The problem with Paul Pillar's Foreign Affairs piece.
7:20 AM, Feb 23, 2006 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Again, we turn to what Pillar's own division at the CIA told the administration on the eve of war. "Our knowledge of Iraq's ties to terrorism is evolving," the CIA wrote in Iraqi Support for Terrorism. "Regarding the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," the CIA assessed, "reporting from sources of varying reliability points to a number of contacts, incidents of training, and discussions of Iraqi safehaven for Osama bin Laden and his organization dating from the early 1990s."
There was evidence that al Qaeda had metastasized inside regime-controlled Iraq. According to the Senate Intelligence Report, "Iraqi Support for Terrorism described a network of more than a dozen al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-associated operatives in Baghdad, and estimated that 100-200 al-Qaeda fighters were present in northeastern Iraq in territory under the control of Ansar al-Islam." Furthermore, "A variety of reporting indicates that senior al-Qaeda terrorist planner al-Zarqawi was in Baghdad between May-July 2002 under an assumed identity." Regarding those hundreds of al Qaeda operatives who set up shop in northeastern Iraq, "it would be difficult for al-Qaeda to maintain an active, long-term presence in Iraq without alerting the authorities or obtaining their acquiescence."
Alarmingly the CIA noted, "The most disturbing aspect of the relationship is the dozen or so reports of varying reliability mentioning the involvement of Iraq or Iraqi nationals in al Qaeda's efforts to obtain CBW training." Elsewhere, the CIA's analysts noted that they could not determine if some of these nationals were working for the Iraqi regime or not. But still, "The general pattern that emerges is of al Qaeda's enduring interest in acquiring, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) expertise from Iraq."
(It is worth remembering that one of Pillar's colleagues, Michael Scheuer, was once able to determine that Iraq was, in fact, aiding al Qaeda's pursuit of CBRN expertise.)
There is much more to this story, of course. There is a vast body of evidence that indicates there was an ongoing relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. Pillar, however, would prefer not to debate the meaning of this evidence. It may turn out that the bureaucracy he served missed quite a bit over the last decade. It may also turn out that Pillar's own understanding of the terror network was inadequate.
In either case, it is safer for Pillar to pretend that the relationship was a fantasy of the administration that decided it was time for his CIA to undergo a radical change.
Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.