The Clinton administration talked about firm evidence linking Saddam Hussein’s regime to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network years before President Bush made the same statements.
The issue arose again this month after the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States reported there was no “collaborative relationship” between the old Iraqi regime and bin Laden.
Democrats have cited the staff report to accuse Mr. Bush of making inaccurate statements about a linkage. Commission members, including a Democrat and two Republicans, quickly came to the administration’s defense by saying there had been such contacts.
In fact, during President Clinton’s eight years in office, there were at least two official pronouncements of an alarming alliance between Baghdad and al Qaeda. One came from William S. Cohen, Mr. Clinton’s defense secretary. He cited an al Qaeda-Baghdad link to justify the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan.
Mr. Bush cited the linkage, in part, to justify invading Iraq and ousting Saddam. He said he could not take the risk of Iraq’s weapons falling into bin Laden’s hands.
The other pronouncement is contained in a Justice Department indictment on Nov. 4, 1998, charging bin Laden with murder in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
The indictment disclosed a close relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam’s regime, which included specialists on chemical weapons and all types of bombs, including truck bombs, a favorite weapon of terrorists.
The 1998 indictment said: “Al Qaeda also forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group Hezbollah for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States. In addition, al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the government of Iraq.”
Shortly after the embassy bombings, Mr. Clinton ordered air strikes on al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and on the Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
To justify the Sudanese plant as a target, Clinton aides said it was involved in the production of deadly VX nerve gas. Officials further determined that bin Laden owned a stake in the operation and that its manager had traveled to Baghdad to learn bomb-making techniques from Saddam’s weapons scientists.
Mr. Cohen elaborated in March in testimony before the September 11 commission.
He testified that “bin Laden had been living [at the plant], that he had, in fact, money that he had put into this military industrial corporation, that the owner of the plant had traveled to Baghdad to meet with the father of the VX program.”
He said that if the plant had been allowed to produce VX that was used to kill thousands of Americans, people would have asked him, “‘You had a manager that went to Baghdad; you had Osama bin Laden, who had funded, at least the corporation, and you had traces of [VX precursor] and you did what? And you did nothing?’ Is that a responsible activity on the part of the secretary of defense?”