The Clinton View of Iraq-al Qaeda Ties
From the December 29, 2003 / January 5, 2004 issue: Connecting the dots in 1998, but not in 2003.
Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Other questions persisted as well. Clinton administration officials initially scoffed at the notion that al Shifa produced any pharmaceutical products. But reporters searching through the rubble found empty aspirin bottles, as well as other indications that the plant was not used exclusively to produce chemical weapons. The strikes came in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, leaving some analysts to wonder whether President Clinton was following the conspiratorial news-management scenario laid out in "Wag the Dog," then a hit movie.
But the media failed to understand the case, according to Daniel Benjamin, who was a reporter himself before joining the Clinton National Security Council. "Intelligence is always incomplete, typically composed of pieces that refuse to fit neatly together and are subject to competing interpretations," writes Benjamin with coauthor Steven Simon in the 2002 book "The Age of Sacred Terror." "By disclosing the intelligence, the administration was asking journalists to connect the dots--assemble bits of evidence and construct a picture that would account for all the disparate information. In response, reporters cast doubt on the validity of each piece of the information provided and thus on the case for attacking al Shifa."
Now, however, there's a new wrinkle. Bush administration officials largely agree with their predecessors. "There's pretty good intelligence linking al Shifa to Iraq and also good information linking al Shifa to al Qaeda," says one administration official familiar with the intelligence. "I don't think there's much dispute that [Sudan's Military Industrial Corporation] was al Qaeda supported. The link from al Shifa to Iraq is what there is more dispute about."
According to this official, U.S. intelligence has obtained Iraqi documents showing that the head of al Shifa had been granted permission by the Iraqi government to travel to Baghdad to meet with Emad al-Ani, often described as "the father of Iraq's chemical weapons program." Said the official: "The reports can confirm that the trip was authorized, but the travel part hasn't been confirmed yet."
So why hasn't the Bush administration mentioned the al Shifa connection in its public case for war in Iraq? Even if one accepts Benjamin's proposition that Iraq may not have known that it was arming al Qaeda and that al Qaeda may not have known its chemicals came from Iraq, doesn't al Shifa demonstrate convincingly the dangers of attempting to "contain" a maniacal leader with WMD?
According to Bush officials, two factors contributed to their reluctance to discuss the Iraq-al Qaeda connection suggested by al Shifa. First, the level of proof never rose above the threshold of "highly suggestive circumstantial evidence"--indicating that on this question, Bush administration policymakers were somewhat more cautious about the public use of intelligence on the Iraq-al Qaeda connection than were their counterparts in the Clinton administration. Second, according to one Bush administration source, "there is a massive sensitivity at the Agency to bringing up this issue again because of the controversy in 1998."
But there is bound to be more discussion of al Shifa and Iraq-al Qaeda connections in the coming weeks. The Senate Intelligence Committee is nearing completion of its review of prewar intelligence. And although there is still no CIA team assigned to look at the links between Iraq and al Qaeda, investigators looking at documents from the fallen regime continue to uncover new information about those connections on a regular basis.
Democrats who before the war discounted the possibility of any connection between Iraq and al Qaeda have largely fallen silent. And in recent days, two prowar Democrats have spoken openly about the relationship. Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana who sits on the Intelligence Committee, told THE WEEKLY STANDARD, "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."
And Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat and presidential candidate, discussed the connections in an appearance last week on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews." Said Lieberman: "I want to be real clear about the connection with terrorists. I've seen a lot of evidence on this. There are extensive contacts between Saddam Hussein's government and al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. I never could reach the conclusion that [Saddam] was part of September 11. Don't get me wrong about that. But there was so much smoke there that it made me worry. And you know, some people say with a great facility, al Qaeda and Saddam could never get together. He is secular and they're theological. But there's something that tied them together. It's their hatred of us."
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.