Iraq and al Qaeda: What Evidence?

To: Progressive Community
From: Center for American Progress
RE: Iraq and al Qaeda: What Evidence?

Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview today with National Public Radio, continued the administration’s shifting justification for the war in Iraq by claiming a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. "I think there's overwhelming evidence there was a connection between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government," Cheney said, citing documents demonstrating that Iraq paid and harbored a member of the team that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, and supported Abu Nidal, and Palestinian and Islamic Jihad. "This is a guy who is an advocate and supporter of terrorism whenever it suited his purpose," the vice president contended.

With such statements, it's no wonder that almost 70 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. The most "overwhelming" problem with Cheney's claim, of course, is the lack of evidence that proves a meaningful Saddam-al Qaeda connection. We refer you to three recent pieces: "The Case of the Misunderstood Memo," a column in Salon.com by Daniel Benjamin, former National Security Council director for counterterrorism; "Armchair Provocateur," an article in the Washington Monthly by Peter Bergen, an expert on terrorism at the New America Foundation, and "Bounding the Global War on Terrorism," a report by Jeffrey Record, a professor at the U.S. Army War College. Here are a few important points highlighted by these authors, as well as a few of our own:

  • No "overwhelming evidence" of a connection. Little proof exists of any formal ties between Hussein’s regime and al Qaeda. According to Benjamin, even a leaked Pentagon memo recently cited by the Weekly Standard, "does not recount the many details of an operational relationship, nor does it illustrate that a tie was ongoing, cooperative, and operation." Similar conclusions were reached in the U.S.-backed U.N. Security Council Monitoring Group on Sanctions against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Associates, and suggested in the Administration's own 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.
  • "Best source of information" is inaccurate. In an interview two weeks ago, Cheney said the Weekly Standard article was "your best source of information" for evidence of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. Yet, the article was discredited by the administration in November as "inaccurate." Furthermore, the Pentagon criticized the leak saying "Individuals who leak or purport to leak classified information are doing serious harm to national security; such activity is deplorable and may be illegal."
  • No new evidence uncovered by the war. As Secretary of State Colin Powell has said, coalition forces in Iraq have not discovered any "smoking gun [or] concrete evidence" demonstrating ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. In fact, just last week, the New York Times reported more evidence to the contrary, with a recently uncovered document from Saddam Hussein to leaders of the Iraqi resistance cautioning against getting too close to Islamic jihadists and other foreign fighters coming into occupied Iraq.
  • Exaggerated claims of al-Qaeda safe-harboring. While jihadists lived in or traveled through Iraq, Benjamin points out there is no evidence of "cooperation on the form of transfers of weapons and other materiel, know-how, or funds; the provision of safe haven on a significant scale; or the use of Iraqi diplomatic facilities by al-Qaeda terrorists."
  • No Hussein involvement in the 1993 WTC attack. As Bergen points out, "the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, the FBI, the US Attorney's office to the Southern District of New York, the CIA, the NSC, and the State Department had all found no evidence implicating the Iraqi government in the first Trade Center attack." While the Abdul Rahman Yasin, a low-level conspirator, did flee New York to live with a family member in Baghdad, according to the FBI official that headed the WTC probe, "We looked at that rather extensively. There were no ties to the Iraqi government."
  • Saddam’s support for Palestinian Jihad not the issue. Cheney cites Abu Nidal and payments for suicide bombers in Israel as evidence of a connection, but that has nothing to do with al Qaeda. The issue is not whether there are "evil doers" in any country, but to what extent they pose an unacceptable risk to the United States. The administration has yet to make the case for pre-emptive and unilateral action.
  • Focus on the real threat. Dr. Record's report criticizes the White House for "conflating Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda" in order to "unnecessarily expand the war on terror against a state that was not at war with the United States and that posed no direct or imminent threat." This was done "at the expense of continued attention and effort to protect the U.S. from a terrorist organization with which it was at war."