The Magazine

Dick Cheney Was Right

From the October 20, 2003 issue: "We don't know" about Saddam and 9/11.

Oct 20, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 06 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2003, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert asked Vice President Dick Cheney whether Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks. Cheney's answer was characteristically straightforward: "We don't know."

The reaction was furious, even by Washington standards. Despite the plain meaning of Cheney's words, critics charged that his response was deceptive, a subterfuge designed to trick dimwitted Americans into supporting a war built on deception.

"By any reasonable standard, that's a lie," wrote columnist Josh Marshall, a frequent but usually thoughtful administration critic. "American intelligence and law enforcement have been investigating the Sept. 11 attacks for more than two years and we haven't found a single shred of evidence tying Saddam or his regime to the plot. Nothing."

On that last point, Marshall is in good company. The president himself said, "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11 attacks." Maybe the president should have spoken of "proof" rather than "evidence." Either way, Cheney's answer was no "lie." To the contrary, "We don't know" is entirely consistent with the president's assessment and is in reality the more accurate answer to questions about potential Iraqi involvement in September 11. The story of Ahmad Hikmat Shakir is one reason why.

In August 1999, Shakir, an Iraqi in his mid-30s, was offered a job as a "greeter" or "facilitator" at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A "facilitator" works for an airline and helps travelers, often dignitaries, with the paperwork required to enter the country. Shakir got the job not because of his vast experience facilitating. He got it because someone in the Iraqi embassy in Malaysia wanted him to have it. He started that fall.

Although Shakir worked for Malaysian Airlines, the Iraqi embassy controlled his schedule--told him when to report to work, when to take a day off. On January 5, 2000, Shakir received an assignment from his embassy contact. He was to escort two recent arrivals through immigration at the airport. Khalid al Midhar and Nawaz al Hamzi--two of the chief September 11 hijackers--had come to Malaysia for an important al Qaeda meeting that would last four days. That gathering would become the focus of the extensive investigation into the planning of the attack on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon nearly a year later.

According to U.S. intelligence reports, Shakir greeted these two future hijackers at the airport and walked them to a waiting car. But rather than see them off, he jumped in the car with al Midhar and al Hamzi and accompanied them to the Kuala Lumpur Hotel. Malaysian authorities had been tipped off about the al Qaeda summit before it happened and later provided American authorities with photographs and videotapes of the attendees. While U.S. officials can place Shakir at the Kuala Lumpur Hotel with the hijackers, they cannot say for certain whether Shakir participated in the meeting. Also present that day, according to U.S. intelligence reporting, were Ramzi bin al Shibh, the operational chief of the "Holy Tuesday" attacks, as 9/11 was known to the terrorists, and Tawfiz al Atash, a top-ranking bin Laden deputy, later identified as the mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole.

The meeting concluded on January 8, 2000. Shakir reported to work at the airport on January 9 and January 10, and then never again. Khalid al Midhar and Nawaz al Hamzi also disappeared, briefly, then flew from Bangkok, Thailand, to Los Angeles on January 15, 2000. Twenty months later, on September 11, 2001, these two men piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

Shakir, the Iraqi-born facilitator, would be arrested six days after the September 11 attacks, by authorities in Doha, Qatar. He had raised suspicions because of his activities during the al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur, but also because in 1993, shortly before the first attack on the World Trade Center, Shakir had received a phone call from the New Jersey safe house that served as the headquarters for that operation.

Shakir's arrest was a gold mine. Authorities found documents--telephone numbers, memos, and contact information--linking him to both the 1993 World Trade Center plot and something called "Operation Bojinka," the 1995 al Qaeda plot to explode 12 airplanes simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean. They found these both "on his person," in CIA-speak, and in a subsequent search of his apartment.