The Administration Takes Another Needless Hit

The big news today is the 9/11 Commission’s staff report, which is being promoted as a refutation of Bush administration claims that Iraq had ties to al Qaeda. The New York Times begins its article on the Commission’s report:

The staff of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks sharply contradicted one of President Bush’s central justifications for the Iraq war, reporting on Wednesday that there did not appear to have been a “collaborative relationship” between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

The Washington Post, likewise, in a story titled “Al Qaeda-Hussein Link Is Dismissed,” says:

The Sept. 11 commission reported yesterday that it has found no “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and al Qaeda, challenging one of the Bush administration’s main justifications for the war in Iraq.

In fact, the staff report is brief, conclusory, and on its face adds nothing to what is known about the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. The most relevant portion of the staff report is here; see Statement No. 15. The portion of the statement being quoted in the press is the following:

Bin Laden also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein’s secular regime. Bin Laden had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sudanese, to protect their own ties with Iraq, reportedly persuaded bin Laden to cease this support and arranged for contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting bin Laden in 1994. Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan, 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.

That’s it. To say that this report adds nothing to our understanding of al Qaeda and Iraq would be an understatement. It appears to have been written before the discovery that a Lt. Col. in the Saddam Fedayeen, Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, attended the key planning meeting of the Sept. 11 plotters. Beyond that, the staff either is ignorant of the many indications of connections between al Qaeda and Iraq, or simply ignores them, secure in the knowledge that the mainstream media will applaud their conclusions without questioning their reasoning.
The claim that the Bush administration alleged a connection between Iraq and Sept. 11 is, of course, false. But newspapers like the Times and the Post are caught up in the excitement of the election year; they deliberately seek to create the impression that the administration made such a claim, and that it has somehow been “refuted.” Neither suggestion is true.
For what it’s worth, the staff report does say:

Since the September 11 attacks and the defeat of the Taliban, al Qaeda’s funding has decreased significantly. The arrests or deaths of several important financial facilitators have decreased the amount of money al Qaeda has raised and increased the costs and difficulty of raising and moving that money. Some entirely corrupt charities are now out of business, with many of their principals killed or captured, although some charities may still be providing support to al Qaeda. Moreover, it appears that al Qaeda attacks within Saudi Arabia in May and November 2003 have reduced–perhaps drastically–al Qaeda’s ability to raise funds from Saudi sources. Both an increase in Saudi enforcement and a more negative perception of al Qaeda by potential donors have cut its income.
At the same time, al Qaeda’s expenditures have decreased as well, largely because it no longer provides substantial funding to the Taliban or runs a network of training camps in Afghanistan. Despite the apparent reduction in overall funding, it remains relatively easy for al Qaeda to find the relatively small sums required to fund terrorist operations.
Prior to 9/11, al Qaeda was a centralized organization which used Afghanistan as a war room to strategize, plan attacks, and dispatch operatives worldwide. Bin Laden approved all al Qaeda operations, often selecting the targets and operatives. After al Qaeda lost Afghanistan after 9/11, it fundamentally changed. The organization is far more decentralized. Bin Laden’s seclusion forced operational commanders and cell leaders to assume greater authority; they are now making the command decisions previously made by him.

Behind this hilarious effort to avoid crediting the administration’s policies–note the discreet mention of the fact that “al Qaeda lost Afghanistan after 9/11,” the suggestion that al Qaeda no longer has to “provide substantial funding to the Taliban,” and, most of all, the priceless reference to “bin Laden’s seclusion”–lurks another headline: “Phenomenal Success of Bush’s War on Terror.” But you’ll never see it.
Given that the Republicans ostensibly control both houses of Congress, I can’t explain why the Sept. 11 commission and its staff consist mostly of Democratic Party operatives. But that isn’t the real problem; the real problem is that President Bush is passive and inarticulate, and his administration is pathologically unable to engage in debate. The staff report is a juicy target–what movie is it where a soldier rides between rows of watermelons set on sticks, slicing them off with his sword?–but no one in the Bush administration has the courage or skill to stand up for the administration’s policies. So, as always, the administration will keep its head down and try to weather another storm, hoping to slide its nose over the finish line in November. That really isn’t good enough.

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