Joe Conason's Journal

Wednesday's New York Times story disproving Saddam's link to al-Qaida looks like yet another CIA leak designed to embarrass the White House.

Published January 14, 2004 11:49PM (EST)

Saddam, Osama, and the CIA
When members of the CIA's Iraq Survey Team confided the disappointing result of their weapons hunt to a Washington Post reporter last October, that leak seemed to be a clear sign of the intelligence community's hostility toward the Bush White House. At the time, I predicted continuing trouble from CIA personnel infuriated by White House assaults on their agency and by the "outing" of their colleague Valerie Plame.

Wednesday the administration was embarrassed again -- on the front page of the New York Times -- by a story that disproved the alleged connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. And although reporter James Risen identified the story's sources as "Bush administration officials," this leak looks as if it, too, sprang from the CIA.

According to Risen, a document captured along with Saddam Hussein shows that he warned his own supporters to avoid allying themselves with armed Islamists who have slipped into Iraq to attack U.S. troops:

"The document appears to be a directive, written after he lost power, from Mr. Hussein to leaders of the Iraqi resistance, counseling caution against getting too close to Islamic jihadists and other foreign Arabs coming into occupied Iraq, according to American officials.

"It provides a second piece of evidence challenging the Bush administration contention of close cooperation between Mr. Hussein's government and terrorists from al-Qaida. CIA interrogators have already elicited from the top Qaida officials in custody that, before the American-led invasion, Osama bin Laden had rejected entreaties from some of his lieutenants to work jointly with Mr. Hussein.

"Officials said Mr. Hussein apparently believed that the foreign Arabs, eager for a holy war against the West, had a different agenda from the Baathists, who were eager for their own return to power in Baghdad. As a result, he wanted his supporters to be careful about becoming close allies with the jihadists, officials familiar with the document said."

Further down, Risen offers this potential clue to his sourcing in a discussion of intelligence disputes within the government: "Senior officials at the Pentagon who were certain that the evidence of connections between Iraq and al-Qaida were strong and compelling found themselves at war with analysts at the CIA ... At the Pentagon, several officials believed that Iraq and al-Qaida had found common ground in their hatred of the United States, while at the CIA, many analysts believed that Mr. bin Laden saw Mr. Hussein as one of the corrupt secular Arab leaders who should be toppled."

What Rummy's Memo Omitted
On the issue of Iraq, al-Qaida and the security of the United States, a couple of readers have offered an astute observation about Paul O'Neill's recent revelations. In The Price of Loyalty, the former treasury secretary recalls that Bush's National Security Council began to discuss the overthrow of Saddam at its very first meetings during the winter of 2001. Despite emphatic warnings from the departing members of the Clinton foreign policy team that al-Qaida posed the most immediate threat, the Islamists don't seem to have appeared on the new administration's target list.

O'Neill gave author Ron Suskind an important memo distributed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during those early days, which mentions various potential threats to the United States. The Rumsfeld memo doesn't mention al-Qaida or Islamist terror, but frets about the possibility that smaller nations will obtain missile capability -- and urges an immediate increase in missile defense funding.

Were the Bush planners so preoccupied with Iraq and missile defense that they ignored warnings from their predecessors about the imminent threat from al-Qaida?

Perhaps the answer will appear in this forthcoming memoir by an official who tried to warn them -- former NSC counter-terror chief Richard Clarke.
[3:30 p.m. PST, Jan. 14, 2004]

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