- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

The issue is historical now, but still worth exploring. Why, for two distinct groups of Americans, has it become a matter of conviction held with religious intensity that there cannot have been any relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq?

One group consists of Democratic politicians who oppose the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. The Minnesota Democratic Party recently protested as “un-American” an ad showing military veterans and their families supporting the president’s policies for saying, “Our enemy in Iraq is al Qaeda — the same terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, the same terrorists from the first World Trade Center bombing, the USS Cole, Madrid, London and many more.”

The Democrats, unfactually, say these words “make a connection between Iraq and the September 11 [2001] terrorist attacks and suggest the war in Iraq will prevent an attack by al Qaeda in America.”

But of course, the ad is factually correct: Al Qaeda is attacking Americans in Iraq. And the Minnesota Democratic Party is in no position to guarantee al Qaeda will not attack America.

The other group consists of intelligence and other career government professionals, many of them Arabists. Case in point: Paul Pillar, CIA national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, 2000-2005, now retired, writing in the most recent Foreign Affairs magazine. The “greatest discrepancy between the administration’s public statements and the intelligence community’s judgments concerned not WMD (there was indeed a broad consensus that such programs existed), but the relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda. The enormous attention devoted to this subject did not reflect any judgment by intelligence officials that there was or was likely to be anything like the ‘alliance’ the administration said existed.” But the Senate Intelligence Committee report showed the CIA did obtain evidence of an al Qaeda-Saddam relationship from foreign intelligence and open sources.

That’s not surprising. CIA Director George Tenet in October 2002 told Congress of “growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda.” And of course evidence of contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam’s regime went back to the 1990s and were cited, without murmur of dissent, by President Bill Clinton.

So why do these Democrats and these government professionals seem to be so convinced there must have been no collaboration between al Qaeda and Saddam? The Democrats fear more Americans would support Mr. Bush and the war effort if they believed there was.

The career professionals, with their many years of training in the subtleties of the Middle East, have developed a vested interest in the notion that religious Wahhabis like al Qaeda could never collaborate with a secular tyrant like Saddam. If alliances could be formed across religious lines, what use would all their learning be?

The Minnesota Democrats cite the September 11 commission’s report finding of no evidence of “operational” cooperation between al Qaeda and Iraq, although it did find evidence of many contacts. But, as Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Neither al Qaeda nor Saddam operated under a Freedom of Information Act. Any collaboration between them on September 11 would have been kept very secret — al Qaeda did not want to leave a return address. We do not know there was such collaboration. Nor do we know there was not.

Going back to the days before our military action in Iraq, it would have been irresponsible for any president to have assumed there was no relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq, given previous contacts between them and their proven hostility to the United States. President Clinton, responsibly, did not assume that, and neither did President Bush. Nor was there any indication intelligence could have been acquired that could have assured us, with 100 percent certainty, there was no such relationship.

Light on the Saddam regime’s collaboration with terrorists will almost certainly be shed by analysis of some 2 million documents captured in Iraq. But, as the intrepid Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard has noted, almost none of those documents has been translated or released either to the public or to the congressional intelligence committees. It appears career professionals and, perhaps, political appointees have been blocking release of these documents.

Why do their superiors not order them released? Many Americans cling with religious intensity to the notion that Saddam somehow had no terrorist ties — a notion used to delegitimize our war effort. We should bring the truth, or as much of it as is available, out into the open.

Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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