EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the (forthcoming) July 12, 2004, issue of National Review.
“Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie” was the headline in the New York Times for its front-page story on the interim report of the 9/11 commission. “Al Qaeda-Hussein Link Is Dismissed” was the headline of the front-page story in the Washington Post. The leads of both pieces quoted the report’s denial that there had been a “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and al-Qaeda, one of the Bush administration’s “justifications”–the Times called it “central,” the Post called it “main”–for the Iraq war. The staff of the 9/11 commission and the media enacted a form of batting practice: The staff sent an easy pitch in the middle of the strike zone, and the media rapped it out of the park. This was another intelligence failure, like WMD; Bush is a blundering boob; vote for Kerry.
Reading the whole story modifies the picture somewhat. In paragraph three, the Post admits that the report admits “there had been contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda,” which the Times, in paragraph eight, describes as “repeated contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the 90’s.” Both papers, like the report itself, deny that these amounted to collaboration, but that sidesteps the issue of possible threat. September 11 changed the strategic game board, even as it raised the stakes immeasurably for us. After 3,000 murders, anyone playing footsie with al-Qaeda, or with any terrorist gang, has to show repentance and cooperation, as Libya is professing to do, or he should live on borrowed time. The world is not a court of law.
But is the commission’s denial of a “collaborative relationship” accurate? Stephen F. Hayes of The Weekly Standard, and Edward Jay Epstein, writing in Slate, have detailed the reasons for thinking that collaboration occurred. The Czechs never backed down on their report that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met an Iraqi diplomat in Prague; the CIA believes he was in America at the time of the supposed meeting, but its evidence–that Atta’s cellphone was used, in America, days before he was supposed to be in Prague–is hardly conclusive. Around the world, another Iraqi, working as a greeter at the Kuala Lumpur airport, whisked two al-Qaeda operatives through security on the eve of a major al-Qaeda planning session. Historians still don’t know everything about the nefarious deeds of the former Soviet Union. Isn’t it a little early to close the books on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which has been gone for only 14 months, and al-Qaeda, which is still in business?
The urge to do so arises from a powerful wish to prove that the problem before us is wholly criminal, not at all national or quasi-national. That would mean it is more thoroughly under our control. The Bush administration, because of its efforts to deal with a wilder, more dangerous world, rebukes the wish. Therefore it must be rebuked.