GEORGE TENET'S JUST released book, At the Center of the Storm, has created quite a stir. Over the past few days, a myriad of news accounts have referenced various snippets of the former director of Central Intelligence's self-serving collection of remembrances. But here is something you probably have not heard or read about Tenet's book: it confirms that there was a relationship between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda. And, according to Tenet, "there was more than enough evidence to give us real concern" about it too.
Tenet devotes an entire chapter to the question of Iraq's ties to al Qaeda (Chapter 18, "No Authority, Direction, or Control"). Much of the chapter is used to vilify Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense, and Vice President Cheney. Tenet claims, repeatedly, that Feith, Cheney, and others in the Bush administration exaggerated the intelligence on Saddam's ties to al Qaeda. The former DCI says they "pushed the data farther than it deserved" and "sought to create a connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks that would have made WMD, the United Nations, and the international community absolutely irrelevant." (In this vein, Tenet also erroneously claimed to have met Richard Perle on September 12, 2001. According to Tenet, Perle said "Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday [September 11]." However, Perle was in France and, therefore, could not have met with Tenet. Perle denies the conversation took place at all.)
Tenet offers little real evidence to support his contention. But it is worth noting what he does not claim: that the Bush administration cooked up the connection between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda in its entirety. In fact, Tenet concedes that there was evidence of a worrisome relationship. For example, Tenet explains that in late 2002 and early 2003:
There was more than enough evidence to give us real concern about Iraq and al-Qa'ida; there was plenty of smoke, maybe even some fire: Ansar al-Islam [note: Tenet refers to Ansar al-Islam by its initials "AI" in several places]; Zarqawi; Kurmal; the arrests in Europe; the murder of American USAID officer Lawrence Foley, in Amman, at the hands of Zarqawi's associates; and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad operatives in Baghdad.
On Ansar al-Islam, Zarqawi, and Kurmal, Tenet elaborates further:
The intelligence told us that senior al-Qa'ida leaders and the Iraqis had discussed safe haven in Iraq. Most of the public discussion thus far has focused on Zarqawi's arrival in Baghdad under an assumed name in May of 2002, allegedly to receive medical treatment. Zarqawi, whom we termed a "senior associate and collaborator" of al-Qa'ida at the time, supervised camps in northern Iraq run by Ansar al-Islam (AI).
We believed that up to two hundred al-Qa'ida fighters began to relocate there in camps after the Afghan campaign began in the fall of 2001. The camps enhanced Zarqawi's reach beyond the Middle East. One of the camps run by AI, known as Kurmal, engaged in production and training in the use of low-level poisons such as cyanide. We had intelligence telling us that Zarqawi's men had tested these poisons on animals and, in at least one case, on one of their own associates. They laughed about how well it worked. Our efforts to track activities emanating from Kurmal resulted in the arrest of nearly one hundred Zarqawi operatives in Western Europe planning to use poisons in operations.
According to Tenet, al Qaeda's presence was not limited to northern Iraq:
What was even more worrisome was that by the spring and summer of 2002, more than a dozen al-Qa'ida-affiliated extremists converged on Baghdad, with apparently no harassment on the part of the Iraqi government. They had found a comfortable and secure environment in which they moved people and supplies to support Zarqawi's operations in northeastern Iraq.
Other high-level al Qaeda terrorists set up shop in Baghdad as well. From Saddam's neo-Stalinist capital they planned attacks around the globe:
More al-Qa'ida operatives would follow, including Thirwat Shihata and Yussef Dardiri, two Egyptians assessed by a senior al-Qa'ida detainee to be among the Egyptian Islamic Jihad's best operational planners, who arrived by mid-May of 2002. At times we lost track of them, though their associates continued to operate in Baghdad as of October 2002. Their activity in sending recruits to train in Zarqawi's camps was compelling enough.
There was also concern that these two might be planning operations outside Iraq. Credible information told us that Shihata was willing to strike U.S., Israeli, and Egyptian targets sometime in the future. Shihata had been linked to terrorist operations in North Africa, and while in Afghanistan he had trained North Africans in the use of truck bombs. Smoke indeed. But how much fire, if any?
It strains credulity to imagine that all of this was going on without, at the very least, Saddam's tacit approval. Tenet says that the CIA did not think Saddam had "operational direction and control" over the two Egyptians, Zarqawi, or AI. But he explains, "from an intelligence point of view it would have been difficult to conclude that the Iraqi intelligence service was not aware of their activities." "Certainly," Tenet adds, "we believe that at least one senior AI operative maintained some sort of liaison relationship with the Iraqis."
There was more. Tenet says that his analysts found evidence of a relationship spanning more than a decade. He explains:
In the laborious exercise undertaken by analysts to understand the history of a potential Iraq-al Qa'ida relationship, they went back and documented the basis of a variety of sources--some good, some secondhand, some hearsay, many from other intelligence services. There were, over a decade, a number of possible high-level contacts between Iraq and al-Qa'ida, through high-level and third-party intermediaries. Our data told us that at various points there were discussions of cooperation, safe haven, training, and reciprocal nonaggression.
As has been discussed in THE WEEKLY STANDARD on a number of occasions, the CIA also uncovered evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda were cooperating on chemical weapons projects in the Sudan. The Clinton administration cited the CIA's intelligence to justify the August 20, 1998, strike on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory. That strike was launched in retaliation for al Qaeda's August 7, 1998, embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The al-Shifa plant operated under an Iraqi oil-for-food contract and Tenet's CIA suspected it of being one of several front companies at which Iraq was transferring chemical weapons technology (including VX nerve gas) to al Qaeda.
Tenet explains the long history of collaboration between Iraq, Sudan, and al Qaeda:
During the mid-1990s, Sudanese Islamic Front Leader Hasan al-Turabi reportedly served as a conduit for Bin Ladin between Iraq and Iran. Turabi in this period was trying to become the centerpiece of the Sunni extremist world. He was hosting conferences and facilitating the travel of North Africans to Hezbollah training camps in the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon. There was concern that common interests may have existed in this period between Iraq, Bin Ladin, and the Sudanese, particularly with regard to the production of chemical weapons. The reports we evaluated told us of high-level Iraqi intelligence service contacts with Bin Ladin himself, though we never knew the outcome of these contacts. [Emphasis added]
Tenet also offers his thoughts on the detention of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, "a senior military trainer for al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan." When al-Libi was first detained he "offered up information that a militant known as Abu Abudullah had told him that at least three times between 1997 and 2000, the now-deceased al-Qa'ida leader Mohammed Atef had sent Abu Abdullah to Iraq to seek training in poisons and mustard gas." Later, al-Libi recanted his testimony. Controversy then ensued. Critics of the Iraq war have seized on al-Libi's reversal and claim that his admissions were made under duress, and are therefore dubious.
But Tenet says "there was sharp division on his recantation" inside the CIA. Al-Libi "clearly lied," Tenet says, but we don't know when. Either his initial confession or his later denial could be accurate. Tenet concludes: "The fact is, we don't know which story is true, and since we don't know, we can assume nothing."
But Tenet adds an additional detail that he says lent credence to al-Libi's initial confession: "Another senior al-Qa'ida detainee told us that Mohammed Atef was interested in expanding al-Qa'ida's ties to Iraq, which, in our eyes, added credibility to [al-Libi's initial] reporting."
Some will no doubt highlight Tenet's claims about the Bush administration hyping Saddam's ties to 9/11. In reality, he provides little verifiable evidence to back up this claim. As Tenet's chapter title suggests, he also believes that Saddam's Iraq lacked "authority, direction, or control" over al Qaeda. Few would argue with this assessment. But that does not make the threads of evidence connecting Saddam's regime to al Qaeda any less troublesome.
Zarqawi, AI, chemical weapons projects, high-level contacts, Egyptian al Qaeda members plotting from Baghdad: it adds up to a very alarming picture.
And after reading all of Tenet's chapter on Iraq and al Qaeda, it seems clear that neoconservatives weren't the only ones connecting the dots between these two enemies of the United States.
Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher and economist living in New York.