Joe Conason's Journal

Safire & Co. peddle an apparently bogus memo as "proof" of a Saddam/al-Qaida connection. But the blame for 9/11 may lie closer to home.

By Salon Staff
Published December 18, 2003 8:49PM (EST)

Funny fabrications and fateful findings
Tall tales and legends have fascinated American conservatives for more than a decade now, although their attention has turned from Arkansas cocaine smuggling to far graver matters such as the responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks. Blaming Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton (not necessarily in that order) is the objective -- and the acceptable methods apparently include outright fabrication.

Among those currently cooperating in this political jihad are members of the Iraqi Governing Council, journalists at London's right-wing Daily Telegraph, and the eminently respectable William Safire of the New York Times. Last Sunday, the Telegraph blared a front-page story claiming that a newly discovered document memo proves Iraqi intelligence assisted 9/11 mastermind Mohammed Atta, in Baghdad, during the summer of 2001. The Telegraph identified the source who provided the memo as Dr. Ayad Allawi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

The very next day, Safire promoted the Telegraph's "scoop" in an Op-Ed column on the capture of Saddam. As a fervent believer in the covert connection between Saddam and Osama, he must have been elated by this fresh documentation of his theory. The Times columnist lent further plausibility to the story by identifying Allawi as "an Iraqi leader long considered reliable by intelligence agencies."

Astute readers may recall that a similar pattern -- with conservative American pundits echoing dubious material in the right-wing London press -- developed during the Whitewater pseudo-scandals. The result was the same: On closer scrutiny, the ballyhooed story swiftly falls apart.

Someday, plausible proof may emerge that implicates Saddam in al-Qaida's crimes, but this memo won't quite do. Newsweek's Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff report that the document provided by Allawi is almost certainly fraudulent (like those papers concerning Iraq's purchases of uranium yellowcake from Niger). As Hosenball and Isikoff explain:

"The new document, supposedly written by the chief of the Iraqi intelligence service ... doesn't say exactly when Atta was supposed to have actually flown to Baghdad. But the memo is dated July 1, 2001, and [Telegraph reporter Con] Coughlin himself places the trip as the summer of 2001.

"The problem with this, say U.S. law enforcement officials, is that the FBI has compiled a highly detailed time line for Atta's movements throughout the spring and summer of 2001 based on a mountain of documentary evidence, including airline records, ATM withdrawals and hotel receipts. Those records show Atta crisscrossing the United States during this period -- making only one overseas trip, an 11-day visit to Spain that didn't begin until six days after the date of the Iraqi memo."

Newsweek also quotes Hassan Mneimneh, an Iraqi document expert and a spokesman for Governing Council member Ahmed Chalabi, ridiculing the memo as a fake. By the way, another glaring problem is that the bogus, handwritten memo also describes, a bit too conveniently, the arrival of the mythical uranium yellowcake from Niger. (For some reason, Safire didn't mention that obvious evidence of forgery.)

But if the responsibility for 9/11 can't be pinned yet on Saddam, then who aside from Osama bin Laden and his cohorts should share the blame? Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, the Republican who chairs the commission investigating the attacks, is pointing toward unnamed officials of the Bush administration, according to CBS News.

"This was not something that had to happen," the Bush appointee told CBS. The network reports that Kean "is now pointing fingers inside the administration and laying blame," and quotes him predicting major new revelations during the commission's public hearings next month. "There are people that, if I was doing the job, would certainly not be in the position they were in at that time because they failed," he said. "They simply failed."
[12:55 p.m. PST, Dec. 18, 2003]

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