ON MARCH 7, 2004, Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial head of the Iraqi National Congress, appeared on 60 Minutes. Lesley Stahl grilled him about claims that the INC provided bad prewar intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to the U.S. government--something virtually no one these days disputes. In the course of the interview, Stahl raised questions about the intelligence on Iraq's relationship with al Qaeda. Chalabi produced a document which he claimed came from the files of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. On a list of Iraqi Intelligence assets was the name "Osama bin Laden." The document, dated March 28, 1992, described bin Laden as a Saudi businessman "in good contact" with the Iraqi Intelligence section in Syria.
STAHL: OK. Let me show everybody. This says "Osama bin Laden"' Now show--how do you know it's an authentic document? How do you know it's real?
CHALABI: The people who initialed the document before it goes on--one, two, three, four signatures--we know who these people are, and it's very difficult for anyone to forge the document.
STAHL: Are you spinning me?
CHALABI: Well, you check it. You have the piece of paper in your hand. You check it.
STAHL: We did check it with the Defense Intelligence Agency, which believes the document is authentic but of little significance because it doesn't spell out what the relationship with Osama bin Laden was or what he did, if anything, for the Iraqis.
And with that, the issue was effectively dropped. CBS did nothing to follow up on its accidental scoop and with the exception of Fox News, neither did anyone else.
One of the enduring mysteries of the Iraq-al Qaeda connection is why reporters have shown so little interest in covering it. The secret relationship between America's two most dangerous enemies and the results of their collaboration would seem to have many of the elements journalists look for in a potential story. And for many reporters at mainstream news outlets such as ABC News, Newsweek, and the Associated Press it was a familiar story. Journalists throughout the 1990s covered the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship with some regularity.
By early 1999, ABC News was running stories describing the "long relationship" between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda. The Associated Press reported that the Iraqi regime had extended to bin Laden an offer of safehaven in Baghdad. The wire service was apparently so sure of its information that attribution was deemed unnecessary.
Among the many reasons journalists today don't seem particularly interested in covering the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, three stand out. First, the mainstream press long ago settled on a storyline to describe the case for the Iraq War: the Bush administration lied, or at least exaggerated, to take us to war. Second, the Bush administration is doing little to encourage journalists to write a corrective. Third, intelligence sources, as the DIA example makes clear, have no interest in setting the story straight.
We know from a variety of reporting--including the Joint Congressional Inquiry, the 9/11 Commission, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee--that the U.S intelligence community had no firsthand credible reporting on the leadership of al Qaeda or the Iraqi regime. One IC analyst explained the intelligence community's view of Iraq and terrorism in an interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee: "I don't think we were really focused on the CT [counterterrorism] side, because we weren't concerned about the IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] going out and proactively conducting terrorist attacks."
There are, of course, numerous other ways the Iraqi regime was involved in terrorism. We know that the regime funded a number of radical Islamic terrorist groups from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to Algerian Islamic Group, to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. (The last of these was for years run by Ayman al Zawahiri, now the top deputy to bin Laden.) We know that the regime used Oil-for-Food money to support other regional terrorists. We know that Hussein trained terrorists in Iraq.
In March 2002, Jeffrey Goldberg, a reporter with the New Yorker, interviewed several prisoners in a Kurdish jail in northern Iraq. The Kurds gave him access to the prisoners because, they said, the CIA had shown little interest in interrogating them. Goldberg wrote:
The allegations include charges that Ansar al-Islam has received funds directly from Al Qaeda; that the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein has joint control, with Al Qaeda operatives, over Ansar al-Islam; that Saddam Hussein hosted a senior leader of Al Qaeda in Baghdad in 1992; that a number of Al Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan have been secretly brought into territory controlled by Ansar al-Islam; and that Iraqi intelligence agents smuggled conventional weapons, and possibly even chemical and biological weapons, into Afghanistan. If these charges are true, it would mean that the relationship between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda is far closer than previously thought.
More than six months later, the CIA still had not followed up on the reporting. According to an article that appeared September 10, 2002, in the Washington Post:
The Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an anti-Hussein group in northern Iraq, says it has jailed 15 to 20 al Qaeda members and was surprised that no one from the U.S. government has come to interrogate them. One senior counterterrorism official confirmed that the CIA knew of the detentions and that U.S. officials have not interrogated the prisoners. "We really don't know whether they are under al Qaeda or Saddam's control," the official said. "Ansar trained in Afghan camps. They used Afghanistan as their headquarters. It's tough to nail down the other details. It's not implausible that they are working with Saddam. His intel links into northern Iraq are very strong."
It was only tough to nail down those other details because the CIA didn't try.
Still, the intelligence community seems to have understood that Saddam Hussein was not out of the terrorism business. But they were nonetheless not focused on Iraqi support for terrorism because of the assumption that the Iraqi Intelligence service would not conduct attacks. That's hardly comforting.
If the response of the DIA to Lesley Stahl in any indication, it appears that little has changed. The DIA believes the Iraqi Intelligence document listing Osama bin Laden as an asset is "authentic but of little significance because it doesn't spell out what the relationship with Osama bin Laden was or what he did, if anything, for the Iraqis."
Again, that's not comforting. If the DIA were serious about understanding the relationship between the former Iraqi regime and al Qaeda, such a document might provoke any number of questions.
How did the Iraqis get bin Laden's name? Did bin Laden know that he was considered an Iraqi Intelligence asset? Who were the Iraqi Intelligence officials in Syria who had good relations with bin Laden? Did they stay in touch after 1992? The list goes on.
It is bad enough that the U.S. intelligence community took so little interest in the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship while it was developing. It is inexcusable that the lack of interest persists.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and author of The Connection (HarperCollins).