Stephen Hayes, Call Your Editor

A relative no-name before the Iraq war, self-styled investigative journalist Stephen F. Hayes has made quite a career for himself peddling war lies for his neocon publishing boss Bill Kristol. But now, with the death and autopsy of al-Qaeda strawman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, he’s having to live down a real whopper.

Hayes, writing with the confidence and certainty of a Gospel author, has maintained that Zarqawi was severely injured by U.S. forces while fighting with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11, whereupon he hobbled all the way to Baghdad for emergency medical treatment. After an “elite” hospital there amputated his leg, Hayes has asserted that Zarqawi was fitted with a prosthetic limb and was allowed to stay and recuperate in Baghdad as a VIP guest of Saddam Hussein’s regime for months.

This has been his and the administration’s Exhibit A evidence of a link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell all cited it in speeches and interviews in the run-up to the war. It was red meat for neocons, and Hayes wolfed it down, even adding highly suspect details and embellishments leaked to him from Doug Feith’s bin of secondhand defector rumors and hearsay that even the cavalier Bush officials wouldn’t dare touch. Hayes thought details would make the claim sound more credible. Much to his chagrin, they just made it more outlandish.

Now, with Zarqawi’s corpse on ice, even the Kool-Aid crowd can see the claim is demonstrably – and risibly – untrue. Alleged peg-leg Zarqawi had all his limbs. He had them in 2002 when he was allegedly hospitalized. And he had them last week, even after 500-pound bombs fell on him.

Yet the ever-gullible Hayes isn’t backing off the fable – or the Kool-Aid.

First, turn to page 167 of his book, The Connection: How al-Qaeda’s Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America, which was published by HarperCollins, which is the sister company of Hayes’ employer, The Weekly Standard. There, Hayes asserts:

“After evacuating an al-Qaeda training camp he ran in Afghanistan as U.S. troops approached, Ansar al-Islam founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi eventually had his leg amputated and replaced with a prosthesis around late May 2002. He was treated in Baghdad’s Olympic Hospital, an elite facility whose director was the late Uday Hussein, son of the deposed tyrant.”

Since the release of his book in June 2004, Hayes has had plenty of chances to correct the record. He has written regularly as a “senior writer” for the Standard, and has made appearances on MSNBC’s Hardball, NBC’s Meet the Press, and various CNN programs.

Yet he apparently stands by his lies, even as Powell has recanted his own about Zarqawi. Hayes failed to revisit his claims in April, even as a video clearly showed Zarqawi walking without a limp.

He turned a blind eye to inconvenient facts before his book came out, too. He and his editor knew better. In March 2004, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) cast doubt on reports that Zarqawi had a leg amputated in 2002 in Baghdad. And if he was in Baghdad at the time, the agency suspects he may have been there unknown to Saddam. The CIA was even more skeptical in a reassessment of prewar intelligence published in August 2004. The 1,500-page report questioned whether Zarqawi got medical treatment of any kind in Baghdad. It also questioned whether Saddam’s regime ever harbored him. Even if it had, Zarqawi wasn’t a member of al-Qaeda before the war. He didn’t swear bayat, or allegiance, to Osama bin Laden until after Bush invaded Iraq, in October 2004. So much for the prewar al-Qaeda link.

In April 2004, still two months before Hayes’ book debuted, CNN quoted senior U.S. officials saying tales of Zarqawi’s amputated leg were greatly exaggerated. The DIA investigation, coupled with interviews with some of Zarqawi’s supporters in custody, put an end to the myth. “Although the administration pointed to Iraq’s medical assistance to al-Zarqawi as evidence of a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime, it’s now believed that al-Zarqawi still has both legs,” said. Hayes and his publisher ignored this report as well.

What does Hayes say now that Zarqawi’s body has turned up intact? Writing breathlessly in the current Weekly Standard about the Zarqawi killing (“Their Man in Baghdad: What Zarqawi – and al-Qaeda – Were Up to Before the Iraq War”), he scolds other journalists for not believing the lies he continues to believe. “Many journalists either don’t know or choose not to report the fact that Zarqawi was in Baghdad with two dozen al-Qaeda associates nearly a year before the war,” he claims without any sourcing. (His book is similarly bereft of citations or documentation. It contains no footnotes; in fact, it doesn’t even contain an index.)

But curiously, Hayes backs away from his earlier story about Zarqawi having his leg amputated in a Baghdad hospital. Now he merely claims he received “medical treatment” there, while couching that vague assertion by quoting from Gen. Tommy Franks’ new book. Only, Franks is not exactly a reliable source. The general also claims that no one knew if bin Laden was in Tora Bora in December 2001 when he decided to use Afghans instead of U.S. troops to hunt for him, enabling bin Laden and hundreds of other members of al-Qaeda to melt away and fight another day. Several CIA and military officials now dispute Franks’ claim. They say they knew bin Laden was there, and Franks denied their requests for boots on the ground.

In his 224-page book, Hayes leaves no Saddam conspiracy dot unconnected. He echoes neocon fruitcake Laurie Mylroie in finding links between Iraq and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (Mylroie’s wild-eyed conspiracy book is one of only two cited by Hayes in his). He also argues what everyone save Dick Cheney now believes to be rubbish – that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague.

In a way, you have to feel sorry for a hack like Hayes. His book, a collection of scraps swept up from the Office of Special Plan’s cutting room floor, is reducing to such thin gruel that even Sean “Hand Job” Hannity won’t be able to cite it for very long. It’s poetic justice that Hayes is doomed to spend the rest of his career having to defend it, along with his reputation as a “journalist.”