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Connect the Dots With Rumsfeld

Who died and left Donald Rumsfeld Secretary of State? Seems like every few days, he meets with the press and tosses out another foreign-policy making remark. Students of bureaucratic gamesmanship must view the Defense Secretary with awe. When the Afghanistan campaign was underway last year, he took to holding daily briefings with the Pentagon press corps. The sessions were a hit; among the commentariat there was silly talk that Rummy, with his no-nonsense style, had become a matinee idol. (For whom? Republican matrons in their 60s?) But every day he was out there making news -- or making it on to the news -- and as the war in Afghanistan slowed to a trickle of small actions, Rumsfeld still kept his date with the television cameras. With less to talk about Afghanistan-wise, he was happy to share his views on other matters -- the Middle East, say. Most recently, he warned (at a public meeting with Army troops) that if Russia maintains its trading relationship with Iraq, the nation will be branded a pal of terrorism and global investors will steer clear of Russia. Normally, it would be the job of the Secretary of State or the President to wag a finger at another nuclear power. But in this instance, the SecDef -- on his own or not -- was sending a serious foreign-policy message. Colin Powell, call your office. Henry Kissinger would never have stood for this.

Rumsfeld has been most out front on Iraq -- pushing the case, without providing evidence, that Saddam Hussein and his brutal cronies are up to their mustaches in terrorism and the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). A few weeks back, at one of his press briefings, Rumsfeld suggested Iraq had developed underground bunkers and mobile labs for its WMD scientists and engineers. If true, this would render an international weapons inspection effort more difficult, perhaps even futile, and provide the United State with more reason for what appears to be the Bush administration's preferred course of action: military preemption. But Rumsfeld neither offered proof such facilities have been built, nor did he claim that intelligence -- which, of course, cannot be made public -- confirms the existence of these hard-to-find laboratories of death. (Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, argues that there is no evidence to back up this Rumsfeld claim.)

More recently, Rumsfeld supported another attempt to tie Iraq to Sept. 11 by saying at a news conference that it "is a fact that there are al Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq." As The Washington Post noted, in reporting Rumsfeld's remarks, "Eager to bolster the case for military action, administration hawks have pressed for months for whatever evidence can be uncovered about any links between Hussein's government and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network." This eagerness, unfortunately, has caused Rumsfeld and others to be disingenuous. After all, the presence of al Qaeda in Iraq only has meaning -- in this context -- if Saddam is providing these fighters sanctuary or somehow collaborating with them. In fact, the Post quoted a "senior U.S. intelligence official" who said there is no evidence Saddam has "welcomed in or sheltered" the terrorists. And another U.S. official commented, "They aren't the official guests of the government" and described these al Qaeda fighters as largely "on the run."

But Rumsfeld rejected -- without refuting -- these observations. "In a vicious, repressive dictatorship that exercises near-total control over its population," he huffed. "It's very hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what's taking place in the country." On other occasions, though, Rumsfeld has estimated that al Qaeda has a presence in 60 or so countries. Do these nations deserve to be threatened with invasion? The point is not to suggest that Iraq is al Qaeda-free or that Saddam would never join with the enemy of an enemy. But Rumsfeld should not be able to get away with substituting assertion for argument. Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq? It could matter much. It could matter not at all. It depends on the details. Yet Rumsfeld, in transmitting administration views to the world, skips over the specifics.

This is in keeping with the desperate efforts of administration officials (and their supporters) to find some dots -- any dots -- connecting Saddam to Sept. 11. Up to now, the get-Saddam gang has relied mostly on the allegation that 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta in April 2000 met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official. This encounter has in no way been confirmed. The Czechs at one point seemed to say it had not happened. Yet the story won't fade, and the hawks continue to claim this debate is not settled. Let's say this tete-a-tete did transpire. So what? The significance of this event can only be determined if one knows the purpose of the meeting. Sure, it's possible -- though not probable -- Iraqi intelligence was officially assisting al Qaeda and knew of its 9/11 master plan. But perhaps this intelligence officer was acting on his own. He could have been unofficially assisting Atta. Or he could have been trying to penetrate al Qaeda. Maybe he was a rogue officer trying to peddle arms to al Qaeda. Maybe he and Atta were old school chums. Come up with your own scenario. The bottom line is that unless someone has a transcript of this Prague meeting or memos written about it -- that is, if it did happen -- no one can judge its significance. It is rather thin stuff on which to wage a war.

All of this loose talk amounts to a pretty damn ugly attempt to drive the nation to war via underhanded means. Perhaps this is one reason why former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, during a recent interview, called deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon adviser Richard Perle -- two main cheerleaders of the go-to-war crowd -- "devious." For the latest exercise in deviousness, see William Safire's New York Times column of Aug. 22. It's a beaut. Without providing a single named or unnamed source -- how does the paper of record let him get away with this? -- he reports that "an Iraqi intelligence officer" heads a "force of some 120 Arab terrorists" that is operating in the Kurdish portion of northern Iraq and that this group has been trying to assassinate democratic Kurds and set up chemical weapons facilities. Safire also claims an Osama bin Laden aide helped train "many" of these terrorists. He cites this as "evidence of Saddam's close connection with terrorists" and concludes, "terror's most dangerous supporter can be found in Baghdad."

Okay, forget the total absence of sources. Safire is still playing a rotten version of connect the dots. He writes that the former Iraqi intelligence office leading this force, Fowzi Saad al-Obeidi, "supposedly defected from Saddam Hussein's ranks." Should Saddam be held responsible for what a defector does? Obviously, Safire believes the defection was a cover story. Hence, his use of "supposedly." But can he establish the defection was phony? Safire notes Saad's family "continues to enjoy privileges in Baghdad." That's his proof. Possibly this means what Safire thinks it means. Possibly not. There could be other explanations for Saad's family's situation. Without more information, Safire's inference carries little weight. Assuming his facts are correct -- a bold assumption, given the lack of sourcing -- what the reader is left with is this: a onetime Iraqi intelligence officer, who may or may not still be working for Saddam, is leading a small group of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists of whom some (the amount is not specified) were trained at some point in time (when is not specified) by a senior al Qaeda commander. Without more data regarding Saad's current connection to Saddam, this story says nothing concrete about Saddam's relationship to al Qaeda and global terrorism. Safire is turning a lead into a conclusion. Like Rumsfeld, he is using partial and unproven allegations to whip up sentiment for war.

It could well be that Saddam is a suicidal maniac with bin Laden's private number on his speed dialer. But there is no evidence the Prague meeting occurred; no evidence Saddam is protecting al Qaeda leftovers; no evidence there are underground WMD labs in Iraq; no evidence Saddam is running a terrorist group jointly with al Qaeda. The devious ones are throwing all they can at Saddam, and much of it won't stick.

In recent days, the Bush White House has seemed worried war-talk has gained too much speed. In Crawford, Texas, Bush interrupted his vacation to tell reporters that regarding Iraq, "I'm a patient man and that we will look at all options and we will consider all technologies available to us, and diplomacy and intelligence." It could be that the White House was spooked by recent opposition to a unilateral war against Iraq voiced by several prominent Republicans, including Brent Scowcroft, chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and a Bush family friend, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Senator Chuck Hagel, and Lawrence Eagleburger, who served in the Bush I cabinet.

If the White House is truly concerned speculation about war with Iraq has outpaced actual deliberations, it ought to tell Rumsfeld to shut up -- at least when it comes to innuendo -- and to stop playing secretary of state on television. But if Rumsfeld and other hawks in the administration are going to hype any allegation, confirmed or not, about the alleged threat from Saddam and his alleged terrorist contacts, the White House should expect the public to expect war. With devious people calling the shots, it's not foolish to assume shots will be fired soon and for dishonest reasons.

David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation.

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