We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”–President George W. Bush, September 20, 2001
Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime indisputably harbored terrorists and supported terrorism. Under the Bush Doctrine that won resounding bipartisan assent in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and that remains as worthy today as it was back then, that should have been more than enough to justify deposing Saddam, even if there had not been ample evidence of–and decisive consensus about–his intentions and wherewithal regarding weapons of mass destruction.
DROPPED LINK: PIGHEADED SILENCE
Yet, although there should be few, if any, matters more important to national security than boring into the linkage between Iraq and militant Islamic terror, the very idea of linkage has been discredited. Thanks to a withering campaign waged by ideological opponents of U.S. military operations against Iraq–led by the mainstream media, partisans such as former Clinton counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, and disgruntled factions of the so-called intelligence community whose anonymous carping to sympathetic journalists has now reached a fever pitch–conventional wisdom now holds that secular Saddam could not conceivably have collaborated with Osama bin Laden’s jihadist network.
It is, however, pigheaded blindness masquerading as wisdom. There are abundant strands of connection. It is, moreover, breathtakingly irresponsible for the press generally, and for an intelligence community purportedly dedicated to securing America from further attacks, to be ignoring or dismissing countless salient questions, rather than moving heaven and earth to answer them. There is good reason to think we have convicted several terrorists in this country on less proof than already exists regarding Saddam’s Iraq. What’s more, these linkage questions are not going away.
That is largely because some praiseworthy journalism is not going to let them. Most significant is the assiduous detective work of The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, who has been investigating and writing about the links for months. Hayes’s new book, The Connection, is being released today. It comprehensively lays out a mosaic of operational ties, and questions that Americans, far from brushing aside, should be demanding answers to. Further, the Wall Street Journal is on the case with vital new information, as are other investigative journalists such as Edward Jay Epstein. The issues they are raising may ultimately shape the legacy of the Iraq war, illustrating, in a way the Bush administration has abysmally failed to, that overthrowing Saddam’s regime was a logical and worthy progression in the war against militant Islam.
THE ATTA CONNECTION
Of the utmost urgency are indications, continuing to emerge, that Iraq forged operational ties with al Qaeda, sought to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States, and may in fact have had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. The focus of this evidence is the Iraqi Intelligence Service and its apparent ties with not one but at least three leaders of the suicide hijacking plot: Mohammed Atta, Khalid al-Midhar, and Nawaf al-Hazmi.
The Atta connection has been downplayed for months by the mainstream media, which has used a simple tactic, found on page one of the defense-lawyer playbook, that has repeatedly served the Iraq/Qaeda naysayers: viz., cull from an entire subject of investigation one isolated piece of equivocal evidence, suggest that this piece is representative of the entire subject, and thus debunk the subject just because the piece is not a 100-percent lock. Of course, if this facile method of determining truth were followed in law enforcement or intelligence circles, most crime would never be solved and most threats would never be identified. Happily, that is not the case, but the approach, regrettably, plays effectively in the bumper-sticker-talking-points worlds of television news and ideology-driven “reporting.”
In the instant case, the subject is whether Mohammed Atta had terrorist ties to the Iraqi regime, and the isolated piece of evidence concerns the narrow question whether Atta actually had a meeting in Prague on April 8, 2001 (i.e., a mere five months before the 9/11 attacks), with an Iraqi intelligence officer named Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. As recently as last week, Newsweek–in its gleeful piece about Ahmed Chalabi’s seeming fall from grace (presented, naturally, as a straight news story)–summarily pronounced that although Chalabi had “hyped a story, often cited by the neocons, about” the secret Prague meeting, “[a]fter months of investigation, the CIA and FBI determined that the meeting had never taken place.”
Not so fast. First of all, much as Newsweek would clearly like it to be the case, Chalabi is not remotely the source of information about Atta’s alarming activities in Prague. More to the point, the CIA and FBI have not concluded that the meeting did not take place. Far from it. Indeed, the most that can be said is that (a) they are unable to say with certainty that the meeting happened, and (b) because they have some hotel and banking records showing that Atta was in the U.S. during parts of April 2001, but have unearthed no records showing Atta traveled overseas during that time frame, some investigators infer that the meeting probably did not happen.
In point of fact, however, there is a powerful circumstantial case–which has grown only stronger–that the meeting not only did happen but must have involved anti-American terrorism. Further, the agencies cannot account for Atta’s whereabouts day-by-day. Not only would they have to be able to do this to disprove the meeting, but the holes in their reconstruction of Atta’s movements actually bolster the likelihood that he journeyed to Prague at the critical time. Substantial credit for our knowledge of all this must go to Edward Jay Epstein, who has closely followed the investigation since its inception.
A little background. The skepticism about the Prague meeting owes to some misunderstandings and some energetic efforts to cast doubt on it. The commonly accepted version of events is this: a witness on the outskirts of Prague happened to see al-Ani, the Iraqi agent, meeting with a young Arabic-looking male on April 8, 2001; the thin reed for claiming this Arabic male and Atta are one and the same is this witness, whose identification, made only after Atta’s picture became a staple of sensational news coverage after 9/11, is thus highly suspect; the Czechs, so the story goes, came ultimately to doubt the veracity of the identification; the witness recanted it; and finally, according to James Risen of the New York Times (which, of course, is obsessively opposed to American military action in Iraq), Czech President Vaclav Havel called President Bush to inform the U.S. that, on further consideration, the meeting had not happened. But there is far more to the story, the Czechs have not walked away from the identification, the witness has not recanted, and Havel’s spokesman has expressly stated that the Times reporting was “a fabrication.” (See Epstein’s report here.)
To begin with, by April 2001, the Czechs had profound reason to be worried about al-Ani and any Arabs he might meet with (more on that momentarily). The Czech Republic, though, does not have the vast resources of the U.S. government; it is not as feasible for the Czechs to commit the numerous police it would take to do round-the-clock surveillance on most investigative subjects. Thus, they take the more economical step of employing “watchers”–civilians stationed at obvious places like restaurants and hotels–who make observations and report them to government handlers. It was one of these watchers who observed al-Ani’s meeting with the young Arabic male on April 8, 2001.
Experts and defense counsel will tell you that eyewitness-identification evidence is notoriously suspect. And they have a point if we are talking about, say, a lay witness who has the misfortune of being at a bank when it is robbed and gets a fleeting glimpse of the robber he is then asked to identify weeks or months later. As any experienced investigator will counter, however, there is a vast difference between the reliability of an untrained layperson in such circumstances and that of an agent or covert operative whose very job is to make and retain observations. In this instance, the “watcher” is far more analogous to a government agent than an untrained lay person, and thus the identification would be entitled to far more weight even if there weren’t abundant other reasons to believe the Arabic male was Atta.
But there are. As Epstein has recently reported, Czech intelligence ultimately conducted a surreptitious search at the Iraqi embassy that turned up al-Ani’s appointment calendar. It indicated that the person he had a scheduled meeting with on that day was a “Hamburg student.” As is by now well known, Atta led al Qaeda’s Hamburg cell in Germany, and he was for a time enrolled as a student at Hamburg-Harburg Technical University. Significantly, moreover, it turns out that Atta had prior contacts with the Czech Republic, and had in 2000–right as he was about to head to the U.S. to execute the 9/11 plot–obtained a Czech visa, on the application for which he identified himself as a “Hamburg student.”
Furthermore, the U.S. cannot account for Atta’s whereabouts on April 8, 2001. What is known, Epstein reports, is that on April 4, 2001, Atta checked out of the Diplomat Inn in Virginia Beach. He was not seen again by any American witness for a week. In addition, whatever he was doing at that point–like, say, traveling overseas–must have required funding because, on April 4, he cashed a check for $8,000 from a SunTrust account, according to the FBI. Access to cash, of course, would make travel expenditures less traceable.
On that score, contrary to what one would glean from the Newsweek and Times accounts, Epstein reports that as recently as February 24, 2004, CIA Director George Tenet acknowledged in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the CIA had not discounted the Prague meeting. That concession echoes Tenet’s testimony on June 18, 2002, during which, regarding the Prague meeting, he stated that it was “possible that Atta traveled under an unknown alias since we have been unable to establish that Atta left the US or entered Europe in April 2001 under his true name or any known aliases.” In the interim, as Epstein notes, we now know not only of the “Hamburg student” entry in al-Ani’s calendar but also of the investigation by Spanish intelligence, which determined that both Atta and Ramzi bin al-Shibh (his al Qaeda Hamburg-cell associate) acquired false passports from a pair of Algerians named Khaled Madani and Moussa Laoua. And, it must be observed, nothing says these were the cell’s only sources for phony travel documents.
Remember now: We are talking about national security, which involves protecting American lives; we are not talking about building a criminal indictment so to bring the dear departed Saddam regime and Atta to court. Even if there were absolutely no other evidence of the Prague meeting than the Czech eyewitness identification corroborated by the appointment calendar, the inability to account for Atta’s whereabouts on April 8, and the means he appears to have had to travel, that would be reason enough, for national-security purposes, to assume an Iraqi tie to Atta. This is a critical point, crossing into the worldview of counterterrorism Clinton-style–i.e., the so-called “law enforcement approach” to terrorism that Senator Kerry has suggested he would revive if he were elected, and that, maddeningly, remains the sclerotic mindset in swaths of our intelligence community.
In the criminal-justice system, when we are investigating even serious crimes that vex the body politic but that do not realistically threaten national security, it is all well and good to presume innocence and not take enforcement action until a particular quantum of criminal evidence has been amassed–”probable cause” for an arrest or search, “beyond a reasonable doubt” for conviction at trial. National security is vitally different. It is not about securing convictions but rather the survival of the system–the country–itself. It cannot afford to wait to take preventive action, or make assumptions about innocence, until evidence needed to convict in court has been amassed.
If we are to be meaningfully protected, once enough evidence has emerged to give ground for rational concern, we need to assume guilt until we are satisfied otherwise. In this instance, for over a dozen years up until Saddam’s overthrow, Iraq was our enemy (and, to be sure, still is in some quadrants). If there is a colorable chance that it collaborated with Mohammed Atta, it is recklessly irresponsible to ignore that possibility until surer evidence develops; the duty of those charged with protecting national security is to get to the bottom of it, and not rest until they have done so.
But even if we leave that aside and put our law-enforcement hats back on, there is considerable other evidence that Atta, an important member of al Qaeda, had operational ties to Saddam’s regime, ties that mortally imperiled American interests. These trace back to 2000–at the very time Atta was about to enter the U.S. for the fateful 9/11 plan–and dovetail with a then-ongoing plot to bomb a distinctly American target: Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Prague.
As Epstein, upon meeting with Czech intelligence officials, reported in Slate in late 2003, al-Ani was not the only Iraqi intelligence operative in Prague to have been the cause of enormous U.S. concern. There was also his predecessor at the Iraq embassy, Jabir Salim. Salim defected at the end of 1998, and is said to have provided information to the Czechs and British intelligence that Saddam’s regime supplied him with $150,000 to support a plot to bomb RFE. Salim’s task was to recruit Islamic militants to carry out the attack–a sensible plan if Saddam did not want the attack traced to him, since segments of the American intelligence community, we have seen, could be relied on to cast knee-jerk doubt on the notion that secular Baathists and religiously motivated terrorists would ever conspire together.
CLARKE’S FANTASY WORLD
Such a plot would expose the fantasy world inhabited by Richard Clarke, in which it is said that, after the attempt to murder President George H. W. Bush in Kuwait in 1993, so intimidated was Saddam by President Clinton’s forceful response that he stopped taking aggressive action against the U.S. Of course, Clinton’s response was not at all forceful–a feckless strike on a Baghdad building that housed Iraq’s intelligence service but was intentionally hit while it was relatively empty. Clarke, further, has never quite gotten around to explaining how it was that the purportedly chastened Saddam continued for years after 1993 shooting at U.S. and British planes in the no-fly zone, gaming and finally expelling U.N. weapons inspectors from his country, and, as recent federal prosecutions indicate, stationing his intelligence operatives inside the U.S. to threaten Iraqi defectors. Those oversights, however, would pale next to a plot to destroy RFE circa 1998-2000–i.e.
, the very time when Clarke served as counter-terrorism czar.
To be sure, that is an unfair dig unless there really was, at the time, an RFE plot. But not only was there one, it was well-known to U.S. intelligence. U.S. knowledge is plain from the State Department’s report, “Global Patterns of Terrorism 2000.” Immediately after somewhat misleadingly asserting, as Clarke frequently does, that Saddam’s regime had “not attempted an anti-Western terrorist attack since its failed plot to assassinate former President Bush in 1993 in Kuwait” (italics mine), the report goes on sketchily to note what the intelligence community believed Saddam was conspiring to do:
Czech police continued to provide protection to the Prague office of the US Government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which produces Radio Free Iraq programs and employs expatriate journalists. The police presence was augmented in 1999, following reports that the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) might retaliate against RFE/RL for broadcasts critical of the Iraqi regime.
Thanks to Epstein, we now know much more about those “reports.” Salim’s information about Saddam’s plans caused the Czechs and the U.S. to want al-Ani closely watched when he came to Prague as Salim’s replacement in 1999. Al-Ani, it turned out, only exacerbated these fears: The Czech intelligence coordinator told Epstein that al-Ani was observed photographing RFE headquarters. Given that, and knowing that Salim’s instructions had been to recruit an Islamic militant, the Czechs would obviously have been deeply concerned about any meeting between al-Ani and an Arabic male. It is thus no surprise that watchers would have been assigned, and no coincidence that a report of such a meeting, on April 8, 2001, would generate such interest. That interest turned to full-blown anxiety because the Czechs quickly lost track of this Arabic male (which would make sense if the male was Atta, since we know he was in the U.S. as of April 11). Consequently, the Czechs did at least three things: they informed their counterparts in the American intelligence community, they stepped up surveillance to protect RFE headquarters in Prague (as the State Department report observes), and, within two weeks of the April 8 meeting, they expelled al-Ani.
Okay, so granted: We understood Saddam was willing to conspire with militants to blow up an American target; we were manifestly worried about al-Ani meeting with Arab males who might be terrorists; and al-Ani met with an Arabic male whom a presumptively reliable witness has identified as Atta, under circumstances where al-Ani was evidently planning to meet on April 8 with a “Hamburg student,” which Atta was. Not bad, but can we really be sure it was Atta? And even if it was, how can we be sure it wasn’t just one of those chance encounters between an Iraqi intelligence officer looking to strike an American target and an al Qaeda terrorist hoping to destroy the World Trade Center.
Maybe we can know it because it wasn’t the first time. That’s right: Atta and al-Ani had almost certainly met before, and, not surprisingly, under highly suspicious circumstances. It is incontestable that Atta made at least two trips to Prague immediately before relocating to the U.S. to carry out the 9/11 plot. On May 26, 2000, he applied in Bonn for a visa to travel to the Czech Republic. This necessarily means he had business there; if he had merely sought to change planes in a Czech airport en route to some other country, he could have done so without a visa.
It also appears his business there was urgent and needed to be conducted on May 30, 2000. Why? Atta was told in Bonn that his visa to enter the Czech Republic would not be ready until May 31, but he went anyway. That is, he flew from Germany to the Prague International Airport on May 30, where, as Epstein reports, he would not have been permitted to go beyond the transit lounge. Six hours after arriving, he flew back to Germany. Did he visit with the Iraqi intelligence operative, al-Ani? Well, no one reported seeing him do so, but he was obviously there to conduct business so important it could not wait even until the next day. And he clearly did not want to be observed conducting that business: although all but a small area of the transit lounge was under video surveillance, Atta somehow managed to elude the cameras for all but a few minutes of his stay–indicating that he was either remarkably lucky or he was meeting with someone who knew the weaknesses in the surveillance system.
Nor is that all. Atta returned to Prague, by bus, only three days later, on June 2, 2000. This time, the visa having been issued, he was permitted to enter the country. His whereabouts for about twenty hours in the Czech Republic are unknown. What is known, though, is that at the end of that time he flew from Prague to the United States. In addition, as Epstein reports, it was shortly after Atta entered the U.S. that large amounts of laundered funds began flowing to the 9/11 conspiracy.
What is going on here? Is it possible that al-Ani and Atta were meeting in 2000 and 2001 about the 9/11 plot? Is it possible that al-Ani, knowing that the RFE plot had undoubtedly been compromised by his defector-predecessor, Salim, was brazenly photographing RFE headquarters as a ruse to make the U.S. think RFE was the real target? Is it possible that Saddam was not only in the 9/11 plot but in it as early as May 2000?
Probably not–but only because I’d put the time at least five months earlier. That brings us to Atta’s fellow hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar, and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who piloted Flight 77 into the Pentagon on the morning of September 11. Their mission, it turns out, was the culmination of planning that had begun half a world away in January 2000.
HANGING AROUND THE HANGAR
Specifically, as the 9/11 Commission staff has reported
, in late December 1999, the U.S. learned through signals intelligence that two likely Qaeda operatives–”Nawaf,” who was in Pakistan, and “Khalid,” who was in Yemen–were making plans to meet in Malaysia after departing from their respective destinations on January 2. Concerned, CIA sprung into action, such that by the time they arrived at Kuala Lampur’s international airport on January 5, Khalid had already been identified as al-Midhar and his Saudi passport, showing a visa permitting entry into the U.S., had already been photocopied (although a series of missteps had resulted in the failure to identify Nawaf as al-Hazmi and to learn that he, too, had a visa to enter the U.S.–issued in Jeddah at the same time as al-Midhar’s). CIA headquarters notified officials that same day of the “need to continue the effort to identify these travelers and their activities…to determine if there is any true threat posed.”
The commission’s report does not discuss what happened at the airport. That, though, has been extensively investigated and recounted for months by The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes (See “Dick Cheney Was Right“), coverage that has culminated this week in both the publication of his book on Iraq/Qaeda links and some new reporting. The two eventual hijackers were in fact met by a Malaysian Airlines “greeter”–a functionary whose job is to “[meet] VIPs upon arrival and accompan[y] them through the sometimes onerous procedures of foreign travel.” This greeter turned out to be a highly unusual one. For starters, he was not Malaysian; he was an Iraqi named Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. Moreover, he got the job in August 1999 not through Malaysian Airlines but through the intercession of the Iraqi embassy, which had him start that autumn and which controlled his work schedule. Coincidence? I don’t think so. As both Hayes and the Wall Street Journal have recently reported, the Defense Department has acknowledged recovering, since toppling Saddam, at least three rosters of his elite paramilitary force, the Fedayeen. These have now been authenticated and translated, and they identify a Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed Hikmat Shakir.
Although a greeter’s job is generally concluded once the passengers have been cleared through Customs to enter the country, Shakir turns out to have been especially accommodating to al-Midhar and al-Hazmi. As Hayes reports, he not only saw them through the airport but further jumped into their car and accompanied them to the Kuala Lampur Hotel. The extent of Shakir’s participation in what went on thereafter is unknown. What is known, however, is that other attendees at this crucial confab included Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Tawfiq bin Atash (aka “Khallad”). The aforementioned bin al-Shibh was, of course, the fellow Hamburg cell and 9/11 confederate of none other than Mohammed Atta. Atash is the reputed architect of the October 2000 bombing in Yemen of the U.S.S. Cole (which killed 17 U.S. sailors).
The timing of the Kuala Lampur meeting, and the presence of Atash and bin al-Shibh together with two of the 9/11 hijackers and, apparently, an officer of Saddam’s Fedayeen are significant. The Cole attack was not the first effort to bomb an American destroyer docked in Yemen; that had actually occurred on January 2, 2000, (just three days before this Malaysia conference) against the U.S.S. The Sullivans. On that prior attempt, the attack boat had sunk from the weight of the explosives, but most of the weaponry was recovered, so as Atash traveled from Yemen to Kuala Lampur that week to meet with the eventual hijackers, he knew there had just been a near-miss (like several other al Qaeda near misses during that Millennium timeframe), but that there would be another attempt to attack a vessel in the near future. Furthermore, Atash and bin al-Shibh are believed to have teamed up on other terror initiatives, including an unsuccessful scheme to sink U.S. and British ships in the Strait of Gibraltar. To put it mildly, this is interesting company indeed for Shakir to have kept.
After meeting in Malaysia for a few days, on January 8, al-Midhar and al-Hazmi traveled to Bangkok together with Atash. They were there for a week, during which, the 9/11 Commission Staff reports, Atash received funds from al Qaeda sources, some of which were given to al-Midhar and al-Hazmi, who then flew to Los Angeles on January 15 to begin their in-country 9/11 preparations. Meanwhile, Hayes recounts that after the Malaysia meeting, Shakir showed up for work at the airport for two days (January 9 and 10) and then never again. Evidently, whatever the purpose of his posting there by Iraq was, it had been accomplished.
If that alone were the end of the Shakir story, it would be more than enough to raise deep suspicions. Indeed, is there a judge in America who would not have issued a warrant for Shakir’s arrest post-9/11 on just the information heretofore described? But that’s not all there is. Not by a long shot.
As Hayes has detailed, Shakir in fact was arrested just six days after the 9/11 attacks–not in the U.S. but in Qatar, where he happened somehow to have gotten a government job (in Qatar’s ministry of religious development). Shakir, it seems, was of interest not only because of Kuala Lampur but because of telephone records tying him to a New Jersey location used in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. His arrest produced a trove of intelligence, including his possession of contact information for: Zahid Sheikh Mohammed and Ammar al Baluchi, respectively the brother and nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; Ibrahim Suleiman, a Kuwaiti whose fingerprints were found on bomb-making manuals during the 1993 WTC investigation; and Musab Yasin, a fugitive suspected of the 1993 WTC bombing, who fled to Baghdad where he was harbored and given financial support by Saddam’s regime (and whose brother, Abdul Rahman Yasin, was actually convicted for the bombing).
Shakir also had contact information for an outfit called “Taba Investments.” Taba is a well-known al Qaeda front for another Iraqi named Mahmdouh Mahmud Salim (a.k.a. Abu Hajer al Iraqi). Salim, one of the formative figures of al Qaeda and among Osama bin Laden’s closest advisers, was actually in a federal prison in the U.S. by the time Shakir was arrested. He had been indicted for the 1998 embassy bombings. He hadn’t, however, been tried with his co-defendants because he had complicated matters by plunging a shiv through the eye of a prison guard (who survived but suffered brain damage) during an escape attempt. Last month, Salim was sentenced to 32 years’ imprisonment for maiming the corrections officer.
Despite all this information, the Qatari government opted to release Shakir. He tried to flee to Iraq, but was intercepted in Jordan. There he was held for three months without charge (naturally, prompting shrieks from Amnesty International). Hayes reports that the Jordanians permitted Shakir to be interviewed during that time by the CIA, which concluded that he was well-schooled in counter-interrogation techniques. After intense pressure from Saddam’s regime, Shakir was finally released in late January 2002. The motivation for letting him go, according to Hayes, was Jordanians’ belief–as to which, it is said, they convinced the CIA–that Shakir might be used as a double-agent against Iraq (a strange calculation given that he had evidently been uncooperative during lengthy interrogation). In any event, Shakir is believed to have returned immediately to Baghdad; his current whereabouts are unknown.
Could there be satisfactory, exculpatory explanations here? Sure. Mohammed Atta may never have met an Iraqi intelligence officer–perhaps he made those furtive mid-2000 trips to Prague, in the middle of preparing to enter America for the 9/11 plot, in order to meet someone else besides an Iraqi agent caught up in an apparent conspiracy to blow up an American target; perhaps, the watcher who saw him meet al-Ani on April 8, 2001–during the time when no other witness can account for Atta’s whereabouts–is mistaken, and poor al-Ani should never have been expelled by the Czechs, and the State Department should never have talked about Iraq potentially plotting to bomb RFE in its 2000 report.
Maybe the Ahmed Hikmat Shakir who the CIA thought had counter-interrogation training and who Saddam’s regime was anxious to bring home from post-9/11 captivity in Jordan is not the person of the same name who just happens to have been a high-ranking Fedayeen officer. And even if he is the same person, maybe he’s just one of those friendly Fedayeens who happened to like militants–keeping up contacts with the very highest levels of al Qaeda, offering rides to secret meetings in the midst of multiple terrorist plots, and quitting the country once the militants left town.
MAKING THE CASE
Maybe all of this is just one big misunderstanding. But should we really be doing contortions to see it that way? Just on the basis of what is known about the RFE conspiracy, is it responsible for the media or current and former public officials to be publicly announcing with certainty that Saddam had nothing to do with anti-American terrorism? I don’t pretend to have the answers, but it sure looks to me like Saddam was in cahoots with al Qaeda and that his regime may well have rendered assistance–probably very substantial assistance–to the 9/11 plot. Is there a better explanation than that for Prague and for Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, especially taken together? And if not, what more responsible thing could President Bush possibly have done than taken the war that had been declared against us straight to the Butcher of Baghdad?
This last is the most curious question of all. Plainly, there is a case to be made that Saddam was, at the very least, an aider and abettor of a militant Islamic terror network with which we have been at war for over two years. If he was, then that was at least as good a rationale as fears about WMD for toppling him militarily. Why, then, has the administration, besieged by peals of thunderous criticism about the Iraq venture, failed to make the case?
It is hard to say. It could be that the country’s fervor for the summoning rhetoric of the Bush Doctrine is not matched by true conviction about what it literally commands. Iraq is hardly the only state sponsor of terrorism–Iran and Syria come instantly to mind, and the jury is still out on whether the Saudis (who say all the right things and fund all the wrong things) are friends or foes. The administration must thus ask: Do we really want to posit that evidence of terror ties is sufficient cause for us to launch military operations? Plainly, it is a far easier thing to heed the Bush Doctrine as a matter of hortatory aspiration than to execute it–which would involve explaining to an already weary country, through the din of an anti-war press, that Iraq is far from the last stop on the long march. Yet, when the case for war is argued as a “links with al Qaeda” test, it immediately implicates uncomfortable matters of policy: What’s the principled reason for not having invaded Iran? Do we have a sufficiently robust military to execute the Bush Doctrine? Do we have the budget to carry it out? Do we have the will?
Another factor, palpably, is national mindset. Much of the government and the media continue to think of terrorism as a criminal-justice issue. The evidence outlined above raises grave concerns, but if courtroom standards are to be applied and the defendant, Iraq, is presumed innocent, our mission too readily slips into a need to tighten up the proof, rather than an imperative to act despite many questions unanswered (and some perhaps unanswerable). It is all well and good to say that national security cannot wait for proof beyond a reasonable doubt (just as it is all well and good to announce the Bush Doctrine); but it is quite another thing to arouse the political will toward urgent action as time passes without a domestic attack, as we get more distant from 9/11 and its fervor, and as the strands connecting state sponsors to terrorism–no matter how real they may be–come to be seen as too attenuated to warrant a massive military response. Showing a hostile regime may have profound links to terror simply does not have the visceral immediacy of showing it may have access to weapons of mass destruction.
When a country has treated terrorism like ordinary crime for decades, military action based on apparent but murky ties to terror–especially long after the fact–seems disproportionate. Of course, if we get hit again, there will no doubt be new 9/11 Commissions demanding to know: Whatever happened to the Bush Doctrine?
–Andrew C. McCarthy, a former chief assistant U.S. attorney who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is an NRO contributor.