It is frustrating to have to keep correcting the media. And it is even more frustrating when national television programs deliberately distort the evidence on a matter as important as Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda. It’s an old controversy but some in the media still insist on getting the facts wrong.
For example, the Veteran’s Day edition of Chris Matthew’s Hardball show on MSNBC-TV, in order to make President Bush out to be a serial liar, continued to ignore key evidence showing Saddam’s links to Al Qaeda.
Reporter David Shuster, who left the Fox News Channel because it was too conservative, did a report showing Bush and Vice President Cheney making various statements which he said had all been cast into doubt.
Shuster said that, initially, after 9/11, Vice President Cheney said that there was no link between Saddam and 9/11, but that later President Bush started claiming that Iraq and al Qaeda are one and the same. He showed a sound bite of the President saying, “You can’t distinguish between Saddam and al Qaeda when you talk about the war on terror.” And that “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses.” And later, that “Saddam is a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda.”
All of these statements, in Shuster’s view, were distortions.
Shuster then said, “In pushing the Saddam/Iraq/9/11 connection, the President and vice president made two crucial claims: First, they alleged there had been a 1994 meeting in the Sudan between bin Laden and an Iraqi intelligence official.” He then showed Bush saying, “We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high level contacts that go back a decade.”
But after the Iraq war began, reported Shuster, the 9/11 commission was formed and reported that while bin Laden may have requested Iraqi help, “Iraq apparently never responded.”
The other crucial prewar White House claim was that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in the Czech Republic in April of 2001. To disprove this point, the report played “gotcha” with two apparently contradictory statements by Vice President Cheney, and quoting from the 9/11 commission, which said, “We do not believe such a meeting occurred.” Why? Because cell phone records from the time show Atta was in the United States. Nonetheless, Shuster reported, “the White House strategy worked. In March of 2003, 45% believed Saddam was personally involved in 9/11.”
And on the eve of the Iraq War the White House sent a letter to Congress telling lawmakers that force was “authorized” against those who “aided the 9/11 attacks.” “Yet the Bush Administration continues to say it never claimed Iraq was linked to 9/11,” Shuster said.
“The irony, of course, the brutal irony,” said Shuster, “is that while implications about a 9/11 connection, innuendo or false claims, if you will, helped take us into Iraq, the Iraqi war itself has created real al Qaeda links that might keep us from getting out.”
Let’s step back from these charges and examine the facts.
To his credit, Matthews had Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard on to discuss the charges. Hayes pointed out that Cheney never said there was an Iraqi role in 9/11. Hayes said that when Bush was twice asked if Iraq was behind 9/11, he said we have no evidence to suggest that. The issue for the administration, Hayes noted, was that 9/11 changed everything, and the risk from Iraq had become unacceptably high.
On the matter of Iraq and al Qaeda, it bears repeating that Bush’s exact words were: “You can’t distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.” He wasn’t saying they were one and the same, only that they were both involved in terror.
As far as the 9/11 commission is concerned, its work has been partially discredited because of its failure to take seriously the work of Operation Able Danger, the Pentagon probe into Al Qaeda’s operations worldwide.
Even Hillary Clinton acknowledged the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection in her speech announcing support for the authorization of the use of force against Iraq in 2002. She said, “In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capabilities, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members.” (emphasis added).
A recent controversy emerged in the case of a Defense Intelligence Agency document from February 2002 that was released by Democratic Senator Carl Levin. “We now have conclusive evidence,” wrote Frank Rich of the New York Times in his weekly Bush-bashing column, “that the administration’s disinformation campaign implying a link connecting Saddam to Al Qaeda and 9/11 was even more duplicitous and manipulative than its relentless flogging of nuclear Armageddon.”
He called it “Senator Levin’s smoking gun,” and said that “It warned that a captured Qaeda terrorist in American custody was in all likelihood ‘intentionally misleading’ interrogators when he claimed that Iraq had trained Qaeda members to use illicit weapons.” They were referring to Ibn Al-Shaykhal-Libi (al-Libi), who ran al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan till he was picked up there in late 2001.
This became the be-all, end-all of the story. Since al-Libi later recanted his story, any case that these links existed was now viewed by many in the media as having been disproven. For example, Andrea Mitchell asked in a report on the November 14 NBC Evening News, “What about the White House claim of a connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden?” She answered her own question by offering just one example, saying, “A year before the war the Pentagon knew the al-Qaeda prisoner making that claim was lying. A Pentagon report said it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers. But no one told Congress.”
But one questionable claim doesn’t undermine all of the other documented Saddam-Al Qaeda connections. Much of it has been thoroughly documented by Stephen Hayes in his book “The Connection.” The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the intelligence leading up to the war also provided some evidence of those connections.
Ignoring all of this, George Stephanopoulos, former Clinton aide and current host of ABC’s This Week, piled on the administration on the Don Imus show. Referring to administration claims of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda as an issue where the administration can be fairly criticized, and referring to the documents released by Sen. Levin, he said that “They knew in 2002 that the informant who was telling them that Iraq was training al Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons made it up.”
So one questionable informant disproves the entire case? This is not logical.
Stephanopoulos, who used to work for Clinton, should remember that, back in 1998, the Clinton Administration issued a sealed indictment of bin Laden that read, in part, “…Al-Qaida reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al-Qaida would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al-Qaida would work cooperatively with the government of Iraq.” What evidence did they have?
And ABC reported in December of 1999 that “ABC News has learned that in December, an Iraqi intelligence chief, named Farouq 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 welcomed in Baghdad.”
Reports of this type were common then. No one doubted Saddam’s link to radical Islamic terrorists, including Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas, who had sought and gained refuge there. He also had links to Al Qaeda. Reports to the contrary are primarily anti-administration propaganda and disinformation.