IT'S SETTLED, APPARENTLY. Saddam Hussein's regime never supported al Qaeda in its "attacks on America," and meetings between representatives of Iraq and al Qaeda did not result in a "collaborative relationship." That, we're told, is the conclusion of two staff reports the September 11 Commission released last Wednesday.
But the contents of the documents have been widely misreported. Together the new reports total 32 pages; one contains a paragraph on the broad question of a Saddam-al Qaeda relationship, the other a paragraph on an alleged meeting between the lead hijacker and an Iraqi agent. Nowhere in the documents is the "Al Qaeda-Hussein Link...Dismissed," as Washington Post headline writers would have us believe. In fact, Staff Statement 15 discusses several "links." It never, as the Associated Press maintained, "bluntly contradicted" the Bush administration's prewar arguments. The Los Angeles Times was more emphatic still: "The findings appear to be the most complete and authoritative dismissal of a key Bush administration rationale for invading Iraq: that Hussein's regime had worked in collusion with al Qaeda."
A complete dismissal? Only for someone determined to find a complete dismissal. The major television networks and newspapers across the country got it wrong.
By Thursday afternoon, the misreporting had become too much for some members of the 9/11 Commission. Its vice chairman, former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, defended Vice President Dick Cheney against his attackers in the media:
I must say I have trouble understanding the flak over this. The Vice President is saying, I think, that there were connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's government. We don't disagree with that. What we have said is just what [Republican co-chairman Tom Kean] just said: We don't have any evidence of a cooperative or collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein's government and al Qaeda with regard to the attacks on the United States. So it seems to me that sharp differences that the press has drawn, that the media has drawn, are not that apparent to me.
Hamilton is half-right. The report was far more nuanced and narrowly worded than most news reports suggested. But while nuance is a close cousin of precision, it is not the same thing. And the two paragraphs on the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship are highly imprecise. Statement 15 does not, in fact, limit its skepticism about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection to collaboration on "the attacks on the United States." It also seems to cast doubt on the existence of any "collaborative relationship" (while conceding contacts and meetings) between the two.
This ambiguity, which provided reporters the opening they needed to go after the Bush administration, was a departure from earlier reports of the 9/11 Commission. Most of the staff's investigative work--its careful examination of pre-September 11 air safety procedures, for example--has been both thorough and illuminating. By contrast, the analysis of the Iraq-al Qaeda connection comes off as incomplete, forced, and unreliable. Indeed, at least as regrettable as the misreporting of the newly released staff documents are the gaps in their contents.
Here in full is the relevant portion of Staff Statement 15:
Bin Ladin also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein's secular regime. Bin Ladin had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sudanese, to protect their own ties with Iraq, reportedly persuaded bin Ladin to cease this support and arranged for contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. A senior Iraqi Intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting bin Ladin in 1994. Bin Ladin is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after bin Ladin had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.
This brief passage raises more questions than it answers--a point we'll come back to. But it also shatters the myth that religious and ideological differences precluded cooperation between bin Laden and Saddam. Osama bin Laden's 1994 meeting with the "Iraqi intelligence officer"--Farouk Hijazi--is important.
The U.S. intelligence community has long believed that Saddam was willing to use Islamic militants--including al Qaeda--to exact revenge on the United States for his humiliating defeat in the first Gulf War. This belief was more than theoretical. Saddam played host to a wide range of Islamic militants through "Popular Islamic Conferences" his regime sponsored in Baghdad. He gradually Islamicized his rhetoric, incorporated harsh elements of Islamic law into the Iraqi legal code, and funded a variety of Islamic terrorist groups--some quite openly, including Hamas. On August 27, 1998, Uday Hussein's state-run newspaper, Babel, proclaimed bin Laden an "Arab and Islamic hero." Jabir Salim, an Iraqi intelligence agent stationed in Prague who defected in 1998, reported to British intelligence that he had received instructions from Baghdad, and $150,000, to recruit an Islamic militant to attack the broadcast headquarters of Radio Free Iraq in the Czech capital. And virtually no one disputes that Saddam offered bin Laden safe haven in Iraq in late 1998 or early 1999.
The chief obstacle to Iraq-al Qaeda collaboration, according to this reasoning, was bin Laden's presumed unwillingness to work with Hussein. Osama had, after all, publicly labeled the Iraqi dictator an "infidel." But in 1993--according to testimony provided by top al Qaeda terrorist Jamal Ahmed Al-Fadl and included in the Clinton administration's formal indictment of bin Laden in the spring of 1998--the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda reached an "understanding," whereby al Qaeda would not agitate against the Iraqi regime and in exchange the Iraqis would provide assistance on "weapons development." The following year, according to Staff Statement 15, bin Laden took the Iraqis up on their pledge. Hijazi told his interrogators in May 2003 that bin Laden had specifically requested Chinese-manufactured antiship limpet mines as well as training camps in Iraq.
It's never a good idea to take detainee testimony as gospel, but Hijazi's account of the meeting has been assessed as credible. As early as 1994, then, Osama bin Laden had expressed a willingness to work with Saddam Hussein. It was the Iraqis, per the 9/11 Commission report, who were reluctant to work with al Qaeda.
But were they?
According to numerous intelligence reports dating back to the Clinton administration, Iraq provided chemical weapons training (and perhaps materials) to the Sudanese government-run Military Industrial Corporation--which, along with Sudanese intelligence, also had a close relationship with al Qaeda. (Jamal Ahmed Al-Fadl and Ali A. Mohamed, two high-ranking al Qaeda terrorists who cooperated with U.S. authorities before 9/11, said Sudanese intelligence and military officials provided security for al Qaeda safehouses and training camps, and al Qaeda operatives did the same for Sudanese government facilities.)
William Cohen, secretary of defense under Clinton, testified to this before the September 11 Commission on March 23, 2004. Cohen was asked about U.S. attacks on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory on August 20, 1998. The strikes came 13 days after al Qaeda terrorists bombed U.S. embassies in East Africa, killing some 257 people (including 12 Americans) and injuring more than 5,000. The Clinton administration and the intelligence community quickly determined that al Qaeda was behind the attacks and struck back at the facility in Sudan and at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. Almost immediately, the decision to attack the plant outside Khartoum was controversial. The Clinton administration, in its efforts to justify the strikes, told reporters that the plant had strong links to Iraq's chemical weapons program. No fewer than six top Clinton administration officials--on the record--cited the Iraq connection to justify its strikes in response to the al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies. (Some of these officials, like James Rubin and Sandy Berger, now hold top advisory positions in John Kerry's presidential campaign. Kerry, however, now says he was misled about an Iraq-al Qaeda relationship.)
Here is Cohen's response to the 9/11 Commission in its entirety:
But to give you an example, this particular facility [al Shifa], according to the intelligence we had at that time, had been constructed under extraordinary security circumstances, even with some surface-to-air missile capability or defense capabilities; that the plant itself had been constructed under these security measures; that the--that the plant had been funded, in part, by the so-called Military Industrial Corporation; that bin Laden had been living there; that he had, in fact, money that he had put into this Military Industrial Corporation; that the owner of the plant had traveled to Baghdad to meet with the father of the VX program; and that the CIA had found traces of EMPTA nearby the facility itself. According to all the intelligence, there was no other known use for EMPTA at that time other than as a precursor to VX.
Under those circumstances, I said, "That's actionable enough for me," that that plant could, in fact, be producing not baby aspirin or some other pharmaceutical for the benefit of the people, but it was enough for me to say we're going to take--we should take it out, and I recommended that.
Now, I was criticized for that, saying, "You didn't have enough." And I put myself in the position of coming before you and having someone like you say to me, "Let me get this straight, Mr. Secretary. We've just had a chemical weapons attack upon our cities or our troops, and we've lost several hundred or several thousand, and this is the information, which you had at your fingertips--you had a plant that was built under the following circumstances; you had a manager that went to Baghdad; you had Osama bin Laden, who had funded, at least, the corporation; and you had traces of EMPTA; and you did what? You did nothing?" Is that a responsible activity on the part of the Secretary of Defense? And the answer is pretty clear.
So I was satisfied, even though that still is pointed as a mistake--that it was the right thing to do then. I believe--I would do it again based on that kind of intelligence.
Given this intelligence--and telephone intercepts cited by unnamed Clinton officials between the plant manager and Emad al-Ani, the head of Iraq's chemical weapons program--one wonders why the Iraq war did not take place in the wake of the embassy bombings in 1998.
The 9/11 Commission staff statement also states that "two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq." Leaving aside the fact that this claim plainly contradicts the ties between Iraq and al Qaeda cited in the same paragraph, why are these bin Laden associates deemed credible? As noted, detainee debriefings are best viewed skeptically unless they are corroborated by other sources. In this case, numerous other sources have directly contradicted these claims. Did the commission staff have access to these detainees? Are the two al Qaeda detainees mentioned in the staff statement more credible than those who have reported Iraq-al Qaeda ties? That's certainly possible. But the staff report leaves out any description--to say nothing of names--of these al Qaeda detainees.
Information from al Qaeda detainees is attributed to named sources elsewhere in the 9/11 Commission report, but not in this instance. Why? Readers are left wondering.
STAFF STATEMENT 16 briefly assesses the alleged meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in April 2001. It says, "Based on the evidence available--including investigation by Czech and U.S. authorities plus detainee reporting--we do not believe that such a meeting occurred."
The report makes no mention of the fact that five senior Czech officials are on record confirming the meeting. In private conversations, some of these officials are less emphatic than their public statements would suggest. Yet when reporters ask about the meeting, the Czechs refer them to their previous public statements confirming the meeting.
And what is the evidence upon which the commission staff bases its conclusion? Articles in the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Washington Post had reported that the U.S. intelligence community has rental car records and hotel receipts that place Atta in the United States at the time of the alleged meeting. According to senior Bush administration officials, no such records exist, and the commission's report mentions no such documentation. "The FBI's investigation," it says, "places [Atta] in Virginia as of April 4, as evidenced by this bank surveillance camera shot of Atta withdrawing $8,000 from his account. Atta was back in Florida by April 11, if not before. Indeed, investigation has established that on April 6, 9, 10, and 11, Atta's cellular telephone was used numerous times to call Florida phone numbers from cell sites within Florida. We have seen no evidence that Atta ventured overseas again or reentered the United States before July, when he traveled to Spain and back under his true name."
So contrary to previous reporting, Atta cannot be definitively placed in the United States at the time of the alleged meeting. Cell phone records are interesting, but hardly conclusive. It is entirely possible that Atta would leave his cell phone behind if he left the country. In any case, the hijackers are known to have shared cell phones.
More disturbing, however, is what the commission staff left out. Staff Statement 16, which purportedly provides the "Outline of the 9/11 Plot," offers a painstakingly detailed account of Atta's whereabouts in the months leading up to 9/11. But it contains a notable gap: The report makes no mention of a confirmed trip--technically, two trips--that Atta made to Prague. (This omission comes despite the fact that the report notes other travel by the hijackers--even trips of unknown significance. Marwan al Shehhi, we are told, took "an unexplained eight-day sojourn to Casablanca.")
Atta applied for a Czech visa in Bonn, Germany, on May 26, 2000. He was apparently one day late. His subsequent behavior suggests that he needed the visa for a trip scheduled for May 30, 2000. Although his visa wasn't ready by that date, Atta took a Lufthansa flight to Prague Ruzyne Airport anyway. Without a visa, Atta could go no farther than the arrival/departure terminal; he remained in this section of the airport for nearly six hours. After returning to Germany, Atta picked up his new visa in Bonn and on June 2, 2000, boarded a bus in Frankfurt bound for Prague. After the approximately seven-hour trip, Atta disappeared in Prague for almost 24 hours. Czech officials cannot find evidence of his staying in a hotel under his own name, suggesting he registered under an assumed name or stayed in a private home. Atta flew from Prague to Newark, New Jersey, on June 3, 2000. Al Shehhi, a fellow hijacker, had arrived in Newark on May 29, 2000.
What was Atta doing? That's unclear. But he went to some lengths to stop in Prague before traveling to the United States. By leaving this out, the 9/11 Commission report seems to suggest that it is irrelevant.
Another omission: Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. Shakir, as WEEKLY STANDARD readers may recall, is an Iraqi who was present at the January 2000 al Qaeda planning meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. U.S. intelligence officials do not know whether Shakir was an active participant in the meeting, but there is little doubt he was there.
In August 1999, Shakir began working as a VIP greeter for Malaysian Airlines. He told associates he had gotten the job through a contact at the Iraqi embassy. In fact, Shakir's embassy contact controlled his schedule--told him when to report to work and when to take a day off. The contact apparently told Shakir to report to work on January 5, 2000, the same day September 11 hijacker Khalid al Mihdhar arrived in Kuala Lumpur. Shakir escorted al Mihdhar to a waiting car and then, rather than bid his guest farewell, jumped in the car with him. The meeting lasted from January 5 to January 8. Shakir reported to work twice after the meeting broke up and then disappeared.
He was arrested in Doha, Qatar, on September 17, 2001. Authorities found both on his body and in his apartment contact information for a number of high-ranking al Qaeda terrorists. They included the brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Hajer al Iraqi, described by one detainee as Osama bin Laden's "best friend." Despite this, Shakir was released from custody. He was detained again on October 21, 2001, in Amman, Jordan, where he was to have caught a flight to Baghdad. The Jordanians held Shakir for three months. The Iraqi regime contacted the Jordanian government and either requested or demanded--depending on who you ask--his release. The Jordanians, with the apparent acquiescence of the CIA, set him free in late January 2002, at which point he returned to Baghdad. Then earlier this spring, Shakir's name was found on three lists of the officers of Saddam's Fedayeen.
It's possible, of course, that there is more than one Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. And even if the Shakir listed as an officer of the Saddam Fedayeen is the same Shakir who was present at the 9/11 planning meeting, it does not mean that the Iraqi regime helped plan or even had foreknowledge of those attacks.
But how can the 9/11 Commission staffers dismiss any potential Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attacks without even a mention of Ahmed Hikmat Shakir?
By week's end, several 9/11 panel commissioners sought to clarify the muddled report. According to commissioner John Lehman on Fox News, "What our report said really supports what the administration, in its straight presentations, has said: that there were numerous contacts; there's evidence of collaboration on weapons. And we found earlier, we reported earlier, that there was VX gas that was clearly from Iraq in the Sudan site that President Clinton hit. And we have significant evidence that there were contacts over the years and cooperation, although nothing that would be operational."
Commissioner Slade Gorton supports Lehman's comments, adding, "The Democrats are attempting to say that this gives the lie to the administration's claim that there was a connection between 9/11 and Saddam," he said. "But the administration never said that."
The 9/11 Commission will be releasing its report later this summer. Let's hope that that final product is more thorough and convincing than the latest staff statements. What it must do is credibly address the events that are plainly within the commission's purview--including any evidence, from Prague or Kuala Lumpur or elsewhere, of potential Iraqi involvement in 9/11.
When it comes to the broader question of the relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda, the commission cannot be expected to write the definitive history. In the end, it will be up to the Bush administration to make available to the public as much intelligence as possible without jeopardizing sources and methods. Americans are not idiots. They can be expected to grasp the difference between circumstantial evidence and proof; between shared goals and methods and a proved operational alliance. They can accept that not all analysts will agree, and some facts will remain elusive. What they should not have to settle for is the current confusion.
Stephen F. Hayes, a staff writer at The Weekly Standard, is the author of The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America.