"You can't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror." – President George W. Bush, September 2002
The 9/11 Commission informed us on Wednesday morning "no credible evidence" existed of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda in attacks against the United States. Many Americans who have not been paying close attention will be surprised to hear this. After all, it comes just two days after Vice President Dick Cheney said Saddam Hussein had "long-established ties" with al Qaeda, an assertion that the Associated Press, with a degree of reticence that ended up lending credence to a lie, explained, "has been repeatedly challenged by some policy experts and lawmakers."
Let us take a moment, however, and examine the Bush administration campaign to convince Americans of something that was not true and for which they never had any convincing evidence. After all, at the moment we went to war with Iraq, a full 70 percent of Americans questioned told pollsters that Iraq had been responsible, in total or in part, for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Nearly 50 percent had actually invented the belief that a majority of the hijackers had been Iraqis. Both the Bush administration and much of the media—usually accused of being liberal, anti-war and anti-Bush—treat these beliefs as if they sprung out of thin air—as if nothing claimed by the administration or reported by the so-called "liberal media" could possibly have contributed to this widespread misimpression that paved the road for what has turned out to be a catastrophic war. Well, take a look at what the American people were seeing and hearing from their leaders, along with their alleged watchdogs charged by the First Amendment with keeping those leaders accountable.
In the period leading up to the war, President Bush frequently couched his remarks to be deliberately misleading on this topic without actually crossing over the line into what all would recognize as a lie. For instance, in his 2003 State of the Union, Bush claimed, ''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." The theme of Saddam's training and funding of "al Qaeda–type organizations before, al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations" was a constant feature of the president's speeches. Following a terrorist attack in Bali that left over 180 people dead, Bush insisted that Saddam planned to employ al-Qaida as his own "forward army" against the West. In a speech to the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, Bush charged, "Iraq continues to shelter and support terrorist organizations that direct violence against Iran, Israel, and Western governments. Iraqi dissidents abroad are targeted for murder…. And al Qaeda terrorists escaped from Afghanistan and are known to be in Iraq." To Americans he used simple scare tactics that had no basis in recent reality. Borrowing a tactic from the late John Lennon, Bush asked, "Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein," in his 2003 State of the Union Address. "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. "
Though he never came up with any evidence at all, Bush never gave up this particular line of argument. Just before the war began, he cried in similarly misleading terms, "The Battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001, and still goes on." And in seeking to justify the war in its increasingly unpleasant aftermath before a July 4, 2003, audience of military families at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Bush fell back on his same rhetorical crutch: "Since that September day," he intoned, again making reference to the al Qaeda attack to justify his war against Iraq, "the United States will not stand by and wait for another attack or trust in the restraint and good intentions of evil men. We will not permit any terrorist group or outlaw regime to threaten us with weapons of mass murder." Per usual, the president offered no evidence nor even discernible logic to defend his position.
Others in the administration naturally followed suit: Cheney, for instance, was perhaps most aggressive. He asked the audience of a Sunday morning talk show to imagine if, on 9/11, al Qaeda had "had a nuclear weapon and detonated it in the middle of one of our cities, or if they had unleashed . . . biological weapons of some kind, smallpox or anthrax." He then tied that to evidence found in Afghanistan of how al Qaeda leaders "have done everything they could to acquire those capabilities over the years." Recall that he was doing so in support of a war not against al Qaeda, but Iraq. Condoleezza Rice claimed, "There clearly are contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq that can be documented." Well, then, asks Arianna Huffington quite logically, "Why not document them?"
The 9/11 Commission's report will not be news to anyone but the majority of the American people who believed their president. For it is not accurate to say that the administration was honestly mistaken in these claims. They knew, but they chose to mislead the country in order to justify the war they had decided upon, according to ex-administration sources like Paul O'Neill and Richard Clarke, long before 9/11. "The al Qaeda connection and nuclear weapons issue were the only two ways that you could link Iraq to an imminent security threat to the U.S.," explains Greg Thielmann, former director for strategic proliferation and military affairs at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. "And the administration was grossly distorting the intelligence on both things." According to the State Department's annual report on the general subject, titled Patterns of Global Terrorism, Baghdad had no ties to al Qaeda or, for that matter, to any of the "al Qaeda–type organizations" operating in the Middle East and Africa. Although the report finds that Iraq has assisted "numerous terrorist groups," those outfits are all secular and "Marxist" or "socialist" in ideology—in other words, "infidels," the insult used by bin Laden to describe Saddam. That same report, released last year, notes that the "main focus" of Saddam's terror expenditures has been on "dissident Iraqi activity overseas."
They knew. They just didn't care.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.