Monday, June 9, 2008

More on Saddam and al-Qaeda

I wrote earlier about a recent report from the State Department entitled "Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents". The report claims that among the myriad of terrorist groups to whom Saddam Hussein had operational and diplomatic ties, two in particular worked under the banner of al-Qaeda: the Army of Muhammad and Egypt's Islamic Jihad. His ties to these groups were financial; that is, he financed their terrorist operations. As such, I concluded, it demonstrates that Saddam had an operational tie to al-Qaeda, and at any rate, if we were going to take the fight to the terrorists, it was necessary to take out Saddam. It should be pointed out that I have only skimmed the report myself, and in fact, it's an abbreviated version of the first volume. I don't know how many volumes will eventually come out.

Now another report has come out entitled "Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information". This one I haven't looked at personally at all, so I'm just going with the accounts of it given by others. The answer to the question the title poses is essentially "yes". The Washington Post writes

But dive into Rockefeller's report, in search of where exactly President Bush lied about what his intelligence agencies were telling him about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and you may be surprised by what you find.

On Iraq's nuclear weapons program? The president's statements "were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates."

On biological weapons, production capability and those infamous mobile laboratories? The president's statements "were substantiated by intelligence information."

On chemical weapons, then? "Substantiated by intelligence information."

On weapons of mass destruction overall (a separate section of the intelligence committee report)? "Generally substantiated by intelligence information." Delivery vehicles such as ballistic missiles? "Generally substantiated by available intelligence." Unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to deliver WMDs? "Generally substantiated by intelligence information."

As you read through the report, you begin to think maybe you've mistakenly picked up the minority dissent. But, no, this is the Rockefeller indictment. So, you think, the smoking gun must appear in the section on Bush's claims about Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to terrorism.

But statements regarding Iraq's support for terrorist groups other than al-Qaeda "were substantiated by intelligence information." Statements that Iraq provided safe haven for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other terrorists with ties to al-Qaeda "were substantiated by the intelligence assessments," and statements regarding Iraq's contacts with al-Qaeda "were substantiated by intelligence information." The report is left to complain about "implications" and statements that "left the impression" that those contacts led to substantive Iraqi cooperation.
Regarding al-Qaeda in particular, here are two paragraphs from page 67 of the report. Here's what it says:

On January 31, 2003, the State Department Undersecretary for INR, Carl Ford, wrote a memo to Secretary Powell laying out the intelligence on Iraq's ties to al Qaeda. He wrote that "Our evidence suggests that Baghdad is strengthening a relationship with al-Qaida that dates back to the mid-1990s, when senior Iraqi Intelligence officers established contact with the network in several countries." Ford added that "we have some evidence that Iraqi Intelligence has been in contact with elements in the northeastern area. And the al-Qaida operatives in Baghdad."

Ford wrote that Zarqawi "has had a good relationship with Iraqi intelligence officials" and that "we have hard evidence that al-Qaida is operating in several locations in Iraq with the knowledge and acquiescence of Saddam's regime." Ford wrote that intelligence "revealed the presence of safehouse facilities in the city as well as the clear intent to remain in Baghdad. Also, former NGO workers outside of Iraq who we believe provide support to al-Qaida have also expressed their intent to set up shop in Baghdad."
I'm particularly interested in the "hard evidence that al-Qaida is operating in several locations in Iraq with the knowledge and acquiescence of Saddam's regime". What became of this evidence? Was it shown to be false when the coalition invaded Iraq? If so, what are the alternative explanations of the "hard evidence"? If not, then it appears that not only was there an operational connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda, but they were actually operating in Iraq with his "knowledge and acquiescence". That strikes me as a pretty big deal.

Update: Two points: first, I should have made explicit what is implicit in the Washington Post quote: the new report is specifically written against Bush by Senator Rockefeller. The whole goal in writing this report was to push the "Bush lied!" meme. Yet over and over again they were forced to acknowledge that the claims he and his cabinet made "were substantiated by intelligence information". The only areas where they can contend with him is in his response to the intelligence information. But that's a political and strategic point that has no bearing on whether Bush accurately represented the information he was given. So the report is an anti-Bush report that was nevertheless forced to acknowledge that his claims about Iraq were soundly based on intelligence.

Second, I never heard anyone in the Bush administration say that Saddam had any kind of operational tie to al-Qaeda; only a diplomatic tie (which is obvious from the fact that Saddam offered Osama sanctuary in 1999). Yet the report says that they received intelligence claiming there was "hard evidence" of a closer tie between the two. So did I miss it? Can anyone point me to a Bush cabinet member suggesting anything stronger than a diplomatic tie to al-Qaeda?


jacob longshore said...

I hope I'm not too judgmental when I say I can't help being suspicious. For a country to make nuclear and chemical operations disappear *poof!* seems rather implausible.

Also needing explanation is the forged documents alleging uranium purchases from Niger. And the infamous "dodgy dossier" that turned out to be mostly a PhD thesis lifted off the Internet. ("Holy Ward Churchills, Batman!") There's probably other stuff asking for a story.

As much as I don't want to say it - and I mean that - as much as I don't want to say it, I feel the strange urge to say: Hard evidence, my foot. This despite the Washington Post quote and all. Not open-minded of me, not the least bit fair. I know.

Well, I've downloaded the report, even though have no business looking at it right now - I've got a dissertation of my own to finish. The sooner that's done, the sooner the CIA can copy-paste it into their files.

Tragic Clown Dog said...

I think the point is that the claims of Bush and Co. were supported by the intelligence that they had, not necessarily that they turned out to be correct. If they were told that there was hard evidence, they obviously weren't lying, since to lie means to know that the claims were false when making them.

I've never understood what the deal was with the forged documents, as they played no role in the US's assessment of Iraq's nuclear ambitions. Joe Wilson made much of it in his NYT article, but it was later revealed that the forged documents post-dated the written assessments. Moreover, in Wilson's actual report for the CIA, he said that the former President of Niger had been approached by an Iraqi delegation seeking to buy uranium. Again, that seems like a big deal to me.

As for what happened to the chemical and biological weapons, the UN claimed in the early 90s that Saddam did have them, and that they had seen them and catalogued them. The question then becomes what happened to them? There's no evidence that he disposed of them, since disposing of such things means adding other chemicals to them to render them inert. We certainly didn't find the huge stockpiles they were expecting, but neither did they find any inert chemicals indicating that he had disposed of them. That's a post for another day though.

jacob longshore said...

Point taken. However, I have trouble accepting that the Bush Administration was handed documents unaware that they were forged by the CIA. American intelligence experts - trying to deceive the president? Why? It's possible, I suppose, but I find it implausible. Though if indeed it happened, that would be at least as scandalous.

Regarding the attempts to buy uranium, the validity of those facts only extends to that - attempts. It is significant, but it in no way supports the claim of actual purchase. Just because I tried to seduce Madame X doesn't mean I would eventually succeed.

The smoking chemicals - I have no answer for that, even hypothetical. You're right, disposing of them would itself involve a massive operation that would be hard to hide.

I guess my point is that the whole affair just stinks. It doesn't seem to add up. Time to take a look at the pdf,, I've vented enough.

Francie the "wise" said...

What do I think?

Honestly, I think I probably don't have the right to think anything on the matter without reading the report. The quotes from the Post aren't very substantive, are they? One wonders exactly what this "hard evidence" is. Not very detailed/informative, is it? You'd think the Washington Post could do better. After all, it's not as though we were talking about the Washington Times here.

But as for myself, I've always persisted in believing that our friend, George W., was essentially well-meaning and not a willfull deceiver overall. At the same time, I think he had reasons for wanting to believe we needed to go into Iraq, and I don't think he was ever impartial on the matter, (a problem we all have from time to time, but one exacerbated in this case by the fact that we have a president who tends to surround himself with a little cocoon of people who agree with him).

I guess the real question is, "What difference does it make whether or not the administration was correct about there being ties to Al Qaeda?"

Were terrorist ties and weapons capabilities in Iraq so much worse than they are in Pakistan, Iran -- or just add to the list, if you like. In other words, even if hard evidence existed to back up all the allegations, were we justified in going into Iraq at all? In the way that we did? And why was Iraq somehow more of a threat than anyplace else? I mainly care about these things, because I don't want to see us doing to Iran what we've done to Iraq (just for example...).

I have no answers; I'm just asking questions (I guess because that's what I do for a living).

Tragic Clown Dog said...

Good comments, guys. Jake: I don't think the CIA were the ones who forged the documents. But it was discovered pretty early that they were forged and no decisions were based on it. As for the apparent attempt to buy uranium from Niger: the only claim that Bush ever made was that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Africa, not that they were successful.

Francie: there were several criteria why Iraq was invaded, and the ties to terrorism were only a part of it. Other countries may have met one or maybe two of the criteria, so it wouldn't have been justified to attack them. For the best take on this that I've read, here's a long outline of the causes and goals of the war on terrorism:

I agree with about two-thirds or three-fourths of it. Given that the most recent report is a hit-piece against the Bush administration, that might be an easier read. As would be the other report mentioned at the top of this post, since it's only about half as long.