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An Intelligent Democrat . . .

From the December 15, 2003 issue: on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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A LEADING DEMOCRAT on the Senate Intelligence Committee has reiterated his support for the war in Iraq and encouraged the Bush administration to be more aggressive in its preemptive measures to protect Americans. Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana and a leader of moderates in the Senate, responded to questions last week on the war in Iraq and a memo detailing links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden sent to the committee in late October by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith and later excerpted in these pages.

"Even if there's only a 10 percent chance that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden would cooperate, the question is whether that's an acceptable level of risk," Bayh told me. "My answer to that would be an unequivocal 'no.' We need to be much more pro-active on eliminating threats before they're imminent."

Asked about the growing evidence of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, Bayh said: "The relationship seemed to have its roots in mutual exploitation. Saddam Hussein used terrorism for his own ends, and Osama bin Laden used a nation-state for the things that only a nation-state can provide. Some of the intelligence is strong, and some of it is murky. But that's the nature of intelligence on a relationship like this--lots of it is going to be speculation and conjecture. Following 9/11, we await certainty at our peril."

The comments came days before several Democratic presidential candidates intensified their caustic attacks on the Bush administration's foreign and defense policies. Senator John Kerry, in a speech last week to the Council on Foreign Relations, said that "the Bush administration has pursued the most arrogant, inept, reckless, and ideological foreign policy in modern history. . . . The global war on terrorism has actually been set back."

Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean went further, even giving credence to a conspiracy theory that Bush was forewarned of the September 11 attacks by the Saudis. In an interview on National Public Radio, Dean allowed that this was "nothing more than a theory, it can't be proved." Nonetheless, he called it the "most interesting theory" he has heard as to why the Bush administration isn't cooperating more fully with the commission looking into the September 11 attacks.

Bayh declined to speak about any of the 50 specific Iraq-al Qaeda links cited in the Feith memo, and said the intelligence community reported before the war that intelligence on the links to "9/11 and al Qaeda" was the weakest part of the justification for war in Iraq.

"Look, there were multiple reasons to remove Saddam Hussein, not the least of which was his butchering of his own people--that's the kind of thing that most progressives used to care about. We were going to have to deal with him militarily at some time in the future. The possibility--even if people thought it unlikely--that he would use weapons of mass death or provide them to terrorists was just too great a risk."

Still, Bayh rejects the conventional wisdom that cooperation between Hussein and bin Laden was implausible because of religious and ideological differences. "They were certainly moving toward the philosophy that 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Both were hostile to us, and while they historically had reasons not to like each other, that historical skepticism is overridden by the enmity and mutual hostility toward us. These are not illogical ties from their perspective."

Bayh has long been concerned about overlap of rogue or collapsed states and international terrorists--a nexus that he says remains "the biggest risk" to the United States. Indeed, it was Bayh's question about links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda that prompted CIA Director George Tenet last October to declassify some reporting on the relationship in an October 7, 2002, letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee:

Our understanding of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda is evolving and is based on sources of varying reliability. Some of the information we have received comes from detainees, including some of high rank.

--We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.

--Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression.

--Since Operation Enduring Freedom, we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.

--We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire W.M.D. capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.

--Iraq's increasing support to extremist Palestinians coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda suggest that Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action.

The intelligence committee's review of prewar intelligence may soon be finished--at least at the staff level. "The staff hopes to have it done by the end of the year," says Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri, a Republican member of the committee. "When the members chew it over and spit it out is unclear."

Relationships between Democrats and Republicans on the committee have been strained since the disclosure in early November of a political memo drafted by Democratic staffers for Vice Chairman Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat. The memo suggested ways in which the Democrats could extract partisan advantage from the ongoing review. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia who sits on the committee, says several of his Democratic colleagues have since "stepped forward privately" to express concern about the memo and politicization of the intelligence oversight process. "I regret that Jay hasn't done that publicly."

Says Chambliss: "The Democratic memo took a shot at the chairman [Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican] and took a shot at undermining the intelligence on Iraq. . . . The memo to me did not sound like Jay [Rockefeller]. I've always suspected that the Democratic leadership put lots of pressure on him to politicize this process."

Bayh, for his part, hopes that the intelligence community will look carefully at reporting on the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. Bush administration officials have argued that such a review is appropriate, but should wait until after fighting in Iraq has subsided. "The reason [a review] is important is the guidance it gives us prospectively," says Bayh. "I understand the administration's position, but to retrospectively look at these connections gives us that guidance and I think that's a very useful undertaking."

"There's obviously a lot of smoke," says Bayh. "The real question is how much fire was there. The best case--it certainly looks as if there were many contacts, some kind of relationship there. I guess the best answer is that this is a developing story and we'll know more soon."

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