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Newsweek's "Case"

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball get the Osama-Saddam memo wrong.

12:26 PM, Nov 20, 2003 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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A NEWSWEEK article by investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball about the memo linking Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein dismisses a recent WEEKLY STANDARD report as "hype" and concludes, the "tangled tale of the memo suggests that the case of whether there has been Iraqi-al Qaeda complicity is far from closed."

While it's refreshing to see the establishment media pick up the story, the Newsweek article is less than authoritative. The authors write: "The Pentagon memo pointedly omits any reference to the interrogations of a host of other high-level al Qaeda and Iraqi detainees--including such notables as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Abu Zubaida, and Hijazi himself."

Their claim is mistaken, as bullet-point No. 34 of the memo makes clear:

During a 3 Sept 2002 interview, senior al Qaeda lieutenant Zubaida said that Bin Laden would ally al Qaeda with any entity willing to kill Americans. Zubaida explained, "my enemy's enemy is my friend." Bin Laden opposed a "formal" alliance because it may threaten al Qaeda's independence, but he saw the benefits of cooperation and viewed any entity that hated Americans and was willing to kill them as an "ally." Zubaida had suggested that the benefits of an alliance would outweigh the manageable risks to the integrity of al Qaeda. He said the potential benefits included access to WMD materials, such as weaponized chemical or biological weapons material, as well as funding and potential locations for safehaven and training.

And here is bullet-point No. 39:

During a May 2003 custodial interview with Faruq Hijazi, he said that in a 1994 meeting with Bin Laden in Sudan, Bin Laden requested that Iraq assist al Qaeda with the procurement of an unspecified number of Chinese-manufactured anti-ship limpet mines. Bin Laden thought that Iraq should be able to procure the mines through third-country intermediaries for ultimate delivery to al Qaeda. Hijazi said he was under orders from Saddam only to listen to Bin Laden's requests and then report back to him. Bin Laden also requested the establishment of al Qaeda training camps inside Iraq.

So either Isikoff and Hosenball have not seen the memo or they misreport its contents.

The Newsweek authors continue: "Overlooked in THE WEEKLY STANDARD hype, the Pentagon memo itself concedes that much of the more recent reporting about Iraqi-Al Qaeda ties is 'conflicting.'"

This is exactly backwards. The Pentagon memo itself concedes no such thing. That characterization--"conflicting"--comes not from the memo, but from THE WEEKLY STANDARD article. Indeed, in describing the post-July 1999 reporting as "conflicting," I was arguably erring on the side of caution. I did so because of the claims of Khalil Ibrahim Abdallah. Abdallah is a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in U.S. custody who "said that the last contact between the IIS [Iraqi intelligence] and al Qaeda was in July 1999." Abdallah's debriefing stands out because it is the only reporting in the memo to suggest that the relationship may have ended.

The Newsweek story goes on: "While Hayes's story insists 'the bulk of the reporting . . . contradicts [Abdallah's] claim,' the actual examples cited in the memo to buttress this point are less than persuasive." The Newsweek writers offer two examples--allegations that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague and reporting from Ibn al-Shayk al-Libi, a senior al Qaeda operative who was captured in Pakistan and turned over to U.S. custody in early January 2002.

The most recent alleged Atta meeting, in April 2001, is disputed, a fact THE WEEKLY STANDARD article makes clear. Isikoff and Hosenball claim that the intelligence is bogus, as U.S. investigators have "not unearthed a scintilla of evidence that Atta was even in Prague at the time of the alleged rendezvous." (See Edward Jay Epstein's recent report in Slate for a fuller account of the controversy over this meeting.)

Czech intelligence, however, reports not one but four meetings between Iraqi intelligence and Atta. The CIA can confirm two Atta visits to Prague, but "data surrounding the other two--on 26 Oct 1999 and 9 April 2001--is complicated and sometimes contradictory and CIA and FBI cannot confirm Atta met with the IIS." This disclaimer was reported in THE WEEKLY STANDARD article, which also noted that the Czech government continues to stand by its reporting.

Isikoff and Hosenball dismiss the reporting from al-Libi as "hearsay" and tell us that his reporting is "sometimes spotty," while noting that Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice have cited the information from al-Libi. According to intelligence sources interviewed by THE WEEKLY STANDARD, al-Libi's reporting has been among the most reliable of the al Qaeda detainees. (Isikoff himself reported on al-Libi last October, saying he and Zubaida "described efforts by Qaeda operatives to seek out Iraqi assistance in assembling chemical weapons." Isikoff qualified that reporting by adding, "how much help the Iraqis actually provided is 'really very fuzzy,' said one knowledgeable source.")

But for the sake of argument, let's throw out the two examples that cause Isikoff and Hosenball heartburn. The memo contains 13 reports of collaboration after July 1999. Several of these appear to be well-sourced and corroborated.

Among those reports is the one Colin Powell cited at his February 5, 2003, presentation at the United Nations Security Council. Here is reporting from bullet-point No. 37 in the memo:

Sensitive reporting indicates senior terrorist planner and close al Qaeda associate al Zarqawi has had an operational alliance with Iraqi officials. As of Oct 2002, al Zarqawi maintained contacts with the IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] to procure weapons and explosives, including surface-to-air missiles from an IIS officer in Baghdad. According to sensitive reporting, al Zarqawi was setting up sleeper cells in Baghdad to be activated in case of a U.S. occupation of the city . . .

Powell, of course, was the senior administration official most skeptical of the links between Iraq and al Qaeda. Some may agree with Isikoff and Hosenball that such reports are "less than persuasive." Powell plainly was persuaded.

The Newsweek authors also cite an unnamed "U.S. official" who claims that the intelligence in the memo was selectively presented and "contradicted by other things." To support this argument, Isikoff and Hosenball cite a late 1998 trip to Afghanistan by Faruq Hijazi. Hijazi served Saddam Hussein both as deputy director of Iraqi intelligence and later as ambassador to Turkey. At that meeting, the authors contend, bin Laden rejected an Iraqi offer of asylum. Their source is Vince Cannistraro, a knowledgeable former CIA counterterrorism official--the kind of expert whose views should be taken very seriously. He may be right. And if his understanding of the meeting's outcome is accurate, that information certainly should have been included in the Feith memo.

But stop for a moment and consider what this analysis means. It demonstrates that at the very least, Saddam Hussein was willing to give Osama bin Laden asylum in Iraq. Is this not precisely the kind of collusion the administration cited as it made its case for war? If such a distinguished skeptic of the links believes that Saddam Hussein would have offered bin Laden asylum, why is it so hard to believe--to take one example from a "well-placed source" cited in the Feith memo--that Hussein sent his intelligence director to bin Laden's farm in 1996 to train the al Qaeda leader in explosives? Or, to take another from a "regular and reliable source" mentioned in the memo, that bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri, "visited Baghdad and met with the Iraqi Vice President on 3 February 1998"?

Further, the visit Hijazi paid bin Laden in 1998 to allegedly offer him asylum was one of many meetings between Hijazi and al Qaeda. And, according to an analysis in the memo, it wasn't just Hijazi. "Reporting entries #4, #11, #15, #16, #17, #18, from different sources, corroborate each other and provide confirmation of meetings between al Qaeda operatives and Iraqi intelligence in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

It is, of course, possible that the information in the Feith memo is "cherry-picked" intelligence. It's also possible that some of the bullet points listed won't check out on further analysis. But Feith isn't alone in his conclusion that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden had a relationship. CIA Director George Tenet said more than a year ago that his agency had "solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda going back a decade," that the CIA had "credible information" about discussions between Iraq and al Qaeda on "safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression" and "solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad," and "credible reporting" that "Iraq has provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs."

When it comes to Newsweek's charge of hype, the case is decidedly not closed.

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