The Magazine

How Bad Is the Senate
Intelligence Report?

Very bad.

Sep 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 02 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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There is no mention of captured Iraqi documents that indicate the regime was providing financial support to Abu Sayyaf, an al Qaeda affiliate group in the Philippines. On June 6, 2001, the Iraqi ambassador to the Philippines, Salah Samarmad, faxed an eight-page report on an Abu Sayyaf kidnapping to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. According to the fax, the Iraqi Intelligence Service had provided assistance to Abu Sayyaf, but following the high-profile kidnapping decided to suspend this support. According to the document: "The kidnappers were formerly (from the previous year) receiving money and purchasing combat weapons. From now on we (IIS) are not giving them this opportunity and are not on speaking terms with them."

There is no mention of alleged Iraqi complicity in Abu Sayyaf attacks in October 2002 that claimed the life of U.S. Special Forces soldier Mark Wayne Jackson. One week after that attack, Filipino authorities recovered a cell phone that was to have detonated a bomb placed on the playground of a local elementary school. The cell phone , which belonged to an Abu Sayyaf terrorist, had been used to make calls to Abu Sayyaf leaders. Investigators also discovered that the phone had also been used to call Hisham Hussein, the second secretary of the Iraqi Embassy in Manila, just 17 hours after the attack that took the life of the American soldier. Hussein was ordered out of the Philippines for his associations with terrorist groups, including Abu Sayyaf.

There is no mention of the Clinton administration's 1998 indictment of Osama bin Laden, which noted that al Qaeda had "reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq." The language was dropped from a superseding indictment of bin Laden, after the August 7, 1998, East Africa embassy bombings allowed prosecutors to narrow their charges. Patrick Fitzgerald, a U.S. attorney involved in preparing the original indictment (who would later gain national prominence in the CIA leak case), testified before the 9/11 Commission. He told the panel that the claim in the indictment came from Jamal al Fadl, who told prosecutors that a senior Iraqi member of al Qaeda, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, had worked out the agreement between Iraq and al Qaeda. According to Fitzgerald's testimony, Salim "tried to reach a sort of agreement where they wouldn't work against each other--sort of the enemy of my enemy is my friend--and that there were indications that within Sudan when al Qaeda was there, which al Qaeda left in the summer of '96, or the spring of '96, there were efforts to work on jointly acquiring weapons."

There is no mention of the Clinton administration's many public claims that Iraq was working with al Qaeda on chemical weapons development in Sudan. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the passage in the indictment of bin Laden "led [Richard] Clarke, who for years had read intelligence reports on Iraqi-Sudanese cooperation on chemical weapons, to speculate to [National Security Adviser Sandy] Berger that a large Iraqi presence at chemical facilities in Khartoum was 'probably a direct result of the Iraq-al Qaeda agreement.' Clarke added that VX precursor traces found near al Shifa were the 'exact formula used by Iraq.'"

There is no mention of telephone intercepts, cited by a "senior intelligence official" in August 1998, connecting al Shifa officials with Emad al Ani, the father of Iraq's VX program. William Cohen, secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, reviewed the intelligence in testimony before the 9/11 Commission on March 23, 2004, and claimed that the plant owner had visited Baghdad to meet al Ani. "This particular facility [al Shifa], according to the intelligence we had at that time, had been constructed under extra ordinary security circumstances, even with some surface-to-air missile capability or defense capabilities; that the plant itself had been constructed under these security measures; that the--that the plant had been funded, in part, by the so-called Military Industrial Corporation; that bin Laden had been living there; that he had, in fact, money that he had put into this Military Industrial Corporation; that the owner of the plant had traveled to Baghdad to meet with the father of the VX program."

On it goes. In addition, there are numerous omissions that could shed light on Iraq's involvement in trans regional terrorism more broadly.

There is no mention of Iraqi documents first reported in a monograph published by the Joint Forces Command after 18 months' study of prewar Iraq. According to their report, called The Iraqi Perspectives Project:

Beginning in 1994, the Fedayeen Saddam opened its own paramilitary training camps for volunteers, graduating more than 7,200 "good men racing full with courage and enthusiasm" in the first year. Beginning in 1998, these camps began hosting "Arab volunteers from Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, 'the Gulf,' and Syria." It is not clear from available evidence where all of these non-Iraqi volunteers who were "sacrificing for the cause" went to ply their newfound skills. Before the summer of 2002, most volunteers went home upon the completion of training. But these camps were humming with frenzied activity in the months immediately prior to the war. As late as January 2003, the volunteers participated in a special training event called the "Heroes Attack." This training event was designed in part to prepare regional Fedayeen Saddam commands to "obstruct the enemy from achieving his goal and to support keeping peace and stability in the province."

There is no mention of Iraqi documents discussing "Blessed July," a planned wave of terrorist attacks that was also first reported in The Iraqi Perspectives Project study.

According to the report: "The Saddam Fedayeen also took part in the regime's domestic terrorism operations and planned for attacks throughout Europe and the Middle East. In a document dated May 1999, Saddam's older son, Uday, ordered preparations for 'special operations, assassinations, and bombings, for the centers and traitor symbols in London, Iran and the self-ruled areas [Kurdistan].' Preparations for 'Blessed July,' a regime-directed wave of 'martyrdom' operations against targets in the West, were well under way at the time of the coalition invasion."

It is the uneven treatment of Iraqi documents that provides perhaps the best window into the mindset of the writers of the Iraq-al Qaeda section of the Senate report. The first sentence of that section reads: "The purpose of this section is to assess the accuracy of the Intelligence Community's prewar analysis on links between the regime of Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda using information collected since Operation Iraqi Freedom."

The Senate report concedes that the document exploitation process in Iraq is incomplete, but it cavalierly assures readers that nothing significant will be found. "While document exploitation continues, additional reviews of documents recovered in Iraq are unlikely to provide information that would contradict the Committee's findings or conclusions."

Such an assessment is at best premature according to intelligence officials familiar with the document exploitation project. "Given my past participation in this realm and my current status it would be imprudent to get into detail," writes Michael Tanji, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency official who helped lead the document exploitation effort for 18 months. "Suffice it to say that when you are counting sheets of paper by hundreds-of-millions (not to mention other forms of media that have been obtained that threaten to dwarf paper holdings) and your methodology is somewhere between inadequate and woeful, saying that you have a strong grasp on what was and wasn't going on in Iraq based on an 'initial review' is akin to saying that you don't need to read the bible because you've memorized the ten commandments . . . in pig Latin."

As of March 2006, three years after the start of the Iraq War, the document exploitation project run by the Defense Intelligence Agency had fully translated fewer than 5 percent of the documents captured in postwar Iraq. The Senate report, in an apparent effort to appear more authoritative, uses a different measurement. The authors tell us that 34 million pages out of some 120 million have been "translated and summarized to some extent." Thirty-four millions pages seems like an impressive number. But think about it. Just 28 percent of captured Iraqi documents have been "translated and summarized to some extent." That is hardly the kind of exhaustive analysis that would permit meaningful conclusions.

And, in any case, there are reasons to be skeptical of those estimates. Intelligence officials familiar with the DOCEX project say that the numbers in the report are inflated in an effort to impress congressional overseers. If just the cover sheet on a 200-page document has been read once and summarized, for example, all 200 pages are counted toward the total number of documents that have been exploited "to some extent." A translator who read only the cover sheet on the eight-page fax from Manila to Baghdad would have missed the revelation that Iraq had been providing money and arms to Abu Sayyaf. But for the purposes of the Senate report, that important document would have made the list of documents "translated and summarized to some extent." The real number of fully exploited documents, according to those familiar with the DOCEX project, remains in the single digits. The report's oracular assurances--that further exploitation is "unlikely" to change our understanding of Iraqi links to al Qaeda--is both deeply revealing and deeply troubling.

Where the report isn't tendentious, it is sloppy. Key names are misspelled; it's "Shakir" on one page, and "Shakhir" on another, which might be thought trivial. But consider: The writers of the report seem not to understand that "Shaykh Salman al-Awdah" and "Shaikh Sulayman al-Udah" is the same person and that he was an important spiritual mentor to al Qaeda and its leadership. At another point, the report claims that Saddam Hussein considered al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi an "outlaw." In the body of the report, the claim is attributed to a senior Iraqi official; in its conclusions the same information is attributed to an "al Qaeda detainee."

Where the report isn't tendentious and sloppy, it's confused. Saddam Hussein and his cronies disclaim any relationship and yet the Senate report itself cites two authenticated documents in which the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) itself discussed the "relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda. A 1992 document notes that bin Laden is "a Saudi opposition official in Afghanistan" and claims "the Syria [IIS] section has a relationship with him." An Iraqi Intelligence document describing the connections between Iraq and al Qaeda in 1997 notes that "through dialogue and agreements we will leave the door open to further develop the relationship and cooperation between both sides."

In its conclusions, the Senate report once again sets aside this documentary evidence of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda and defers to the claims of Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi detainees. "Postwar findings indicate that Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al Qaeda and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al Qaeda to provide material or operational support." Perhaps the documents don't count as "findings."

The Senate report is rife with such selective reading of the evidence. Consider the case of Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. Here is the report's treatment of Shakir.

The second lead centered on contact between Ahmad Hikat Shakir al-Azzawi, an Iraqi national, and [9/11] hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar, in Malaysia in January 2000. Shakir was a part-time facilitator of Arab visitors at the Kuala Lumpur airport for the Iraqi embassy. Some information alleged that the Iraqi Embassy employee who gave Shakhir [sic] his job was a former IIS officer.

The CIA assessed that Shakir, "apparently acting in his capacity as an airport facilitator, met al-Mihdhar at the airport. The two then shared a taxi to a Kuala Lumpur hotel, although airport facilitators were not responsible for providing land transportation for passengers." The two were not spotted together again. The CIA noted that Shakir's departure from Malaysia only one week after helping al-Mihdhar, "raised suspicion about his connections and intentions." The CIA added that, "Shakir's travel and past contacts linked him to a worldwide network of Sunni extremist groups and personalities including suspects in the bombing of the 1993 World Trade Center and indirectly to senior al Qaeda associates. His relationship with the embassy employee could suggest a link between Baghdad and Shakir's extremist contacts, but it could also be a case of an Iraqi expatriate finding a temporary job for a fellow national.

After Shakir's capture in 2002, a foreign government service working in partnership with the CIA reported that Shakir was not affiliated with al Qaeda and had no connections to the IIS. The information said there was "no link, clue or hint to any foreign intelligence service, radical religious group or terrorist operation."

To summarize what the report acknowledges: An Iraqi national with known contacts to Sunni extremists and employed by the Iraqi Embassy in Malaysia, facilitated the travel of a 9/11 hijacker and then disappeared one week after the encounter. That alone is interesting. Now consider what the report leaves out.

Not only did Shakir abruptly leave Malaysia one week after he helped al-Mihdhar, he had begun his job at the Iraqi Embassy only two months earlier. The Iraqi Embassy controlled his schedule. Among Shakir's "contacts" with men the report describes only as "Sunni extremists" were Musab Yasin, an Iraqi who is the brother of Abdul Rahman Yasin, discussed above for his participation in the 1993 World Trade Center attack; Ibrahim Suleiman, a Kuwaiti native whose fingerprints were found on the bombmaking manuals authorities allege were used in preparation for that attack; Zahid Sheikh Mohammed, brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks; and Abu Hajer al Iraqi, described in U.S. court documents as Osama bin Laden's "best friend."

The Senate report tells us that "some information alleged" that Shakir's Iraqi Embassy contact had been affiliated with Iraqi Intelligence. That information also came from an Iraqi detainee. Why is it treated with skepticism when the claims of other detainees are accepted as fact?

We cite the Shakir case not because it indicates that the Iraqi regime had foreknowledge or directed the 9/11 attacks. Rather, it stands as yet another example of the Senate report's selective use of evidence and the alacrity with which its authors sought to reject alleged Iraqi ties to al Qaeda.

One of the few areas where the Senate report provides new information concerns the presence of Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq before the war. According to the Senate report: "A postwar CIA assessment on al-Zarqawi notes that both captured former regime documents and former regime officials show that the IIS did respond to a foreign request for assistance in finding and extraditing al-Zarqawi for his role in the murder of U.S. diplomat Lawrence [sic] Foley. In the spring of 2002, the IIS formed a 'special committee' to track down al-Zarqawi, but was unable to locate and capture him." Those documents "also show that lower-level IIS units attempted to search for the individual."

Taken together with detainee debriefings, the documents, if authentic, certainly raise questions about the Bush administration's prewar claims, backed by CIA director George Tenet, that Zarqawi was being harbored by the Iraqi regime. The Senate report quotes a 2005 CIA analysis that concluded: "The regime did not have a relationship, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates."

The CIA report may be right. But there are several additional facts to consider in evaluating the Zarqawi-Iraq relationship, only one of which made it into the Senate report. The report notes that the Iraqi Intelligence Service received information from a foreign government service on five individuals suspected of playing a role in the assassination of U.S. AID worker Laurence Foley. One of those individuals, Abu Yasim Sayyem, was captured in early 2003.

According to the Senate report an IIS officer "was shocked when the Director of his division ordered Sayyem to be released. According to the Iraqi official, the Director of his division told him that Saddam Hussein ordered Sayyem's release." The IIS officer dismissed the possibility that the IIS was involved with al Qaeda or Zarqawi and speculated that Saddam intervened to free Sayyem because he might fight U.S. forces in the event of an invasion of Iraq.

Five additional facts not included in the Senate report provide important context. According to the July 2004 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on Iraq, Abu Zubaydah, a top-ranking al Qaeda official in U.S. custody, told interrogators "that he was not aware of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda" and that he found such a relationship "unlikely." Zubaydah "also said, however, that any relationship would be highly compartmented and went on to name al Qaeda members who he thought had good relations with the Iraqis." Among those he named? Abu Musab al Zarqawi. From the July 2004 Senate report: "Abu Zubaydah indicated that he had heard that an important al Qaeda associate, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and others had good relationships with Iraqi Intelligence." As noted, detainee testimony should be treated with skepticism. But Zubaydah, who provided both good information and bad in his debriefings, was in a position to know about Zarqawi's associations. The two men planned a millennium attack on the Radisson Hotel in Amman, Jordan, in 1999.

Zarqawi received medical treatment at a Baghdad hospital known for treating senior Iraqi regime officials. (Initial reports that he had his leg amputated were wrong. Subsequent reporting suggests Zarqawi was treated for nasal problems.) In a 2005 interview with Al-Hayat, Jordan's King Abdullah said: "We had information that he entered Iraq from a neighboring country, where he lived, and what he was doing. We informed the Iraqi authorities about all this detailed information we had, but they didn't respond." Jordanian intelligence continues to believe that the Iraqi regime knowingly harbored Zarqawi.

Muhammad al Masari, a known al Qaeda mouthpiece, told the editor of the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Abdel Bari Atwan, that Saddam reached out to al Qaeda--and Zarqawi--after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and provided funding for al Qaeda operatives to relocate to Iraq. "According to Masari, Saddam saw that Islam would be key to a cohesive resistance in the event of invasion. Iraqi army commanders were ordered to become practicing Muslims and to adopt the language and spirit of the jihadis. On arrival in Iraq, Al-Qaeda operatives were put in touch with these commanders, who later facilitated the distribution of arms and money from Saddam's caches."

Finally, when Zarqawi returned to Iraq after the war, he teamed up almost immediately with a cadre of former Iraqi Intelligence officials to conduct attacks on U.S. troops and softer targets in Iraq.

Not only is the Senate report's section on Zarqawi woefully incomplete, it is contradictory. The report's conclusions echo the CIA finding: "Postwar information indicates that Saddam Hussein attempted, unsuccessfully, to locate and capture al-Zarqawi and that the regime did not have a relationship with, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi." That Saddam Hussein himself ordered a Zarqawi associate freed--if the IIS officer's reporting is accurate--suggests that the Iraqi regime at the very least turned a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his network.

The mainstream press has treated the Senate report as the definitive word on Iraqi links to al Qaeda. It is not. It is worth remembering that while critics of the Bush administration have long since decided that there was no relationship at all between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda, there are many observers who continue to hold a different view. If these individuals disagree on the extent of the relationship and its meaning, they agree that there was one.

"There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," said 9/11 Commission co-chairman Thomas Kean.

"Saddam Hussein's regime welcomed them with open arms and young al Qaeda members entered Iraq in large numbers, setting up an organization to confront the occupation," said Hudayfa Azzam, the son of bin Laden's longtime mentor Abdullah Azzam.

"I believe very strongly that Saddam had relations with al Qaeda," said former Iraqi prime minister and longtime CIA asset Ayad Allawi. "And these relations started in Sudan. We know Saddam had relationships with a lot of terrorists and international terrorism."

"What our report said really supports what the administration, in its straight presentations, has said," noted 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman. "There were numerous contacts; there's evidence of collaboration on weapons. And we found earlier, we reported earlier, that there was VX gas that was clearly from Iraq in the Sudan site that President Clinton hit. And we have significant evidence that there were contacts over the years and cooperation, although nothing that would be operational."

And late last week, following the release of the Senate report, Barham Salih, deputy prime minister of Iraq, had this to say: "The alliance between the Baathists and jihadists which sustains al Qaeda in Iraq is not new, contrary to what you may have been told." Salih continued: "I know this at first hand. Some of my friends were murdered by jihadists, by al Qaeda-affiliated operatives who had been sheltered and assisted by Saddam's regime."

Some day there will be an authoritative and richly detailed history of the nature of the relationship between the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups. This latest product of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is unlikely to merit even a footnote in this history.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.