"THERE WAS NO QUESTION in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda."
Those are the words of Thomas Kean, the Republican co-chairman of the September 11 Commission. He made the statement on July 22, 2004, 10 days after a New York Times headline declared, "9/11 Report Is Said to Dismiss Iraq-Qaeda Alliance," and a month after another headline in the same paper blared, "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie."
The second of those stories came as part of the wide wave of media coverage that dismissed the Iraq-al Qaeda connection after a 9/11 Commission staff statement concluded that the available evidence did not suggest a "collaborative relationship." The staff statement was poorly worded and vague, and reporters long dubious of an Iraq-al Qaeda relationship trumpeted the findings as definitive proof that the Bush administration had exaggerated the connection. The Los Angeles Times reported that the staff statement was the "most complete and authoritative dismissal" of the Bush case on Iraq-al Qaeda.
But the commission's final report presents a much more complicated picture. It cites repeated "friendly contacts" and details numerous high-level meetings between the regime of Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda terrorists. It demolishes the claims of former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke that there was "no evidence" of Iraqi support for al Qaeda--in part by publishing excerpts of internal White House emails in which Clarke himself directly makes an Iraq-al Qaeda connection. The final report also amends the staff statement in two important ways, finding only no "collaborative operational relationship" and specifying that these contacts did not indicate "that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."
The report provides details of several of the "friendly contacts," including meetings throughout the mid-1990s which suggest the outreach between Iraq and al Qaeda went both ways. In March 1998, "two al Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence." The public learns for the first time of a trip taken by Iraqi officials to Afghanistan in July 1998 in which they met first with representatives from the Taliban and later with bin Laden. According to the report, "sources reported that one, or perhaps both, of these meetings was apparently arranged through bin Laden's Egyptian deputy, [Ayman al] Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis." (THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported in November 2003 that Zawahiri met with Saddam Hussein in 1992. And, according to an interrogation of a senior Iraqi Intelligence official, Zawahiri received $300,000 from the Iraqi regime in 1998.)
This new information is helpful. But the report contains several gaping holes with respect to the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship. Its overview of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center makes no mention of Abdul Rahman Yasin, an Iraqi who has admitted mixing the chemicals for that attack. And in seeking to rule out any Iraqi involvement in the September 11 attacks, the panel allowed its conclusions to race ahead of the available evidence by relegating the intriguing story of Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, an Iraqi present at a key 9/11 planning meeting, to a single, dismissive footnote.
"We have found no relationship whatever between Iraq and the attack on 9/11," asserted Kean. "That just doesn't exist."
Kean may end up being correct. But his categorical statement is premature.
The commission's final report offered the most detailed official account so far of Mohammed Atta's alleged meeting with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, first reported by Czech intelligence. According to the commission, the Iraqi in question was not in Prague at the time of the alleged meeting. The commission doesn't reveal how it knows this, and given its credulous reporting of al Ani's denial of the meeting, one hopes this account of al Ani's whereabouts did not come from the Iraqi intelligence officer himself. Still, the commission's decision to address the question of the Prague meeting directly is admirable.
THE SAME cannot be said about Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. The details of Shakir's activities in late 1999 and early 2000 are familiar to readers of this magazine. They were summarized in the Senate Intelligence Committee's recent report on pre-Iraq war intelligence:
The first connection to the attack involved Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, an Iraqi national, who facilitated the travel of one of the September 11 hijackers to Malaysia in January 2000. [Redacted.] A foreign government service reported that Shakir worked for four months as an airport facilitator in Kuala Lumpur at the end of 1999 and beginning of 2000. Shakir claimed he got this job through Ra'ad al-Mudaris, an Iraqi Embassy employee. [Redacted.] Another source claimed that al-Mudaris was a former IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] officer. The CIA judged in "Iraqi Support for Terrorism," however, that al Mudaris' [redacted] that the circumstances surrounding the hiring of Shakir for this position did not suggest it was done on behalf of the IIS.
This chronology omits several details, according to sources familiar with the intelligence on Shakir. The three-day meeting in Kuala Lumpur was a key planning meeting for both the attack on the USS Cole and September 11. Al Mudaris, the Iraqi embassy employee, controlled Shakir's schedule at the airport. Shakir left his job two days after the al Qaeda meeting. More striking still, when Shakir was detained in Qatar on September 17, 2001, he was in possession of contact information for several high-ranking al Qaeda terrorists. These contacts included Zaid Sheikh Mohammed, the brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational planner of the 9/11 attacks, and Musab Yasin, an Iraqi and the brother of Abdul Rahman Yasin, who mixed the chemicals for the first World Trade Center attacks. Shakir was known to U.S. intelligence because he had received a phone call in 1993 from the safehouse where planning for the first WTC bombing took place. After his release from custody in Qatar, he was detained in Jordan as he attempted to travel to Baghdad. According to several officials with firsthand knowledge of the intelligence on Shakir, the Iraqi regime demonstrated a keen interest in Shakir's release. After being held for three months, he was released and is believed to have returned to Iraq. His current whereabouts are unknown.
The Senate concluded the "CIA's reluctance to draw a conclusion with regard to Shakir was reasonable based on the limited intelligence available and the analyst familiarity with the IIS."
But the 9/11 Commission did not mention Shakir in the body of its report, despite his having escorted hijacker Khalid al Mihdhar to the Kuala Lumpur meeting. Although the commission's account of the Kuala Lumpur meeting is otherwise exhaustive, the only reference to Shakir comes in a footnote on page 502 of the 567-page report. The commission does not address the substantive reporting on Shakir's activities. Instead, the footnote seeks only to clarify confusion resulting from public reports that a lieutenant colonel in the Saddam Fedayeen had a name similar to Shakir's.
Here is the relevant part of that footnote:
Mihdhar was met at the Kuala Lumpur airport by Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, an Iraqi national. Reports that he was a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi Fedayeen have turned out to be incorrect. They were based on a confusion of Shakir's identity with that of an Iraqi Fedayeen colonel with a similar name, who was later (in September 2001) in Iraq at the same time Shakir was in police custody in Qatar.
Had the lieutenant colonel been the same Shakir as the one in Kuala Lumpur, the intrigue surrounding his activities would have certainly been heightened. But the fact that there appear to have been two different Shakirs, while interesting, does nothing to explain the activities of the Shakir described in the Senate report. (The sourcing of the 9/11 Commission report on the two Shakirs inspires little confidence. The commission cites a report in the Washington Post co-bylined by Walter Pincus, whose unbridled cynicism on the Iraq-al Qaeda connection is well known.)
Several commission sources report that commissioners and the staff had access to this same chronology of Shakir's activities.
The question, then, remains: Who was Ahmed Hikmat Shakir? The answer is, we don't know.
In an interview, commissioner John Lehman, who supports the findings of the final report, says he wants to know more about Shakir.
LEHMAN: The Shakir in Kuala Lumpur has many interesting connections that are so multiple in their intersections with al Qaeda-related organizations and people as to suggest something more than random chance.
HAYES: With respect to both al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime?
LEHMAN: Yes. Both.
The commission's report was equally incomplete in its three-page treatment of the 1993 World Trade Center attacks. The account provides many specifics about the plot and its perpetrators. But one name is conspicuously absent: Abdul Rahman Yasin.
Yasin, an Iraqi, came to the United States in September 1992. He has admitted on national television in the United States--in a 2002 interview with 60 Minutes--that he mixed the chemicals for the bomb. He was detained twice by the FBI and, despite his intimate knowledge of the plot, was twice released. According to an overview in the Senate Intelligence Committee report, Yasin "fled to Iraq with Iraqi assistance." A reporter for Newsweek magazine and ABC News spotted Yasin in Baghdad in 1994 and reported that he was operating freely. A neighbor told the reporter that Yasin was working for the Iraqi government. Documents recovered in postwar Iraq indicate that Yasin received not only safe haven in Iraq, but also funding from the former Iraqi regime.
The commission report makes no mention of Yasin and, remarkably, praises the efforts of law enforcement. "The FBI and the Justice Department did excellent work investigating the bombing."
OTHER PARTS of the report and the public statements of commissioners do, however, broaden the public understanding of the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship. Taken together, they render laughable the arguments of those who still maintain there was "no connection."
Of particular interest are assessments of the Clinton administration and former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, whose credibility is reaching Joe Wilson lows. It was Clarke who famously declared on March 21, 2004: "There's absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda. Ever."
The report notes that the Clinton Justice Department included the Iraq-al Qaeda connection in its spring 1998 sealed indictment of Osama bin Laden. That indictment came before the al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa--after which numerous Clinton officials cited an Iraqi connection to the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, destroyed by the United States in response to those al Qaeda attacks. The relevant paragraph of the indictment reads:
Al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the government of Iraq.
According to the 9/11 Commission report, quoting from an email from Clarke to former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger on November 4, 1998:
This passage led Clarke, who for years had read intelligence reports on Iraqi-Sudanese cooperation on chemical weapons, to speculate to Berger that a large Iraqi presence at chemical facilities in Khartoum was "probably the direct result of the Iraq-al Qida (sic) agreement". Clarke added that VX precursor traces found near al Shifa were the "exact formula used by Iraq."
No evidence? Ever?
In February 1999, when Berger recommended going after bin Laden with a U2 flight over Pakistan, Clarke objected. The flight would have to be approved by Pakistan, he reasoned, whose intelligence services were close to bin Laden and would likely warn him of the coming attacks. In an email to Berger on February 11, 1999, Clarke writes: "Armed with that knowledge, old wily Usama will likely boogie to Baghdad."
At the press conference held to unveil the final report, Commission cochairman Kean fielded two questions about the Clinton administration's linking of Iraq to al Qaeda.
QUESTION: Former Defense Secretary William Cohen testified before your commission to the effect that the Clinton administration believed that Osama bin Laden and Iraq collaborated on the construction of a nerve gas factory in the Sudan. And it was on that basis that the factory was bombed on August 20th, 1998.
What I'd like to know is, given your finding that there was no collaborative operational relationship, what was it about that testimony and that issue that caused you not to give weight to Secretary Cohen's testimony before you?
KEAN: We gave weight to the testimony. And it's the same belief that President Clinton had, the same belief that Sandy Berger has. But there are a whole bunch of people on the other side who dispute that finding, who say there is no independent collaborative evidence that those chemicals were there.
And this is a debate that goes on. We were not able to come to a conclusion on that debate. We could say that there is no evidence that we found--independent evidence--that those chemicals were there. But I can tell you that the belief of people we all respect, from the president of the United States, President Clinton, down through Sandy Berger and down through Cohen, believe very, very strongly that they were right to target factory and in fact it was what they thought it was.
Curious, then, that President Clinton would tell the BBC in an interview on June 22, 2004 that the CIA "never believed that Saddam had any ties to al Qaeda." On March 23, 2004, Cohen testified under oath that he had seen intelligence indicating that an executive from the al Shifa plant "had traveled to Baghdad to meet with the father of the VX program."
Commissioner Lehman, who demonstrated a keen interest in the Iraq-al Qaeda connection in his questioning of commission witnesses, expects to learn more about that relationship.
"There may well be--and probably will be--additional intelligence coming in from interrogations and from analysis of captured records and so forth which will fill out the intelligence picture," he says. "This is not phrased as, nor meant to be, the definitive word on Iraqi Intelligence activities."
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard. Parts of this article are drawn from his new book, The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America (HarperCollins).