THIS WEEK both John Kerry and his senior foreign policy advisor, Susan Rice, have argued that the Bush administration was wrong about Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi. He was not a danger before the war; his contacts with Saddam's Iraq non-existent; and his relationship to al Qaeda only now cemented.
Their comments appear to be based on a single Washington Post (October 5, 2004) story concerning a leaked CIA reassessment of Saddam's ties to Zarqawi. According to that news account, "A U.S. official familiar with the new CIA assessment said intelligence analysts are unable to determine conclusively the nature of the relationship," and that the assessment was "still being worked." Nevertheless, the same official stated: "What is indisputable is that Zarqawi was operating out of Baghdad and was involved in a lot of bad activities."
Frankly, the idea that Zarqawi would, first, opt to go to Baghdad and, second, operate there for some time without Iraqi intelligence's complicity, is pretty fanciful. And the fact that the CIA does not have "conclusive" evidence of that complicity is hardly a surprise given the number of spies it had within Saddam's inner circle: none.
Moreover, Zarqawi's activities were hardly benign prior to the Iraq war. As the State Department's 2003 report on "Patterns of Global Terrorism" points out:
The presence of several hundred al-Qaida operatives fighting with the small Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam in the northeastern corner of Iraqi Kurdistan--where the IIS operates--is well documented. Iraq has an agent in the most senior levels of Ansar al-Islam as well. In addition, small numbers of highly placed al-Qaida militants were present in Baghdad and areas of Iraq that Saddam controls. It is inconceivable these groups were in Iraq without the knowledge and acquiescence of Saddam's regime. In the past year, al-Qaida operatives in northern Iraq concocted suspect chemicals under the direction of senior al-Qaida associate Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and tried to smuggle them into Russia, Western Europe, and the United States for terrorist operations.
Third, the idea that Zarqawi was not "in any way cooperating with al-Qaeda" is certainly wishful thinking. Although Zarqawi and bin Laden may have had different agendas at times, there is plenty of evidence that they had a mutually supportive relationship.
As Stephen Hayes pointed out yesterday, the Washington Post (September 27, 2004) reported that:
According to Jordanian officials and court testimony by jailed followers in Germany, Zarqawi met in Kandahar and Kabul with bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders. He asked them for assistance and money to set up his own training camp in Herat, near the Iranian border. With al Qaeda's support, the camp opened and soon served as a magnet for Jordanian militants.
And, as Hayes further notes:
But Zarqawi did more than train fighters. According to a Jordanian indictment, Zarqawi planned a series of attacks in Jordan to mark the millennium. His chief co-conspirator in that plot was Abu Zubaydah, frequently described as Osama bin Laden's "operations chief." The Senate Intelligence Committee report says that Zubaydah was the "senior al Qaeda coordinator responsible for training and recruiting." Zubaydah, who is in U.S. custody, is often cited by skeptics of the Iraq-al Qaeda connection because he told interrogators that he thought it "unlikely" that bin Laden would establish a formal alliance with Iraq for fear of losing his independence. But the skeptics often ignore other aspects of Zubaydah's debriefing. Again, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, Zubaydah "indicated that he had heard that an important al Qaeda associate, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and others had good relationships with Iraqi Intelligence."
Of course, it is hardly surprising that Sen. Kerry and his campaign team would use a leak to the Washington Post to score a political point. That's politics today. But their willingness to so readily dismiss the potential threat posed by Zarqawi before the Iraq war, based on one still-in-the-works intelligence report, is more disturbing. Frankly, it smacks of Clinton-era complacency. Absent a notarized statement by Saddam and bin Laden attesting to their ties with Zarqawi, would a President Kerry have given him a pass? And if so, is that the policy judgment Americans want in a post 9-11 world?
Gary Schmitt is executive director of The Project for the New American Century.