Denying al-Qaida

Michael Barone

3/6/2006 12:05:00 AM - Michael Barone

The issue is historical now, but still worth exploring. Why, for two distinct groups of Americans, has it become a matter of conviction held with religious intensity that there cannot have been any relationship between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq?

 One group consists of Democratic politicians who oppose the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. The Minnesota Democratic Party recently protested as "un-American" an ad showing military veterans and their families supporting the president's policies for saying, "Our enemy in Iraq is al-Qaida -- the same terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans on 9-11, the same terrorists from the first World Trade Center bombing, the USS Cole, Madrid, London and many more."

 The Democrats, unfactually, say that these words "make a connection between Iraq and the 9-11 terrorists attacks and suggest that the war in Iraq will prevent an attack by al-Qaida in America." But of course, the ad is factually correct -- al-Qaida is attacking Americans in Iraq -- and the Minnesota Democratic Party is in no position to guarantee that al-Qaida will not attack America.

 The other group consists of intelligence and other career government professionals, many of them Arabists. Case in point: Paul Pillar, CIA national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, now retired, writing in the most recent Foreign Affairs magazine. The "greatest discrepancy between the administration's public statements and the intelligence community's judgments concerned not WMD (there was indeed a broad consensus that such programs existed), but the relationship between Saddam and al-Qaida. The enormous attention devoted to this subject did not reflect any judgment by intelligence officials that there was or was likely to be anything like the 'alliance' the administration said existed." But the Senate Intelligence Committee report showed that the CIA did obtain evidence of an al-Qaida-Saddam relationship from foreign intelligence and open sources.

 That's not surprising. CIA Director George Tenet in October 2002 told Congress of "growing indications of a relationship with al-Qaida." And of course evidence of contacts between al-Qaida and Saddam's regime went back to the 1990s and were cited, without murmur of dissent, by President Bill Clinton.

 So why do these Democrats and these government professionals seem to have such a conviction that there must have been no collaboration between al-Qaida and Saddam? The Democrats fear that more Americans would support Bush and the war effort if they believed there was. The career professionals, with their many years of training in the subtleties of the Middle East, have developed a vested interest in the notion that religious Wahhabis like al-Qaida could never collaborate with a secular tyrant like Saddam. If alliances could be formed across religious lines, what use would all their learning be?

 The Minnesota Democrats cite the 9-11 commission's report that it found no evidence of "operational" cooperation between al-Qaida and Iraq, although it did find evidence of many contacts. But, as Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Neither al-Qaida nor Saddam operated under a Freedom of Information Act. Any collaboration between them on 9-11 would have been kept very secret -- al-Qaida did not want to leave a return address. We do not know that there was such collaboration. But we also do not know that there was not.

 Going back to the days before our military action in Iraq, it would have been irresponsible for any president to have assumed that there was no relationship between al-Qaida and Iraq, given previous contacts between them and their proven hostility to the United States. President Clinton, responsibly, did not assume that, and neither did President Bush. Nor was there any information that intelligence could have been acquired that could have assured us, with 100 percent certainty, that there was no such relationship.

 Light on the Saddam regime's collaboration with terrorists will almost certainly be shed by analysis of some 2 million documents captured in Iraq. But, as the intrepid Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard has pointed out, almost none of those documents has been translated or released either to the public or to the congressional intelligence committees. It appears that career professionals and, perhaps, political appointees have been blocking release of these documents.

 Why do their superiors not order them released? Many Americans cling with religious intensity to the notion that somehow Saddam had no terrorist ties -- a notion used to delegitimize our war effort. We should bring the truth, or as much of it as is available, out into the open.