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Harboring al Qaeda

What the new Senate Intelligence Report says about Saddam's hospitality.

12:00 AM, Jun 10, 2008 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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THE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE has once again released a report claiming that the Bush administration hyped prewar intelligence. The so-called Phase Two report is supposed to investigate the Bush administration's handling of prewar intelligence. In reality, the report is little more than yet another attempt by partisan Democrats to make political hay out of flawed prewar intelligence. (The only Republicans to endorse the report were two of the Senate's most liberal GOP members.) The committee focused exclusively on prewar statements by Bush administration officials, ignoring similar statements by leading Democrats. Therefore, the report is intended to portray the Bush administration in the worst possible light. But even with this bias, the committee came to a noteworthy conclusion: The Bush administration was right to claim that Saddam's regime was harboring al Qaeda members.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's report includes this conclusion at the end of a terse section on the Bush administration's claims about Saddam's prewar terror ties:

Statements that Iraq provided safe haven for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other al Qaeda-related terrorist members were substantiated by the intelligence assessments.

Intelligence assessments noted Zarqawi's presence in Iraq and his ability to travel and operate within the country. The intelligence community generally believed that Iraqi intelligence must have known about, and therefore at least tolerated, Zarqawi's presence in the country.

Regarding postwar information collected by the U.S. intelligence community, the report reads:

Postwar information supports prewar assessments and statements that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was in Baghdad and that al Qaeda was present in northern Iraq.

These conclusions should not be surprising. In his book At the Center of the Storm, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet provided a number of details concerning the safe haven al Qaeda members received in Saddam's Iraq. For example, Tenet wrote that two of Ayman al-Zawahiri's top operatives, Thirwat Shihata and Yussef Dardiri, received safe haven in Baghdad. Tenet says that there was "concern that these two might be planning operations outside Iraq."

The first report on the uses of prewar intelligence published by the Senate Intelligence Committee in July 2004 also found that Zarqawi freely roamed around Iraq and Saddam's goons must have been aware of his presence. The authors of the Butler Report, the British government's investigation into prewar intelligence, found roughly the same. Even other al Qaeda members have, on occasion, been open about the relationship between Zarqawi, other al Qaeda operatives, and Saddam's regime in prewar Iraq.

Despite all of these findings, however, the myth that Zarqawi and other al Qaeda operatives lived in Saddam's neo-Stalinist state without receiving at least the dictator's tacit support has lived on. But now, even in a partisan report designed to attack the Bush administration's credibility, the Senate Intelligence Committee has admitted that Bush and his officials were right to argue that Saddam was harboring al Qaeda fugitives. Both prewar and postwar intelligence assessments confirm their view.

But no one should take the Senate Intelligence Committee's word one way or another on these issues. In fact, the only reason that we know the committee got the story of Saddam's safe haven for al Qaeda members right is because so many other sources have already confirmed it. And while the Senate Intelligence Committee got this issue right, it got many others wrong. The report is not even internally consistent and the committee simply ignored numerous pieces of information that got in the way of some of its conclusions.

One glaring illustration is the following baseless finding:

Iraq and al Qaeda did not have a cooperative relationship. 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.

Here, the committee simply regurgitated an old storyline invented by some analysts within the CIA and other intelligence bureaucracies. The truth is that this was a prewar assumption that went untested and is contradicted by a variety of pieces of evidence discovered both in the prewar as well as postwar period. Some of this evidence is cited in the committee's own report!