ON THE SURFACE, it might seem like a simple case of media bias. In the November 24, 2003, WEEKLY STANDARD, Stephen F. Hayes summarized and quoted at length a recent, secret Pentagon memo to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The memo laid out--in 50 bullet points, over 16 pages--the relationship between Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Much of the intelligence in the memo was detailed and appeared to be well-sourced and well-corroborated.
The story generated lots of discussion on talk radio and on the Internet, but the establishment media did their best to take a pass. The New York Times and the Washington Post wrote brief articles about the memo that focused as much on the alleged "leak" of the information as they did on the substance of the intelligence. Newsweek, in an article on its website, misreported several important elements of the memo and dismissed the article as "hype." As we went to press, the memo had received nary a mention on the major broadcast networks.
Slate columnist Jack Shafer, who declares himself agnostic on the substance of the memo, scolded the media for their stubborn resistance to covering the story: "A classified memo by a top Pentagon official written at Senate committee request and containing intelligence about scores of intelligence reports might spell news to you or me." But "the mainstream press has largely ignored Hayes's piece. What's keeping the pack from tearing Hayes's story to shreds, from building on it or at least exploiting the secret document from which Hayes quotes? One possible explanation is that the mainstream press is too invested in its consensus finding that Saddam and Osama never teamed up and its almost theological view that Saddam and Osama couldn't possibly have ever hooked up because of secular-sacred differences."
Whatever the reason, we're not surprised by bias among the mainstream media. And we rarely complain about it, since we take it for granted. But we do have a complaint about the Bush administration. The administration says, repeatedly, that "Iraq is the central front in the war on terror." They produce a memo for the Senate Intelligence Committee laying out the connections between Osama and Saddam. We obtain the memo, and make public those parts that don't endanger intelligence sources and methods. But now the administration--continuing a pattern of the last several months--shies away from an opportunity to substantiate its own case before the American people and the world.
Within 24 hours of the publication of Hayes's article, the Defense Department released a statement that seemed designed to distance it from the memo written by its third-ranking official, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith. The Pentagon statement criticized "news reports" about the memo as "inaccurate." It specified neither any reports nor any alleged errors. In fact, the Pentagon's statement itself contained several mistakes. For example, the Pentagon declared that the memo "was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions." Not exactly.
Consider the introduction to the relevant part of the Pentagon memo, called "Summary of Body of Intelligence Reporting on Iraq-al Qaeda Contacts (1990-2003)."
Some individuals have argued that the al Qaeda ties to Iraq have not been "proven." The requirement for certainty misses the point. Intelligence assessments are not about prosecutorial proof. They do not require juridical evidence to support them nor the legal standards that are needed in law enforcement. Intelligence assessments examine trends, patterns, capabilities, and intentions. By these criteria, the substantial body of intelligence reporting--for over a decade, from a variety of sources--reflects a pattern of Iraqi support for al Qaeda's activities. The covert nature of the relationship has made it difficult to know the full extent of that support. Al Qaeda's operational security and Iraq's need to cloak its activities have precluded a full appreciation of the relationship. Nonetheless, the following reports clearly indicate that Osama bin Laden did cooperate with Iraq's secular regime despite differences in ideology and religious beliefs in order to advance al Qaeda's objectives and to defeat a common enemy--the U.S.
As it happens, we agree with the conclusions in this analysis; others will disagree. But make no mistake--contrary to what Defense now says--these are conclusions and this is analysis.
All of this leads us to ask several questions. Is the intelligence in the Feith memo inaccurate? If so, why would the Bush administration provide inaccurate intelligence to a Senate panel investigating the possible misuse of intelligence? If not, why is the Bush administration so reluctant to discuss it? White House spokesman Scott McClellan correctly said the next day that "the ties between, or the relationship between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda were well documented. They were documented by Secretary Powell before the United Nations, back in February, I believe. And we have previously talked about those ties that are there." But the administration has been peculiarly timid about talking about those ties again, today.
And the administration's silence on the Feith memo is odd because the reporting it contains seems, as McClellan suggests, mostly to back up allegations that top officials have been making for more than a year. CIA Director George Tenet wrote on October 7, 2002, that his agency had "solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade," that the CIA had "credible information" about discussions between Iraq and al Qaeda on "safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression" and "solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad," and "credible reporting" that "Iraq has provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs."
President Bush made similar charges in a speech on October 8, 2002, in Cincinnati, Ohio:
We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy: the United States of America. 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 have 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.
Colin Powell updated the case in his February 5, 2003, presentation to the United Nations Security Council:
Going back to the early and mid-1990s, when bin Laden was based in Sudan, an al Qaeda source tells us that Saddam and bin Laden reached an understanding that al Qaeda would no longer support activities against Baghdad. Early al Qaeda ties were forged by secret, high-level [Iraqi] intelligence service contacts with al Qaeda. . . . We know members of both organizations met repeatedly and have met at least eight times at very senior levels since the early 1990s. In 1996, a foreign security service tells us that bin Laden met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Khartoum and later met the director of the Iraqi intelligence service. . . . Iraqis continue to visit bin Laden in his new home in Afghanistan. A senior defector, one of Saddam's former intelligence chiefs in Europe, says Saddam sent his agents to Afghanistan sometime in the mid-1990s, to provide training to al Qaeda members on document forgery. From the late 1990s until 2001, the Iraqi embassy in Pakistan played the role of liaison to the al Qaeda organization.
We believed George Tenet and President Bush and Colin Powell when they made those claims. So why the public silence now, when the administration, as we have discovered, has reiterated its claims to the Senate Intelligence Committee? We're not asking here for a point-by-point confirmation of the Feith memo. We ourselves suspect that some of the 50 items in the memo, on further analysis, may not check out. We're also not suggesting the administration publicly divulge currently relevant intelligence secrets. But why the embarrassed silence about terror ties with a regime that is now, thank heaven, gone?
Perhaps the Bush administration is still spooked by its mishandling of the Niger-uranium-Joe Wilson-State of the Union fiasco earlier this year. Perhaps they didn't want to appear to be exploiting a "leaked" memo. So let us forget about all the water that's under the bridge, and simply pose a few questions to Bush administration officials--questions based on the now revealed portions of the Feith memo, questions to which the American people deserve an answer:
(1) Do you in fact have "credible reporting" about Iraqi training of al Qaeda in "the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs"?
(2) Faruq Hijazi, former deputy director of Iraqi Intelligence, is in U.S. custody. He was allegedly one of the key facilitators of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and apparently admitted, during a May 2003 custodial interview, meeting with bin Laden in 1994 in Sudan. What else is he saying? Do you believe him? Is there corroborating evidence for this meeting? Is there corroborating evidence for the reports detailed in the memo of 1998-1999 meetings between al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
(3) The Feith memo refers to "fragmentary evidence" of Iraqi involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and possible Iraqi involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center attack. What is this evidence? How persuasive is it?
(4) Ahmed Hikmat Shakir is an Iraqi native who escorted two of the September 11 hijackers to the planning meeting for the attacks in January 2000 in Kuala Lumpur. He got his job at the Kuala Lumpur airport through a contact at the Iraqi embassy, and that person controlled his schedule. During his detention by Jordanian intelligence after September 11, Saddam's regime exerted pressure on the Jordanians for his release. Shakir was set free and fled to Baghdad. What have the Jordanians told you about Iraq's demands that Shakir be released? What have other detainees told you about Shakir's connections to Iraqi intelligence, on the one hand, and to the September 11 hijackers on the other?
(5) The U.S. government has 1,400 people on the ground in Iraq searching for evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program. Is there any similar effort to examine Iraq's ties to al Qaeda? Why not? Wouldn't such an effort give us insight into the nature of the relationship between Baathists and al Qaeda before the war, and into the ongoing fight against al Qaeda today?
We at THE WEEKLY STANDARD have long believed that the war in Iraq was, indeed, central to the broader war on terror. This argument never depended on particular connections of Saddam and al Qaeda, but such connections are certainly relevant. Based on all the evidence we have seen, we believe that such connections existed. Does the Bush administration agree, or doesn't it?