The Kerry campaign continued its attempt to dissociate the Iraq war from the broader war on terror on Monday. In a conference call with reporters, senior Kerry advisers Joe Lockhart and Susan Rice previewed the questions John Edwards will ask Dick Cheney during the debate this evening. Expect the Iraq-al Qaeda connection to come up several times. It was the first issue that Rice, a former Clinton administration official who advises Kerry on foreign policy, raised during the conference call.
Rice claimed that the "reality" in Iraq was that there were "no links to al Qaeda." The Bush administration, she charged, has "now successfully tried to create a new front in the war on terror in Iraq where it wasn't before." Rice wasn't done. "Given that the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have said repeatedly that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 or Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, and that even Condoleezza Rice has confirmed that there was no such link, is [Cheney] going to be the last person to contend that there is such a connection?"
Not likely. Thomas Kean, co-chairman of the September 11 Commission, went far beyond mere "links" between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and al Qaeda.
"There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," he said at a press conference on July 22, 2004. "Relationship" is also the word used to describe Iraq-al Qaeda contacts in an internal Iraqi Intelligence document, authenticated by U.S. intelligence and first disclosed on June 25, 2004, in the New York Times. When bin Laden left the Sudan in 1996, according to the document, his Iraqi Intelligence contacts began "seeking other channels through which to handle the relationship, in light of his current location." The document makes no mention of any formal arrangement between Iraq and al Qaeda, but instructs that ''cooperation between the two organizations should be allowed to develop freely through discussion and agreement."
Rice is simply wrong when she claims that the 9/11 Commission "repeatedly" dismissed a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. In fact, the commission's final report details numerous "friendly contacts" between Iraq and al Qaeda before concluding that the evidence it had seen did not suggest a "collaborative operational relationship."
"With the Sudanese regime acting as an intermediary, bin Laden himself met with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in Khartoum in late 1994 or early 1995. Bin Laden is said to have asked for space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but there is no evidence that Iraq responded to this request."
In March 1998, according to the 9/11 report, two al Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence." Iraqi officials traveled to Afghanistan in July 1998 to meet with representatives from the Taliban and later directly with Osama bin Laden. According to the 9/11 report, "sources reported that one, or perhaps both, of these meetings was apparently arranged through bin Laden's Egyptian deputy, [Ayman al] Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis."
Let's review: Kerry adviser Susan Rice claims the 9/11 Commission dismissed "links" between Iraq and al Qaeda. In fact, the 9/11 Commission co-chairman says there is "no question" of an Iraq-al Qaeda relationship. The final commission report notes numerous "friendly contacts" between Iraq and al Qaeda and declares that bin Laden's top deputy "had ties of his own to the Iraqis."
And what of Rice's claim that the Senate Intelligence Committee also dismissed the Iraq-al Qaeda connection? Or that Iraq was not involved with terrorism before the Iraq War?
The report contains 66 pages on "Iraq's Links to Terrorism." The CIA's counterterrorism center undertook an aggressive study of the Iraq-al Qaeda connection because "any indication of a relationship between these two hostile elements could carry great dangers to the United States." Note that phrase: Any indication of a relationship. The Senate report also quoted a CIA analysis called "Iraqi Support for Terrorism."
Iraq continues to be a safehaven, transit point, or operational node for groups and individuals who direct violence against the United States, Israel and allies. Iraq has a long history of supporting terrorism. During the last four decades, it has altered its targets to reflect changing priorities and goals. It continues to harbor and sustain a number of smaller anti-Israel terrorist groups and to actively encourage violence against Israel. Regarding the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship, reporting from sources of varying reliability points to a number of contacts, incidents of training, and discussions of Iraqi safehaven for Usama bin Laden and his organization dating from the early 1990s.
Did the Bush administration really "create a new front in the war on terror in Iraq where it wasn't before?" Not according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report.
From 1996 to 2003, the IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] focused its terrorist activities on western interest, particularly against the U.S. and Israel. The CIA summarized nearly 50 intelligence reports as examples, using language directly from the intelligence reports. Ten intelligence reports [redacted] from multiple sources indicate IIS "casing" operations against Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in Prague began in 1998 and continued into early 2003. The CIA assessed, based on the Prague casings and a variety of other reporting that throughout 2002, the IIS was becoming increasingly aggressive in planning terrorist attacks against U.S. interests.
And is Cheney really alone in his belief that the Iraq-al Qaeda connection was a threat? Hardly. Along with most Republicans in Congress, so do Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh. So do several 9/11 commissioners. So does Ayad Allawi, the new Iraqi Prime Minister. He said as much during a July 29, 2004, interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw: "I believe very strongly that Saddam had relations with al Qaeda. And these relations started in Sudan. We know Saddam had relationships with a lot of terrorists and international terrorism. Now, whether he is directly connected to the September atrocities or not, I can't vouch for this. But definitely I know that he has connections with extremism and terrorists." (Joe Lockhart, who last week suggested that Allawi was little more than an American puppet, will not likely find this persuasive.)
Barham Salih, current deputy prime minister of Iraq, agrees with Allawi. "Saddam Hussein, a 'secular infidel' to many jihadists, had no problem giving money to Hamas. This debate [about whether Saddam worked with al Qaeda] is stupid. The proof is there."
William Cohen, Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, testified about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection in front of the September 11 Commission on March 23, 2004. Executives from a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant that the U.S. bombed in response to al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa "traveled to Baghdad to meet with the father of the VX program."
The list goes on.
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.
By Stephen F. Hayes