Monday, June 21, 2004

A senior officer in Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s security services was a member of the terrorist group that committed the September 11 attacks, a member of the commission investigating the suicide hijackings said yesterday.

“There is at least one officer of Saddam’s Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of al Qaeda,” said September 11 commission member and former Navy Secretary John Lehman.

Although he stressed that the intelligence “still has to be confirmed,” Mr. Lehman told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the information came from “captured documents” shown to the panel after the September 11 commission’s staff report had been written.

The report, which received heavy news coverage when it was released last week, maintained that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network had ties with Iraq, but did “not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.”

Mr. Lehman yesterday said the latest development demonstrates the difficulty that the commission has had resulting from tremendous political pressures.

“Everything we come out with, one side or the other seizes on in this election year to try to make a political point on,” he said.

He stressed that the Bush administration “has never said that [Saddam] participated in the 9/11 attack.”

“They’ve said, and our staff has confirmed, there have been numerous contacts between Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda over a period of 10 years,” Mr. Lehman said. “Now there’s new intelligence … because, as you know, new intelligence is coming in steadily from the interrogations in Guantanamo and Iraq, and from captured documents.”

Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste said he hoped the panel would get intelligence “with respect to the individual that John Lehman has talked about.”

Although Mr. Lehman did not give names, a Fedayeen lieutenant colonel has the same name as Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, an Iraqi with al Qaeda ties.

According to published accounts, including the book “The Connection” by Stephen Hayes, Shakir attended a planning meeting for the September 11 attacks in January 2000. The meeting in Malaysia also was attended by two of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, and by senior al Qaeda leaders.

Mr. Lehman said commission staff members continued to work on the issue and Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean urged the administration to make any new intelligence available to the panel quickly, so that the final report could be modified to take it into account.

“Obviously, if there is any information still that has to do with the subject of the report, we need it, and we need it pretty fast,” Mr. Kean said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

But Mr. Lehman said the intelligence has not been confirmed, and some terror analysts cautioned that the connection might be nothing more than coincidence.

“Shakir is a pretty common name,” said terrorism analyst and author Peter Bergen. “And even if the two names refer to the same person, there might be a number of other explanations. Perhaps al Qaeda had penetrated Saddam’s security apparatus.”

During a hearing Wednesday, the September 11 commission said that two senior bin Laden associates “adamantly denied any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq” and that there was “no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”

But the Bush administration long has contended that Iraq was connected to and supportive of al Qaeda, a position reiterated early last week by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said in a speech at the James Madison Institute in Orlando, Fla., that Saddam had “long-standing ties with al Qaeda.”

Mr. Cheney, who testified with President Bush before the September 11 commission in April, also has hinted that the panel did not have all the facts, telling one interviewer that he “probably” had access to intelligence that commission staff and members had not seen.

Mr. Lehman acknowledged yesterday that “the vice president was right when he said he may have things that we don’t yet have. And we are now in the process of getting this latest intelligence.”

Mr. Kean, meanwhile, said that the panel’s staff document is an interim document and “we don’t see any serious conflicts” with what the administration is saying.

Mr. Lehman sounded a similar note and added that press reports last week that portrayed a split between the September 11 commission and the administration were “outrageously irresponsible.”

The commission’s statement that contacts between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda were minimal was seized upon by Bush administration critics as evidence that the White House had sought to mislead Americans about the relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda.

Mr. Bush’s likely Democratic presidential opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, said the president needs to give “a fundamental explanation about why he rushed to war for a purpose it now turns out is not supported by the facts.”

Commission Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, played down the differences between the commission’s view and that of the administration.

“When you begin to use words like ‘relationship’ and ‘ties’ and ‘connections’ and ‘contacts,’ ” he told ABC’s “This Week,” “everybody has a little different view of what those words mean. But if you look at the core statements that we made … I don’t think there’s a difference of opinion with regard to those statements.

“If there is, it has to be spelled out to me.”

• Shaun Waterman of United Press International contributed to this report.

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