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Saddam's al Qaeda Connection
From the September 1 / September 8, 2003 issue: The evidence mounts, but the administration says surprisingly little.
KIDS KNOW exactly when it comes--the point when you're repaving a driveway or pouring a new sidewalk, right before the wet concrete hardens completely. That's when you can make your mark. The Democrats seem to understand this.
For months before the war in Iraq, the Bush administration claimed to know of ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. For months after the war, the Bush administration has offered scant evidence of those claims. And the conventional wisdom--that there were no links--is solidifying. So Democrats are making their mark.
"The evidence now shows clearly that Saddam did not want to work with Osama bin Laden at all, much less give him weapons of mass destruction." So claimed Al Gore in an August 7 speech. "There is evidence of exaggeration" of Iraq-al Qaeda links, said Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who recently launched an investigation into prewar intelligence. "Clearly the al Qaeda connection was hyped and exaggerated, in my view," said Senator Dianne Feinsten. Chimed in Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, as reported in the National Journal, "The evidence on the al Qaeda links was sketchy." Jay Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat on the Senate side of that committee, agrees. "The evidence about the ties was not compelling."
These are serious charges that deserve to be answered. If critics can show that the administration overplayed the al Qaeda-Saddam connection, they will undermine not only an important rationale for removing the Iraqi dictator, but the broader, arguably more important case for the war--that the conflict in Iraq was one battle in the worldwide war on terror.
What, then, did the Bush administration say about this relationship before the war? Which parts of that case, if any, have been invalidated by the intelligence gathered in the months following the conflict? What is this new "evidence," cited by Gore and others, that reveals the administration's arguments to have been embellished? Finally, what if any new evidence has emerged that bolsters the Bush administration's prewar case?
The answer to that last question is simple: lots. The CIA has confirmed, in interviews with detainees and informants it finds highly credible, that al Qaeda's Number 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, met with Iraqi intelligence in Baghdad in 1992 and 1998. More disturbing, according to an administration official familiar with briefings the CIA has given President Bush, the Agency has "irrefutable evidence" that the Iraqi regime paid Zawahiri $300,000 in 1998, around the time his Islamic Jihad was merging with al Qaeda. "It's a lock," says this source. Other administration officials are a bit more circumspect, noting that the intelligence may have come from a single source. Still, four sources spread across the national security hierarchy have confirmed the payment.
In interviews conducted over the past six weeks with uniformed officers on the ground in Iraq, intelligence officials, and senior security strategists, several things became clear. Contrary to the claims of its critics, the Bush administration has consistently underplayed the connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Evidence of these links existed before the war. In making its public case against the Iraq regime, the Bush administration used only a fraction of the intelligence it had accumulated documenting such collaboration. The intelligence has, in most cases, gotten stronger since the end of the war. And through interrogations of high-ranking Iraqi officials, documents from the regime, and further interrogation of al Qaeda detainees, a clearer picture of the links between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein is emerging.
To better understand the administration's case on these links, it's important to examine three elements of this debate: what the administration alleged, the evidence the administration had but didn't use, and what the government has learned since the war.
WHAT THE ADMINISTRATION ALLEGED
TOP U.S. OFFICIALS linked Iraq and al Qaeda in newspaper op-eds, on talk shows, and in speeches. But the most detailed of their allegations came in an October 7, 2002, letter from CIA director George Tenet to Senate Intelligence chairman Bob Graham and in Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5, 2003, presentation to the United Nations Security Council.
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