Sunday, November 16, 2003

In recent months, critics of the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq have tried to suggest that connections between Iraq and al Qaeda were fantasy. But the Weekly Standard reports in its current issue that an Oct. 27 memo, sent by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith to the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Pat Roberts, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, vice chairman of the panel, says Iraq and al Qaeda had operational ties dating back to the early 1990s.

The 16-page top-secret memo (which covers only a fraction of the evidence which will eventually be available to document the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship) shows that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein “had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al Qaeda,” according to the Weekly Standard.

The memo — which is based on data compiled by a variety of domestic and foreign agencies, including the CIA, FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency — consists of 50 numbered points: Most of them contain straight intelligence reporting, followed by an evaluation of the credibility of the source. Some of this is new information obtained in interviews with captured al Qaeda terrorists and Iraqi intelligence officials; some of it dates back more than a decade. For example, according to a May 2003 interview with one of Saddam’s top intelligence operatives, Iraqi intelligence established a relationship with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and later al Qaeda between 1992 and 1995. A decisive moment in the relationship occurred in 1993, when bin Laden forbade al Qaeda operations against Saddam.

In 1995 and 1996, according to the Weekly Standard’s account of the memo, bin Laden met with the top Iraqi Intelligence Service technical expert on making sophisticated explosives. In late 1998, the memo says, two Iraqi intelligence officers were part of a delegation which met with bin Laden in Afghanistan. From 1999 through 2003, there are conflicting indications of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. While some intelligence reports suggested that the relationship cooled, others contradict this. In late 2000, the memo says, two al Qaeda operatives were sent to Iraq for chemical and biological weapons-related training. An Oct. 2002 report said that al Qaeda and Iraq had reached a secret agreement in which Baghdad agreed to provide a safe haven to al Qaeda members. Some of the most intriguing information involves intelligence reports that an Iraqi operative named Ahmed Hikmat Shakir whisked two of the September 11 hijackers through customs upon their arrival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan. 5, 2000.

In response, the Pentagon on Saturday released a statement declaring that news reports which said it had recently confirmed new information with respect to al Qaeda and Iraq were “inaccurate,”and that a classified annex of the Feith memo “drew no conclusions” about the existence of a relationship between the two. We recommend that readers examine the Weekly Standard article and decide for themselves.

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