LAST WEDNESDAY, the September 11 commission issued a staff "statement" that further complicated an already confusing issue: the nature of the relationship between the former Iraqi regime and al Qaeda.
On the one hand, the statement confirmed several contacts between Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda terrorists, including a face-to-face meeting between a senior Iraqi intelligence official and Osama bin Laden in 1994. Then, calling into question its own findings, the statement reported that two al Qaeda terrorists denied the existence of any ties whatsoever. Finally, in very sloppy language, the statement seemed to conclude that there had been "no collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda. The media took that nuanced and self-contradictory analysis--which, by the way, constituted only one paragraph in a 12-page report--and found certainty where none existed. "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie," blared a four-column headline in the New York Times. An editorial flatly declared that the commission had "refuted" any connection.
Nonsense. The staff statement was a model of muddle, but this much is clear: There is nothing in it that reliably or categorically "refutes" a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. What's more, in the days since its release, members of the 9/11 commission--including co-chairmen Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean--have appeared eager to distance themselves from the statement issued by their staff.
"Members do not get involved in staff reports," Kean cautioned, promising more on the subject in the commission's final report.
So was there or wasn't there a "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda?
CIA Director George Tenet certainly believes so. "Credible reporting states that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities," he wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Oct. 7, 2002. "The reporting also stated that Iraq had provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs." When Tenet testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12, 2003, he said that although his agency could not show "command and control" between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime--something the Bush administration never claimed--it could demonstrate "contacts, training and safe haven."
Top Clinton administration officials also suggested a "collaborative" relationship. On Aug. 7, 1998, al Qaeda terrorists bombed U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 257 people--including 12 Americans. The Clinton administration struck back 13 days later, hitting a pharmaceutical plant, an al Qaeda-linked facility in Sudan. On Aug. 24, 1998, a "senior intelligence official" made available by the White House told reporters that U.S. intelligence had found "strong ties between the plant and Iraq." Among that evidence: telephone intercepts between top officials at the plant and the head of Iraq's chemical weapons program. In all, six top Clinton administration officials argued that Iraq had provided the chemical weapon know-how to the plant demolished in response to the al Qaeda attacks.
TODAY, top Clinton officials are still not backing down from these claims. William Cohen, former secretary of Defense, defended the strikes as recently as March 23, 2004, in testimony before the September 11 commission. Cohen said an executive from the Sudanese plant had "traveled to Baghdad to meet with the father of [Iraq's] VX [nerve gas] program."
Other recent intelligence, including communications intercepts and interviews with Iraqi intelligence detainees, indicates that Iraq provided funding and weapons to Ansar al Islam, an al Qaeda affiliate in northern Iraq.
These connections seem pretty compelling--Tenet's testimony, the intelligence surrounding the 1998 Sudan strikes and the Iraqi support for Ansar al Islam. But the September 11 commission's staff statement didn't deal with any of them.
The September 11 commission cannot be expected to write the definitive history of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. But having contributed greatly to the confusion with one paragraph in Staff Statement 15, the commissioners owe it to the American people to give it a thorough and sober examination in their final report.
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard and author of The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America, (HarperCollins).