The Bush administration evidently believes revisiting the case for toppling Saddam Hussein is a political loser. That this conclusion–which, of course, has played in the media like a tacit admission of guilt–is a terrible miscalculation becomes clearer with each passing day. As journalists, scholars, and analysts pore over more of the intelligence haul seized when U.S. forces toppled the Iraqi regime, the case for removing an America-hating terror-monger responsible for the brutal torture and murder of–literally–tens of thousands of people looks better and better. Still, the administration maddeningly refuses to go on offense in its defense.
This is at least the second occasion of this politically suicidal default. Top administration officials also gratuitously handed their critics a cudgel when, for reasons still explicable only by panic, they retracted–and, indeed, apologized for–an entirely accurate assertion in the president’s 2003 State of the Union Address.
As Michael Ledeen recounted here on NRO a few days ago, President Bush’s claim that the Iraqi regime had sought uranium in Africa was not only true and, as the British parliamentary investigation later concluded, “well-founded”; it was probably an understatement. Christopher Hitchens observes–based on the Duelfer Report–that Iraq’s efforts to acquire uranium from Niger stretch back a quarter century. Unless you are inclined to believe Saddam was interested in procuring goats in 1999 when he dispatched a high-ranking emissary to that cash-starved but uranium-rich African nation–a nation with which he had previously done uranium business–there can be little doubt that nuclear-weapons development was the impetus.
Now, onto suicidal default, chapter two. The president’s poll numbers are plummeting, largely due to the success the opposition has had in portraying Iraq as a misadventure–a diversion from the “real” war on terror, disintegrating into a chaotic mess of dubious nation-building. Why? Because the administration put most of its eggs in a shaky WMD basket; failed to make and sustain the case–i.e., the abundantly supportable case–that Saddam was both a committed terrorist and terrorist-abettor; and has since allowed Iraq to be etched as the test-case for its Middle East democracy project rather than as a logical phase of the war on terror. Even today, if you ask most Americans, “What does Iraq have to do with the war on terror?” you’ll get a blank stare–if not a curt “Nothing.” Why should it be otherwise? That, effectively, has been the administration’s own answer.
All the while, the evidence continues to mount that Saddam was a gathering threat against the United States–just as the president said he was. And the mounting has now been accelerated by the recent public availability of intelligence files–which the administration, for some reason, refused for years either to make available or to use in its own much needed defense.
Already, thanks to diligent work by the likes of Steve Hayes of The Weekly Standard (author of The Connection and numerous articles about Iraq and al Qaeda), Tom Joscelyn (find his website here), Ed Morrissey (of Captain’s Quarters), and Edward Jay Epstein (find his website here) we have seen, among other things:
‐direct contacts between high-ranking Iraqi regime officials and both Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri (bin Laden’s top deputy);
‐an apparent payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars by Iraq to Zawahiri in 1998;
‐elaborate mentions of Iraq in bin Laden’s infamous 1998 fatwa calling for the murder of all Americans, anywhere they could be found–the fatwa that presaged the bombing of the U.S. embassies five months later;
‐an Iraqi al Qaeda member held in Guantanamo Bay, charged with traveling to Pakistan with an Iraqi Intelligence official in August 1998 (the same month the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed) to study the possibility of bombing the American and British embassies there;
‐the attempt by Iraq to recruit jihadists in the late 1990s to bomb an American target, Radio Free Europe, in Prague;
‐the continued insistence to the 9/11 Commission by top Clinton officials (including President Clinton himself) that the retaliatory strike against the al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan following the embassy bombings was justified by intelligence indicating that the target was home to a joint chemical weapons venture of Iraq, al Qaeda and Sudan;
‐the Clinton administration so convinced of an asylum arrangement between Iraq and al Qaeda that its top counter-terrorism official, Richard Clarke, opined to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger in 1999 that bin Laden would “boogie to Baghdad” if things became too hot for him in Afghanistan (it wouldn’t, after all, have been a first: Saddam was already harboring one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers);
‐the still open allegation that Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001, during the plotting stages of the 9/11 attacks;
‐the still unexplained presence of an Iraqi intelligence operative, Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, at the initial January 2000 planning meetings in Kuala Lampur for the 9/11 attacks;
‐the recent revelation that Saddam’s regime was, since at least 1994, conducting training for thousands of terrorists–training which, from 1998 forward, drew in thousands of jihadists from outside Iraq;
‐the recent revelation that Saddam’s son Uday ordered preparations in 1999 for a wave of “special operations, assassinations, and bombings, for the centers and traitor symbols in London, Iran and the self-ruled areas [Kurdistan]“; and
‐the exercises in January 2003–on the eve of the U.S. invasion–known as “the “Heroes’ attack,” which was designed to prepare regional terror units to fight exactly the kind of insurgency war that has been waged against coalition forces for the last three years.
Now, the intelligence haul has produced another notable disclosure–which is startling only if you continue to gulp the popular Kool-aid that depicts Iraq as nothing more than a disastrous Bush blunder. About a week ago, Morrissey (crediting Iraq scholar Laurie Mylroie) published a striking memorandum, apparently authored by an Iraqi air-force general in March 2001. The memo, excerpted below (italics are mine), sought volunteers for suicide missions against American targets:
In the Name of God the Merciful The Compassionate
The Command of Ali Bin Abi Taleb Air Force Base
Date 11 March 2001
To all the Units
Subject: Volunteer for Suicide Mission
The top secret letter 2205 of the Military Branch of Al Qadisya on 4/3/2001 announced by the top secret letter 246 from the Command of the military sector of Zi Kar on 8/3/2001 announced to us by the top secret letter 154 from the Command of Ali Military Division on 10/3/2001 we ask to provide that Division with the names of those who desire to volunteer for Suicide Mission to liberate Palestine and to strike American Interests and according what is shown below to please review and inform us.
Air Brigadier General
Abdel Magid Hammot Ali
Commander of Ali Bin Abi Taleb Air Force Base
Mohamad Majed Mohamadi.
Morrissey has now confirmed the translation through two experts, working independently. Assuming the document is authentic, it is a powerful confirmation of what was already palpable: The Iraqi dictator who attempted to murder a former U.S. president in 1993, who assiduously attacked the U.S. in his state-controlled media, who colluded with the terrorist network that attacked the U.S. throughout the 1990s, who defied sanctions and expelled weapons inspectors, who shot at U.S. planes in the no-fly zone throughout the 1990s, and who conducted frenetic terrorist training in preparation for a bloody, long-term insurgency against the U.S., was a threat to the United States.
The question lingers: Would an Iraqi air-force general in 2001 have had good reason to think he could get volunteers from within the Iraqi ranks for suicide missions?
There’s good reason to think the answer to that question is “yes.” As Tom Joscelyn points out to me, the new memorandum on which Morrissey has reported should be considered in conjunction with another piece of information that has attracted little media attention. This one comes from the December 2002 Report of the Joint Inquiry into the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
One section of that Report (at pp. 209-13) studied what the U.S. intelligence community had, prior to 9/11, in the way of “Intelligence Information on Possible Terrorist Use of Airplanes as Weapons.” Over a seven-year period, the joint inquiry found there were at least twelve such indications. Included among them was this one (p. 211):
In February 1999, the Intelligence Community obtained information that Iraq had formed a suicide pilot unit that it planned to use against British and U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. The CIA commented that this was highly unlikely and probably disinformation.
The purpose here is not to take yet another shot at the intelligence community. As the joint inquiry observed, the sources for the twelve reports it outlined were believed to be dubious or to have provided sketchy information at best. The CIA did not have access to the files we are now, finally, scrutinizing.
Nevertheless, the new memo, coupled with the finding by the joint inquiry, does underscore that: (a) our intelligence in Iraq (and elsewhere) was very poor; (b) that intelligence was not sufficient for making categorical conclusions about Iraq’s intentions (including the absurd claim, made by many in intelligence circles, that Saddam would never collaborate with jihadists); (c) it is wishful thinking to conclude, as do many Bush critics, that President Clinton intimidated Saddam into foreswearing attacks against the U.S. by a 1993 air strike against an empty Iraqi-government building (in “retaliation” for the attempt to murder the first President Bush); and (d) it is critical for the historical record and the legacy of American military operations in Iraq to continue translating and studying the intelligence trove we have seized.
Most important for present purposes: The evidence is there, as it has always been, to prove that removing Saddam Hussein’s regime from power was a significant advance in the war on terror. But all the evidence in the world proves nothing unless the administration gets out and makes the case. Publicly. Those who have given their lives to a noble cause deserve nothing less.
–Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.