IN THE FLOOD OF COMMENT that greeted the Senate Intelligence Committee's 511-page report on pre-Iraq war intelligence, no one remarked upon this sentence from the document about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection: "Any indication of a relationship between these two hostile elements could carry great dangers to the United States."
That is the reason the CIA's Counterterrorism Center gave for its decision to provide an "aggressive" analysis of Saddam Hussein's links to al Qaeda. The statement may seem self-evident--yet it is surprising nonetheless, coming as it does in a report said by the Washington Post to "shred" the Bush administration's rationales for the war.
The Post, like others, prominently featured the committee's Conclusion 93: "The Central Intelligence Agency reasonably assessed that there were likely several instances of contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda throughout the 1990s, but that these contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship."
No established formal relationship. That assessment, of course, hardly precludes cooperation--or "linkage" or "ties" or a "connection," though Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and John Edwards denied in recent days that these existed between al Qaeda and Iraq, and news reports echoed the Democrats.
With the absence of large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, a new conventional wisdom has emerged. Saddam Hussein was contained, in his box. The Iraqi Intelligence Service, active in crushing internal dissent, was essentially inactive outside Iraq's borders. The bottom line: Saddam Hussein's Iraq was not a threat.
The text of the Senate report tells a very different story. The panel based much of its analysis on a CIA product published in January 2003 called Iraqi Support for Terrorism--the most restrained of five CIA reports on Iraq and terror. The findings will surprise Americans who have relied for their information about the Iraqi threat on the establishment news media.
Iraq continues to be a safehaven, transit point, or operational node for groups and individuals who direct violence against the United States, Israel, and other allies. Iraq has a long history of supporting terrorism. During the last four decades, it has altered its targets to reflect changing priorities and goals. It continues to harbor and sustain a number of smaller anti-Israel terrorist groups and to actively encourage violence against Israel. Regarding the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship, reporting from sources of varying credibility points to a number of contacts, incidents of training, and discussions of Iraqi safehaven for Osama bin Laden and his organization dating from the early 1990s.
The Senate report summarized the findings on Iraqi Intelligence support for terrorism this way: "The CIA provided 78 reports, from multiple sources, [redacted] documenting instances in which the Iraqi regime either trained operatives for attacks or dispatched them to carry out attacks....Iraq continued to participate in terrorist attacks throughout the 1990s." No wonder the Clinton administration cited Iraqi support for terrorism as one of the main reasons that Saddam Hussein's regime posed a threat to the United States.
Again, from the Senate report:
From 1996 to 2003, the IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] focused its terrorist activities on western interests, particularly against the U.S. and Israel. The CIA summarized nearly 50 intelligence reports as examples, using language directly from the intelligence reports. Ten intelligence reports, [redacted] from multiple sources, indicated IIS "casing" operations against Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in Prague began in 1998 and continued into early 2003. The CIA assessed, based on the Prague casings and a variety of other reporting, that throughout 2002, the IIS was becoming increasingly aggressive in planning attacks against U.S. interests. The CIA provided eight reports to support this assessment.
For seven years, then, Iraq "focused its terrorist activities on western interests" including those of the United States. And throughout 2002, at a time when one might expect the Iraqis to lower their terrorist profile so as to avoid becoming the next target in the war on terror, Iraqi Intelligence "was becoming increasingly aggressive in planning attacks against U.S. interests."
The Senate report goes on to detail Iraqi support and funding for a variety of anti-Israel groups. According to one report from a foreign government service, the Iraqis provided "approximately $10 million to $15 million" to the families of suicide bombers. In another surprising detail, the report indicates that Iraq even reached out to Hezbollah, a terrorist organization with close ties to Iran, the regime's chief regional enemy. Hezbollah is said to have rejected the Iraqi overtures.
One of the more striking aspects of the 46-page section of the Senate report on "Iraq's Links to Terrorism" is the sparseness of the intelligence collection on the subject, particularly on Iraq's relationship with al Qaeda. For that reason, according to the Senate report, "the CIA was unable to make conclusive assessments in Iraqi Support for Terrorism regarding Iraq's relationship with al Qaeda."
What the CIA did find, however, was troubling. Then CIA director George Tenet testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the relationship in a closed session on September 17, 2002.
There is evidence that Iraq provided al Qaeda with various kinds of training--combat, bomb-making and [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] CBRN. Although Saddam did not endorse al Qaeda's overall agenda and was suspicious of Islamist movements in general, he was apparently not averse, under certain circumstances, to enhancing bin Laden's operational capabilities. As with much of the information on the overall relationship, details on training are [redacted] from sources of varying reliability.
So Saddam was open to enhancing bin Laden's operational capabilities. There is evidence he may have done so. That seems significant. But that datum has apparently escaped the notice of every major journalist covering this story.
According to an earlier, more specific version of the CIA's Iraqi Support for Terrorism, "the general pattern that emerges is one of al Qaeda's enduring interest in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) expertise from Iraq." The Senate reports add to this understanding, citing "twelve reports received [redacted] from sources the CIA described as having varying reliability" that pointed to "Iraq or Iraqi national involvement in al Qaeda's CBW [chemical/biological weapons] efforts." The reports were not conclusive--some of them were based on hearsay, and in other cases connections to the Iraqi regime could not be confirmed. They were troubling nonetheless.
The Senate committee also reports that the CIA's counterterrorism center cited four "intelligence reports mentioning Saddam Hussein's standing offer of safehaven to Osama bin Laden." The Senate report also indicates that the Iraqi regime "certainly" had knowledge that Abu Musab al Zarqawi--described in Iraqi Support for Terrorism as a "senior al Qaeda terrorist planner"--was operating in Baghdad and Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
We are left, then, with the following scenario. Before the Iraq war, the U.S. intelligence community reported that from 1996 to 2003 the Iraqi Intelligence service had focused its terrorist activity on Western interests, including the United States; "throughout 2002, the IIS was becoming increasingly aggressive in planning attacks against U.S. interests"; Saddam Hussein was open "to enhancing bin Laden's operational capability" and may have provided training to al Qaeda; bin Laden had made direct and specific requests for Iraqi assistance; al Qaeda had demonstrated an "enduring interest" in WMD expertise from Iraq; the Iraqi regime "certainly" knew that al Qaeda agents were operating in Baghdad and northern Iraq; and Saddam Hussein had made a "standing offer" to Osama bin Laden for safe haven in Iraq.
That this information comes from a collection operation deemed "inadequate" suggests that it represents just a fraction of the available knowledge of the Iraqi threat. To be sure, some of that additional information might suggest that Iraq was not the threat the Senate report indicates. Who would want to take that chance?
Certainly not John Edwards, who used the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks to call for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. "The terrorist threat against America is all too clear. Thousands of terrorist operatives around the world would pay anything to get their hands on Saddam's arsenal, and there is every reason to believe that Saddam would turn his weapons over to these terrorists. No one can doubt that if the terrorists of September 11 had had weapons of mass destruction, they would have used them. On September 12, 2002, we can hardly ignore the terrorist threat and serious danger that Saddam would allow his arsenal to be used in aid of terror."
John Kerry, too, invoked the September 11 attacks to warn about the threat from Iraq. "The events of September 11 created a new understanding of the terrorist threat and the degree to which every nation is vulnerable," he said in his October 9, 2002, floor speech explaining his vote to authorize the Iraq war.
Imagine for a moment that we had not gone to war in Iraq in March 2003. And that Washington, D.C., had been attacked using five pounds of Iraqi anthrax--a development that William Cohen, secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, said would "destroy at least half the population" of the city. Imagine, too, that Iraq had supplied the deadly substance to al Qaeda terrorists, the kind of collaboration a 1999 Congressional Research Service study called "likely" if Saddam were to attempt a strike inside the United States. That report, some readers may recall, also presented a scenario eerily similar to the September 11 attacks. Democrats and journalists used the report to suggest the Bush administration had done too little to prevent those attacks.
Rather than speeches about a needless war to counter an exaggerated threat, we would almost certainly be hearing something like this: This administration had 12 separate reports that Iraq had provided training in chemical and biological weapons to al Qaeda. Yet it refused to act. This administration knew of numerous high-level meetings between Iraqi Intelligence and Osama bin Laden and his top deputies. Yet it refused to act. This administration had been told by the CIA that Iraqi Intelligence had become increasingly aggressive throughout 2002 in targeting U.S. interests. Yet it refused to act. This administration knew that Saddam Hussein had made Osama bin Laden a standing offer of safe haven. Yet it refused to act.
The Bush administration--with the support of John Edwards and John Kerry--did act. And despite the misreporting from the mainstream media and the criticism from these onetime war proponents, "Iraqi support for terrorism" as enumerated in the Senate Intelligence Committee report make it clear that the war was both necessary and justified.
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard. Parts of this article are drawn from his new book, The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America (HarperCollins).