The Blog

Why Can't the CIA Keep Up with the New Yorker?

Good reporting has been done in the media on links between Saddam and al Qaeda, and the CIA still hasn't acted on it.

12:00 AM, Sep 13, 2002 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IN WHAT SHOULD go down as one of the most under-discussed revelations of the war on terrorism, an unnamed "senior counterterrorism official" told the Washington Post Tuesday that the CIA is aware of credible reports documenting Saddam-al Qaeda coordination in northern Iraq, but hasn't checked them out.

Someone remind me why George Tenet still has a job.

In March, the New Yorker ran an exhaustive--16,000 words--account by Jeffrey Goldberg detailing the plight of the Kurds in Northern Iraq. It was an extraordinary piece of journalism--the kind that journalism awards are created to recognize. I distributed the article to dozens of friends and colleagues. It turned Iraq doves into hawks, and skeptics about a war there into believers.

I was sure it would have a more significant impact, too, triggering immediate investigations by the intelligence-gathering agencies that exist to protect us. I was wrong.

Goldberg interviewed several prisoners held by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two rival Kurdish factions in the north. The prisoners related an intricate web of coordination between an al Qaeda splinter group and Saddam's intelligence service, the Mukhabarat.

Goldberg: "The allegations include charges that Ansar al-Islam has received funds directly from Al Qaeda; that the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein has joint control, with Al Qaeda operatives, over Ansar al-Islam; that Saddam Hussein hosted a senior leader of Al Qaeda in Baghdad in 1992; that a number of Al Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan have been secretly brought into territory controlled by Ansar al-Islam; and that Iraqi intelligence agents smuggled conventional weapons, and possibly even chemical and biological weapons, into Afghanistan. If these charges are true, it would mean that the relationship between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda is far closer than previously thought."

Goldberg sprinkled his prose with caveats--about the possible motivations of the Kurds, about the differing agendas of Saddam and Islamic radicals. That skepticism made his account more credible. But what ultimately made the report convincing was the detail. Goldberg named the prisoners, he explained their relationships, he recreated their battles, and he described their travels. In short, his work is verifiable.

Which is why the Kurds invited him to interview the prisoners in the first place--they hoped it might arouse the interest of U.S. intelligence. "The F.B.I. and the C.I.A. haven't come out yet," reported the PUK's director of intelligence. His deputy added, "Americans are going to Somalia, the Philippines, I don't know where else, to look for terrorists. But this is the field, here."

In early July, an hour-long PBS documentary that aired on Wide Angle corroborated much of the reporting in Goldberg's piece--once again with names, dates, etc. I was sure that whatever their past failings, as the administration pointed itself squarely in the direction of war with Iraq, our revamped, refocused intelligence services would be all over this information, for while the case for removing Saddam Hussein is compelling without any direct link to al Qaeda, and sources in the Bush administration made clear months ago that this case would center on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, might it not be worth merely investigating a Saddam-al Qaeda link? Especially as our potential allies began lining up against military action?

Apparently not. As the Washington Post reports: "The Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an anti-Hussein group in northern Iraq, says it has jailed 15 to 20 al Qaeda members and was surprised that no one from the U.S. government has come to interrogate them. One senior counterterrorism official confirmed that the CIA knew of the detentions and that U.S. officials have not interrogated the prisoners. 'We really don't know whether they are under al Qaeda or Saddam's control,' the official said. 'Ansar trained in Afghan camps. They used Afghanistan as their headquarters. It's tough to nail down the other details. It's not implausible that they are working with Saddam. His intel links into northern Iraq are very strong.'"

But it's not that "tough to nail down the other details." Jeffrey Goldberg did it. PBS documentarians did it.

Why hasn't the CIA?

Stephen F. Hayes is staff writer at The Weekly Standard.