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Newsweek's "Case"

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball get the Osama-Saddam memo wrong.

12:26 PM, Nov 20, 2003 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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A NEWSWEEK article by investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball about the memo linking Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein dismisses a recent WEEKLY STANDARD report as "hype" and concludes, the "tangled tale of the memo suggests that the case of whether there has been Iraqi-al Qaeda complicity is far from closed."

While it's refreshing to see the establishment media pick up the story, the Newsweek article is less than authoritative. The authors write: "The Pentagon memo pointedly omits any reference to the interrogations of a host of other high-level al Qaeda and Iraqi detainees--including such notables as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Abu Zubaida, and Hijazi himself."

Their claim is mistaken, as bullet-point No. 34 of the memo makes clear:

During a 3 Sept 2002 interview, senior al Qaeda lieutenant Zubaida said that Bin Laden would ally al Qaeda with any entity willing to kill Americans. Zubaida explained, "my enemy's enemy is my friend." Bin Laden opposed a "formal" alliance because it may threaten al Qaeda's independence, but he saw the benefits of cooperation and viewed any entity that hated Americans and was willing to kill them as an "ally." Zubaida had suggested that the benefits of an alliance would outweigh the manageable risks to the integrity of al Qaeda. He said the potential benefits included access to WMD materials, such as weaponized chemical or biological weapons material, as well as funding and potential locations for safehaven and training.

And here is bullet-point No. 39:

During a May 2003 custodial interview with Faruq Hijazi, he said that in a 1994 meeting with Bin Laden in Sudan, Bin Laden requested that Iraq assist al Qaeda with the procurement of an unspecified number of Chinese-manufactured anti-ship limpet mines. Bin Laden thought that Iraq should be able to procure the mines through third-country intermediaries for ultimate delivery to al Qaeda. Hijazi said he was under orders from Saddam only to listen to Bin Laden's requests and then report back to him. Bin Laden also requested the establishment of al Qaeda training camps inside Iraq.

So either Isikoff and Hosenball have not seen the memo or they misreport its contents.

The Newsweek authors continue: "Overlooked in THE WEEKLY STANDARD hype, the Pentagon memo itself concedes that much of the more recent reporting about Iraqi-Al Qaeda ties is 'conflicting.'"

This is exactly backwards. The Pentagon memo itself concedes no such thing. That characterization--"conflicting"--comes not from the memo, but from THE WEEKLY STANDARD article. Indeed, in describing the post-July 1999 reporting as "conflicting," I was arguably erring on the side of caution. I did so because of the claims of Khalil Ibrahim Abdallah. Abdallah is a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in U.S. custody who "said that the last contact between the IIS [Iraqi intelligence] and al Qaeda was in July 1999." Abdallah's debriefing stands out because it is the only reporting in the memo to suggest that the relationship may have ended.

The Newsweek story goes on: "While Hayes's story insists 'the bulk of the reporting . . . contradicts [Abdallah's] claim,' the actual examples cited in the memo to buttress this point are less than persuasive." The Newsweek writers offer two examples--allegations that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague and reporting from Ibn al-Shayk al-Libi, a senior al Qaeda operative who was captured in Pakistan and turned over to U.S. custody in early January 2002.

The most recent alleged Atta meeting, in April 2001, is disputed, a fact THE WEEKLY STANDARD article makes clear. Isikoff and Hosenball claim that the intelligence is bogus, as U.S. investigators have "not unearthed a scintilla of evidence that Atta was even in Prague at the time of the alleged rendezvous." (See Edward Jay Epstein's recent report in Slate for a fuller account of the controversy over this meeting.)

Czech intelligence, however, reports not one but four meetings between Iraqi intelligence and Atta. The CIA can confirm two Atta visits to Prague, but "data surrounding the other two--on 26 Oct 1999 and 9 April 2001--is complicated and sometimes contradictory and CIA and FBI cannot confirm Atta met with the IIS." This disclaimer was reported in THE WEEKLY STANDARD article, which also noted that the Czech government continues to stand by its reporting.