IT'S CONVENTIONAL WISDOM. In fact, it's more than conventional wisdom. It's an article of faith among the enlightened: There was no connection, at least no significant connection, between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Senate minority leader Harry Reid put it this way: "There was [sic] no terrorists in Iraq." His colleague, Carl Levin, member of both the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, says Iraq's relationship with al Qaeda was "nonexistent."
Senators Reid and Levin are Democrats, to be sure. But few prominent Republicans have challenged these assertions. And the Bush administration has been as quiet as a mouse--and just as meek. So the conventional wisdom reigns.
We have long dissented from this conventional wisdom. We have argued in these pages that the connections between Saddam and terrorists were substantial and significant. Stephen Hayes--among others--has reported over the past three years on extensive evidence of terror ties to Saddam's regime. In our judgment, the evidence for such ties has become more convincing, not less, as more information has become available.
Can we ever really know the whole truth--or almost the whole truth? Yes. How? Let us--all of us--read the mass of documents captured after the fall of the Saddam regime. Stephen Hayes's reporting, including his article in this issue, suggests to us that these documents would confirm the argument for a terror connection. But let everyone make up his own mind, based on his own reading of the documents.
So: The U.S. government should release the documents. It should authenticate documents where possible, and then release them promptly, as they are authenticated. Or, if that is too onerous a process--and lots of time has already gone a-wasting--it should simply release all the documents, perhaps with whatever is known about their provenance and likely authenticity, and let news organizations, experts, and others make their own judgments.
Aren't most of these documents classified? Actually, no. And why should they be? After all, Saddam's regime is gone, all the information is at least three years old--and where there are still actionable items relating to individuals, that information could of course be redacted. Perhaps a few documents could not be released. But a great many could be.
In fact, some of these documents have already been the subject of media reports:
(1) A 1992 internal Iraqi Intelligence memo lists Osama bin Laden as an Iraqi Intelligence asset in "good contact" with the Iraqi Intelligence section in Damascus. The Defense Intelligence Agency told 60 Minutes the document is authentic.
(2) Another internal Iraqi Intelligence memo, this one from the mid-1990s, reports that a Sudanese government official met with Uday Hussein and the director of the Iraqi Intelligence Service in 1994, in order to set up meetings between bin Laden and Iraqi Intelligence in Sudan. According to the Iraqi document, bin Laden was "approached by our side" after "presidential approval" for the liaison was given. The former head of Iraqi Intelligence Directorate 4 met with bin Laden on February 19, 1995. Bin Laden requested that Iraq's state-run television network broadcast anti-Saudi propaganda; the document states that the Iraqis agreed to honor this request. The al Qaeda leader also proposed "joint operations against foreign forces" in Saudi Arabia; there is no Iraqi response provided in the documents. When bin Laden left Sudan for Afghanistan in May 1996, the Iraqis sought "other channels through which to handle the relationship, in light of his current location." The IIS memo directs that "cooperation between the two organizations should be allowed to develop freely through discussion and agreement." Pentagon analysts told the New York Times that the document appears authentic.
(3) Another set of Iraqi Intelligence documents were recovered by two journalists scouring the bombed-out headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service in Baghdad. The documents, taken from the IIS accounting department, show that on February 19, 1998, the Iraqi Intelligence Service had finalized plans to bring a "trusted confidant" of bin Laden's to Baghdad in early March. The following comes from the Telegraph's translations of the documents:
The envoy is a trusted confidant and known by them. According to the above mediation we request official permission to call Khartoum station to facilitate the travel arrangements for the above-mentioned person to Iraq. And that our body carry all the travel and hotel expenses inside Iraq to gain the knowledge of the message from bin Laden and to convey to his envoy an oral message from us to bin Laden, the Saudi opposition leader, about the future of our relationship with him, and to achieve a direct meeting with him.
A note at the bottom of the page from the director of one IIS division recommends approving the request, noting, "we may find in this envoy a way to maintain contacts with bin Laden." Four days later, on February 23, final approval is granted. "The permission of Mr. Deputy Director of Intelligence has been gained on 21 February for this operation, to secure a reservation for one of the intelligence services guests for one week in one of the first class hotels."
The al Qaeda emissary came to Baghdad on March 5, 1998. Notes in the margins of the Iraqi Intelligence memos indicate that someone named, or using the name, Mohammed F. Mohammed stayed as the guest of Iraqi Intelligence in Room 414 of the Al Mansour Melia Hotel. The documents note that bin Laden's envoy extended his trip by one week, departing on March 16. The U.S. intelligence community has these documents and believes that they are authentic.
Why can't the American public be permitted to read these documents in their entirety--and all the rest?
The Bush administration has shied away from engaging the issue of Saddam and his terror ties. This is both foolish and unmanly. The president is neither. It is past time that he insist that his subordinates get the facts out. Then we can have a serious debate, and reach a better-grounded judgment, about the terror connection. Our reporting so far convinces us of the reality and the significance of the terror connection. But we want all the facts--and we trust the purveyors of the conventional wisdom will join us in asking for all the facts as well.