ONCE AGAIN headlines from media outlets around the country declare "No Saddam, al-Qaeda link." This time the news cycle is being fed by the release of two reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee, both of which purport to investigate the uses of prewar intelligence. The first of these two reports, titled "Postwar Findings about Iraq's WMD Programs and Links to Terrorism and How They Compare with Prewar Assessments," has pleased Democrats.
Senator Carl Levin says that the report is "a devastating indictment of the Bush-Cheney administration's unrelenting, misleading, and deceptive attempts" to connect Saddam's regime to bin Laden's al Qaeda. Senator Jay Rockefeller agrees with Senator Levin's assessment, saying the report will confirm that "the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq was fundamentally misleading."
But beyond the obvious political gamesmanship, there is little merit to this posturing because there is little serious analysis in the Senate report: Far from providing the definitive word on Saddam's ties to al Qaeda, the report is almost worthless.
CONSIDER TWO BRIEF examples, chosen from many:
The committee's staff made little effort to determine whether or not the testimony of former Iraqi regime officials was truthful. In fact, Saddam Hussein and several of his top operatives--all of whom have an obvious incentive to lie--are cited or quoted without caveats of any sort. In Saddam's debriefing it was suggested that he may cooperate with al Qaeda because "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." According to the report, "Saddam answered that the United States was not Iraq's enemy. He claimed that Iraq only opposed U.S. policies. He specified that if he wanted to cooperate with the enemies of the U.S., he would have allied with North Korea or China."
Anyone with even a partial recollection of the controversy surrounding Iraq in the 1990s will recall that Saddam made it a habit of cursing and threatening the United States. His annual January "Army Day" speeches were laced with threats and promises of retaliation against American assets. That is, when Saddam claimed that the United States was "not Iraq's enemy," he was quite obviously lying. But nowhere in the staff's report is it noted that Saddam's debriefing was substantially at odds with more than a decade of his rhetoric.
The testimony of another former senior Iraqi official is more starkly disturbing. One of Saddam's senior intelligence operatives, Faruq Hijazi, was questioned about his contacts with bin Laden and al Qaeda. There is a substantial body of reporting on Hijazi's ties to al Qaeda throughout the 1990s.
Hijazi admitted to meeting bin Laden once in 1995, but claimed that "this was his sole meeting with bin Ladin or a member of al Qaeda and he is not aware of any other individual following up on the initial contact."
This is not true. Hijazi's best known contact with bin Laden came in December 1998, days after the Clinton administration's Operation Desert Fox concluded. We know the meeting happened because the worldwide media reported it. The meeting took place on December 21, 1998. And just days later, Osama bin Laden warned, "The British and the American people loudly declared their support for their leaders decision to attack Iraq. It is the duty of Muslims to confront, fight, and kill them."
Reports of the alliance became so prevalent that in February 1998 Richard Clarke worried in an email to Sandy Berger, President Clinton's National Security adviser, that if bin Laden were flushed from Afghanistan he would probably just "boogie to Baghdad." Today, Clarke has made a habit of denying that Iraq and al Qaeda were at all connected.
There is a voluminous body of evidence surrounding this December 1998 meeting between Hijazi and bin Laden--yet there is not a single mention of it in the committee's report. THE WEEKLY STANDARD asked the staffers "Why not?" They replied that there was no evidence of the meeting in the intelligence or documents they reviewed.
That's hard to believe. Newspapers such as Milan's Corriere Della Sera and London's Guardian, and the New York Post reported on it. Michael Scheuer, who was the first head of the bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, approvingly cited several of these accounts (before his own flip-flop on the issue) in his 2002 book, Through Our Enemies Eyes. Scheuer wrote that Saddam made Hijazi responsible for "nurturing Iraq's ties to [Islamic] fundamentalist warriors," including al Qaeda.
All of this obviously contradicts Hijazi's debriefing; none of it is cited in the committee's report.
THE MEDIA HAS ALSO BEEN QUICK to cite the report's conclusions concerning Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's relationship (or lack thereof) with Saddam's regime. But once again the committee's staff overlooked much contradictory evidence. The report concludes, "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."
The staff cites debriefings which support this conclusion, but do not give any weight at all to testimony which runs counter to it. For example, the Phase I Senate Intelligence report noted that a top al Qaeda operative named Abu Zubaydah "indicated that he heard that an important al-Qaida associate, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, and others had good relationships with Iraqi intelligence."
Zubaydah's testimony has since been further corroborated by a known al Qaeda ideologue, Dr. Muhammad al-Masari. Al-Masari operated the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, a Saudi oppositionist group and al Qaeda front, out of London for more than decade. He told the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi that Saddam "established contact with the 'Afghan Arabs' as early as 2001, believing he would be targeted by the U.S. once the Taliban was routed." Furthermore, "Saddam funded Al-Qaeda operatives to move into Iraq with the proviso that they would not undermine his regime."
Al-Masari claimed that Saddam's regime actively aided Zarqawi and his men prior to the war and fully included them in his plans for a terrorist insurgency. He said Saddam "saw that Islam would be key to a cohesive resistance in the event of invasion." Iraqi officers bought "small plots of land from farmers in Sunni areas" and they buried "arms and money caches for later use by the resistance." Al-Masari also claimed that "Iraqi army commanders were ordered to become practicing Muslims and to adopt the language and spirit of the jihadis."
A cursory examination of Zarqawi's cell in Iraq reveals that many of his top operatives were once Saddam's military and intelligence officers. It appears, therefore, al-Masari's testimony should be taken seriously.
Yet, neither Abu Zubaydah's nor Al-Masari's statements are given any weight by the committee. Nor did they bother to examine who it was, exactly, that Zarqawi was working with in Iraq. Not that any of this matters, of course. This reports was never really about investigating the relationship between Saddam's regime and al Qaeda.
It was about giving certain senators more ammunition against the president.
Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.