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The ABC's of Iraq and al Qaeda

5:14 PM, Oct 3, 2007 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Is there a more confused issue in the public discourse than the matter of Iraq's ties to al Qaeda prior to the March 2003 invasion? I doubt it. At an ABC News blog, Jake Tapper claims that Senator Barack Obama was right to call out (in a speech he gave yesterday) Senator Hillary Clinton for saying the following back in October 2002:

"[Saddam] has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members, though there is apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001."

Tapper writes:

As Don van Natta and Jeff Gerth have written in their book about Clinton and the New York Times, Clinton's linkage of Saddam and al Qaeda was unique among Democrats and "was unsupported by the conclusions of the N.I.E. and other secret intelligence reports that were available to senators before the vote." [Note: The vote mentioned here is, of course, the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq]

The problem is that Sen. Clinton's statement was supported by the intelligence available, contrary to what Tapper and apparently what Don van Natta and Jeff Gerth argue (I have not read their book). It is true that the various reports mentioned above did not find any conclusive link between Saddam's Iraq and 9/11. That is absolutely true. But it is also absolutely false that these same reports did not find any link between Iraq and al Qaeda whatsoever.

In fact, as George Tenet writes in his book At the Center of the Storm, there was "more than enough evidence" of a relationship between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda, including intelligence demonstrating that more than a dozen al Qaeda agents "had found a comfortable and secure environment" in Baghdad. According to Tenet, these al Qaeda agents used their safe haven in Baghdad to move supplies to other al Qaeda agents in northeastern Iraq. Tenet cites a variety of other pieces of evidence that were contained in the CIA's reporting on this issue from the summer of 2002 through January of 2003 as well. Safe haven, discussions of collaboration, sharing VX nerve gas technology…it's all there.

So, to say that Sen. Clinton's claim wasn't supported by the intelligence available at the time is simply revisionist history. I realize that some disingenuous former intelligence officers like to now claim otherwise, but the simple fact of the matter is that the CIA did collect intelligence indicating a relationship between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda. Some analysts didn't make much of it, but as Tenet points out, others did.

The 9/11 Commission found evidence of a relationship as well. The one sentence in the final 9/11 Commission report that says there was "no evidence" that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda developed into a "collaborative operational relationship"--that is, that there was no evidence the two collaborated on attacks against Americans--has been widely trumpeted. But the Commission also found (see p. 61) that there were "indications" that Saddam's regime had assisted al Qaeda in northern Iraq, which was outside of Saddam's centralized control, but where Iraqi Intelligence still had a heavy footprint. The Commission also provided citations showing that President Clinton's administration had uncovered evidence of Iraq's cooperation with al Qaeda on chemical weapons development projects in Sudan (p. 128). Admittedly, that issue has now become greatly clouded as well. But suffice it to say that the Clinton administration had found significant evidence of a relationship before some former Clinton administration officials decided there wasn't any evidence.

Regardless, the Commission clearly did find that there was a relationship. Here is what Thomas Kean, co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission said about the matter: "There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda."