Jan 1 2004

Saddam and Osama’s Shotgun Wedding

Weekly Standard beats a long-dead horse

The funny thing about the Weekly Standard‘s “exposé” purporting to offer proof of a longstanding Iraq/al-Qaeda alliance (11/24/03) is the aura of tight-lipped secrecy the magazine tries to impute to the Bush administration’s case against Saddam Hussein. As everyone knows, hardline officials have spent the last two years leaking stories, writing op-eds, holding private briefings and making public insinuations, all intended to convince the country that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda worked hand in hand. This has been endlessly discussed and hashed out in the press, even made the subject of a PBS documentary (Frontline, 2/20/03).

The general verdict, up until mid-November, when the Weekly Standard published its “Case Closed” cover story, was that despite strenuous efforts at persuasion, the hardliners’ case had been discredited. The professional analysts in the intelligence agencies didn’t buy it. The terrorism experts didn’t believe it. Yet when the Weekly Standard climbed back on the horse once again to try another charge at proving the administration’s theory, it depicted its “scoop”—a Pentagon document it obtained listing alleged Iraq/al-Qaeda contacts—as if it had been pried from the mouth of some reluctant government whistleblower: According to the cover line, the article exposes “the U.S. government’s secret evidence of cooperation between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.” (Secret evidence! The facts the government doesn’t want you to see!)

In fairness, the article itself, written by reporter Stephen Hayes, is clear about what the evidence was: A bureaucratic memo defending the Pentagon’s pre-war claims, written by a leading hawk, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, and transmitted to a skeptical congressional committee. What the article does not make clear is that the memo is largely a restatement of the same “facts” that Pentagon hawks had been touting for two years, only to be met with derision from the CIA’s Middle East experts.

In fact, much of the content of the Standard article is based on old information that was long ago leaked to the press. Take a few assertions that the Standard “reveals”: The Pentagon claims that in the early 1990s, Iraqi intelligence met with al-Qaeda leaders in Sudan and Pakistan. It asserts that “in 1993, bin Laden reached an ‘understanding’ with Saddam under which he… forbade al-Qaeda operations to be mounted against the Iraq leader.” And it revives the hoary claim that September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague.

All of this sounds awfully familiar. A column written more than a year earlier (10/20/02) by Jim Hoagland, the Washington Post‘s hawkish foreign-affairs columnist, covered exactly the same ground in describing a CIA report written in early 2002: “Iraqi intelligence officers meeting in Khartoum and Kandahar with Osama bin Laden, he nonaggression pact Saddam and Osama reached in 1993… and the multiple trips to Prague made by Mohamed Atta, the head of the September 11 suicide squads, are all there.” Hoagland’s column even referred to these tidbits as “‘old’ information long available in CIA files.”

Painfully flimsy

Some items in the Weekly Standard piece seem so painfully flimsy it’s hard to believe they found their way into an official memo or a national magazine article: “One report states that ‘in late 1999’ al-Qaeda set up a training camp in northern Iraq that ‘was operational as of 1999.'” Northern Iraq, as the world knows, lay outside the control of Saddam Hussein’s government throughout the 1990s, ruled instead by Kurdish militias under the protection of U.S. and allied air forces.

Other items wade through so many layers of conjecture and tenuous linkages that they sound like some of the less plausible output of JFK assassination theorists. Hayes dwells at length on an apparently al-Qaeda-connected Iraqi national named Ahmed Shakir who worked at a Malaysian airport and supposedly helped wave through customs two of the September 11 hijackers on their way to a January 2000 planning meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

The ominous facts in the case: (1) It was reported that Shakir “got his airport job through a contact at the Iraqi Embassy” in Malaysia. (2) When he was detained by Jordanian authorities and made available for questioning by the CIA, Baghdad supposedly “began to ‘pressure’ Jordanian intelligence to release him.” From these nebulous assertions, the article raises big questions: “Was Shakir an Iraqi agent? Does he provide a connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11?”

Other questions might just as plausibly be asked: Might it not be routine for foreign nationals in Malaysia to get airport jobs through their local embassy? Wouldn’t Saddam Hussein be wary of the CIA interrogating an alleged terrorist from Iraq, whether or not he had been working as a government agent? Would al-Qaeda really need to enlist Saddam Hussein’s help just to organize a get-together at an apartment in Malaysia?

Critics of the Pentagon’s use of intelligence accuse the department of “cherry-picking” data that fit their case while ignoring conflicting information. The Weekly Standard article doesn’t do much to dispel this charge; the piece itself is a 5,000-word exercise in cherry-picking. It is a catalogue of intelligence reports useful to the case for a Saddam/Osama link, but it omits almost anything that undermines the allegations.

One significant exception: It admits that a senior Iraqi intelligence officer, Khalil Ibrahim Abdallah, told U.S. interrogators that Saddam ordered his intelligence service in July 1999 to refrain from all contact with al-Qaeda. Hayes insists that “the bulk of reporting” contradicts this. Yet his list of supposedly countervailing evidence includes the sketchy claims about a Northern Iraqi terrorist base and the mysterious doings of Mr. Shakir.

Indeed, as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has reported (11/28/03), a high-level Iraqi source, possibly Abdallah himself, informed Western intelligence before the war that Iraq considered an al-Qaeda relationship but rejected the idea. That is why, according to a senior intelligence official quoted by Ignatius, “prior to the war, the CIA and Britain agreed that despite contact between Saddam and al-Qaeda over the years, there has been no substantive, institutional cooperation. Nothing we have learned in recent months would cause us to change that view.” The official added: “The Iraqis decided it wasn’t in their best interest to be linked to an Islamic terrorist group.”

Missing confirmation

The fact that the Iraq/bin Laden thesis is rejected even by the Blair administration, which has loyally risked its domestic political standing in supporting the Iraq war, ought to give pause to the theory’s proponents. U.K. Foreign Minister Jack Straw said during the U.N. debate: “It could well be the case that there were links, active links, between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime before September 11. What I’m asked is if I’ve seen any evidence of that. And the answer is: I haven’t.”

And the notion is dismissed by Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France’s highly regarded anti-terrorism investigator, whose pre-September 11 warnings to the FBI about indicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui went unheeded: “We have found no evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. And we are working on 50 cases involving al-Qaeda or radical Islamic cells. I think if there were such links, we would have found them. But we have found no serious connections whatsoever,” he told the Los Angeles Times (11/4/02).

If there really was a secret Iraq/al-Qaeda alliance, one would think that by now, with dozens of top al-Qaeda and Ba’athist personnel in custody, some confirmation of the theory would have emerged from interrogations. Yet according to the L.A. Times (9/18/03), “none of the senior al-Qaeda operatives in custody, including September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, nor any of the senior Iraqi officials being detained, have described significant cooperation between the two, according to intelligence officials.”

Thus it is not surprising that the theory’s defenders have to dredge up old clippings from the files to prove their point. “This is made to dazzle the eyes of the not terribly educated,” Greg Thielmann, former State Department director of proliferation intelligence, said of the Feith memo. According to Kenneth Katzman, the top Iraq expert at the Congressional Research Service and a former CIA analyst, it tries to “stretch the information more than a lot of the experts are comfortable with.” Even prominent war booster Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies points out that intelligence contacts do not amount to close collaboration: “It would be naïve to think that there was no interaction—or that just because there was interaction means that there was a partnership between the two” (Inter-Press Service, 11/19/03).

To the extent that there is any substance at all to the Weekly Standard/Douglas Feith argument, it hinges on this distinction between partnership and mere interaction. It’s probable that Iraqi officials met with al-Qaeda types at various points through the years. Does that signify an Iraq/al-Qaeda alliance? The conservative theorists set the bar quite low when it comes to defining an alliance. Meetings, feelers, requests for help (whether or not they are acted upon)—all count as evidence that Iraq was a partner of al-Qaeda in its fight against the United States.

But such a low threshold for “cooperation” could lead to awkward questions for Western countries. Take one example: In a London court hearing last year, former MI6 official David Shayler, on trial for breaching the Official Secrets Act, testified that in 1996 British intelligence provided extensive support to the Libyan branch of al-Qaeda as part of a plot to assassinate the secular leader Muhammar Qaddaffi (London Observer, 11/10/02). If the allegation is true, by the Weekly Standard‘s standard, the British government is in partnership with al-Qaeda and presumably poses a direct threat to the U.S.

This seems to make no sense. But there is little danger that Stephen Hayes’ stringent standard concerning national security threats will be applied generally. Like the reasoning in the Supreme Court’s Bush vs. Gore decision, it is only meant to be used once.