How much contact did there have to be between al Qaeda and Saddam for the U.S. to be legitimately concerned?

The lead headline in today’s Washington Post proclaims “Hussein’s Prewar Ties To Al-Qaeda Discounted: Pentagon Report Says Contacts Were Limited.” Stated differently, neither the Post nor the Pentagon Report disputes that al Qaeda had contacts with Saddam Hussein regime. At the same time, according to the pre-war CIA’s assessment which the Pentagon Report relies on, there was no evidence of a long-term relationship between the two outfits and “no conclusive signs of cooperation on specific terrorist projects.” But the CIA acknowledged that its views on these matters were “necessarily speculative.”
In figuring out how to view this pre-war assessment, we should first recall that the contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were far from the primary reason for going to war with Iraq. There is no reason to believe either (a) that the administration would have gone to war on this basis alone or (b) that the adminstration would not have gone to war in the absence of concern about such contacts. So the real question concerning contacts boils down to this — was it reasonable for the administration to believe that one benefit of overthrowing Saddam would be to end the risk of cooperation between his regime and al Qaeda in carrying out terrorism.
The Post story confirms that it was reasonable for the administration to believe this. Saddam’s regime, which nearly everyone thought possessed WMD and which certainly had the capacity to produce such weapons, was in contact with the folks who attacked us on 9/11. Under these circumstances, and keeping in mind that the Saddam-AQ contacts were not the core justification for the war, the CIA’s “necessarily speculative” assessment that the contacts were “limited,” and that evidence of deeper contacts was “based on unconfirmed information,” does not seem terribly consequential. If the two rogue outfits were talking at all, the possibility of collaboration against their common arch-enemy was worth worrying about.
The fact that the relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam was not as “mature” or longstanding as Saddam’s relationship with other terrorist organizations was likewise irrelevant. Saddam did not need a longstanding relationship with al Qaeda in order to colloborate with its terrorists. It was perfectly reasonable for the administration to worry that Saddam, having formed significant relationships with other terrorist organizations over the years, would now form a significant one with the latest and greatest terrorist organization, with whom his regime already was in contact.
The Post also jumps on claims that post-war intelligence shows Iraq and al Qaeda were not cooperating in all ten categories that Douglas Feith of the Defense Department alleged they were. Let’s overlook the fact that this assesment is based in part on interviews with Saddam himself and his top henchmen, hardly reliable sources. Would the Post and other administration critics care to tell us how many categories of cooperation between Saddam and al Qaeda were required for the U.S. to be legitimately concerned?
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