Stephen Hayes, a contributor to the Weekly Standard, will release a new book this week titled The Connection, describing in great detail the ties between al-Qaeda and the deposed Iraqi strongman. The Weekly Standard features an excerpt from the Hayes book in its latest online edition which discusses the curious and massive case of amnesia that the media suffers on the question of these ties:
“THE PRESIDENT CONVINCED THE COUNTRY with a mixture of documents that turned out to be forged and blatantly false assertions that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda,” claimed former Vice President Al Gore last Wednesday.
“There’s absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda, ever,” declared Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism official under George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, in an interview on March 21, 2004.
The editor of the Los Angeles Times labeled as “myth” the claim that links between Iraq and al Qaeda had been proved. A recent dispatch from Reuters simply asserted, “There is no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.” 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl was equally certain: “There was no connection.”
And on it goes. This conventional wisdom–that our two most determined enemies were not in league, now or ever–is comforting. It is also wrong.
Hayes points out that while the media says this now about Saddam-AQ ties, when it bothers to discuss them at all, as late as 1999 the national news media filled volumes with reports on these ties. In his excerpt, Hayes lists a few reports from mainstream news media:
Newsweek magazine ran an article in its January 11, 1999, issue headed “Saddam + Bin Laden?” “Here’s what is known so far,” it read:
Saddam Hussein, who has a long record of supporting terrorism, is trying to rebuild his intelligence network overseas–assets that would allow him to establish a terrorism network. U.S. sources say he is reaching out to Islamic terrorists, including some who may be linked to Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi exile accused of masterminding the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa last summer.
Four days later, on January 15, 1999, ABC News reported that three intelligence agencies believed that Saddam had offered asylum to bin Laden:
Intelligence sources say bin Laden’s long relationship with the Iraqis began as he helped Sudan’s fundamentalist government in their efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. . . . ABC News has learned that in December, an Iraqi intelligence chief named Faruq Hijazi, now Iraq’s ambassador to Turkey, made a secret trip to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden. Three intelligence agencies tell ABC News they cannot be certain what was discussed, but almost certainly, they say, bin Laden has been told he would be welcome in Baghdad.
NPR reporter Mike Shuster interviewed Vincent Cannistraro, former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, and offered this report:
Iraq’s contacts with bin Laden go back some years, to at least 1994, when, according to one U.S. government source, Hijazi met him when bin Laden lived in Sudan. According to Cannistraro, Iraq invited bin Laden to live in Baghdad to be nearer to potential targets of terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. . . . Some experts believe bin Laden might be tempted to live in Iraq because of his reported desire to obtain chemical or biological weapons. CIA Director George Tenet referred to that in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee when he said bin Laden was planning additional attacks on American targets.
Saddam-AQ reports were not limited to just the news media. The Clinton administration’s anti-terror chief Richard Clarke, who testified earlier this year that any notion of tying Iraq to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were patently false, sung a much different tune when speaking to the Washington Post in 1999. Five months earlier, Clinton had ordered missile strikes on Baghdad as retaliation for the expulsion of UNSCOM weapons inspectors from Iraq, as well as a strike on a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan (an al-Qaeda power base at that time) that the US suspected of producing chemical-weapons precursors — nerve gas — for Iraq. In fact, that factory had major ties to al-Qaeda, as Clarke argued:
[T]he same Richard Clarke who would one day claim that there was “absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda, ever,” told the Washington Post that the U.S. government was “sure” that Iraq was behind the production of the chemical weapons precursor at the al Shifa plant. “Clarke said U.S. intelligence does not know how much of the substance was produced at al Shifa or what happened to it,” wrote Post reporter Vernon Loeb, in an article published January 23, 1999. “But he said that intelligence exists linking bin Laden to al Shifa’s current and past operators, the Iraqi nerve gas experts, and the National Islamic Front in Sudan.”
Nor was the ever-flexible Clarke the only Clinton administration official who linked Saddam to al-Qaeda. In the wake of the Sudan missile strike, reporters on the ground found only aspirin bottles, and the ground sample that initiated the strike turned out to be taken some distance away from the plant itself. As Hayes recalls, the Clinton administration made a concerted effort to justify its action in light of the lack of clear evidence of WMD:
The Clinton administration sought to dispel doubts about the targeting and, on August 24, 1998, made available a “senior intelligence official” to brief reporters on background. The briefer cited “strong ties between the plant and Iraq” as one of the justifications for attacking it. The next day, undersecretary of state for political affairs Thomas Pickering briefed reporters at the National Press Club. Pickering explained that the intelligence community had been monitoring the plant for “at least two years,” and that the evidence was “quite clear on contacts between Sudan and Iraq.” In all, at least six top Clinton administration officials have defended on the record the strikes in Sudan by citing a link to Iraq.
Yet again in 1998, the Clinton administration made its case that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden had worked together to coordinate activities and to share expertise on WMD, as well as develop targets for attacks. In its indictment of Osama bin Laden prior to the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya that killed over 250 people, most of them ironically Muslims but twelve Americans as well, the Clinton indictment read:
Al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq.
So what happened to all of this evidence, and more importantly, what changed to convince the media that none of this is applicable now? The most obvious change occurred in January 2001, when the White House switched to Republican control. While Bill Clinton has publically said that George Bush operated from the same intelligence analysis as he had and that they drew fundamentally the same conclusions, others from his adminstration have worked to give the impression that they never believed in such a connection. Richard Clarke merely provides the clearest example.
During 1998 and 1999, Newsweek, NPR, and the rest of the mainstream media didn’t question how a secular regime like Saddam’s and the religious fanaticim of bin Laden could coordinate when reporting their ties as fact. However, now the entire media establishment treat such reports as flights of fancy and proof of conservative chumpery. Either they allowed themselves to be duped earlier by the Clinton administration or they’re balking now in order to make Bush look bad. I’ll leave it to you to determine which you think is the case.