Saddam and al-Qaida: It's true because it's true

Published June 17, 2004 9:33PM (EDT)

Though the bipartisan 9/11 commission argues strongly to the contrary, President Bush insists on a direct link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida: "The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qaida [is] because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida."

With its careful (if fumbling) ambiguity, Bush's statement today has the ring of truth, but it seems to indicate that the White House remains wholly uninterested in seriously addressing the critical intelligence miscalculations -- some of them perhaps conscious ones -- that led the nation to war. Bush's statement cruises straight past the numerous times the White House has implied a direct connection between Saddam, al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks.

A key part of the administration's case for war, argued most loudly by Vice President Cheney, rested on the assertion that lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had colluded with Saddam's intelligence agents in Prague before the attacks. In late 2001, Cheney argued the Prague story was "pretty well confirmed," though he later acknowledged the meeting could not be proved or disproved.

Even as Cheney's office now declares, "Hell, no!" the vice president won't retract any statements he's made regarding Saddam and al-Qaida, Cheney may want to compare notes with the 9/11 commission. According to the Post, "As for the Atta meeting in Prague mentioned by Cheney, the commission staff concluded: 'We do not believe that such a meeting occurred.'"

Last November the conservative press played the Atta "evidence" at full volume, when flagship neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard published a clarion call titled "Case Closed," based on a leaked intelligence memo that came from Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith's office. A number of U.S. intelligence officials were quick to warn against relying on the memo, which reportedly was unvetted. That didn't stop the Standard from declaring [emphasis is War Room's]: "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 Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al Qaeda -- perhaps even for Mohammed Atta -- according to a top secret U.S. government memorandum."

Undeniably riveting stuff -- and well worth comparing to the 9/11 commission's staff statement:

"Bin Laden 'explored possible cooperation with Iraq' while in Sudan through 1996, but 'Iraq apparently never responded' to a bin Laden request for help in 1994," reported the Post. "The commission cited reports of contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda after bin Laden went to Afghanistan in 1996, adding, 'but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.'"

Apparently, Cheney long ago made clear where he turns for some of his most trusted information. The Weekly Standard put its blockbuster "Case Closed" back up on the marquee again early this year, tagged with a special editor's note at the top:

"Editor's Note, 1/27/04: In today's Washington Post, Dana Milbank reported that "Vice President Cheney, in an interview this month with the Rocky Mountain News, recommended as the 'best source of information' an article in The Weekly Standard magazine detailing a relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda based on leaked classified information."

As for Bush and Cheney's continued insistence on Saddam and al-Qaida's "relationship," senior lawmakers are troubled. Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House intelligence committee, issued the following statement: "I am disturbed that Vice President Cheney and now President Bush continue to misstate this critical fact. Intelligence does not, and never has supported an operational pre-war relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Unfortunately, Iraq is now flypaper. It has become the central training ground for terrorists and terrorism. This was not a problem before the war, but it is now due to poor post-war planning."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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