THE DEFENSE DEPARTMENT late Saturday, November 15, issued a statement that began: "News reports that the Defense Department recently confirmed new information with respect to contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee are inaccurate."
The statement didn't specify the "inaccurate" news reports, but most observers have inferred that the main report in question was an article in the most recent issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD--Case Closed: The U.S. government's secret memo detailing cooperation between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. "Case Closed" described an October 27 memorandum to the Senate Intelligence Committee from Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, which included 50 numbered items of intelligence from a variety of sources and agencies on links between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.
The Pentagon's statement continues:
The items listed in the classified annex were either raw reports or products of the CIA, the NSA, or, in one case, the DIA. The provision of the classified annex to the Intelligence Committee was cleared by other agencies and done with the permission of the Intelligence Community. The selection of the documents was made by DOD to respond to the Committee's question.
The Pentagon statement goes on to claim: "The classified annex was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions."
This statement has confused, rather than clarified, the issues raised by the Feith memo. Indeed, it is not clear whether the author of the Pentagon statement has read either the request made to Feith by the Intelligence Committee or the memo Feith sent in response.
There are four areas of confusion. What does the Pentagon mean by (1) "new" information, (2) "analysis," (3) "raw reports," and (4) "inaccurate"?
(1) Here's how "Case Closed" characterized the information in the memo: "Much of the evidence is detailed, conclusive, and corroborated by multiple sources. Some of it is new information obtained in custodial interviews with high-level al Qaeda terrorists and Iraqi officials, and some of it is more than a decade old."
As is abundantly clear both in the memo and the article, most of the information reported to the Senate panel came from sources outside the Pentagon. When "Case Closed" refers to some of this as "new information," it is echoing Feith's own characterization. His memorandum was a response to a September 26, 2003 letter--also obtained by THE WEEKLY STANDARD--from Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Their letter asked Feith to elaborate on his July 10, 2003 testimony to the committee.
From the letter: "In testimony before the Committee, you explained that Defense Department staffers 'discovered a set of reports on the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda which were not reflected in finished intelligence products. In other cases, some older reports gained new significance in light of information obtained by debriefing detainees.' Please provide the reports that were used for these assessments."
(2) The memo can fairly be said to have refrained from drawing conclusions. Pentagon claims to the contrary, however, the Feith memo contains numerous analyses of the "substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda." The part of the memo dealt with in the article was called "Summary of Body of Intelligence Reporting on Iraq-al Qaeda Contacts (1990-2003)," and it contains passages in bold and in normal typeface. A note at the bottom of the first page reads: "All bolded sentences contain information from intelligence reporting. Unbolded sentences represent comments/analyses."
Item #31, reprinted below, provides a good example.
31. An Oct 2002 [U.S. intelligence agency] report said al Qaeda and Iraq reached a secret agreement whereby Iraq would provide safe haven to al Qaeda members and provide them with money and weapons. The agreement reportedly prompted a large number of al Qaeda members to head to Iraq. The report also said that two al Qaeda members involved a fraudulent passport network for al Qaeda had been directed to procure 90 Iraqi and Syrian passports for al Qaeda personnel.
References to procurement of false passports from Iraq and offers of safe haven previously have surfaced in CIA source reporting considered reliable. Intelligence reports to date have maintained that Iraqi support for al Qaeda usually involved providing training, obtaining passports, and offers of refuge. This report adds to that list by including weapons and money. This assistance would make sense in the aftermath of 9-11. The US attack on Afghanistan deprived al Qaeda of its protected base and caused its operatives to disperse to many other regions where they would need weapons to arm themselves against the local government security and police apparatus (i.e. Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines). And since the US has been targeting al Qaeda's sources of funding, some cells may need additional money to continue operations.
(3) The Pentagon statement allows that some of the information in the document comes from "raw reports." The implication is that such reports might be wrong. True enough. That's why THE WEEKLY STANDARD article, for obvious reasons, never claimed knowledge of the authenticity of all 50 enumerated intelligence data points. But most of the information in the memo appears to have multiple sources and to be internally consistent. Consider point 18 and the analysis that follows.
18. According to foreign government service sensitive CIA reporting, Faruq Hijazi went to Afghanistan in 1999 along with several other Iraqi officials to meet with Bin Laden. The source claimed that Hijazi would have met Bin Laden only at Saddam's explicit direction.
Reporting entries #4, #11, #15, #16, #17 and #18, from different sources, corroborate each other and provide confirmation of meetings between al-Qaida operatives and Iraqi intelligence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. None of the reports have information on operational details or the purpose of such meetings. The cover nature of the relationship would indicate strict compartmentation [sic] of operations.
(4) The Pentagon's charge that news reporting was "inaccurate" is therefore both vague and unsubstantiated. Most of the language in "Case Closed" is taken directly from the memo. The rest of the article provides readers with context for the writing of the memo and for events described in the memo. The conclusion of the article does speculate that the information in the Feith memo provides only a glimpse of the broader relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. This speculation is based in part on independent reporting, but also on the very title of the memo itself: "Summary of Body of Intelligence Reporting on Iraq-al Qaida Contacts (1990-2003)."
IF THE INTELLIGENCE REPORTING in the memo was left out of earlier "finished intelligence products" because the reporting is inaccurate, it seems odd that it would form the basis of briefings given to the secretary of Defense, the director of Central Intelligence, and the vice president. And it would be stranger still to include such intelligence in a memo to a Senate panel investigating the potential misuse of intelligence.
If, on the other hand, the information in the Feith memo is accurate, it changes everything. An operational relationship between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, as detailed in the memo, would represent a threat the United States could not afford to ignore. President Bush and his national security team could not have known everything in the memo, of course, since some of the reporting comes from postwar Iraq. But consider what they did know.
"We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy--the United States of America," said President George W. Bush on October 7, 2002. "We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases. And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein's regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America."
On that same day, George Tenet provided an unclassified version of the relationship in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Our understanding of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda is evolving and is based on sources of varying reliability. Some of the information we have received comes from detainees, including some of high rank.
--We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.
--Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression.
--Since Operation Enduring Freedom, we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.
--We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire W.M.D. capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to Al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.
--Iraq's increasing support to extremist Palestinians coupled with growing indications of relationship with Al Qaeda suggest that Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action.
James Woolsey, CIA director under President Bill Clinton, made reference to the Tenet letter in an appearance this past weekend on "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer." Tenet's enumeration of the links and the evidence in the Feith memo has Woolsey convinced.
"Anybody who says there is no working relationship between al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence going back to the early '90s--they can only say that if they're illiterate. This is a slam dunk."
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.