Joe Conason's Journal

The neoconservatives, once billed as foreign-policy "grown-ups," have turned out to be as discreet as a clique of teenage girls.

Published November 17, 2003 9:17PM (EST)

An "inaccurate" gusher from the neocon pipeline
Wading through constant leaks of classified material from the Bush administration, American intelligence officials must wonder whether the White House and the Pentagon can be trusted with anything more sensitive than a grocery list. First came the flaming of Valerie Plame last July; then the (possibly self-serving) Rumsfeld memo about the progress of the war on terror last month; and now, in the pages of the Weekly Standard, a sheaf of "top secret" documents concerning the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida.

That last item -- heavily promoted throughout the Murdoch media over the weekend -- is a memorandum annexed to an Oct. 27 letter sent by Douglas Feith, the Defense undersecretary for policy, to Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Jay Rockefeller, D- W.Va., the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The senators had asked Feith, neocon bureaucrat and former business partner of Richard Perle, to provide source citations for his testimony on the subject last July 10.

Evidently the letter's classified appendix was leaked to the Weekly Standard, which promptly published excerpts from it under the headline "Case Closed." That definitive tone resounds in the first paragraph: "Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, al-Qaida training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al-Qaida -- perhaps even for [9/11 hijacker] Mohamed Atta -- according to a top secret U.S. government memorandum obtained by the Weekly Standard."

Read that opening sentence again, after perusing the article that follows, and it is obvious that even the quotations selected by writer Stephen Hayes fail to prove such sweeping assertions. Instead, what the quotes suggest is that while al-Qaida and Iraqi intelligence may have had contacts dating back to the early '90s, the ties between Saddam's state apparatus and the bin Laden group were sporadic and murky. And there is no new evidence linking Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, as the president recently acknowledged.

Perhaps, as Hayes predicts, more and better evidence will eventually emerge from the files and sources now being examined in Iraq and elsewhere. But he acknowledges that the Feith memo's sources offered contradictory answers to the most basic question. At least one senior Iraqi intelligence officer told U.S. interrogators that Saddam had rebuffed overtures from bin Laden after 1999. Other sources insisted that Iraq "considered" giving safe haven to the Saudi terrorist around that time. Hayes quotes second- and third-hand accounts of al-Qaida operatives receiving training in the use of chemical and biological weapons -- but what appears just as likely is that bin Laden asked for such assistance and got none.

Most of the rest of the story -- and apparently the most damning items in the Feith memo -- is old material. The Standard story offers up its chestnuts in a breathless tone that sometimes verges on the comical. To explain why more evidence of the al-Qaida connection has yet to surface, Hayes notes that "both Saddam and bin Laden were desperate to keep their cooperation secret. (Remember, Iraqi intelligence used liquid paper on an internal intelligence document to conceal bin Laden's name.)" Obviously, those villains assumed that nobody would have a penknife handy to scrape away the White-out.

Still, the nation's intelligence agencies were clearly alarmed by the leaking of the Feith memo, which names various important sources. On Saturday, with a screaming New York Post front-page headline on the newsstands, the Pentagon issued this statement:

"News reports that the Defense Department recently confirmed new information with respect to contacts between al-Qaida and Iraq in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee are inaccurate ...

"The items listed in the classified annex were either raw reports or products of the CIA, the [National Security Agency], or, in one case, the [Defense Intelligence Agency]. The provision of the classified annex to the Intelligence Committee was cleared by other agencies and done with the permission of the Intelligence Community. The selection of the documents was made by [the Defense Department] to respond to the Committee's question. The classified annex was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida, and it drew no conclusions.

"Individuals who leak or purport to leak classified information are doing serious harm to national security; such activity is deplorable and may be illegal."

Deplorable indeed, but don't expect anyone to be held accountable for this breach or others to come. The neoconservatives, once billed as mature, responsible foreign-policy "grown-ups," have turned out to be as discreet as a clique of teenage girls. Their political tactics may be almost as perilous and unwise as their policies.
[1 p.m. PST, Nov. 17, 2003]

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