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The Other Bush Lie

Just like the claims about Iraqi uranium purchases, 'evidence' of links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda is equally bogus.
 
 
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As calls mount for a full-scale investigation into the Bush administration's manipulation of intelligence on Iraq's nonexistent nuclear and chemical weapons program, let's hope that the other causus belli on which the administration based its war -- the alleged link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein -- also gets the scrutiny it deserves.

While the link was hyped less by administration officials than by right-wing idealogues and the conservative press, an organized campaign was nonetheless launched to persuade the American public that such a connection was real -- and represented a mortal threat.

A hint of such orchestration came in a June interview between "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert and former Gen. Wesley Clark, as publicized by the press watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR):

Clark: "There was a concerted effort during the fall of 2001, starting immediately after 9/11 to pin 9/11 and the terrorism problem on Saddam Hussein." Russert: "By who? Who did that?" Clark: "Well, it came from the White House, it came from people around the White House. It came from all over. I got a call on 9/11. I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, 'You got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein.' I said, 'But -- I'm willing to say it -- but what's your evidence?' And I never got any evidence."

Clark has never said who called him, but we can identify others who were asserting the same connection both on television and in print at the same time.

Without explicitly citing Iraq, Defense Policy Board (DPB) chair Richard Perle suggested in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that there had to be a state sponsor behind them. "This could not have been done without help of one or more governments," he told The Washington Post. "Someone taught these suicide bombers how to fly large airplanes. I don't think that can be done without the assistance of large governments. You don't walk in off the street and learn how to fly a Boeing 767."

Ex-CIA chief James Woolsey, Jr. was more direct. Speaking with Peter Jennings, he suggested Iraq was behind the 1993 bombing of the Trade Center and continued: "[I]t's not impossible that terrorist groups could work together with the government, that ... the Iraqi government has been quite closely involved with a number of Sunni terrorist groups and ... and on some matters has had direct contact with bin Laden."

He repeated that claim in an interview with Wolf Blitzer. Appearing with the State Department's former counterterrorism chief, Larry Johnson, Woolsey said, "My suspicion -- it's no more than that at this point -- is that there could be some government action involved together with bin Laden or a major terrorist group. And one strong suspect there I think would be the government of Iraq." (Johnson thought this highly unlikely. "Saddam is a lot of things," he said, "but he's not crazy.")

Later that evening, William Kristol of the Weekly Standard and chairman of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) echoed Woolsey in a NPR interview: "I think Iraq is, actually, the big, unspoken sort of elephant in the room today. There's a fair amount of evidence that Iraq has had very close associations with Osama bin Laden in the past, a lot of evidence that it had associations with the previous effort to destroy the World Trade Center."

It remains unclear whether Woolsey, Perle, Kristol and the mystery person who tried to coach Clark really believed there was a connection, or whether they were trying to plant the idea in the public's mind in order to set the stage for war with Iraq. But recently revealed discussions within the administration now suggest the deception may have been intentional.

Forcing The Connection

CBS News' David Martin reported last September that ''[B]arely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon, the secretary of defense was telling his aides to start thinking about striking Iraq, even though there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks," FAIR pointed out recently. Martin attributed his account to contemporaneous notes by a Pentagon aide that quote Rumsfeld as asking for the "best info fast" to "judge whether good enough to hit SH at the same time, not only UBL [for Saddam Hussein and Usama bin Laden]." The notes then go on to quote Rumsfeld as urging that the administration's response "go massive... sweep it all up, things related and not."

This was the mindset that Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, brought with them to the administration's war council at Camp David four days later. "Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had been examining military options in Iraq for months but nothing had emerged" before 9/11, wrote The Washington Post's Bill Woodward and Dan Balz in their account of that meeting. "Wolfowitz argued that the real source of all the trouble and terrorism was probably Hussein. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 created an opportunity to strike," wrote to the two reporters. "Now, Rumsfeld asked again: Is this the time to attack Iraq?"

"Powell objected," the Post account continues. "You're going to hear from your coalition partners, he told the president. They're all with you, every one, but they will go away if you hit Iraq. If you get something pinning 9/11 on Iraq, great -- let's put it out and kick them at the right time. But let's get Afghanistan now. If we do that, we will have increased our ability to go after Iraq -- if we can prove Iraq had a role ." (emphases added)

Powell's words were clearly taken as a challenge by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. The moment they returned to Washington, they convened a two-day meeting of the Perle-chaired DPB on how the crisis could be used to attack Iraq. The meeting, of which the State Department was not even notified, included a "guest" appearance from Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), on whose behalf Wolfowitz, Perle, Woolsey, and several other DPB members had been lobbying for years. According to the Wall Street Journal, several DPB members agreed that an attack on Iraq was indeed warranted. But they also acknowledged Powell's proviso: a war would be much easier to pull off if a link could be established between 9/11 and Hussein.

As a result, Woolsey was quietly dispatched to Europe -- again, without notice to the State Department or even the CIA -- to uncover evidence of such a link. So hush-hush was the mission that Woolsey himself has never said precisely what he was doing there, and the Pentagon disclaimed any knowledge of it after it became public. (The State Department reportedly found out about the visit when British security forces called the U.S. embassy in London after detaining Woolsey for suspicious conduct in a sensitive area.) That Woolsey found nothing new to make a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, let alone 9/11, didn't stop the Wall Street Journal from obligingly running his column recounting unsusbstantiated rumors of Iraqi ties to al Qaeda and of Hussein's supposed involvement in the alleged assassination attempt against Bush Sr. in 1993. As a disappointed Woolsey told the New York Times on his return, "The first thing we have to do is develop some confidence that Iraq is involved in terrorist incidents against us, not meaning 9/11 " (emphasis added). It was a startling admission that, as of mid-October 2001, the war party had no evidence that Hussein was behind terrorist attacks against the United States.

With Help From The Fourth Estate

Even as the DPB was cloistered at the Pentagon, Perle was advising another effort across the Potomac to make Iraq an inevitable target of Bush's war on terror.

Shift to the headquarters of the then-obscure Project for the New American Century, an organization whose alumni include many of the most hawkish officials in the Bush administration. Just six floors below Perle's office at the American Enterprise Institute, William Kristol was circulating a draft letter that was later published by the Washington Times on Sept. 20, 2001, and signed by a veritable who's who of neo-conservative and right-wing ideologues. Many of these (Perle, Kristol, William Bennett, Eliot Cohen, Frank Gaffney, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Robert Kagan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Charles Krauthammer, Clifford May, Norman Podhoretz and Randy Scheunemann, who would go on to head the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq) would emerge as the most ubiquitous, persistent and vehement champions of war with Iraq outside the administration.

The letter laid out an agenda for the "war on terrorism" -- an agenda that has since proven uncannily prescient. For our purposes, however, the letter's most significant aspect is its explicit indifference to any connection between Hussein and 9/11.

"It may be that the Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent attack on the United States," it said. " but even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power . Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism." (emphasis added)

The conclusion, then, is inescapable. The cadre of cheerleading hawks -- both inside and outside the administration -- who led the United States to war 19 months later had decided within 10 days of the terrorist attacks that 9/11 should be used as the pretext for Hussein's removal, even if there was absolutely no connection between the two. But they felt the need to make the case for such a connection to at least bring along the public, if not Washington's allies whose intelligence agencies remained unconvinced. The result was a series of ever shakier, sometimes lurid, stories -- all jumped on and defended as gospel truth by the PNAC crowd and the various media and lobby groups associated with it.

The Flimsy Ties That Bind

Thus there was the (still-running) controversy over whether Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers, met with a senior Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in April 2001 -- a story that originated, according to various accounts, with a single Middle Eastern informant of undetermined reliability who told Czech intelligence he had seen the two men seated together at a Prague cafe five months before the 9/11 attacks. The FBI, CIA and foreign intelligence services, including Mossad, have dismissed the story. According to Newsweek, the FBI has receipts proving Atta was traveling between Florida and Virginia Beach at the time. Yet as recently as last September, Cheney was coy on the question: "[W]e have reporting," he said during an interview, "that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center." (Note the similarity in phraseology used by Bush to describe "British" reports that Hussein had tried to acquire uranium in Africa.)

The fact that the story was not considered credible by U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies did not prevent it from making a huge and continuing splash in the U.S. media. In addition to the PNAC cadre who have hyped it at every opportunity, New York Times columnist William Safire and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal have hawked it as gospel, often deriding naysayers as CIA dupes.

Then there was the report about the airline fuselage at the Iraqi military base at Salman Pak where, according to Perle and others, a defector (apparently channeled to the Pentagon from the INC) had sworn they had seen non-Iraqi Muslims being trained in hijacking. But U.S. intelligence officials, who knew about the fuselage since it was installed in the mid-1980s, also knew that it was being used to train security personnel to prevent hijackings. It didn't take them long after interviewing the defector to dismiss the allegation.

Another story seized on by the hawks appeared in the New Yorker in spring 2002. The author, Jeffrey Goldberg, had traveled to northern Iraq, where he was given access to prisoners from Ansar al-Islam, a small group of Islamist guerrillas around Halabja. On the basis of one interview with a former drug-runner, Goldberg made Ansar appear to be a part of al Qaeda with close ties to Saddam's intelligence services. Ansar soon became the key link, not only to al Qaeda but to chemical warfare as well. The group was said to be developing poisons -- in other words, weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Woolsey called the story proof positive; Cheney called it "devastating."

It was indeed a great story, but nothing has since turned up to sustain its key elements. What evidence has emerged about Ansar's external links suggests the group may have been far more closely tied to an Iranian security faction than to Baghdad. Its headquarters were obliterated in the opening stages of the war, and no traces of poisons turned up in the debris. The man reported to be the link between the group and Saddam is nowhere to be found. While the CIA was excoriated by Woolsey, Perle and others for not taking Goldberg's account more seriously, the Ansar lead appears to have collapsed on its own.

Then there was Parisoula Lampsos, Hussein's self-declared former mistress (also provided by the INC), who gave several juicy interviews on U.S. network television. In an appearance conveniently timed for maximum impact -- the day after Bush's 9/11 address to the United Nations -- Lampsos revealed to ABC's "Primetime Thursday" that Hussein's son Uday had told her of at least two meetings between Saddam and bin Laden during the mid-1990s, including an occasion where Saddam had given bin Laden money. According to Newsweek, the CIA found her story incredible, but the hawks in Rumsfeld's office and their PNAC allies outside insisted that she get a hearing. And so she eventually did, but her "leads" went nowhere. Perle called the rejection of Lampsos' story "the latest example of the CIA's unfailing inability to spot intelligence when they see it."

The last story revolves around a mysterious and peripatetic Islamist fighter named Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was referenced in Bush's State of the Union address in January, when he charged that "Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda." Powell made this allegation explicit a week later in his presentation to the U.N. Security Council, when he charged that Baghdad "harbors a deadly terrorist network, headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants." It was the only direct reference to any link between Iraq and al Qaeda in his speech.

Administration officials had been privately briefing selected reporters for several months about Zarqawi, who was believed to have been badly wounded during the bombing in Afghanistan. He reportedly escaped to Iran, then on to Baghdad, where his injured leg may have been amputated. Offiicals assumed Iraqi intelligence agencies must have known about his presence, even if they were not explicitly providing Zarqawi and his followers with protection.

From there on, rumors have Zarqawi and his new (but unconfirmed) prosthesis visiting the Ansar group in northern Kurdistan to see how their poisons were coming along; traveling to the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia; and attending a "terrorist summit" in south Lebanon. While in Bangkok, he is also alleged to have ordered the assassination of a USAID official in Jordan.

As with the other stories, doubts of their veracity abound. Zarqawi, for example, is not considered part of al Qaeda, or even a "collaborator," according to regional specialists. His various sightings are also said to be based on dubious accounts. Nor is it clear that Hussein knew about Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad, if indeed he was ever there. And, needless to say, neither he nor his followers has been found by U.S. troops, although he has been the target of a high-priority search. Intelligence files captured by U.S. troops in Baghdad have likewise turned up nothing.

Selling It Anyway

Three months after U.S. troops captured Baghdad, evidence establishing a link between Hussein and Al Qaeda -- let alone 9/11 -- is as elusive as the yellowcake from Niger. Yet just as the administration's talk about Baghdad's WMD programs was effective in rallying public opinion behind war, so the campaign to forge the Saddam-al Qaeda link in the public mind has been highly succesful.

According to a Pew Research Center poll taken just before the House of Representatives voted on the war resolution, two-thirds of adult Americans at the time believed that "Saddam Hussein helped the terrorists in the 9/11 attacks" -- it is a smashing tribute to the persistence and effectiveness of Wolfowitz, Perle, Woosley & Co.

That percentage has declined over time, but a strong majority still believe that Hussein's Iraq supported al Qaeda. According to a poll released July 1 by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), no less than 25 percent of respondents believed that Iraq was "directly involved" in 9/11, while an additional 36 percent agreed with the statement that Iraq "gave substantial support to Al Qaeda, but was not involved in the 9/11 attacks." The same poll found that 52 percent of respondents believe that the U.S. has actually found "clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization."

A mere 7 percent said "there was no connection at all."

The hawks still insist that the evidence will show that Hussein and Al Qaeda were in cahoots, and even that Hussein had a role in 9/11. So when the military announced this week that it had captured Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Sami al-Ani, the intelligence community went all aquiver. Al-Ani was the Iraqi agent with whom Atta allegedly met at that Prague cafe back in April 2001.

"If he chose to, he could confirm the meeting with Atta," Perle told the Washington Post. "It would be nice to see that laid to rest. There's a lot he could tell us." Perle offered one caveat, however. "Of course, a lot depends on who is doing the interrogating," he told the Post, suggesting that the CIA might play down the evidence.

The CIA, whose analysts have indeed been skeptical of the connection from the outset but were clearly overwhelmed by the combined machinations of the Pentagon hawks, the neocons, and their allies in the media, called Perle's suggestion "absurd."

"We're open to the possibility that they met, but we need to be presented with something more than Mr. Perle's suspicions," says an unnamed CIA official. "Rather than us being predisposed, it sounds like he is. He's just shopping around for an interrogator who will cook the books to his liking."

A more succinct summary of how we got from those mysterious calls to Clark on 9/11 to 148,000 troops in Iraq today would be difficult to imagine.

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service, an international newswire, and for Foreign Policy in Focus, a joint project of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies and the New Mexico-based Interhemispheric Resource Center.