The Magazine

Saddam's Dangerous Friends

What a Pentagon review of 600,000 Iraqi documents tells us.

Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On Monday, March 10, 2008, Warren P. Strobel, a reporter from the McClatchy News Service first reported that the new Pentagon study was coming. "An exhaustive review of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents that were captured after the 2003 U.S. invasion has found no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had any operational links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist network." McClatchy is a newspaper chain that serves many of America's largest cities. The national security reporters in its Washington bureau have earned a reputation as reliable outlets for anti-Bush administration spin on intelligence. Strobel quoted a "U.S. official familiar with the report" who told him that the search of Iraqi documents yielded no evidence of a "direct operational link" between Iraq and al Qaeda. Strobel used the rest of the article to attempt to demonstrate that this undermined the Bush administration's prewar claims with regard to Iraq and terrorism.

With the study not scheduled for release for two more days, this article shaped subsequent coverage, which was no doubt the leaker's purpose. Stories from other media outlets tracked McClatchy very closely but began to incorporate a highly misleading phrase taken from the executive summary: "This study found no 'smoking gun' (i.e. direct connection) between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda." This is how the Washington Post wrote it up:

An examination of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents, audio and video records collected by U.S. forces since the March 2003 invasion has concluded that there is 'no smoking gun' supporting the Bush administration's prewar assertion of an 'operational relationship' between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, sources familiar with the study said."

Much of the confusion might have been avoided if the Bush administration had done anything to promote the study. An early version of the Pentagon study was provided to National Security Adviser Steve Hadley more than a year ago, before November 2006. In recent weeks, as the Pentagon handled the rollout of the study, Hadley was tasked with briefing President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. It's unclear whether he shared the study with President Bush, and NSC officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But sources close to Cheney say the vice president was blindsided.

After the erroneous report from McClatchy, two officials involved with the study became very concerned about the misreporting of its contents. One of them said in an interview that he found the media coverage of the study "disappointing." Another, James Lacey, expressed his concern in an email to Karen Finn in the Pentagon press office, who was handling the rollout of the study. On Tuesday, the day before it was scheduled for release, Lacey wrote: "1. The story has been leaked. 2. ABC News is doing a story based on the executive summary tonight. 3. The Washington Post is doing a story based on rumors they heard from ABC News. The document is being misrepresented. I recommend we put [it] out and on a website immediately."

Finn declined, saying that members of Congress had not been told the study was coming. "Despite the leak, there are Congressional notifications and then an official public release. This should not be posted on the web until these actions are complete."

Still under the misimpression that the Pentagon study undermined the case for war, McClatchy's Warren Strobel saw this bureaucratic infighting as a conspiracy to suppress the study:

The Pentagon on Wednesday canceled plans for broad public release of a study that found no pre-Iraq war link between late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the al Qaida terrorist network. . . . The reversal highlighted the politically sensitive nature of its conclusions, which were first reported Monday by McClatchy.

In making their case for invading Iraq in 2002 and 2003, President Bush and his top national security aides claimed that Saddam's regime had ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist network.

But the study, based on more than 600,000 captured documents, including audio and video files, found that while Saddam sponsored terrorism, particularly against opponents of his regime and against Israel, there was no evidence of an al Qaida link.