VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY said yesterday that suggestions the former Iraqi regime did not have a relationship with al Qaeda are "not accurate," and said he would like to see the U.S. government declassify some of the intelligence that supports Bush administration claims about an Iraq-al Qaeda connection.
"I think we should declassify as much as we can," Cheney said in a wide-ranging, 45 minute interview in the vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory in Washington. Cheney said the desire to make public some of the intelligence about Iraq and al Qaeda must be balanced against the need to protect sources and methods. "There is always the temptation to respond to the pressures of the moment by putting as much stuff out there as possible. But you don't want to do so in a way that is damaging to our capacity to collect information in the future." The call for declassification of material relating to the Iraq-al Qaeda connection has come from a variety of sources, including this magazine and the New York Times editorial page.
Cheney's comments come as some Democrats have stepped up their criticism of the Bush administration and its case for war in Iraq. House Democrats filed to the floor of that chamber in recent days to denounce the administration for misleading Americans on Iraq. Numerous top Democrats-including party chairman Terry McAuliffe and Senate majority leader Tom Daschle-attended the U.S. premiere of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a film that accuses the Bush administration of lying to take the nation to war. Former Vice President Al Gore is set to give a speech today at Georgetown University's Law Center focusing on the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship and accusing the Bush administration of using "dishonesty as an essential part of their policy process."
While Cheney was less aggressive in his comments on the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship yesterday than he was in his criticism of news accounts last week about the September 11 Commission staff statements, he did not back down from his central argument: it is "not accurate" to suggest that there was no relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.
"I think it is important to the public that there be a dialogue to make sure to make a distinction" between potential Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attacks and a more general Iraq-al Qaeda connection, Cheney said. "On the question of whether or not there was Iraqi participation and support for what al Qaeda did in attacking the United States on 9/11," he continued, "we've never been able to prove that, we've been unable to confirm it. The second proposition is between Iraq and al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence services over a longer period of time and there [we] have said yes there was, and we have been able to confirm that."
CHENEY SAID people are sometimes "sloppy" in confusing the two issues. The faulty reasoning, he says, goes like this: "Well, there is no proof that Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11, therefore there is no relationship. That's not accurate. There was a relationship. But we have not been able to confirm that there was any involvement in 9/11."
Cheney himself has been accused of such sloppiness. "I try not to be. It's possible that I am sloppy on occasion, but I try not to be."
The vice president reiterated his claim that the "relationship goes back to the early nineties, to 1992." He would not say whether he considers that relationship "collaborative," something the 9/11 Commission staff statements, in muddled language, seemed to reject.
"You would have to ask them. They would have to define collaborative," he said. "We haven't seen the final report yet. We're still dealing with staff drafts. I mean, in fairness, the commission-many of the members have worked very hard for a long time and had to deal with a very tough set of issues and I would like to see the final report before I evaluate it and pass judgment on it."
CIA Director George Tenet has testified on several occasions that his agency could demonstrate that the relationship consisted of at least "contacts, safe haven and training."
"Credible reporting states that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities," Tenet wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee on October 7, 2002. "The reporting also stated that Iraq has 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 February 12, 2003, he noted "very compelling" intelligence about the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship. "We also know from very reliable information that there's been some transfers, training in chemical and biologicals from the Iraqis to al Qaeda."
Other reporting suggests that the former Iraqi regime provided funding for al Qaeda and its affiliates, including $300,000 to Ayman al Zawahiri, former leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and currently bin Laden's top deputy. A communications intercept included in a May 2002 report from the National Security Agency indicates that an Iraqi intelligence officer provided Ansar al Islam-an al Qaeda affiliate that operated in northern Iraq, in territory not under the direct control of Saddam Hussein-with $100,000. Abdul Rahman al Shamari, an Iraqi detainee who claims to have worked for Iraqi intelligence from 1997 to 2002, has told journalists and U.S. intelligence interrogators that he served as a conduit for funding between the regime and Islamic terrorists, including Ansar al Islam.
CHENEY WOULD NOT COMMENT SPECIFICALLY on the case of Abdul Rahman Yasin, an Iraqi who has admitted to mixing the chemicals for the first World Trade Center attack, and has been living in Iraq for the past decade. The vice president raised the case of Yasin in an interview with CNBC's Gloria Borger last week. "There's Mr. Yasin, who was a World Trade Center bomber in '93 who fled to Iraq after that. And we've found since, when we got into Baghdad, documents showing that he was put on the payroll and given housing by Saddam Hussein after the '93 attack-in other words, provided safe harbor and sanctuary." Cheney refused to speculate whether those documents-which would seem to arouse few concerns about sensitive sources and methods-might be declassified. "I think that would have to be addressed by the Agency."
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of The Connection.