The staff of the The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) issued a statement June 16 saying it found “no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.” It also said “contacts” between al Qaeda and Iraq “do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.”
Whether or not that contradicts the Bush administration’s stated reasons for invading Iraq is a matter of interpretation, however. Some say it does, but even the Democratic vice chair of the commission says he sees no discrepancy.
It’s a matter of record that Bush and Cheney repeatedly accused Saddam Hussein of aiding al Qaeda terrorists and providing them a base, but stopped short of accusing him of aiding the September 11 attacks specifically. What’s less clear — even to commissioners — is whether the commission investigators meant to dismiss only the possibility that Saddam aided the 9/11 attacks, or meant to rebut the idea of any “collaborative relationship” with al Qaeda.
In any case it’s not the commission’s final word on the matter. The full commission’s final report isn’t due until July 26.
Before the US invaded Iraq, President Bush said he had intelligence evidence that “Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda.” Vice President Cheney said Iraq was the heart of “the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.” They repeatedly advanced the idea that Saddam could one day furnish nuclear, biological or chemical weapons to al Qaeda or other terrorists.
(From “Overview of the Enemy,” Staff Statement no. 15)
Bin Ladin also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein’s secular regime. Bin Ladin had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sudanese, to protect their own ties with Iraq, reportedly persuaded Bin Ladin to cease this support and arranged for contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Ladin in 1994. Bin Ladin is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after Bin Ladin had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior Bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.
Are those statements contradicted by the 9/11 Commission’s staff statement? Opinions differ. We’ll quote what was said then and what’s being said now, and let you be the judge.
The New York Times said the commission staff findings “sharply contradicted one of President Bush’s central justifications for the Iraq war.” And Sen. Kerry said earlier that the staff statement was evidence that the ”administration misled America, the administration reached too far.”
But the 9/11 Commissioners were themselves split on the matter. Republican Commissioner John Lehman said news accounts like those in the Times were “outrageously irresponsible journalism.” He said on NBC News’s Meet the Press June 20:
Commissioner Lehman: Well, I really totally disagree with what I thought was outrageously irresponsible journalism, to portray what the staff statement–and again, this is a staff statement; the commissioners have not addressed this issue yet–to portray it as contradicting what the administration said.
On the other hand, Democratic commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste said on the same program that he thought the staff statement did contradict administration statements:
Tim Russert: Do you agree with that (New York Times account), Mr. Ben-Veniste?
Commissioner Ben-Veniste: Yes, I do , Tim. . . . We found no evidence of collaboration in any effort to mount any kind of operation against the United States’ interests. And if there is additional information that the vice president has or others have, we think we should have gotten that information by now.
And yet even the Democrats on the commission weren’t unanimous. Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton said June 20 on ABC’s “This Week” that he doesn’t see a contradiction:
Commissioner Lee Hamilton: I’ve looked at these statements quite carefully from the administration — they are not claiming that there was a collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, with regard to the attacks on the United States. Now all must understand that when you begin to use words like relationship, and ties, and connections and contacts, everybody has a little different view of what those words mean. But if you look at the core statements that we made in the staff statement I don’t think that there’s a difference of opinion with regard to those statements.
The difference between Hamilton and Ben-Veniste lies in how they interpret the somewhat ambiguous staff statement about the lack of a “collaborative relationship.” Hamilton takes it as applying only to the September 11 attacks, which are what the commission was set up to investigate. Ben-Veniste spoke more broadly of “any kind of operation against United States interests.”
What Bush and Cheney Said
Less open to interpretation is what Bush and Cheney said in the past. They both described a strong, dangerous connection between Saddam and al Qaeda.
In his State of the Union address shortly before the war began, Bush said “Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda,” and suggested that Saddam might provide terrorists with nuclear or biological weapons:
Bush (Jan. 28, 2003): Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.
Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans — this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known. We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes.
And earlier, Cheney described Iraq as the “geographic base of the terrorists” and “the place where we want to take on those elements that have come against the United States.” Cheney spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press”:
Cheney (Sept. 14, 2003): If we’re successful in Iraq, if we can stand up a good representative government in Iraq, that secures the region so that it never again becomes a threat to its neighbors or to the United States, so it’s not pursuing weapons of mass destruction, so that it’s not a safe haven for terrorists, now we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11 . . .
So what we do on the ground in Iraq, our capabilities here are being tested in no small measure, but this is the place where we want to take on the terrorists. This is the place where we want to take on those elements that have come against the United States, and it’s far more appropriate for us to do it there and far better for us to do it there than it is here at home.
The Atta “Meeting”
Cheney has been among those saying it is possible that Iraq did aid the September 11 attacks, citing an unconfirmed report by Czech intelligence that the lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer a few months prior to the attacks.
Bad Czech Report?
(From “Outline of the 9/11 Plot,” Staff Statement no. 16)
We have examined the allegation that Atta (Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 pilots) met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague on April 9. Based on the evidence available including investigation by Czech and U.S. authorities plus detainee reporting we do not believe that such a meeting occurred . The FBI’s investigation places him in Virginia as of April 4, as evidenced by this bank surveillance camera shot of Atta withdrawing $8,000 from his account. Atta was back in Florida by April 11, if not before. Indeed, investigation has established that, on April 6, 9, 10, and 11, Atta’s cellular telephone was used numerous times to call Florida phone numbers from cell sites within Florida. We have seen no evidence that Atta ventured overseas again or re-entered the United States before July, when he traveled to Spain and back under his true name. Shehhi (Marwan al Shehhi, another 9/11 pilot), on the other hand, visited Cairo between April 18 and May 2. We do not know the reason for this excursion.
The commission staff dismissed that report, saying a bank video camera in Florida pictured Atta withdrawing money five days prior to the supposed meeting in Czech Republic, and that records show Atta’s cell phone was in use in Florida on the very date that Czech intelligence put him in Prague. “We do not believe that such a meeting occurred,” the staff said.
Nevertheless, Cheney still says it’s possible a meeting took place. ”That’s never been proven,” Cheney said. ”It’s never been refuted.”
On that point, Commissioner Hamilton said he agreed with Cheney:
Commissioner Hamilton: What we said was that we do not think he was in Prague based on what we have. Here again we are open to evidence. But the Vice President’s statement . . itself he said the proof was not clear one way or another. And there has been confusion, I think, or a difference of opinion in the Prague government as well. This meeting is simply not proven one way or the other.
So the commission’s staff statement won’t be the last word even on the narrow matter of whether Iraq had a hand in the September 11 attacks.
And indeed, Republican Commissioner Lehman said in the NBC interview June 20 that new evidence had surfaced since the staff statement was released, hinting at another possible connection between Saddam and al Qaeda.
Commissioner Lehman: And now there’s new intelligence, and this has come since our staff report has been written because, as you know, new intelligence is coming in steadily from the interrogations in Guantanamo and in Iraq and from captured documents. And some of these documents indicate that there is at least one officer of Saddam’s Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of al-Qaeda. That still has to be confirmed.
Lehman was referring to a Wall Street Journal editorial from May 27 (long before the staff statement was issued, actually) saying captured documents list someone named Ahmed Hikmat Shakir as a senior officer in Saddam’s Fedayeen paramilitary forces, and that someone also named Ahmed Hikmat Shakir was present at a January 2000 al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur at which the September 11 attacks were planned. What remains to be confirmed, of course, is whether they’re the same person or not, and if so whether that shows Saddam played any role in the September 11 attacks.
(NOTICE: The 9/11 Commission Report released July 22 contradicts the speculation about Shakir’s identity. Buried in Footnote 49 of Ch. 6:
Commission Report: Mihdhar was met at the Kuala Lumpur airport by Ahmad Hikmat Shakir, an Iraqi national. Reports that he was a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi Fedayeen have turned out to be incorrect. They were based on a confusion of Shakir’s identity with that of an Iraqi Fedayeen colonel with a similar name, who was later (in September 2001) in Iraq at the same time Shakir was in police custody in Qatar.)
The staff statements are not even the Commission’s final word, of course. The full commission is due to issue its final report by July 26. At this point it’s not clear whether the commissioners will speak with one voice, or issue differing majority and minority reports.
NBC News, “Meet the Press ,” Interview with Vice President Richard Cheney, 14 Sept 2003.
George W. Bush, State of the Union Address , 28 Jan 2003.
Philip Shenon And Christopher Marquis, “Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie; Describes A Wider Plot For 9/11,” The New York Times, 17 June 2004, A1.
NBC News, “Meet the Press,” Interview with Commissioners Richard Ben-Veniste and John Lehman , 20 June 2004.
ABC News, “This Week with George Stephanopolous,” Interview with Lee Hamilton 20 June 2004.
David E. Sanger & Robin Toner, “Bush and Cheney Talk Strongly Of Qaeda Links With Hussein,” New York Times, 18 June 2004: A1.
“Saddam’s Files,” Wall Street Journal editorial, 27 May 2004: A20.
“The 9/11 Commission Report,” 22 July 2004.