What the Administration Said Then, and What the Commission Says Now

President Bush talked to reporters this morning, and addressed the 9/11 commission staff report on Iraq. Here is how Fox News reports the President’s exchange with the press:

President Bush repeated his assertions Thursday that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda had a relationship before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The president added that he did not infer that the two had a “collaborative relationship” on the attacks, a conclusion rejected by the commission investigating the intelligence failures that prevented the United States from warding off the attacks.
“There was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda,” Bush insisted to reporters following a meeting with his Cabinet at the White House. This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda,” he said.
“We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, for example, Iraqi intelligence agents met with [Usama] bin Laden, the head of Al Qaeda in Sudan.”
The president added that Saddam gave safe haven to Al Qaeda associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

All of which is unquestionably true.
Press coverage of the commission staff’s report universally says or implies that it contradicts, and refutes, statements made by the Bush administration about the Iraq/al Qaeda connection prior to the Iraq war. However, if one reviews what the administration actually said on the subject prior to the Iraq war–for example, Colin Powell’s United Nations speech of February 2003–it is striking how little the staff report even purports to contradict, let alone refute, the administration. Here is what Powell told the U.N. in February 2003:

Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Usama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants.

This was the main focus of Powell’s discussion of al Qaeda; what he said was indisputably true. Astonishingly, the staff’s discussion of connections between Iraq and al Qaeda never mentions Zarqawi or his network. This omission renders the staff’s conclusions meaningless, if not laughable.

We are not surprised that Iraq is harboring Zarqawi and his subordinates. This understanding builds on decades-long experience with respect to ties between Iraq and al-Qaida. Going back to the early and mid-1990s when bin Laden was based in Sudan, an al-Qaida source tells us that Saddam and bin Laden reached an understanding that al-Qaida would no longer support activities against Baghdad. Early al-Qaida ties were forged by secret high-level intelligence service contacts with al-Qaida, secret Iraqi intelligence high-level contacts with al-Qaida.

These statements are repeated, in substance, in the commission staff’s Statement No. 15.

We know members of both organizations met repeatedly and have met at least eight times at very senior levels since the early 1990s. In 1996, a foreign security service tells us that bin Laden met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Khartoum and later met the director of the Iraqi intelligence service.

The staff report doesn’t contradict these statements; it alludes vaguely to “reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan….”

A detained al-Qaida member tells us that Saddam was more willing to assist al-Qaida after the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Saddam was also impressed by al-Qaida’s attacks on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.

Nothing in the staff report contradicts these statements.

A senior defector, one of Saddam’s former intelligence chiefs in Europe, says Saddam sent his agents to Afghanistan sometime in the mid-1990s to provide training to al-Qaida members on document forgery

Nothing in the staff report contradicts this statement.

Al-Qaida continues to have a deep interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. As with the story of Zarqawi and his network, I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al-Qaida. Fortunately, this operative is now detained and he has told his story. I will relate it to you now as he, himself, described it.
This senior al-Qaida terrorist was responsible for one of al-Qaida’s training camps in Afghanistan. His information comes firsthand from his personal involvement at senior levels of al-Qaida. He says bin Laden and his top deputy in Afghanistan, deceased al-Qaida leader Muhammad Atif, did not believe that al-Qaida labs in Afghanistan were capable enough to manufacture these chemical or biological agents. They needed to go somewhere else. They had to look outside of Afghanistan for help.
Where did they go? Where did they look? They went to Iraq. The support that this detainee describes included Iraq offering chemical or biological weapons training for two al-Qaida associates beginning in December 2000. He says that a militant known as Abdallah al-Iraqi had been sent to Iraq several times between 1997 and 2000 for help in acquiring poisons and gasses. Abdallah al-Iraqi characterized the relationship he forged with Iraqi officials as successful.

Nothing in the staff report contradicts these statements.
In fact, what the Bush administration said about the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda prior to the war was cautious and restrained. If the 9/11 commission has information that contradicts, let alone refutes, the specific factual claims made by administration spokesmen, it has not disclosed that information in the staff report.


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