Monday, November 17, 2003

Most Americans were cheered by recent news of an improving economic forecast, but not the Democrats who have made blaming George W. Bush for the last few years’ downturn the primary argument for turning him out of office.

One can only imagine how depressed they must feel now that their fallback argument — that Bush demonstrated his incompetence as commander in chief by engaging in an unnecessary and costly diversion from the war on terror when he went into Iraq — has been shown to be no better grounded in fact.

The strategic wisdom, indeed the imperative, of putting Saddam Hussein out of business as an integral part of the of the global effort to root out and destroy terrorist organizations has been underscored by the cover story of the Nov. 24 edition of the Weekly Standard. Under the headline “Case closed,” Steven Hayes reveals details from a highly classified, 16-page Defense Department memorandum sent last month to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The unavoidable conclusion: Saddam Hussein’s regime had been guilty as charged — tied for more than a decade to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network (among other terrorist groups) for the purpose of waging attacks on their mutual foe, the United States.

The Pentagon memo was compiled for my friend and colleague, Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith. It was forwarded to the intelligence panel last month in response to bipartisan questions put to him by the committee’s top Republican and Democratic members: Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, respectively. The memo’s contents reflected years of reporting compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies from various sources.

According to Mr. Hayes, 50 individual items (which he infers must be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, since the bulk of materials seized from Iraqi files have yet to be analyzed) establish that Saddam Hussein collaborated extensively with bin Laden and his ilk in, for example, the following ways:

c Top Iraqi intelligence officials and other trusted representatives of Saddam Hussein met repeatedly with bin Laden and his subordinates. Since Saddam personally insisted that the relationship between the two be kept secret, the contents of their conversations have apparently not yet been discovered. It is a safe bet, though, that operational cooperation was among the topics discussed.

c According to the memo, U.S. intelligence received reports that Iraq provided safe havens, money, weapons and fraudulent Iraqi and Syrian passports to al Qaeda. It also provided training in the manufacture and use of sophisticated explosives. In that connection, bin Laden reportedly specifically requested that “[Brig. Salim al-Ahmed,] Iraqi intelligence’s premier explosives maker — especially skilled in making car bombs — remain with him in Sudan. The Iraqi intelligence chief instructed Brig. Salim to remain in Sudan with bin Laden as long as required.”

• A Malaysia-based Iraqi national, Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, reportedly secured a job at the airport in Kuala Lumpur thanks to help from the Iraqi Embassy in Malaysia. He subsequently facilitated the movement of two of the September 11, 2001, hijackers, Khalid al Midhar and Nawaq al Hamzi, through passport control and customs en route to an operational meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 5, 2000. The memo notes that “One of the men at that al Qaeda operational meeting in the Kuala Lumpur Hotel was Tawfiz al Atash, a top bin Laden lieutenant later identified as the mastermind of the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole.”

c “Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi [a senior al Qaeda operative] said he was told by an al Qaeda associate that he was tasked to travel to Iraq (1998) to establish a relationship with Iraqi intelligence to obtain poisons and gases training. After the USS Cole bombing in 2000, two al Qaeda operatives were sent to Iraq for [Chemical and Biological Weapons] CBW-related training beginning in December 2000. Iraqi intelligence was ‘encouraged’ after the embassy and USS Cole bombings to provide this training.”

c The memo indicates there were as many as four meetings between the alleged mastermind of the September 11 hijackings, Mohamed Atta, and the former Iraqi intelligence chief in Prague, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al Ani. “During one of these meetings, al Ani ordered the Iraqi Intelligence Service [IIS] finance officer to issue Atta funds from IIS financial holdings in the Prague office.”

In short, thanks to a much-maligned Pentagon effort to perform an independent review of existing intelligence on Iraq — undertaken at Mr. Feith’s initiative — it is simply not possible any longer to claim there is “no evidence” of links between Saddam and al Qaeda. It behooves most especially those who have access to the full classified memo, like Intelligence Committee member Carl Levin, to stop misleading the public on this point for transparently partisan purposes.

The Feith memo should be helpful in one other way, as well. It underscores the validity of the “drain the swamps” strategy President Bush has been pursuing from Day One in the war on terror — and the unsuitability to be commander in chief of those, like Gen. Wesley Clark, who disagree, as he derisively put it Sunday, that “these old states are central to the problem of terrorism.”

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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