Last week, the Washington Post ran a story called “Hussein’s Pre-War Ties To Al-Qaeda Discounted.” I wrote about it here. One of the Post’s themes (which I did not discuss in detail) was the notion that, while the CIA had concluded Saddam’s connection with al Qaeda was slight, Douglas Feith at the Defense Department peddled the contrary conclusion without stating that the CIA disagreed. This is the claim that the Inspector General of the Department of Defense recently made and which Sen Carl Levin has seized upon.
Thomas Joscelyn argues persuasively that this claim distorts the truth. Although there were differences on the subject between Feith and the CIA, both agreed that there were links between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda and both were concerned about these links. CIA director Tenet’s position was set forth in a letter to Senator Bob Graham dated October 7, 2002. Tenet reported, “We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda going back a decade.” He added that Iraq and al Qaeda “have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression.” Tenet went on to warn, “We have credible reporting that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.” Looking ahead, Tenet concluded, “Iraq’s increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al-Qaeda, suggest that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent US military action.”
Joscelyn also shows that Michael Scheuer who, for better or for worse, had been the head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, was convinced Iraq and al Qaeda were working together. Scheuer later would reverse his position, but the issue with respect to the Feith controversy is the state of play in 2002.
The Post story also claims that Iraqi documents obtained after the war began show Saddam’s regime “was not directly cooperating with al Qaeda before the U.S. invasion.” Joscelyn points to documents showing cooperation. What the Post meant by “direct” cooperation is anyone’s guess. The real question is whether the cooperation and the connections were disturbing. I don’t see how anyone concerned about our security could have concluded they were not. In any case, contrary to the impression the Post tries to create, George Tenet expresed concern.
As Joscelyn concludes:
The idea that Feith’s analysts cooked up the [Saddam-al Qaeda] connection, while the CIA shunned the very notion, is pure fantasy–a fantasy dreamed up by Senator Levin and some former CIA members who have repeatedly made clear their disdain for the Bush administration.