Credibility Gap?

GIVE STEPHEN F. HAYES CREDIT. With only a couple of days between the New Republic's deadline and THE WEEKLY STANDARD's, he didn't have much time to defend the Bush administration from our charges that it systematically exaggerated what American intelligence knew about Iraq's nuclear program and alleged links to al Qaeda ("The War Against Bush," June 30). Unfortunately, it shows.

Start with the alleged al Qaeda ties. As we reported, the FBI and CIA examined thousands of documents--"from flight reservations to car rentals to bank accounts," in FBI Director Robert Mueller's words--before determining in early 2002 that there was no evidence that September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met an Iraqi agent in Prague in April 2001, as has been alleged. (Indeed, American intelligence concluded Atta was in Virginia Beach at the time.) This is also the position of the Czech government. Only one person--an informant to Czech intelligence--claims to have seen Atta meet with the Iraqi agent, and even Czech intelligence officials have questioned the informant's reliability in conversations with reporters. Hayes admits the Atta meeting is "disputed," saying (without any evidence) that it could have occurred at another time. But, even if you accept this highly charitable assessment, the Bush administration's public statements were still dishonest. In September 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney said accounts of the meeting were "credible." How can they be "credible" when the CIA and FBI have said there was no evidence?

Hayes also casts aspersions on our report that high-level al Qaeda terrorists Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Ramzi bin Al Shibh have rejected a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's group, saying these are merely "denials from terrorists." That's true. But, in his January 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush cited "statements by people now in custody" as evidence that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked. If Hayes wants to discount the testimony of captured terrorists, he should begin with the testimony brandished by the president himself.

Hayes cites an administration leak to Newsweek earlier this month about a former Iraqi diplomat confirming contact between al Qaeda and an Iraqi operative in the mid-90s. But, as Walter Pincus reported in the June 22 Washington Post, American officials knew last fall of such early ties and attributed them to mutual enmity toward the Saudi monarchy rather than the United States. Hayes also cites ties between Saddam and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom Hayes identifies as "an al Qaeda leader." For starters, there is no evidence of any agreement, arrangement, or plot involving Zarqawi and Saddam's regime. Moreover, Pincus reports that "U.S. intelligence had already concluded [by last October] that Zarqawi was not an al Qaeda member but the leader of an unaffiliated terrorist group who occasionally associated with al Qaeda adherents."

Then there is Saddam's nuclear program. Hayes defends the administration's claims that Iraq was importing aluminum tubes for its nuclear program by noting that the CIA believed it was true: "Why administration critics who are eager to defer to the CIA's skepticism about Saddam's al Qaeda links would rather not believe the CIA about the aluminum tubes is not explained." But his characterization of the CIA's position is inaccurate. As sources familiar with the relevant documents told us, the CIA did not unequivocally endorse the view that Iraq's aluminum-tube imports were designed for uranium enrichment in its classified reports, instead presenting it as the subject of internal intelligence-community debate. Even in the declassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's WMD threat--largely written by the CIA--the intelligence community again noted that some experts doubted the aluminum tubes could be used for creating nuclear weapons. But, to the consternation of intelligence analysts, the NIE did not reveal that the dissent came from experts at the Department of Energy, who, thanks to their expertise with nuclear technology, were most qualified to make the final judgment. (The International Atomic Energy Agency later came to the same conclusion, using a similar expert-based process, as did British intelligence.) And Hayes doesn't acknowledge that Bush mischaracterized even the declassified NIE. In his State of the Union address, the president said, "Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production," never noting that it was a topic of dispute, let alone disputed most strenuously by those intelligence agents who know the most about nuclear weapons.

While Hayes accuses us of "limitless credulousness," he himself stretches credulity when he asserts that Vice President Cheney's highly unusual prewar visits to the CIA occurred merely because Cheney "might want to be briefed as thoroughly as possible." After all, we are not the only journalists who have reported that the visits were perceived by many at Langley as an effort to pressure intelligence analysts. On June 5, the Washington Post, drawing on interviews with senior intelligence officials, wrote that "some analysts felt they were being pressured to make their assessments fit with the Bush administration's policy objectives." Evidently the Post is displaying "limitless credulousness," too.

More broadly, Hayes tries to exonerate the Bush team's inaccuracies by noting that "intelligence is an art, of course, not a science." Perfectly true, and perfectly irrelevant. The issue is how the Bush administration represented the qualified, imperfectly sourced, inconclusive, disputed, and, in some cases, discredited evidence the intelligence community had about Iraq's nuclear program and al Qaeda links. Again and again, the administration asserted what "we know" on the basis of "the evidence," when the intelligence agencies knew no such thing. Hayes commends the administration for "emphasizing the most alarming evidence, considering the most dangerous possibilities, and outlining the most terrifying threats." But, by knowingly failing to communicate the less alarming, dangerous, and terrifying possibilities, the administration prevented the public and Congress from making an informed choice about whether or not to go to war.

John B. Judis, Spencer Ackerman


Washington, DC

STEPHEN F. HAYES RESPONDS: There can hardly be a better example of the problems with Judis and Ackerman's article than the second paragraph of their letter. The words of FBI Director Robert Mueller that they quote--"from flight reservations to car rentals to bank accounts"--are from a speech he gave to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, California, on April 19, 2002. The speech had nothing whatsoever to do with Iraq-al Qaeda links. He did not mention Mohamed Atta. He never referred to Iraq. Here is the relevant section, which came in the midst of Mueller's recollection of the September 11 attacks:

The FBI began working in concert with its many partners to find out everything we could about the hijackers and how they pulled off their attacks. We ran down literally hundreds of thousands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on, from flight reservations to car rentals to bank accounts. What emerged from our massive investigation was a sobering portrait of 19 hijackers who carried out their attacks with meticulous planning, extraordinary secrecy, and extensive knowledge of how America works. (You can read the full speech at

Judis and Ackerman continue: "American intelligence concluded Atta was in Virginia Beach at the time," which is "also the position of the Czech government."

Both of those claims are wrong. "American intelligence" has come to no such conclusion. Numerous high-ranking intelligence officials believe to this day that a meeting between Atta and Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani took place. Others disagree. (Those who believe the meeting took place cite two reasons: the intelligence provided by the Czechs and Atta's bizarre travel the previous spring en route to the United States. Atta flew to Prague from Germany on May 30, 2000, but was initially denied entry because he did not have a valid visa. He returned to Germany, obtained the proper paperwork, and hopped a bus back to Prague. He left for the United States the day after arriving in Prague for the second time.)

As for the Czech government, no fewer than five Czech officials believe the meeting took place: Milos Zeman, prime minister; Stanislav Gross, interior minister; Martin Palous, Czech ambassador to the United States; Hynek Kmonicek, Czech ambassador to the U.N.; and Jiri Ruzek, Czech intelligence chief. (Former President Vaclav Havel has cast doubt on the meeting, at one point suggesting only a 70 percent chance that it took place.)

Ackerman and Judis continue: "The Bush administration's public statements were still dishonest. In September 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney said accounts of the meeting were 'credible.'"

Here's the context. Readers can decide for themselves who is being "dishonest." Cheney made that comment on September 8, 2002, in an hour-long interview on "Meet the Press." Tim Russert showed Cheney a clip, from "Meet the Press" on September 16, 2001. Russert had asked Cheney if there was any indication that Iraq had anything to do with the attacks five days earlier. Cheney's flat response: "No."

Russert followed up. Here is the exchange:

Russert:Has anything changed, in your mind?

Cheney: Well, I want to be very careful about how I say this. I'm not here today to make a specific allegation that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11. I can't say that. On the other hand, since we did that interview, new information has come to light. And we spent time looking at that relationship between Iraq, on the one hand, and the al Qaeda organization on the other. And there has been reporting that suggests that there have been a number of contacts over the years. We've seen in connection with the hijackers, of course, Mohamed Atta, who was the lead hijacker, did apparently travel to Prague on a number of occasions. And on at least one occasion, we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center. The debates about, you know, was he there or wasn't he there, again, it's the intelligence business.

Russert: What does the CIA say about that? Is it credible?

Cheney: It's credible. But, you know, I think a way to put it would be it's unconfirmed at this point. We've got--

Russert: Anything else?

Cheney: There is--again, I want to separate out 9/11 from the other relationships between Iraq and the al Qaeda organization. But there is a pattern of relationships going back many years. And in terms of exchanges and in terms of people, we've had recently since the operations in Afghanistan--we've seen al Qaeda members operating physically in Iraq and off the territory of Iraq. We know that Saddam Hussein has, over the years, been one of the top state sponsors of terrorism for nearly 20 years.

So Cheney, speaking carefully, making sure to separate September 11 from Saddam Hussein, calls the reports "credible" but "unconfirmed"--which seems to capture the split within the intelligence community. This is dishonest?

One final point on the Atta-in-Prague issue. Let's assume that, indeed, a consensus has developed among American intelligence officials and the Czech government that the meeting was bogus. Does the administration's behavior concerning the alleged meeting support the Ackerman/Judis dishonesty thesis? When was the last time a high-ranking Bush administration official invoked the Prague meeting as evidence of an al Qaeda-Iraq link?

The Cheney interview came on September 8, 2002. Condoleezza Rice was also asked about the Atta meeting that day by Wolf Blitzer on CNN's "Late Edition." Blitzer: "Can you confirm absolutely that that meeting took place?" Rice: "We continue to look at evidence of that meeting. And it's just more of a picture that is emerging that there may well have been contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime. There are others. And we will be laying out the case. But I don't think that we want to try and make the case that he directed somehow the 9/11 events. That's not the issue here."

What's happened in the intervening 10 months? Not much. Martha Raddatz of ABC News reported on September 26, 2002, just three weeks after Cheney and Rice addressed the issue, that the administration had "dropped the subject." It may well be that top administration officials determined the alleged Atta meeting was too iffy to include in its case for war. In any event, the Bush administration fell silent on the subject. And it did so more than a month before Congress voted on war with Iraq and two months before the Security Council voted on Resolution 1441. That reality would seem to undermine the Ackerman/Judis contention that the administration relied on selective and dishonest use of the most frightening evidence to make its case.

Ackerman and Judis shrug off a meeting in the mid-1990s between Faruq Hijazi, a former diplomat and high-ranking Iraqi intelligence officer, and Osama bin Laden. So on the one hand, they now concede that there were high-level contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq. But they also cite a Washington Post article, published after their piece and mine, that downplays the links. They write: "American officials knew last fall of such early ties and attributed them to mutual enmity toward the Saudi monarchy rather than the United States."

Which American officials? How do they know this? Did Ackerman and Judis know about this interpretation in the forthcoming Washington Post article? Is that why they didn't once mention contacts between bin Laden and Hijazi, including a second meeting many intelligence officials believe took place in Afghanistan in 1998? And is that why they failed to cite documents from that same year found in the rubble of the Iraqi Intelligence headquarters that allegedly detail plans for stepping up contact between bin Laden associates and the Mukhabarat? We're left to wonder.

In fact, "American officials" knew of these links well before last fall and believed that such contacts--given Saddam Hussein's fondness for deadly weapons and Osama bin Laden's desire to use them against Americans--were deeply disturbing. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions about the threat, which is exactly what appears to have happened in the intelligence community. But an emphasis on one interpretation hardly constitutes deception.

It's hard to know what to make of the Ackerman/Judis claim that there is no evidence of an "agreement, arrangement, or plot" involving Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Iraq. Zarqawi fled to Iraq after he was wounded fighting with al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan. Several intelligence reports reveal that he not only took refuge in Baghdad, but also received medical treatment there for his injuries in May 2002. Subsequent news reports of the capture of Zarqawi associates in Baghdad support administration claims that Zarqawi was operating a cell in the Iraqi capital. Captured Zarqawi associates, whom Ackerman and Judis cannot discount given their reliance on other terrorist informants, have told their interrogators that Zarqawi masterminded the assassination of American diplomat Laurence Foley in Jordan.

Iraq was a dictatorship. Iraqi civilians lived in constant fear because Saddam Hussein and his internal intelligence monitored their activities. There can be little doubt that Saddam Hussein knew about Zarqawi's operation. And that--not an "agreement, arrangement, or plot"--was the substantive allegation Colin Powell made in his presentation to the U.N. Security Council of February 5, 2003. "Iraqi officials protest that they are not aware of the whereabouts of Zarqawi or of any of his associates. Again, these protests are not credible. We know of Zarqawi's activities in Baghdad."

It may be true that Zarqawi traveled to Baghdad in search of a good doctor. And it may be true that Zarqawi, as an unnamed intelligence official told the Washington Post, merely headed an "unaffiliated terrorist group who occasionally associated with al Qaeda adherents." As I say, there are different interpretations of the evidence. Choosing one over another doesn't constitute a "systematic exaggeration" of intelligence.

On nukes, Ackerman and Judis complain that my "characterization of the CIA's position [on aluminum tubes] is inaccurate." And they're right to note that there was not unanimity in the intelligence community on this issue. But my characterization comes directly from their source, who told them that the CIA clung "tenaciously to this point of view about it being a nuclear weapons program."

Finally, Ackerman and Judis accuse me of trying to "exonerate the Bush team's inaccuracies," by noting that "intelligence is an art" and "not a science." To which they reply, "perfectly true and perfectly irrelevant."

Except it's not irrelevant. Indeed, one might say it's the most relevant point of all. Top officials in the Bush administration determined that Saddam Hussein, with his nuclear ambitions and his collaboration--real and potential--with terrorists posed a grave threat to the United States. Most of the world agreed. The U.N. Security Council voted 15-0 that Iraq was in "material breach" of previous resolutions. The House overwhelmingly approved the resolution authorizing force. Seventy-seven of the Senate's 100 members voted the same way.

Still, as I pointed out in this magazine just last week: "There are serious questions the Bush administration will have to answer" about its case for war. At the top of my list was this one: "How did a forged document about Iraq's pursuit of uranium make it into the State of the Union address?" That is the one "inaccuracy"--as distinct from disputed analyses--that we know of thus far. My words are hardly an exoneration.

There is no question that once the Bush administration decided to take its case to the U.N. last fall, it heavily emphasized Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. (The WMD case took up approximately 85 percent of Colin Powell's presentation to the Security Council.) I agreed with their assessment of that threat, but wished--and said so at the time--that they would focus more on the Iraqi dictator's unspeakable human rights record. They chose to stay focused on WMD. The critics are right to hold them to those arguments. It's disingenuous for hawks defending the war now to speak only of human rights abuses. But emphasizing some arguments over others hardly qualifies as deception and dishonesty, as Ackerman and Judis surely know.

Credibility Gap?(cont.)

THE LATEST ISSUE of THE WEEKLY STANDARD twice accuses the New Republic of changing its position on war with Iraq. In his article "The War Against Bush," Stephen F. Hayes describes our cover story on Bush administration deception in the run-up to war as a "reversal on the part of the previously hawkish New Republic." Huh? In an editorial in the very same issue (never mentioned by Hayes), we explicitly reaffirm our support for the war. The apparent lack of an on-going nuclear program, we write, "undermines one of the magazine's central rationales for war. But not the only rationale." We subsequently reiterate the moral case for war: that Saddam Hussein was a genocidal monster and replacing him with an "Arab democracy would provide the best long-term protection against terrorism." Even some well-known conservatives now de-emphasize the WMD threat. Ken Adelman, for instance, has taken to arguing that Saddam's regime was the "main weapon of mass destruction." Is he "previously hawkish," too?

Elsewhere, THE SCRAPBOOK claims the New Republic is rewriting its own history when we say the national security (as opposed to the moral) case for war hinged on the possibility that Saddam might obtain nuclear weapons. As proof, it quotes a September 2, 2002, editorial that, it claims, shows we were equally concerned with the danger posed by chemical weapons. Remarkably, the very quotes it selects make an altogether different case--a case for the moral necessity of toppling Saddam, regardless of whether or not he poses an imminent threat to the United States: "And it should not matter to us that [Saddam's uses of chemical weapons] were not committed against the United States, or that Saddam Hussein's missiles do not have the range to hit American places, because the use of weapons of mass destruction, rather like genocide, represents an international emergency. In international emergencies it is we who must lead. The physical defense of the United States includes also the moral defense of the United States; but the defense of American values sometimes requires action in non-American places."

THE WEEKLY STANDARD also conveniently fails to note that, in an editorial three weeks later, on September 23, 2002, we wrote that "the case is clear: Saddam Hussein is pursuing nuclear weapons, and the only way to make sure he does not use them against the United States or its allies is to remove him from power." Two weeks later, we published a cover story by Gregg Easterbrook, which argued, "The phrase 'weapons of mass destruction' . . . muddies the American rationale for military action against Iraq. That rationale should be to prevent Saddam from acquiring atomic weapons. That alone is reason to go to war." And, the week after that, we ran yet another editorial noting that "[t]he White House's arguments for invading Iraq have repeatedly shifted. Even worse, in recent days, they have shifted away from the real threat--that Saddam will get a nuclear bomb--and toward speculation that Iraq is in bed with al Qaeda."

Both the Hayes article and the SCRAPBOOK item follow the same basic formulation: The New Republic used to be hawkish; now, it is outraged by the Bush administration's deception. Nowhere do they concede that a magazine can both advocate a hawkish foreign policy and demand honesty on matters of war and peace. The STANDARD's inability to conceive such a position reveals little about the New Republic and a great deal about itself.

Peter Beinart

Editor, The New Republic

Washington, DC

STEPHEN F. HAYES RESPONDS: In the September 30, 2002, issue of the New Republic, Peter Beinart worried that by citing the many U.N. resolutions Saddam Hussein has violated over the years, President Bush "had obscured the real" rationale for war: Saddam Hussein's continued thwarting of weapons inspectors and his pursuit of nuclear weapons. Beinart further accused the administration of "cooking up new and disingenuous reasons for attacking Saddam." Beinart cited three issues from Bush's speech that, he argued, were "peripheral": Accounting for prisoners from the first Gulf War, ensuring that oil-for-food money went to the Iraqi people rather than their brutal leader, and, most relevant to the current discussion, Bush's demand that Saddam Hussein's Iraq "cease persecution of its civilian population, including Shia, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomans, and others." In focusing on these U.N. resolutions that reflect such moral concerns, Beinart wrote, "Bush raised a number of previously ignored--and entirely unconvincing--pretexts for war." He summed up the debate this way: "As much as the Turkmen deserve not to be persecuted, as much as Oman deserves a full accounting of its Gulf war prisoners, and as much as it galls us to see Saddam spending his oil revenue on palaces, these are not the reasons we are going to war."

The New Republic did, as Beinart claims, offer more than one reason for war. But it has now abandoned its primary one in favor of the "moral" case its editor once dismissed as peripheral. To suggest that it is somehow misleading to point out this "reversal" is a stretch.

THE SCRAPBOOK RESPONDS: The White House made several arguments for invading Iraq. So did the New Republic. (So did THE WEEKLY STANDARD, for that matter.) And why not? There were many valid reasons for the war.

Last week, though, the New Republic wrote a repositioning editorial, to heighten the contradictions between its stance and that of the Bush administration, which it now wishes to assail. In so doing, it referred to "this magazine's argument for war" in the singular--glossing over and contradicting other arguments it had once eloquently made. We chose to highlight one of these because, in our view, the many similarities between the arguments made by the Bush White House and those advanced in the prewar editorials of the New Republic are nothing for the magazine to be ashamed of.

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