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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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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.