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From the August 2, 2004 issue: Findings on Iraq and al Qaeda in the final report of the 9/11 Commission.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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"THERE WAS NO QUESTION in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda."

Those are the words of Thomas Kean, the Republican co-chairman of the September 11 Commission. He made the statement on July 22, 2004, 10 days after a New York Times headline declared, "9/11 Report Is Said to Dismiss Iraq-Qaeda Alliance," and a month after another headline in the same paper blared, "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie."

The second of those stories came as part of the wide wave of media coverage that dismissed the Iraq-al Qaeda connection after a 9/11 Commission staff statement concluded that the available evidence did not suggest a "collaborative relationship." The staff statement was poorly worded and vague, and reporters long dubious of an Iraq-al Qaeda relationship trumpeted the findings as definitive proof that the Bush administration had exaggerated the connection. The Los Angeles Times reported that the staff statement was the "most complete and authoritative dismissal" of the Bush case on Iraq-al Qaeda.

But the commission's final report presents a much more complicated picture. It cites repeated "friendly contacts" and details numerous high-level meetings between the regime of Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda terrorists. It demolishes the claims of former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke that there was "no evidence" of Iraqi support for al Qaeda--in part by publishing excerpts of internal White House emails in which Clarke himself directly makes an Iraq-al Qaeda connection. The final report also amends the staff statement in two important ways, finding only no "collaborative operational relationship" and specifying that these contacts did not indicate "that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."

The report provides details of several of the "friendly contacts," including meetings throughout the mid-1990s which suggest the outreach between Iraq and al Qaeda went both ways. In March 1998, "two al Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence." The public learns for the first time of a trip taken by Iraqi officials to Afghanistan in July 1998 in which they met first with representatives from the Taliban and later with bin Laden. According to the report, "sources reported that one, or perhaps both, of these meetings was apparently arranged through bin Laden's Egyptian deputy, [Ayman al] Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis." (THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported in November 2003 that Zawahiri met with Saddam Hussein in 1992. And, according to an interrogation of a senior Iraqi Intelligence official, Zawahiri received $300,000 from the Iraqi regime in 1998.)

This new information is helpful. But the report contains several gaping holes with respect to the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship. Its overview of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center makes no mention of Abdul Rahman Yasin, an Iraqi who has admitted mixing the chemicals for that attack. And in seeking to rule out any Iraqi involvement in the September 11 attacks, the panel allowed its conclusions to race ahead of the available evidence by relegating the intriguing story of Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, an Iraqi present at a key 9/11 planning meeting, to a single, dismissive footnote.

"We have found no relationship whatever between Iraq and the attack on 9/11," asserted Kean. "That just doesn't exist."

Kean may end up being correct. But his categorical statement is premature.

The commission's final report offered the most detailed official account so far of Mohammed Atta's alleged meeting with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, first reported by Czech intelligence. According to the commission, the Iraqi in question was not in Prague at the time of the alleged meeting. The commission doesn't reveal how it knows this, and given its credulous reporting of al Ani's denial of the meeting, one hopes this account of al Ani's whereabouts did not come from the Iraqi intelligence officer himself. Still, the commission's decision to address the question of the Prague meeting directly is admirable.

THE SAME cannot be said about Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. The details of Shakir's activities in late 1999 and early 2000 are familiar to readers of this magazine. They were summarized in the Senate Intelligence Committee's recent report on pre-Iraq war intelligence: