The Magazine

Saddam's al Qaeda Connection

From the September 1 / September 8, 2003 issue: The evidence mounts, but the administration says surprisingly little.

Sep 1, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 48 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Tenet letter declassified CIA reporting on weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's links to al Qaeda. Two sentences on WMD garnered most media attention, but the intelligence chief's comments on al Qaeda deserved notice. "We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qa'ida going back a decade," Tenet wrote. "Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qa'ida have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom [in Afghanistan], we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qa'ida members, including some that have been in Baghdad. We have credible reporting that al Qa'ida leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al Qa'ida members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs." In sum, the letter said, "Iraq's increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qa'ida, suggest that Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent US military actions."

That this assessment came from the CIA--with its history of institutional skepticism about the links--was significant. CIA analysts had long contended that Saddam Hussein's secular regime would not collaborate with Islamic fundamentalists like bin Laden--even though the Baathists had exploited Islam for years, whenever it suited their purposes. Critics of the administration insist the CIA was "pressured" by an extensive and aggressive intelligence operation set up by the Pentagon to find ties where none existed. But the Pentagon team consisted of two people, at times assisted by two others. Their assignment was not to collect new intelligence but to evaluate existing intelligence gathered by the CIA, with particular attention to any possible Iraq-al Qaeda collaboration. A CIA counterterrorism team was given a similar task, and while many agency analysts remained skeptical about links, the counterterrorism experts came away convinced that there had been cooperation.

For one thing, they cross-referenced old intelligence with new information provided by high-level al Qaeda detainees. Reports of collaboration grew in number and specificity. The case grew stronger. Throughout the summer and fall of 2002, al Qaeda operatives held in Guantanamo corroborated previously sketchy reports of a series of meetings in Khartoum, Sudan, home to al Qaeda during the mid-90s. U.S. officials learned more about the activities of Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi, an al Qaeda WMD specialist sent by bin Laden to seek WMD training, and possibly weapons, from the Iraqi regime. Intelligence specialists also heard increasingly detailed reports about meetings in Baghdad between al Qaeda leaders and Uday Hussein in April 1998, at a birthday celebration for Saddam.

In December 2002, as the Bush administration prepared its public case for war with Iraq, White House officials sifted through reams of these intelligence reports on ties between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda. Some of the reporting was solid, some circumstantial. The White House identified those elements of the reports it wanted to use publicly and asked the CIA to declassify them. The Agency agreed to declassify some 75 percent of the requested intelligence.

According to administration sources, Colin Powell, in his presentation before the U.N. Security Council, used only 10 or 15 percent of the newly declassified material. He relied heavily on the intelligence in Tenet's letter. Press reports about preparations for the Powell presentation have suggested that Powell refused to use the abundance of CIA documents because he found them thin and unpersuasive. This is only half right. Powell was certainly the most skeptical senior administration official about Iraq-al Qaeda ties. But several administration officials involved in preparing his U.N. presentation say that his reluctance to focus on those links had more to do with the forum for his speech--the Security Council--than with concerns about the reliability of the information.

Powell's presentation sought to do two things: make a compelling case to the world, and to the American public, about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein; and more immediately, win approval for a second U.N. resolution explicitly authorizing the use of force. The second of these objectives, these officials say, required Powell to focus the presentation on Hussein's repeated violations of Security Council resolutions. (Even in the brief portion of Powell's talk focused on Iraq-al Qaeda links, he internationalized the case, pointing out that the bin Laden network had targeted "France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Russia.") Others in the administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, favored using more of the declassified information about Hussein's support of international terrorism and al Qaeda.