Late last week, the Defense Department released an analysis of 600,000 documents captured in Iraq prepared by the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded think tank. Here's the attention-grabbing sentence from the report's executive summary: "This study found no 'smoking gun' (i.e. direct connection) between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda."
Relying on a leak of the executive summary, ABC News reported that the study was "the first official acknowledgment from the U.S. military that there is no evidence Saddam had ties to Al Qaeda." There followed a brief item in the Washington Post that ran under the headline "Study Discounts Hussein, Al-Qaeda Link." The New York Times announced: "Study Finds No Qaeda-Hussein Tie." NPR agreed: "Study Finds No Link Between Saddam, bin Laden."
And the Bush administration reacted with an apparently guilty silence.
But here's the truth. The executive summary of the report is extraordinarily misleading. The full report, released Thursday night, states, for example, on page 42: "Saddam supported groups that either associated directly with al Qaeda (such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led at one time by bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri) or that generally shared al Qaeda's stated goals and objectives." In fact, as Stephen F. Hayes reports in this issue, the study outlines a startling range of connections between Saddam and various organizations associated with al Qaeda and other terror groups.
But don't take our word for it: Go to http://a.abcnews.com/images/pdf/Pentagon_Report_V1.pdf and read the 59 pages of analysis for yourself. You'll see, in the words of the authors, "strong evidence that links the regime of Saddam Hussein to regional and global terrorism." And, from the report's conclusion:
The rise of Islamist fundamentalism in the region gave Saddam the opportunity to make terrorism, one of the few tools remaining in Saddam's "coercion" toolbox, not only cost effective but a formal instrument of state power. Saddam nurtured this capability with an infrastructure supporting (1) his own particular brand of state terrorism against internal and external threats, (2) the state sponsorship of suicide operations, and (3) organizational relationships and "outreach programs" for terrorist groups. Evidence that was uncovered and analyzed attests to the existence of a terrorist capability and a willingness to use it until the day Saddam was forced to flee Baghdad by Coalition forces.
Take a look also at the documents showing links between Saddam Hussein and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Apparently whoever wrote the executive summary didn't consider the link between Saddam and al Zawahiri a "direct connection" because Egyptian Islamic Jihad had not yet, in the early 1990s, fully been incorporated into al Qaeda. Of course, by that standard, evidence of support provided to Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s might not be deemed a "direct connection" because al Qaeda as we know it today did not yet exist.
If you talk to people in the Bush administration, they know the truth about the report. They know that it makes the case convincingly for Saddam's terror connections. But they'll tell you (off the record) it's too hard to try to set the record straight. Any reengagement on the case for war is a loser, they'll say. Furthermore, once the first wave of coverage is bad, you can never catch up: You give the misleading stories more life and your opponents further chances to beat you up in the media. And as for trying to prevent misleading summaries and press leaks in the first place--that's hopeless. Someone will tell the media you're behaving like Scooter Libby, and God knows what might happen next.
So, this week's fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war will bring us countless news stories reexamining the case for war, with the White House essentially pleading nolo contendere. Even though there is abundant evidence that Iraq was a serious state sponsor of terrorism--and would almost certainly have become a greater one if Saddam had been left in power--most Americans will assume there was no real Saddam-terror connection. After all, they haven't heard the Bush administration say otherwise.
The president has a responsibility to help the American people understand the nature of the threat we faced in 2003 and the threats we face today--how terror groups work, the extent of state sponsorship, and how that sponsorship transcends Sunni-Shia or secular-jihadist differences.
It's not too late. Bush can still override his cautious aides and tell the American people the whole truth about the situation we faced in 2003 and would face today if Saddam were still in power. This is more than a matter of political advantage. It is a requirement of war leadership.