, which has had access to highly classified U.S. intelligence, said that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had sought contacts with and support from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after his expulsion from Sudan in 1994, those appeals were ignored.
Contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda after bin Laden moved to Afghanistan “do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship,” according to the commission’s report, which was released Wednesday morning. It added that two senior al-Qaeda officials now in U.S. custody “have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al-Qaeda and Iraq.”
The report is the first of a series expected to be released over the coming months as the commission winds up its work.
Most of it deals with al-Qaeda’s evolution beginning in the 1980s. Echoing the administration, it warns that “al-Qaeda is actively striving to attack the United States and inflict mass casualties.”
Its conclusion about the absence of any operational link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein not only further undermines the administration’s case for going to war against Iraq, but also deals a sharp blow to the already-strained credibility of Cheney, who Monday asserted without elaboration during a speech to a right-wing institute in Florida that the Iraqi leader had “long-established ties” to the group.
Cheney insisted as recently as last January that Washington had obtained “conclusive” evidence that Hussein had biological weapons in the form of two customized truck trailers that he said was for their production.
The claim, which he has not repeated since, was discredited by, among others, outgoing Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet, as well as the head of the U.S. task force in charge of searching for alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in Iraq, David Kay.
Asked about Cheney’s most recent remarks at a Tuesday press conference, Bush declined to answer directly, insisting instead that Hussein had ties with “terrorist organizations,” of which he cited only the late Abu Nidal, a Palestinian who split from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the 1970s and created his own terrorist group.
Bush also suggested that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who is identified by U.S. officials as a leader of resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, might also have had ties to Hussein and al-Qaeda.
“Zarqawi is the best evidence of (Hussein’s) connection to al-Qaeda affiliates and al-Qaeda,” Bush said. “He’s the person who’s still killing.”
The commission’s conclusion on the absence of ties between Hussein and al-Qaeda is also certain to further discredit the so-called neoconservatives both inside and outside the administration who led the march to war. Many of them were behind what appeared to be an orchestrated campaign to implicate Hussein in the 9/11 attacks themselves.
Within the administration, the principals appear to have included Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney and his national security adviser, I. Lewis Libby, among others in key posts in the National Security Council (NSC) and the State Department.
Outside the administration, key figures included close friends of both Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, including Richard Perle, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief James Woolsey both members of Rumsfeld’s Defence Policy Board (DPB); Frank Gaffney, head of the arms-industry-funded Centre for Security Policy; and William Kristol, editor of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard and chairman of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), among others.
A close examination of the public record indicates that all of these individuals were actively preparing the ground within days, even hours, after the 9/11 attacks for an eventual strike on Iraq, whether or not it had any role in the attacks or any connection to al-Qaeda.
A hint of a deliberate campaign to connect Iraq with 9/11 and al-Qaeda surfaced one year ago in a televised interview of General Wesley Clark on the popular public-affairs program, Meet the Press. In answer to a question, Clark asserted, “there was a concerted effort during the fall of 2001, starting immediately after 9/11, to pin 9/11 and the terrorism problem on Saddam Hussein.”
“It came from the White House, it came from other people around the White House. It came from all over. I got a call on 9/11. I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, ‘you got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein.'”
While Clark has not yet identified who called him, Perle, Woolsey, Gaffney and Kristol were using the same language in their media appearances on 9/11 and over the following weeks.
“This could not have been done without help of one or more governments,” Perle told The Washington Post on Sept. 11. “Someone taught these suicide bombers how to fly large airplanes. I don’t think that can be done without the assistance of large governments.”
While Kristol and company were trying to implicate Hussein in the public debate, their friends in the administration were pushing hard in the same direction. Cheney, according to published accounts, had already confided to friends before Sept. 11 that he hoped the Bush administration would remove Hussein from power.
But the evidence about Rumsfeld is even more dramatic. According to an account by veteran CBS newsman David Martin in September 2002, Rumsfeld was “telling his aides to start thinking about striking Iraq, even though there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks” five hours after an American Airlines jet slammed into the Pentagon.
Martin attributed his account in part to notes taken at the time by a Rumsfeld aide. They quote the defense chief asking for the “best info fast” to “judge whether good enough to hit SH (Saddam Hussein) at the same time, not only UBL (Usama bin Laden). The administration should “go massive … sweep it all up, things related and not,” the notes quote Rumsfeld as saying.
Wolfowitz shared those views, according to an account of the meeting Sept. 15-16 of the administration’s war council at Camp David, provided by the Post‘s Bill Woodward and Dan Balz. In the “I-was-there” style for which Woodward, whose access to powerful officials since his investigative role in the Watergate scandal almost 30 years ago is unmatched, is famous:
“Wolfowitz argued (at the meeting) that the real source of all the trouble and terrorism was probably Hussein. The terrorist attacks of Sep. 11 created an opportunity to strike. Now, Rumsfeld asked again: ‘Is this the time to attack Iraq?'”
“Powell objected,” the Woodward and Balz account continued, citing Secretary of State Colin Powell’s argument that U.S. allies would not support a strike on Iraq. “If you get something pinning Sep. 11 on Iraq, great,” Powell is quoted as saying. “But let’s get Afghanistan now. If we do that, we will have increased our ability to go after Iraq if we can prove Iraq had a role.”
Despite the secretary of state’s reservations, the neocon campaign was remarkably successful. As recently as eight weeks ago, a survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found that 57 percent of the U.S. public believed Iraq was either “directly involved” in carrying out the 9/11 attacks or had provided “substantial support” to al-Qaeda. Fifty-two percent said they believed that concrete evidence of a Hussein-al-Qaeda link had been uncovered by U.S. investigators since the war.
Retired senior U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials have long doubted any operational link between al-Qaeda and Hussein, as noted by former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman, who signed a statement by former top-ranking diplomats and military officials that was released here Tuesday, denouncing U.S. policy in Iraq and the Middle East.
“(Hussein) and Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were mortal enemies during this period,” Freeman told reporters, adding that administration assertions that the two had such links before the war were regarded by specialists in the region as “ludicrous.”
“Why the vice president continues to make that claim beats me,” said another former top diplomat, Ambassador Robert Oakley. “I have no idea.”