The publication of the September 11 Commission report may force a reassessment of the now-conventional wisdom about the links–or, as critics of the Bush administration contend, the absence of links–between Iraq and al Qaeda.
After the commission’s last hearing, in mid-June, the Washington Post
published a front-page story headlined “Al Qaeda-Hussein Link is Dismissed
.” The New York Times
ran a page-one story–topped by a four-column headline–called “Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie.” Both reports strongly suggested that Vice President Dick Cheney had been wrong when he said on many occasions that there were extensive links between Iraq and al Qaeda.
The reporting, and the commentary that followed, so angered Cheney that he said, on June 18, “What the New York Times did today was outrageous. The fact of the matter is, the evidence [of an Iraq-al Qaeda link] is overwhelming.” Further coverage and commentary criticized Cheney for stubbornly sticking to his position.
Both the Times and the Post based their reporting on a single paragraph, written by the staff of the September 11 Commission, which conceded a few ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda but said there was no “collaborative relationship” between the two. The findings, revealed in the commission’s last hearing on June 17, were preliminary, and the apparent rush by some in the press to deny any Iraq-al Qaeda relationship left commission vice-chairman Lee Hamilton baffled. “I must say I have trouble understanding the flack over this,” Hamilton told reporters. “The Vice President is saying, I think, that there were connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s government. We don’t disagree with that. So it seems to me the sharp differences that the press has drawn, the media has drawn, are not that apparent to me.”
Now, with the release of the commission’s final report, it is clear what Hamilton and Cheney were talking about. The final report details a much more extensive set of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda than the earlier staff statement. It also modifies the original “no collaborative relationship” description, now saying there was “no collaborative operational relationship” (emphasis added) between Iraq and Al Qaeda. And it suggests a significant amount of contact and communication between the regime of Saddam Hussein and the terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden.
The report describes a time in 1996 when bin Laden, newly arrived in Afghanistan, could not be sure “that the Taliban would be his best bet as an ally.” In 1997, the report says, bin Laden began making his Taliban sponsors nervous with a number of flamboyant and militant statements. At the time it seemed possible that bin Laden, who had gone to Afghanistan after being forced out of Sudan, might find himself at odds with his new hosts. What then? The report says bin Laden appears to have reached out to Saddam Hussein:
There is also evidence that around this time Bin Ladin sent out a number of feelers to the Iraqi regime, offering some cooperation. None are reported to have received a significant response. According to one report, Saddam Hussein’s efforts at this time to rebuild relations with the Saudis and other Middle Eastern regimes led him to stay clear of Bin Ladin.
Since Saddam wasn’t interested, the report says, nothing came of the contacts. But by the next year, Saddam, struggling under increasing pressure from the United States, appeared to have changed his mind, and there were more talks:
In mid-1998, the situation reversed; it was Iraq that reportedly took the initiative. In March 1998, after Bin Ladin’s public fatwa against the United States, two al Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence. In July, an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan to meet first with the Taliban and then with Bin Ladin. Sources reported that one, or perhaps both, of these meetings was apparently arranged through Bin Ladin’s Egyptian deputy, Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis. In 1998, Iraq was under intensifying U.S. pressure, which culminated in a series of large air attacks in December.
The meetings went on, the report says, until Iraq offered to formalize its relationship with al Qaeda:
Similar meetings between Iraqi officials and Bin Ladin or his aides may have occurred in 1999 during a period of some reported strains with the Taliban. According to the reporting, Iraqi officials offered Bin Ladin a safe haven in Iraq. Bin Ladin declined, apparently judging that his circumstances in Afghanistan remained more favorable than the Iraqi alternative. The reports describe friendly contacts and indicate some common themes in both sides’ hatred of the United States.
The report goes on to say that the September 11 investigators found “no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship.” It also says that the commission did not find any “evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”
Nevertheless, top U.S. officials were so worried about the possibility of an Iraq-al Qaeda collaboration that they took care not to provoke bin Laden into a closer relationship with Saddam. In February 1999, for example, the CIA proposed U-2 aerial-surveillance missions over Afghanistan. The report says that Richard Clarke, then the White House counterterrorism chief, worried that the mission might spook bin Laden into leaving Afghanistan for somewhere where it might be even more difficult for American forces to reach him:
Clarke was nervous about such a mission because he continued to fear that Bin Ladin might leave for someplace less accessible. He wrote Deputy National Security Advisor Donald Kerrick that one reliable source reported Bin Ladin’s having met with Iraqi officials, who “may have offered him asylum.” Other intelligence sources said that some Taliban leaders, though not Mullah Omar, had urged Bin Ladin to go to Iraq. If Bin Ladin actually moved to Iraq, wrote Clarke, his network would be at Saddam Hussein’s service, and it would be “virtually impossible” to find him. Better to get Bin Ladin in Afghanistan, Clarke declared.
National-security adviser Sandy Berger suggested that the U.S. send just one U-2 flight, but the report says Clarke worried that even then, Pakistan’s intelligence service would warn bin Laden that the U.S. was preparing for a bombing campaign. “Armed with that knowledge, old wily Usama will likely boogie to Baghdad,” Clarke wrote in a February 11, 1999 e-mail to Berger. The report says that another National Security Council staffer also warned that “Saddam Hussein wanted bin Laden in Baghdad.”
The details found in the report–which in footnotes are attributed to a variety of secret U.S government intelligence documents–suggest a new way of thinking about Iraq and al Qaeda. Bin Laden had been forced out of Sudan and into Afghanistan. When it appeared he might have trouble with the Taliban, he looked to Iraq as a possible source of assistance. Iraq, at the time interested in closer ties with the Saudis, said no. Later, as his troubles with the United States grew, Saddam reconsidered, and offered bin Laden a safe haven in Iraq. This time, bin Laden turned Saddam down, not because of any conflicts with Iraq but because he thought he had a better deal in Afghanistan.
With that background in mind, the reasoning employed by American policymakers in early 2002 as they planned the next step in the war on terrorism, comes into clearer focus. The U.S. had toppled the Taliban but had not caught bin Laden and some of his top aides. Without a friendly regime in Afghanistan to protect al Qaeda, where might bin Laden and his band of terrorists go next? One possibility–a quite reasonable possibility–would be a place that had offered them haven in the past: Iraq.
Almost none of this information was included in the preliminary staff report, and thus was not part of the reporting last month that proclaimed no relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. Because of that absence of information, in late June and early July, the idea that there was no Iraq-al Qaeda link became the conventional wisdom in the press, and that thinking has guided virtually all subsequent reporting. On June 20, for example, the Post ran another front-page story on the topic, this one headlined, “9/11 Panel’s Findings Vault Bush Credibility To Campaign Forefront.” Later, the paper ran yet another page-one piece headlined “As Rationales For War Erode, Issue of Blame Looms Large.”