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The Naysayer

Why is Daniel Benjamin so certain that Saddam Hussein had "no interest" in working with al Qaeda?

11:00 PM, Nov 20, 2005 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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IN THE AFTERMATH of September 11, more than several former national security and intelligence officials fashioned new careers as critics of the Bush administration's war on terror. Among the more prominent of these former officials is Daniel Benjamin, who worked for the National Security Council from 1994 to 1999. Benjamin's criticism flows from his belief that prior to the war in Iraq, as he wrote in Time magazine earlier this year, "there was no pre-existing relationship between Baghdad and al-Qaeda." Still worse, the invasion of Iraq has made us "less safe" and "above all, the invasion and occupation of Iraq--have galvanized still more Muslims and convinced them of the truth of bin Laden's vision."

He carried this line of attack a step further in Slate two weeks ago, arguing that Vice President Dick Cheney's role in directing national security policy trumped that of the president's. As evidence, he highlighted Cheney's ties to the Counterterrorism Evaluation Group ("CTEG") and the "neoconservative(s)" who put together "bad intel" connecting Iraq and al Qaeda. "Some of CTEG's material was leaked to THE WEEKLY STANDARD," he warns readers, "where it was published" and "achieved some renown as a classic in the genre of cherry-picked intelligence."

But if one is looking for an exemplary cherry-picker, then there is none better than Benjamin himself. Benjamin has gone out of his way to advance the most logically tortuous reasons for dismissing evidence of a relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda. In so doing, he has demonstrated the absurd lengths to which some will carry their wrongheaded assumptions.

DURING THE 1990s, many in the U.S. intelligence community came to believe that the Middle East could be carved into neatly-drawn ideological boxes. The "secular" Saddam fit into one box, while the Islamists of al Qaeda fit into another. It was assumed that their ideological differences precluded cooperation and Saddam could never trust a group like al Qaeda. We now know, thanks to the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into prewar intelligence, that this assumption was made without the benefit of any intelligence assets within Saddam's inner circle. There are also ample reasons (including the role played by radical Islamist Hassan al-Turabi as an intermediary) to believe that this premise was not a wise one.

Yet, Benjamin adopted this view as his starting point. Writing in the New York Times in September 2002, Benjamin said that Saddam "has long recognized that Al Qaeda and like-minded Islamists represent a threat to his regime" and he "has shown no interest in working with [al Qaeda] against their common enemy." Benjamin explained that this was "the understanding of American intelligence in the 1990s." Furthermore,

In 1998, the National Security Council assigned staff to determine whether that conclusion was justified. After reviewing all the available intelligence that could have pointed to a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq, the group found no evidence of a noteworthy relationship.

Well, that wasn't exactly true. They did find "evidence of a noteworthy relationship" in 1998; it's just that Benjamin has tried to explain it away. Consider, for example, his own defense of the Clinton administration's retaliation against al Qaeda for the August 1998 embassy bombings.

The Clinton administration responded to the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania by simultaneously destroying two sites: al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant named al-Shifa, which was suspected of being part of al Qaeda's chemical weapons procurement efforts. The decision to strike the training camps was uncontroversial. The decision to destroy al-Shifa was quickly labeled suspect by many in the mainstream media and some political partisans, including some Republicans, who speciously reasoned that Clinton was "wagging the dog." (I happen to agree with Benjamin that the charges leveled against President Clinton in this regard were wrong.) Much of the criticism focused on a soil sample the CIA said showed traces of EMPTA, a precursor for VX nerve gas, and the ties between the plant and bin Laden.

Benjamin and his frequent co-author, Steven Simon, argue that the media and the president's opponents got it all wrong. They spend an entire chapter defending this episode in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror. They argue that the "pivotal event" for understanding the threat bin Laden posed, prior to 9/11, was the reaction to the strike on al-Shifa and the failure to give the intelligence surrounding that decision an honest hearing.