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About That Memo . . .

From the December 8, 2003 issue: You can understand why the media might ignore the Saddam-Osama memo, but what about the Bush administration?

Dec 8, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 13 • By THE EDITORS
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ON THE SURFACE, it might seem like a simple case of media bias. In the November 24, 2003, WEEKLY STANDARD, Stephen F. Hayes summarized and quoted at length a recent, secret Pentagon memo to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The memo laid out--in 50 bullet points, over 16 pages--the relationship between Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Much of the intelligence in the memo was detailed and appeared to be well-sourced and well-corroborated.

The story generated lots of discussion on talk radio and on the Internet, but the establishment media did their best to take a pass. The New York Times and the Washington Post wrote brief articles about the memo that focused as much on the alleged "leak" of the information as they did on the substance of the intelligence. Newsweek, in an article on its website, misreported several important elements of the memo and dismissed the article as "hype." As we went to press, the memo had received nary a mention on the major broadcast networks.

Slate columnist Jack Shafer, who declares himself agnostic on the substance of the memo, scolded the media for their stubborn resistance to covering the story: "A classified memo by a top Pentagon official written at Senate committee request and containing intelligence about scores of intelligence reports might spell news to you or me." But "the mainstream press has largely ignored Hayes's piece. What's keeping the pack from tearing Hayes's story to shreds, from building on it or at least exploiting the secret document from which Hayes quotes? One possible explanation is that the mainstream press is too invested in its consensus finding that Saddam and Osama never teamed up and its almost theological view that Saddam and Osama couldn't possibly have ever hooked up because of secular-sacred differences."

Whatever the reason, we're not surprised by bias among the mainstream media. And we rarely complain about it, since we take it for granted. But we do have a complaint about the Bush administration. The administration says, repeatedly, that "Iraq is the central front in the war on terror." They produce a memo for the Senate Intelligence Committee laying out the connections between Osama and Saddam. We obtain the memo, and make public those parts that don't endanger intelligence sources and methods. But now the administration--continuing a pattern of the last several months--shies away from an opportunity to substantiate its own case before the American people and the world.

Within 24 hours of the publication of Hayes's article, the Defense Department released a statement that seemed designed to distance it from the memo written by its third-ranking official, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith. The Pentagon statement criticized "news reports" about the memo as "inaccurate." It specified neither any reports nor any alleged errors. In fact, the Pentagon's statement itself contained several mistakes. For example, the Pentagon declared that the memo "was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions." Not exactly.

Consider the introduction to the relevant part of the Pentagon memo, called "Summary of Body of Intelligence Reporting on Iraq-al Qaeda Contacts (1990-2003)."

Some individuals have argued that the al Qaeda ties to Iraq have not been "proven." The requirement for certainty misses the point. Intelligence assessments are not about prosecutorial proof. They do not require juridical evidence to support them nor the legal standards that are needed in law enforcement. Intelligence assessments examine trends, patterns, capabilities, and intentions. By these criteria, the substantial body of intelligence reporting--for over a decade, from a variety of sources--reflects a pattern of Iraqi support for al Qaeda's activities. The covert nature of the relationship has made it difficult to know the full extent of that support. Al Qaeda's operational security and Iraq's need to cloak its activities have precluded a full appreciation of the relationship. Nonetheless, the following reports clearly indicate that Osama bin Laden did cooperate with Iraq's secular regime despite differences in ideology and religious beliefs in order to advance al Qaeda's objectives and to defeat a common enemy--the U.S.

As it happens, we agree with the conclusions in this analysis; others will disagree. But make no mistake--contrary to what Defense now says--these are conclusions and this is analysis.