NEW YORK CITY -- Are you confused yet? Two weeks ago, President Bush said, "There's no question that Saddam Hussein had Al Qaeda ties." In September 2002, he said, "You can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam." But Bush also said two weeks ago, "We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11."
That helpful clarification came after Vice President Dick Cheney was asked on "Meet the Press" why he thought 70 percent of Americans believe Saddam was behind Sept. 11. "It's not surprising that people make that connection," said the veep. Back in 2001, Cheney had said it was "pretty well confirmed" that Iraq and the Sept. 11 hijackers had coordinated. But most recently he said, "I don't know" if Saddam was connected to Sept. 11.
On the thoroughly discredited report that the lead hijacker Mohammad Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in 2001, Cheney said, "We've never been able to develop any more of that yet either in terms of confirming it or denying it." In fact, the report has been disavowed by Czech intelligence, and American intelligence found that Atta was on the East Coast of the United States at the time of the alleged meeting.
Now, still trying to follow the bouncing ball on Saddam and Al Qaeda, we find the Los Angeles Times reporting in November 2002, "Allies Find No Links Between Iraq, Al Qaeda." Spain, which supported the United States in the war and has been active in prosecuting Al Qaeda, reported "no link to Al Qaeda." A high-ranking German intelligence official said talk of an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection is "nonsense" and "not even the American intelligence community believes that anymore."
In August, the National Journal reported on three former Bush national security officials who had said "the prewar evidence tying Al Qaeda to Iraq was tenuous, exaggerated and often at odds with the conclusions of key intelligence agencies." Greg Thielmann, formerly of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said intelligence confirmed that Saddam and Al Qaeda were "mortal enemies." Osama bin Laden often denounced Saddam Hussein as "an infidel."
Guess someone forgot to tell the president and the vice president. The one known connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda is that for a time an Al Qaeda operative was in Baghdad, presumably up to no good, although we have no evidence. Uh, there were 18 Al Qaeda operatives lurking in this country -- does that make us guilty of harboring terrorists?
According to the Los Angeles Times, the classified section of a congressional report about 9-11 details "a Saudi government that not only provided significant money and aid to the suicide hijackers but also allowed potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups through support charities and other fronts." That was the part of the congressional report we were not allowed to read, despite the vigorous protests of members of the committee.
Now, after his statement on Sept. 19 that "we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9-11," Bush said on Sept. 25: "9-11 changed my calculation. It's really important for this nation to continue to chase down and deal with threats before they materialize, and we learned that on 9-11."
So, you see, we have no evidence that Saddam was involved in 9-11, but it's all about 9-11.
Moving right along to the crystal-clear matter of the weapons of mass destruction, we find Colin Powell saying of Saddam back in 2001: "I think we ought to declare our containment policy a success. We have kept him contained; kept him in his box. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors. He threatens not the United States."
Veep Cheney then believed the same. Five days after 9-11, he said, "Saddam Hussein is bottled up." But the storyline changed, and by October 2002, Bush told the nation: "The threat comes from Iraq. America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a nuclear cloud."
Just before the war, Bush said, "The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder."
We could go on and on with all the detailed information the administration gave us about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction -- over 500 tons of Sarin gas, etc. But now comes the Kay report confirming what we have been learning all along -- there ain't none. For months, whenever anyone asked, "Where are the weapons of mass destruction?" the administration and its flaks in the press corps said, "You better not raise that question because you'll sure be embarrassed when we find them." Well, we haven't. Not a trace of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. But, hey, it's only an interim report.
I have been trying to concentrate on the pragmatic lately. Even if we were wrong to go into Iraq, let's focus on what can be done now to save the situation. But sometimes -- such as when the president admits Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9-11 or our official WMD searchers admit they have nothing -- it seems to me useful to go back and review the bidding.
The fact that 70 percent of the American people are under the misimpression that Saddam was connected to 9-11 seems to me a shocking indictment of the news media. I think we need to go back and explain how we got where we are.
(Thanks to various websites that keep track of the administration's ever-changing story about why we went to war.)