ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2003, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert asked Vice President Dick Cheney whether Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks. Cheney's answer was characteristically straightforward: "We don't know."
The reaction was furious, even by Washington standards. Despite the plain meaning of Cheney's words, critics charged that his response was deceptive, a subterfuge designed to trick dimwitted Americans into supporting a war built on deception.
"By any reasonable standard, that's a lie," wrote columnist Josh Marshall, a frequent but usually thoughtful administration critic. "American intelligence and law enforcement have been investigating the Sept. 11 attacks for more than two years and we haven't found a single shred of evidence tying Saddam or his regime to the plot. Nothing."
On that last point, Marshall is in good company. The president himself said, "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11 attacks." Maybe the president should have spoken of "proof" rather than "evidence." Either way, Cheney's answer was no "lie." To the contrary, "We don't know" is entirely consistent with the president's assessment and is in reality the more accurate answer to questions about potential Iraqi involvement in September 11. The story of Ahmad Hikmat Shakir is one reason why.
In August 1999, Shakir, an Iraqi in his mid-30s, was offered a job as a "greeter" or "facilitator" at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A "facilitator" works for an airline and helps travelers, often dignitaries, with the paperwork required to enter the country. Shakir got the job not because of his vast experience facilitating. He got it because someone in the Iraqi embassy in Malaysia wanted him to have it. He started that fall.
Although Shakir worked for Malaysian Airlines, the Iraqi embassy controlled his schedule--told him when to report to work, when to take a day off. On January 5, 2000, Shakir received an assignment from his embassy contact. He was to escort two recent arrivals through immigration at the airport. Khalid al Midhar and Nawaz al Hamzi--two of the chief September 11 hijackers--had come to Malaysia for an important al Qaeda meeting that would last four days. That gathering would become the focus of the extensive investigation into the planning of the attack on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon nearly a year later.
According to U.S. intelligence reports, Shakir greeted these two future hijackers at the airport and walked them to a waiting car. But rather than see them off, he jumped in the car with al Midhar and al Hamzi and accompanied them to the Kuala Lumpur Hotel. Malaysian authorities had been tipped off about the al Qaeda summit before it happened and later provided American authorities with photographs and videotapes of the attendees. While U.S. officials can place Shakir at the Kuala Lumpur Hotel with the hijackers, they cannot say for certain whether Shakir participated in the meeting. Also present that day, according to U.S. intelligence reporting, were Ramzi bin al Shibh, the operational chief of the "Holy Tuesday" attacks, as 9/11 was known to the terrorists, and Tawfiz al Atash, a top-ranking bin Laden deputy, later identified as the mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole.
The meeting concluded on January 8, 2000. Shakir reported to work at the airport on January 9 and January 10, and then never again. Khalid al Midhar and Nawaz al Hamzi also disappeared, briefly, then flew from Bangkok, Thailand, to Los Angeles on January 15, 2000. Twenty months later, on September 11, 2001, these two men piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
Shakir, the Iraqi-born facilitator, would be arrested six days after the September 11 attacks, by authorities in Doha, Qatar. He had raised suspicions because of his activities during the al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur, but also because in 1993, shortly before the first attack on the World Trade Center, Shakir had received a phone call from the New Jersey safe house that served as the headquarters for that operation.
Shakir's arrest was a gold mine. Authorities found documents--telephone numbers, memos, and contact information--linking him to both the 1993 World Trade Center plot and something called "Operation Bojinka," the 1995 al Qaeda plot to explode 12 airplanes simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean. They found these both "on his person," in CIA-speak, and in a subsequent search of his apartment.
Shakir had contact information for a lot of bad people: One was Ibrahim Suleiman, a Kuwaiti native whose fingerprints were found on the bombmaking manuals authorities allege were used in preparation for the 1993 Trade Center bombing. Suleiman was convicted of perjury and deported to Jordan. Another was Zahid Sheikh Mohammed, brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, now in U.S. custody. And another was Musab Yasin, the brother of convicted 1993 Trade Center bomber Abdul Rahman Yasin. Cheney mentioned Abdul Rahman Yasin in his "Meet the Press" appearance on September 14. According to documents discovered in Iraq after the war, Yasin fled to Baghdad shortly after the 1993 bombing and was given safe haven and financial support by the Iraqi government.
Despite this wealth of information, the Qatari authorities released Shakir, the facilitator, shortly after he was arrested.
On October 21, 2001, Shakir flew to Amman, Jordan, where he hoped to board a plane to Baghdad. But authorities in Jordan arrested him for questioning. Shakir was held in a Jordanian prison for three months without being officially charged, prompting Amnesty International to write the Jordanian government seeking an explanation. The CIA questioned Shakir and concluded that he had received extensive training in counter-interrogation techniques. About the same time, the Iraqi government began to pressure Jordanian intelligence to release Shakir. They got their wish on January 28, 2002. He is believed to have returned promptly to Baghdad. (Amnesty International later claimed to have learned that Shakir "had lost weight during his detention and appeared traumatized.")
That this chain of events took place is the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community. Much of it comes from a classified CIA report on Shakir and his activities over the past decade. Exactly what it means is open to question.
Some intelligence officials believe that the Iraqi embassy employee who got Shakir his airport job may have been an agent of Saddam Hussein's intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, and that high-ranking elements of the government, perhaps including Saddam, knew about his activities. After all, the intelligence service placed its agents liberally in Iraqi embassies throughout the world. In some cases, intelligence agents made up more than 50 percent of the employees in an Iraqi embassy. This doesn't mean that Saddam or anyone in his government necessarily had foreknowledge of September 11; only that his intelligence service may have provided logistical support to the men who gave us September 11--again, perhaps without precise knowledge of their plans.
Others, primarily at the CIA, are more skeptical. They point out that the Iraqi embassy employee who got Shakir his job and managed his schedule was a lower-ranking embassy official. That, they argue, does not fit the profile of a Mukhabarat foreign agent. There are alternative explanations for some of the details, too. Shakir may have accompanied the September 11 hijackers to the Kuala Lumpur Hotel because they gave him a big tip or, some have suggested, because he knew the way. It's possible that Shakir was an Iraqi who had joined al Qaeda and, apart from his contact with the Iraqi embassy employee, had nothing to do with the Iraqi regime. The Iraqi regime, for its part, may have simply requested Shakir's release from the Jordanian government as a routine matter.
So was Saddam Hussein involved in September 11? Evidence, at this point, is scarce, but the proper answer is the one Cheney gave: We don't know.
The Bush administration does know, however, about Saddam Hussein's connections to al Qaeda. And it's learning more every day. This, despite the woeful lack of resources devoted to exploring those links.
Is there a specialized team searching for Saddam-al Qaeda ties--something like David Kay's Iraq Survey Group, say, with its 1,400 scientists and intelligence experts roaming Iraq in search of proscribed weapons? "There is no such operation," says one intelligence official familiar with postwar intelligence. "What we know, we know because a handful of uniformed guys on the ground in Iraq have a hard-on for this stuff."
If the CIA ever gets serious about investigating Saddam-al Qaeda ties, it can start by sending someone to Toronto. On April 27, 2003, Toronto Star reporter Mitch Potter, his translator, and a colleague from the London Telegraph came across a document in the burned-out headquarters of the Mukhabarat in Baghdad. The document was found in the accounting department of the old Iraqi intelligence building and discussed who would pick up the tab for upcoming meetings between a bin Laden representative and Iraqi intelligence. It was, Potter wrote at the time, "the first hard evidence of contact between bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime." Bin Laden's name appeared three times in the document--crudely covered with liquid paper. The goal of the meeting, according to the memo's author, was to discuss "the future of our relationship with him, bin Laden, and to achieve a direct meeting with him." The individual coming to Baghdad, the memo continued, may represent "a way to maintain contacts with bin Laden."
Pretty damning stuff. I emailed Potter in July, and while he was careful to avoid drawing conclusions about the document's meaning, he was certain of its authenticity. "I have no doubt that what we found is the real thing," he wrote. His phone rang off the hook after he reported his find. One of those calls, he assumed, would come from the CIA or some other investigative arm of the U.S. government.
It's been nearly six months. That call never came. As of Thursday, no one from the U.S. government had contacted Potter about the document his editors are now holding.
American soldiers have come across other interesting documents in Baghdad. A recent stash yielded new information about Abdul Rahman Yasin, one of the plotters of the 1993 World Trade Center attack. For nearly a decade, Yasin has been on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list in connection with his role in that bombing. And for nearly as long, American officials have known that he was in Iraq.
Documents uncovered recently tell us that Yasin was harbored by the former Iraqi regime. That bears repeating. The man who burned his leg mixing the chemicals for the 1993 World Trade Center truck bomb has been living in Iraq and received a monthly stipend from Saddam Hussein. Cheney referred to Yasin--though not by name--in his appearance on "Meet the Press" last month, and the vice president has mentioned him in several recent speeches, most recently in a feisty talk on October 10 at the Heritage Foundation. But the Bush administration has otherwise been reluctant to provide details of the links between Iraq and al Qaeda. That is not, officials from across the administration insist, because there are serious questions about the connections. Rather, the White House is nervous that publicly discussing the links could trigger another set of leaks, most of them presumed to come from the CIA, attempting to discredit the new information. Those are battles the White House doesn't want to fight.
When the CIA leaks from classified documents, administration officials cannot effectively respond to misrepresentations or distortions because the information is classified. Consider this example, from a front-page story in the June 9, 2003, New York Times. The article, headlined "Captives Deny Qaeda Worked with Baghdad," has served for months as fodder for critics who accuse the administration of hyping the links. It relied heavily on unnamed "intelligence officials" who had seen a classified CIA report on the interrogation of a top al Qaeda operative named Abu Zubaydah.
The reporter, veteran correspondent James Risen, begins this way:
Two of the highest-ranking leaders of Al Qaeda in American custody have told the C.I.A. in separate interrogations that the terrorist organization did not work jointly with the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, according to several intelligence officials. Abu Zubaydah, a Qaeda planner and recruiter until his capture in March 2002, told his questioners last year that the idea of working with Mr. Hussein's government had been discussed among Qaeda leaders, but that Osama bin Laden had rejected such proposals, according to an official who has read the Central Intelligence Agency's classified report on the interrogation.
In his debriefing, Mr. Zubaydah said Mr. bin Laden had vetoed the idea because he did not want to be beholden to Mr. Hussein, the official said.
All of that is true. Osama bin Laden, Zubaydah told his interrogators, "personally opposed any formal alliance" with Saddam Hussein. The absence of a "formal alliance," however, hardly precludes cooperation. And Risen's source failed to provide him some important context. The very next sentence of the report on the interrogation changes the meaning of the entire report: "This said, bin Laden views any entity which hated Americans or was willing to kill them as an ally. . . . Abu Zubaydah explained that [Osama bin Laden's] personal goal of destroying the US is so strong that to achieve this end he would work with whomever could help him, so long as al Qaeda's independence was not threatened." The CIA report later adds that Zubaydah "admitted that it was entirely possible that there were communications or emissaries" of which he would not be aware. Zubaydah also confirms that bin Laden "approved of contacts and funding" for Jund Allah, a militant Islamic group in northern Iraq which battled the two anti-Saddam Kurdish factions. Jund Allah merged with Ansar al Islam in 2001.
So Abu Zubaydah's interrogation was at least a mixed bag. But unnamed "intelligence officials" apparently used it--or, more accurately, part of it--to beat up on the administration for its allegedly selective use of intelligence on Iraq-al Qaeda links. More Risen:
Several officials said Mr. Zubaydah's debriefing report was circulated by the C.I.A. within the American intelligence community last year, but his statements were not included in public discussions by administration officials about the evidence concerning Iraq-Qaeda ties.
Those officials said the statements by Mr. Zubaydah and Mr. Mohammed were examples of the type of intelligence reports that ran counter to the administration's public case. "I remember reading the Abu Zubaydah debriefing last year, while the administration was talking about all of these other reports, and thinking that they were only putting out what they wanted," one official said.
There's little question that U.S. intelligence has done a poor job of investigating links between the former Iraqi regime and al Qaeda. And there's little question that the Bush administration has been too cautious about telling the American public what it has learned about these links.
The U.S. media are strangely incurious about all this. Several officials have expressed surprise that journalists rarely ask about the links. "It's basically you, Jeff Goldberg [from the New Yorker magazine], and Maria Ressa [CNN's Jakarta bureau chief]," one told me.
What's most striking, though, about the media coverage of Iraq-al Qaeda ties is the arrogant presumption that journalists know better. After his "Meet the Press" appearance, a Los Angeles Times editorial accused Cheney of acting "as though the best defense is a good offense, no matter what the damage to truth or common sense," and of offering "sweeping, unproven claims about Saddam Hussein's connection to terrorism."
Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, who often mistakes vitriol for reason, challenged Cheney's assertion that postwar intelligence from Iraq was yielding new Iraq-al Qaeda links. "Cheney's claim that we have learned more when we have learned nothing more is one more lie in the chain of deception that convinced a critical number of Americans to support the invasion and occupation of Iraq--at the loss of nearly 300 American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. . . . Cheney once wowed the Washington elite with his gravitas. With so many soldiers and civilians dead, his gravitas now leads to the grave."
Perhaps now would be a good time for journalists to suspend the pronouncements and to start asking questions.
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.