WASHINGTON -- On ABC's "This Week" program Sunday, host George Stephanopoulos picked up a chestnut that's been bouncing around Washington for three months and tossed it in National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's lap. Why, he asked, did the United States pass up chances to kill terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi in 2002 and 2003? "We never had a chance to get Zarqawi," Rice replied. That exchange tells a lot about this year's presidential politics.
Why would Stephanopolous bring up another network's March broadcast of an obscure story never reported elsewhere? It has been spread by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to imply President Bush held back the attack in order to gain support for invading Iraq. Unless Rice's flat disavowal stops it, this threatens to become an urban legend used against Bush in the next 17 weeks.
One CIA source puts this aborted Zarqawi raid in the same category as Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11," which spreads such false information as George W. Bush's conspiring to get Osama bin Laden's relatives out of the U.S. after the terrorist attacks. The persistence of these stories sets the level of discourse about Bush's Iraq policy during a presidential campaign.
On March 2, terrorist attacks brought the death toll attributed to Zarqawi to over 700. Jim Miklaszewski, the longtime Pentagon correspondent for NBC, reported multiple U.S. chances to "wipe out" Zarqawi and his bioweapons lab. The chances were missed, according to unnamed "military officials," because "the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq would undercut the case against Saddam."
Sources quoted by name were Roger Cressey, who worked closely with Richard Clarke in the Clinton White House (staying on for a while in the Bush administration), and Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon, who supports John Kerry for president. Cressey was quoted as saying Bush officials were "more obsessed" with overthrowing Saddam Hussein than fighting terrorism.
Rep. Vic Snyder, a Clintonite Democrat from Arkansas, at a hearing the next day read the NBC report in full and asked Assistant Defense Secretary Peter Rodman whether "that story is true or not." Rodman said he never heard anyone oppose an attack because "it would interfere with a plan to go after Saddam," adding that an attack on a bioweapons lab "could have strengthened our case."
Sen. Clinton on the next day, March 4, called the NBC report "troubling" and asked Gen. John Abizaid about it. The Central Command commander in chief replied, "I would be very surprised to find out that we had a precise location on Zarqawi." Unsatisified, the senator asked for "further investigation."
On March 9, Hillary Clinton asked CIA Director George Tenet about the story. Tenet: "I don't know that Zarqawi was up there at the time, Senator. And I don't know that the report accurately reflects the give-and-take of the decision-making at the time." In CIA-speak, that was a "no."
Paul Begala, my colleague on CNN's "Crossfire," picked up the scent. A former Clinton White House aide and tireless Bush-basher, Begala put bluntly what Snyder and Clinton only hinted. On May 14, Begala said the terrorist leader's "mere presence" in Iraq "was used to justify Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq." On June 23, he said that thanks to Bush's emphasis on making "a case for invading Iraq," Zarqawi was permitted "to live and to kill and to kill and to kill."
Stephanopoulos, like Begala a former Clinton White House political aide, took up the story on ABC Sunday but without overt accusations against the president. Unlike the cautious responses by the Defense and CIA officials, Rice's flat denial might make it more difficult to keep the urban legend going through the campaign.
Jim Miklaszewski told me he stands by his story, and pointed to House Armed Services Committee hearings April 21. Congressman Snyder brought the NBC story up to retired Gen. John Keane, and asked why the attack was rejected. "No, I can't help you," the former Army acting chief of staff replied. "We were looking at it as early as the Fourth of July weekend before we commenced activities against Iraq." That confirmed an attack on Zarqawi's camp was considered. It did not confirm the Iraqi urban legend spread by Hillary Clinton and friends.