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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If the CIA ever gets serious about investigating Saddam-al Qaeda ties, it can start by sending someone to Toronto. On April 27, 2003, Toronto Star reporter Mitch Potter, his translator, and a colleague from the London Telegraph came across a document in the burned-out headquarters of the Mukhabarat in Baghdad. The document was found in the accounting department of the old Iraqi intelligence building and discussed who would pick up the tab for upcoming meetings between a bin Laden representative and Iraqi intelligence. It was, Potter wrote at the time, "the first hard evidence of contact between bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime." Bin Laden's name appeared three times in the document--crudely covered with liquid paper. The goal of the meeting, according to the memo's author, was to discuss "the future of our relationship with him, bin Laden, and to achieve a direct meeting with him." The individual coming to Baghdad, the memo continued, may represent "a way to maintain contacts with bin Laden."

Pretty damning stuff. I emailed Potter in July, and while he was careful to avoid drawing conclusions about the document's meaning, he was certain of its authenticity. "I have no doubt that what we found is the real thing," he wrote. His phone rang off the hook after he reported his find. One of those calls, he assumed, would come from the CIA or some other investigative arm of the U.S. government.

It's been nearly six months. That call never came. As of Thursday, no one from the U.S. government had contacted Potter about the document his editors are now holding.

American soldiers have come across other interesting documents in Baghdad. A recent stash yielded new information about Abdul Rahman Yasin, one of the plotters of the 1993 World Trade Center attack. For nearly a decade, Yasin has been on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list in connection with his role in that bombing. And for nearly as long, American officials have known that he was in Iraq.

Documents uncovered recently tell us that Yasin was harbored by the former Iraqi regime. That bears repeating. The man who burned his leg mixing the chemicals for the 1993 World Trade Center truck bomb has been living in Iraq and received a monthly stipend from Saddam Hussein. Cheney referred to Yasin--though not by name--in his appearance on "Meet the Press" last month, and the vice president has mentioned him in several recent speeches, most recently in a feisty talk on October 10 at the Heritage Foundation. But the Bush administration has otherwise been reluctant to provide details of the links between Iraq and al Qaeda. That is not, officials from across the administration insist, because there are serious questions about the connections. Rather, the White House is nervous that publicly discussing the links could trigger another set of leaks, most of them presumed to come from the CIA, attempting to discredit the new information. Those are battles the White House doesn't want to fight.

When the CIA leaks from classified documents, administration officials cannot effectively respond to misrepresentations or distortions because the information is classified. Consider this example, from a front-page story in the June 9, 2003, New York Times. The article, headlined "Captives Deny Qaeda Worked with Baghdad," has served for months as fodder for critics who accuse the administration of hyping the links. It relied heavily on unnamed "intelligence officials" who had seen a classified CIA report on the interrogation of a top al Qaeda operative named Abu Zubaydah.

The reporter, veteran correspondent James Risen, begins this way:

Two of the highest-ranking leaders of Al Qaeda in American custody have told the C.I.A. in separate interrogations that the terrorist organization did not work jointly with the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, according to several intelligence officials. Abu Zubaydah, a Qaeda planner and recruiter until his capture in March 2002, told his questioners last year that the idea of working with Mr. Hussein's government had been discussed among Qaeda leaders, but that Osama bin Laden had rejected such proposals, according to an official who has read the Central Intelligence Agency's classified report on the interrogation.

In his debriefing, Mr. Zubaydah said Mr. bin Laden had vetoed the idea because he did not want to be beholden to Mr. Hussein, the official said.

All of that is true. Osama bin Laden, Zubaydah told his interrogators, "personally opposed any formal alliance" with Saddam Hussein. The absence of a "formal alliance," however, hardly precludes cooperation. And Risen's source failed to provide him some important context. The very next sentence of the report on the interrogation changes the meaning of the entire report: "This said, bin Laden views any entity which hated Americans or was willing to kill them as an ally. . . . Abu Zubaydah explained that [Osama bin Laden's] personal goal of destroying the US is so strong that to achieve this end he would work with whomever could help him, so long as al Qaeda's independence was not threatened." The CIA report later adds that Zubaydah "admitted that it was entirely possible that there were communications or emissaries" of which he would not be aware. Zubaydah also confirms that bin Laden "approved of contacts and funding" for Jund Allah, a militant Islamic group in northern Iraq which battled the two anti-Saddam Kurdish factions. Jund Allah merged with Ansar al Islam in 2001.

So Abu Zubaydah's interrogation was at least a mixed bag. But unnamed "intelligence officials" apparently used it--or, more accurately, part of it--to beat up on the administration for its allegedly selective use of intelligence on Iraq-al Qaeda links. More Risen:

Several officials said Mr. Zubaydah's debriefing report was circulated by the C.I.A. within the American intelligence community last year, but his statements were not included in public discussions by administration officials about the evidence concerning Iraq-Qaeda ties.

Those officials said the statements by Mr. Zubaydah and Mr. Mohammed were examples of the type of intelligence reports that ran counter to the administration's public case. "I remember reading the Abu Zubaydah debriefing last year, while the administration was talking about all of these other reports, and thinking that they were only putting out what they wanted," one official said.

There's little question that U.S. intelligence has done a poor job of investigating links between the former Iraqi regime and al Qaeda. And there's little question that the Bush administration has been too cautious about telling the American public what it has learned about these links.

The U.S. media are strangely incurious about all this. Several officials have expressed surprise that journalists rarely ask about the links. "It's basically you, Jeff Goldberg [from the New Yorker magazine], and Maria Ressa [CNN's Jakarta bureau chief]," one told me.

What's most striking, though, about the media coverage of Iraq-al Qaeda ties is the arrogant presumption that journalists know better. After his "Meet the Press" appearance, a Los Angeles Times editorial accused Cheney of acting "as though the best defense is a good offense, no matter what the damage to truth or common sense," and of offering "sweeping, unproven claims about Saddam Hussein's connection to terrorism."

Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, who often mistakes vitriol for reason, challenged Cheney's assertion that postwar intelligence from Iraq was yielding new Iraq-al Qaeda links. "Cheney's claim that we have learned more when we have learned nothing more is one more lie in the chain of deception that convinced a critical number of Americans to support the invasion and occupation of Iraq--at the loss of nearly 300 American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. . . . Cheney once wowed the Washington elite with his gravitas. With so many soldiers and civilians dead, his gravitas now leads to the grave."

Perhaps now would be a good time for journalists to suspend the pronouncements and to start asking questions.

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