Thursday, June 17, 2004

A few passing references to ties between Iraq and al Qaeda in staff statements issued by the September 11 Commission this week are being distorted by John Kerry and much of the press into a false indictment of President Bush’s Iraq and anti-terrorism policies.

The commission quoted two senior associates of Osama bin Laden as having “adamantly denied any ties existed between Iraq and al Qaeda,” and stated that there was “no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States” and that hijacker Mohammed Atta did not meet with an Iraqi intelligence operative in Prague in the spring of 2001. According to Mr. Kerry, the commission’s findings show that the Bush administration “did not tell the truth to Americans.” In its lead editorial yesterday, the New York Times demanded that Mr. Bush apologize for leading the American people to believe that there was evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda or between Saddam Hussein and the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The problem with these reckless assertions is twofold: First, Mr. Bush has never stated, and has specifically denied, that there is proof of a connection between Saddam and September 11. Indeed, yesterday, on Page A15, the Times noted that Mr. Bush specifically said last September that “we’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with Sept. 11.” Second, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that Saddam had ties to al Qaeda.

Once again yesterday, the president tried to set the record straight. While the administration has never said that there was a connection between Saddam and September 11, he noted, “there were numerous contacts between Saddam and al Qaeda.” And, though one would not know it from press accounts, that is what the commission’s statement said.

In fact, as the September 11 commission itself reported on Page five of its staff statement, “Overview of the Enemy,” Sudan reportedly “arranged for ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Ladin [sic] in 1994.”

In his Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the United Nations outlining why Saddam posed a danger, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to the connection between the Iraqi dictator and Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a known al Qaeda associate who was injured in the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in early 2002. This is just a small part of the evidence of links between Saddam and al Qaeda. In his new book, “The Connection,” Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard details a series of ties between Saddam and al Qaeda dating back nearly a decade. Mr. Hayes (who has not hesitated to knock down some inaccurate claims about connections between al Qaeda and Iraq), says that, if anything, the administration has been restrained in its use of available intelligence, including evidence that non-Arab terrorists were trained to hijack airplanes at a camp in Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. The same is true of Mr. Atta’s alleged meeting in Prague.

In short, the September 11 commission’s report is being exploited by administration critics in an effort to falsely depict the Bush administration as fabricating one critical component of the case for driving Saddam Hussein from power.

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