GEORGE TENET'S JUST released book, At the Center of the Storm, has created quite a stir. Over the past few days, a myriad of news accounts have referenced various snippets of the former director of Central Intelligence's self-serving collection of remembrances. But here is something you probably have not heard or read about Tenet's book: it confirms that there was a relationship between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda. And, according to Tenet, "there was more than enough evidence to give us real concern" about it too.
Tenet devotes an entire chapter to the question of Iraq's ties to al Qaeda (Chapter 18, "No Authority, Direction, or Control"). Much of the chapter is used to vilify Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense, and Vice President Cheney. Tenet claims, repeatedly, that Feith, Cheney, and others in the Bush administration exaggerated the intelligence on Saddam's ties to al Qaeda. The former DCI says they "pushed the data farther than it deserved" and "sought to create a connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks that would have made WMD, the United Nations, and the international community absolutely irrelevant." (In this vein, Tenet also erroneously claimed to have met Richard Perle on September 12, 2001. According to Tenet, Perle said "Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday [September 11]." However, Perle was in France and, therefore, could not have met with Tenet. Perle denies the conversation took place at all.)
Tenet offers little real evidence to support his contention. But it is worth noting what he does not claim: that the Bush administration cooked up the connection between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda in its entirety. In fact, Tenet concedes that there was evidence of a worrisome relationship. For example, Tenet explains that in late 2002 and early 2003:
There was more than enough evidence to give us real concern about Iraq and al-Qa'ida; there was plenty of smoke, maybe even some fire: Ansar al-Islam [note: Tenet refers to Ansar al-Islam by its initials "AI" in several places]; Zarqawi; Kurmal; the arrests in Europe; the murder of American USAID officer Lawrence Foley, in Amman, at the hands of Zarqawi's associates; and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad operatives in Baghdad.
On Ansar al-Islam, Zarqawi, and Kurmal, Tenet elaborates further:
The intelligence told us that senior al-Qa'ida leaders and the Iraqis had discussed safe haven in Iraq. Most of the public discussion thus far has focused on Zarqawi's arrival in Baghdad under an assumed name in May of 2002, allegedly to receive medical treatment. Zarqawi, whom we termed a "senior associate and collaborator" of al-Qa'ida at the time, supervised camps in northern Iraq run by Ansar al-Islam (AI).
We believed that up to two hundred al-Qa'ida fighters began to relocate there in camps after the Afghan campaign began in the fall of 2001. The camps enhanced Zarqawi's reach beyond the Middle East. One of the camps run by AI, known as Kurmal, engaged in production and training in the use of low-level poisons such as cyanide. We had intelligence telling us that Zarqawi's men had tested these poisons on animals and, in at least one case, on one of their own associates. They laughed about how well it worked. Our efforts to track activities emanating from Kurmal resulted in the arrest of nearly one hundred Zarqawi operatives in Western Europe planning to use poisons in operations.
According to Tenet, al Qaeda's presence was not limited to northern Iraq:
What was even more worrisome was that by the spring and summer of 2002, more than a dozen al-Qa'ida-affiliated extremists converged on Baghdad, with apparently no harassment on the part of the Iraqi government. They had found a comfortable and secure environment in which they moved people and supplies to support Zarqawi's operations in northeastern Iraq.
Other high-level al Qaeda terrorists set up shop in Baghdad as well. From Saddam's neo-Stalinist capital they planned attacks around the globe:
More al-Qa'ida operatives would follow, including Thirwat Shihata and Yussef Dardiri, two Egyptians assessed by a senior al-Qa'ida detainee to be among the Egyptian Islamic Jihad's best operational planners, who arrived by mid-May of 2002. At times we lost track of them, though their associates continued to operate in Baghdad as of October 2002. Their activity in sending recruits to train in Zarqawi's camps was compelling enough.