The Magazine

There They Go Again

From the June 28, 2004 issue: The 9/11 Commission and the media refuse to see the ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Jun 28, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 40 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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IT'S SETTLED, APPARENTLY. Saddam Hussein's regime never supported al Qaeda in its "attacks on America," and meetings between representatives of Iraq and al Qaeda did not result in a "collaborative relationship." That, we're told, is the conclusion of two staff reports the September 11 Commission released last Wednesday.

But the contents of the documents have been widely misreported. Together the new reports total 32 pages; one contains a paragraph on the broad question of a Saddam-al Qaeda relationship, the other a paragraph on an alleged meeting between the lead hijacker and an Iraqi agent. Nowhere in the documents is the "Al Qaeda-Hussein Link...Dismissed," as Washington Post headline writers would have us believe. In fact, Staff Statement 15 discusses several "links." It never, as the Associated Press maintained, "bluntly contradicted" the Bush administration's prewar arguments. The Los Angeles Times was more emphatic still: "The findings appear to be the most complete and authoritative dismissal of a key Bush administration rationale for invading Iraq: that Hussein's regime had worked in collusion with al Qaeda."

A complete dismissal? Only for someone determined to find a complete dismissal. The major television networks and newspapers across the country got it wrong.

By Thursday afternoon, the misreporting had become too much for some members of the 9/11 Commission. Its vice chairman, former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, defended Vice President Dick Cheney against his attackers in the media:

I must say I have trouble understanding the flak over this. The Vice President is saying, I think, that there were connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's government. We don't disagree with that. What we have said is just what [Republican co-chairman Tom Kean] just said: We don't have any evidence of a cooperative or collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein's government and al Qaeda with regard to the attacks on the United States. So it seems to me that sharp differences that the press has drawn, that the media has drawn, are not that apparent to me.

Hamilton is half-right. The report was far more nuanced and narrowly worded than most news reports suggested. But while nuance is a close cousin of precision, it is not the same thing. And the two paragraphs on the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship are highly imprecise. Statement 15 does not, in fact, limit its skepticism about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection to collaboration on "the attacks on the United States." It also seems to cast doubt on the existence of any "collaborative relationship" (while conceding contacts and meetings) between the two.

This ambiguity, which provided reporters the opening they needed to go after the Bush administration, was a departure from earlier reports of the 9/11 Commission. Most of the staff's investigative work--its careful examination of pre-September 11 air safety procedures, for example--has been both thorough and illuminating. By contrast, the analysis of the Iraq-al Qaeda connection comes off as incomplete, forced, and unreliable. Indeed, at least as regrettable as the misreporting of the newly released staff documents are the gaps in their contents.

Here in full is the relevant portion of Staff Statement 15:

Bin Ladin also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein's secular regime. Bin Ladin had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sudanese, to protect their own ties with Iraq, reportedly persuaded bin Ladin to cease this support and arranged for contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. A senior Iraqi Intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting bin Ladin in 1994. Bin Ladin is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after bin Ladin had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.

This brief passage raises more questions than it answers--a point we'll come back to. But it also shatters the myth that religious and ideological differences precluded cooperation between bin Laden and Saddam. Osama bin Laden's 1994 meeting with the "Iraqi intelligence officer"--Farouk Hijazi--is important.