WASHINGTON -- Lord Robertson, NATO's secretary general, on his visit to Washington last week privately and individually briefed U.S. senators he has known since his days as British defense minister during the Kosovo war. He told them there is no evidence -- "not a scintilla," as quoted by one senator -- linking Iraq with the Sept. 11 attack on America.
That confirms what intelligence sources have told me. The relentless investigation of the terrorist assault has developed massive evidence pointing to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization. No comparable links to Iraq have been found. The Iraqi connection, say these sources, is a matter of speculation. If nothing has been uncovered now, it is unlikely there ever will be compelling proof.
The long-range implications are profound. A few Bush administration policymakers argue that now is the time to complete unfinished business and get rid of Saddam Hussein. Lacking a tie to Sept. 11, however, a military assault on Iraq imperils the global coalition laboriously constructed by President Bush. Only Israel might remain at America's side.
Even steadfast Britain has signaled limits for the alliance. While U.S. officials declined to rule out an Iraqi role on Sept. 11, the British have come close to doing so. "I am not aware of any evidence pointing to Iraq's complicity in those outrages," Robin Cook, leader of the House of Commons and former foreign secretary, said Oct. 4.
Evidence of an Iraqi connection is less than circumstantial. Mohammed Atta, a Sept. 11 hijacker and an apparent leader in the terrorist conspiracy, met in Prague earlier this year with an unnamed Iraqi intelligence official. CNN's David Ensor last week quoted U.S. sources as saying the two men had an earlier meeting last year. U.S. intelligence officials are still investigating these meetings but stress they can draw no conclusions.
The principal justification for assaulting Iraq is the need to prevent Saddam from wielding weapons of mass destruction. Since Iraq does not have nuclear capacity and chemical weapons are not a threat, the concern is biological warfare. Here, too, there is no evidence.
"I don't see Iraq being able to do high quality production on a large scale of bio-weapons," former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter told Fox News Network last Tuesday. Larry Johnson, former State Department deputy director of counter-terrorism, on Thursday told CNN that the U.S. since 1990 has destroyed Iraq's chemical and biological weapons and Saddam has "not built back up to the levels he had prior to the Gulf War."
The final rationale for unilateral U.S. military action against Saddam is alleged Iraqi sponsorship of the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. Intelligence sources told me this connection is hypothetical and certainly not proven. The only credible link is Abdul Rahman Yasin, who was indicted on 20 counts in the 1993 bombing and fled to Baghdad. Saddam's failure to surrender a fugitive to a country with whom he has very unfriendly relations is hardly surprising.
Extradition often is difficult even for countries with friendly relations. Saudi Arabia has been pressing Britain for the return of Mohammed Masari, a foe of the Saudi royal regime. The Saudis regard him as a terrorist, and his approval of the Sept. 11 attacks adds support for that description. Nevertheless, British law has foiled efforts to deport him over the last six years.
The real reason why hawks inside and outside the government want to assault Iraq is the nature of Saddam Hussein's regime: tyrannical, anti-democratic, brutal to its own citizens, menacing to its neighbors, intransigent against Israel's existence. President Bush would be acting against Saddam not as part of a war against terror but as a superpower avenger against governments of the world that fail to meet minimum standards of human decency.
That role would isolate the United States as lone-ranger global protector, accompanied occasionally by Israel. In his press conference last Thursday night, Bush called Saddam an "evil man," adding: "We're watching him very carefully." Sober officials inside the administration believe the president should do no more than watch Iraq, unless and until it is clearly implicated in the murderous events of Sept. 11.