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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Shakir had contact information for a lot of bad people: One was Ibrahim Suleiman, a Kuwaiti native whose fingerprints were found on the bombmaking manuals authorities allege were used in preparation for the 1993 Trade Center bombing. Suleiman was convicted of perjury and deported to Jordan. Another was Zahid Sheikh Mohammed, brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, now in U.S. custody. And another was Musab Yasin, the brother of convicted 1993 Trade Center bomber Abdul Rahman Yasin. Cheney mentioned Abdul Rahman Yasin in his "Meet the Press" appearance on September 14. According to documents discovered in Iraq after the war, Yasin fled to Baghdad shortly after the 1993 bombing and was given safe haven and financial support by the Iraqi government.

Despite this wealth of information, the Qatari authorities released Shakir, the facilitator, shortly after he was arrested.

On October 21, 2001, Shakir flew to Amman, Jordan, where he hoped to board a plane to Baghdad. But authorities in Jordan arrested him for questioning. Shakir was held in a Jordanian prison for three months without being officially charged, prompting Amnesty International to write the Jordanian government seeking an explanation. The CIA questioned Shakir and concluded that he had received extensive training in counter-interrogation techniques. About the same time, the Iraqi government began to pressure Jordanian intelligence to release Shakir. They got their wish on January 28, 2002. He is believed to have returned promptly to Baghdad. (Amnesty International later claimed to have learned that Shakir "had lost weight during his detention and appeared traumatized.")

That this chain of events took place is the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community. Much of it comes from a classified CIA report on Shakir and his activities over the past decade. Exactly what it means is open to question.

Some intelligence officials believe that the Iraqi embassy employee who got Shakir his airport job may have been an agent of Saddam Hussein's intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, and that high-ranking elements of the government, perhaps including Saddam, knew about his activities. After all, the intelligence service placed its agents liberally in Iraqi embassies throughout the world. In some cases, intelligence agents made up more than 50 percent of the employees in an Iraqi embassy. This doesn't mean that Saddam or anyone in his government necessarily had foreknowledge of September 11; only that his intelligence service may have provided logistical support to the men who gave us September 11--again, perhaps without precise knowledge of their plans.

Others, primarily at the CIA, are more skeptical. They point out that the Iraqi embassy employee who got Shakir his job and managed his schedule was a lower-ranking embassy official. That, they argue, does not fit the profile of a Mukhabarat foreign agent. There are alternative explanations for some of the details, too. Shakir may have accompanied the September 11 hijackers to the Kuala Lumpur Hotel because they gave him a big tip or, some have suggested, because he knew the way. It's possible that Shakir was an Iraqi who had joined al Qaeda and, apart from his contact with the Iraqi embassy employee, had nothing to do with the Iraqi regime. The Iraqi regime, for its part, may have simply requested Shakir's release from the Jordanian government as a routine matter.

So was Saddam Hussein involved in September 11? Evidence, at this point, is scarce, but the proper answer is the one Cheney gave: We don't know.

The Bush administration does know, however, about Saddam Hussein's connections to al Qaeda. And it's learning more every day. This, despite the woeful lack of resources devoted to exploring those links.

Is there a specialized team searching for Saddam-al Qaeda ties--something like David Kay's Iraq Survey Group, say, with its 1,400 scientists and intelligence experts roaming Iraq in search of proscribed weapons? "There is no such operation," says one intelligence official familiar with postwar intelligence. "What we know, we know because a handful of uniformed guys on the ground in Iraq have a hard-on for this stuff."