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The New Republic strikes back.

Jul 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 42
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Credibility Gap?

GIVE STEPHEN F. HAYES CREDIT. With only a couple of days between the New Republic's deadline and THE WEEKLY STANDARD's, he didn't have much time to defend the Bush administration from our charges that it systematically exaggerated what American intelligence knew about Iraq's nuclear program and alleged links to al Qaeda ("The War Against Bush," June 30). Unfortunately, it shows.

Start with the alleged al Qaeda ties. As we reported, the FBI and CIA examined thousands of documents--"from flight reservations to car rentals to bank accounts," in FBI Director Robert Mueller's words--before determining in early 2002 that there was no evidence that September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met an Iraqi agent in Prague in April 2001, as has been alleged. (Indeed, American intelligence concluded Atta was in Virginia Beach at the time.) This is also the position of the Czech government. Only one person--an informant to Czech intelligence--claims to have seen Atta meet with the Iraqi agent, and even Czech intelligence officials have questioned the informant's reliability in conversations with reporters. Hayes admits the Atta meeting is "disputed," saying (without any evidence) that it could have occurred at another time. But, even if you accept this highly charitable assessment, the Bush administration's public statements were still dishonest. In September 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney said accounts of the meeting were "credible." How can they be "credible" when the CIA and FBI have said there was no evidence?

Hayes also casts aspersions on our report that high-level al Qaeda terrorists Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Ramzi bin Al Shibh have rejected a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's group, saying these are merely "denials from terrorists." That's true. But, in his January 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush cited "statements by people now in custody" as evidence that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked. If Hayes wants to discount the testimony of captured terrorists, he should begin with the testimony brandished by the president himself.

Hayes cites an administration leak to Newsweek earlier this month about a former Iraqi diplomat confirming contact between al Qaeda and an Iraqi operative in the mid-90s. But, as Walter Pincus reported in the June 22 Washington Post, American officials knew last fall of such early ties and attributed them to mutual enmity toward the Saudi monarchy rather than the United States. Hayes also cites ties between Saddam and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom Hayes identifies as "an al Qaeda leader." For starters, there is no evidence of any agreement, arrangement, or plot involving Zarqawi and Saddam's regime. Moreover, Pincus reports that "U.S. intelligence had already concluded [by last October] that Zarqawi was not an al Qaeda member but the leader of an unaffiliated terrorist group who occasionally associated with al Qaeda adherents."

Then there is Saddam's nuclear program. Hayes defends the administration's claims that Iraq was importing aluminum tubes for its nuclear program by noting that the CIA believed it was true: "Why administration critics who are eager to defer to the CIA's skepticism about Saddam's al Qaeda links would rather not believe the CIA about the aluminum tubes is not explained." But his characterization of the CIA's position is inaccurate. As sources familiar with the relevant documents told us, the CIA did not unequivocally endorse the view that Iraq's aluminum-tube imports were designed for uranium enrichment in its classified reports, instead presenting it as the subject of internal intelligence-community debate. Even in the declassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's WMD threat--largely written by the CIA--the intelligence community again noted that some experts doubted the aluminum tubes could be used for creating nuclear weapons. But, to the consternation of intelligence analysts, the NIE did not reveal that the dissent came from experts at the Department of Energy, who, thanks to their expertise with nuclear technology, were most qualified to make the final judgment. (The International Atomic Energy Agency later came to the same conclusion, using a similar expert-based process, as did British intelligence.) And Hayes doesn't acknowledge that Bush mischaracterized even the declassified NIE. In his State of the Union address, the president said, "Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production," never noting that it was a topic of dispute, let alone disputed most strenuously by those intelligence agents who know the most about nuclear weapons.