Stephen F. Hayes, a staff writer for The Weekly Standard and former NRO contributor, is author of the new book The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Cooperation with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America. On publication day, Tueday, he e-mailed with NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez about his book and the evidence linking the former Iraq regime and al Qaeda.
NRO: Your new book is on connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Isn’t that all a neocon myth? Isn’t bin Laden on record dissing Saddam? Secular Saddam, meanwhile, was no Islamic fundamentalist or extremist? Did anti-American hatred trump all?
Stephen F. Hayes: If the Iraq-al Qaeda connection is a neocon myth, those neocons are even more resourceful than the conspiracy theorists suggest and they sure have got a lot of unlikely people making their arguments. Evan Bayh, Democrat from Indiana, has described the Iraq-al Qaeda connection as a relationship of “mutual exploitation.” Joe Lieberman said, “There are extensive contacts between Saddam Hussein’s government and al Qaeda.” George Tenet, too, has spoken of those contacts and goes further, claiming Iraqi “training” of al Qaeda terrorists on WMDs and provision of “safe haven” for al Qaeda in Baghdad. Richard Clarke once said the U.S. government was “sure” Iraq had provided a chemical-weapons precursor to an al Qaeda-linked pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Even Hillary Clinton cited the Iraq-al Qaeda connection as one reason she voted for the Iraq War.
Saddam was, for a time, an avowed secularist. He began to use Islamist language during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and stepped it up during the first Gulf War. By the mid-1990s, when his son-in-law Hussein Kamel defected (and was later killed when he foolishly returned to Iraq), Saddam was interrupting Baath-party meetings for prayers.
Bin Laden has dissed Saddam several times. And I would certainly never argue that they were buddies. It was an on-again, off-again relationship based, as Bayh says, on mutual exploitation and a common enemy.
NRO: Who is Ahmed Hikmat Shakir?
Hayes: Shakir is one of the most intriguing and puzzling potential links between Iraq and al Qaeda. He was present at the January 2000 al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where U.S. intelligence officials believe the planning for the attacks on the U.S.S. Cole and September 11 took place. Shakir was working, ostensibly, for Malaysian Airlines as a VIP greeter. He told associates that he got the job through a contact at the Iraqi embassy and the same contact determined his schedule. Shakir escorted one of the 9/11 hijackers (Khalid al Mihdhar) to the meeting and left his airport “job” days after the meeting broke up. Making things even more interesting, Defense Department investigators recently found Shakir’s name–with a slight spelling discrepancy–on three separate lists of Saddam Fedayeen officers. He was captured twice after September 11–once in Qatar, once in Jordan–and let go. The Iraqi government reportedly showed a keen interest in his release. What was he doing at the meeting? How did he know the hijackers? And what, exactly, was his relationship to the Iraqi regime? He may have been a bit player, but it sure would be nice to know more. I hope the 9/11 Commission includes a discussion of Shakir in its final report.
NRO: What is the Feith memo and how important is it?
Hayes: The Feith Memo is a report that Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee last fall, in response to a request by that panel to see information the Pentagon gathered on Iraq-al Qaeda connections. Analysts in the DoD policy shop pored over old intelligence, gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies, and unearthed some interesting nuggets–some of them from raw intelligence reports and others from finished intelligence products. CIA Director George Tenet was asked about the Feith Memo at a Senate hearing in March and distanced his agency from the Pentagon analysis. He submitted another version of the document to the committee with some “corrections” to the Pentagon submission. My understanding is that there were but a few such adjustments and that they were relatively minor (although my book challenges two of the most interesting reports in the memo). Some of the stuff–telephone intercepts, foreign-government reporting, detainee debriefings, etc.–is pretty straightforward and most of the report tracks with what Tenet has said publicly; it just provides more detail. That said, there were two items that seemed to require more explanation and, when weighed against available evidence, seem questionable.
NRO: Mike Isikoff from Newsweek and others have tried to discredit some of your reporting on these connections. Do you concede any of their points?
Hayes: Well, Isikoff is a very good investigative reporter and I have long respected his work. We simply disagree on much of this. Intelligence reporting is quite subjective, of course, and lends itself to various interpretations. My problem with so much of the media reporting on this issue is that most journalists have chosen not to investigate the connection, and seem too eager to dismiss them. Why? This wasn’t the case in the late 1990s, when Iraq-al Qaeda connections were more widely reported in the establishment press.
After I first wrote about the Feith Memo, the Pentagon put out a statement designed to distance itself from any alleged leak of classified intelligence. It was a classic non-denial denial–virtually devoid of content. It was something any veteran Washington reporter would dismiss without a second thought. But reporters at the New York Times and Washington Post, typically quite cynical about anything that comes from the Pentagon’s public- affairs shop, suddenly found it a remarkably credible source.
NRO: It’s been suggested by Isikoff and others that some of the evidence turns up nowadays is forged, that you can’t take it on its face value. To what extent is the evidence you present corroborated by other evidence, other documented meetings, etc?
Hayes: I think they’re right on that point–and it’s almost never a good idea to take these things at face value. There was a report that surfaced in December 2003 that suggested that Mohammed Atta had been in Baghdad during the summer of 2001. And, a little too conveniently, the very same document claimed that the U.S. was seeking uranium from Niger. There’s little question that the three-page report was forged. (An interesting side note: That document came not from Ahmed Chalabi, but from CIA favorite Iyad Allawi, the new Iraqi interim prime minister. Allawi has long argued that there was a significant relationship between Saddam’s Mukhabarat and al Qaeda.)
Much of the evidence in the book comes from open sources–media reporting, court documents, interviews, etc. With respect to the information from the Feith Memo, many of the bullet points corroborate one another or previous intelligence on the relationship. For instance, the U.S. intelligence community has long believed that bin Laden met with the deputy director of Iraqi intelligence, Faruq Hijazi, in the mid-1990s. When we captured Hijazi, we asked him about the meeting. Bin Laden, he reported, asked for anti-ship limpet mines and training camps in Iraq.
NRO: Did Mohammed Atta meet with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague–multiple times?
Hayes: I wish we knew. Atta was in Prague under very strange circumstances in May 2000. What’s unclear is whether he returned, as initially reported, in April 2001. If he did, it wasn’t under his own name. But news reports claiming that the meeting couldn’t have taken place because U.S. intelligence has documentation placing him in the U.S. are not accurate. One of the things I report in the book is that both George Tenet and Condoleezza Rice say privately that they believe the April 2001 meeting took place.
NRO: What is the strongest evidence that Iraq was a collaborator in the Sept. 11 attacks?
Hayes: Probably the Shakir story, which is far from conclusive. But it seems to me that the presence of a suspected Saddam Fedayeen officer at a key 9/11-planning meeting can’t be dismissed. There have been additional recent developments in the Atta story reported by Edward Jay Epstein. If those turn out to be true, they would be significant. I’m trying, but as yet have been unable to prove or disprove them.
NRO: What’s the deal with Richard Clarke? Why is he so adamant to defend Iraq vis-à-vis al Qaeda?
Hayes: I put that question to a top Bush-administration official not long ago. This person said: “If Iraq was involved with al Qaeda, whether they were involved with 9/11 or not, the whole counterterrorism policy of the 1990s was a failure.” And we all know who was responsible for the counterterrorism policy of the 1990s. One thing that perplexes me about Clarke was his expressed certainty that there was an Iraqi hand in al Qaeda chemical weapons production in the Sudan in the late-1990s. (Top Clinton advisers–several of them now working for John Kerry–continue to believe that today.) And Clarke’s current views (no connection) certainly put him at odds with CIA Director George Tenet.
NRO: How much of what is in The Connection are al Qaeda-Iraq connections the Bush administration could/should be using publicly to connect the dots for people?
Hayes: I think they could be doing a lot more on this. On the one hand, I understand why the Bush administration is reluctant. After all, the CIA director says privately that he believes the Atta-Prague meeting probably took place but the conventional wisdom today dismisses that possibility. But I don’t think the administration can get away with simply avoiding the discussion.
One thing the White House could do is insist that the intelligence community put together a team to explore the connections. The 1,400-person Iraq Survey Group has been looking for WMDs for more than a year; there is no equivalent on Iraq-al Qaeda connections.
NRO: Without revealing sources, how did you become so intimate with some of this evidence that you sat down to write a book on it? Did you make a lot of the connections while in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Mideast yourself or back here?
Hayes: I started doing general reporting on the build-up to the Iraq War and was surprised that this angle seemed to be getting so little attention from the media. Several reporters did out standing work on the Iraq-al Qaeda connection in 2002–Jeffrey Goldberg, of The New Yorker and David Rose of Vanity Fair, come immediately to mind. I took the foundation they laid and just kept asking questions–and with each one the story got more complicated and more interesting.
Most of my reporting took place in the States. I did do some reporting for the book in Iraq and I wish I would have been able to spend more time there.