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This past week, the White House erupted over some new staff reports from the bipartisan commission that President Bush had grudgingly named to look into the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and into how those bloody events, which took nearly 3,000 lives in New York and Washington, led to the Iraqi war. These latest staff reports said that while there had been contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the 1990s, these meetings "do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship." The commission staff said further it had found evidence that the secular Iraqi dictatorship had rebuffed the Islamist terrorists' requests for assistance.
The staff reports are interim documents. The 9-11 Commission's formal conclusions will come in its final report later in the summer. Given the intensity of this controversy, it would not be surprising that to win unanimity from the members, some interim findings will be rephrased and otherwise amended.
These latest interim reports, in contrast to their findings on Iraq, said it may have been Iraq's neighbor and adversary, Iran, that had a collaborative relationship with Al Qaeda. The staff cited "strong but indirect evidence" of possible Iranian collusion in Al Qaeda's 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American servicemen and wounded hundreds of other people. (United Press International reported that the commission chairman, Thomas Kean, a Republican named by President Bush, said there was more evidence of Al Qaeda contacts with Pakistan and Iran than with Iraq.)
Both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney reacted with heat, directing most of their vitriol at the press for playing up the disparities between the commission's findings and the administration's much stronger contentions about Iraqi-Al Qaeda links.
The president told reporters, "This administration never said that the 9-11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda."
Bush added, "The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda [is] because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda."
Cheney, the administration's leading war hawk, has been the most vociferous promulgator of the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection, touting it repeatedly in speeches and interviews on national television. He went on television after the latest 9-11 Commission reports, saying, "There clearly was a relationship. . . . The evidence is overwhelming." He called the press "irresponsible" for suggesting a disparity between the White House position and the commission's findings.
Asked by a TV interviewer if he was privy to information about Iraq's links to Al Qaeda that the 9-11 Commission did not have, Cheney replied, "Probably." This led the heads of the commission to say to Cheney politely, through the press, that it would be nice if the vice president would come forward with any new information he has.
Chairman Kean, a former New Jersey governor, said he was surprised by Cheney's remark and would be "very disappointed" if the White House had held back information about Al Qaeda. His vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman admired for his foreign affairs expertise, said, "It sounds like the White House has evidence that we didn't have. I would like to see the evidence that Mr. Cheney is talking about." As of this writing, there's been no indication that Cheney has sent the commission new information.
This gnawing issue of whether the White House exaggerated and/or lied about intelligence data in order to pursue war against Iraq has clearly become a factor in the November elections, as Bush seeks a second term. At the heart of the debate is whether the president broke faith with the American people and therefore lost claim to their trust. The administration's credibility problems on this and other Iraq war issues could affect not only the election results but the way this presidency will be remembered.
A little history is needed here. The White House drumbeat about Iraq began within two months of the 9-11 tragedy. Cheney was the point man.
In December 2001, Cheney said that prior to the September attacks, a meeting had taken place in Prague between 9-11 terrorist Mohammed Atta and a top Iraqi intelligence officer. The 9-11 Commission said it didn't believe the meeting had happened. The staff reports cited intelligence showing that Atta was in Florida at the time.
Last September, on television, Cheney called Iraq "the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9-11." And the president, only last month, called Iraq "an ally of Al Qaeda." No, technically they never used the specific words that Saddam Hussein had played a "direct role" in the 9-11 attacks, but they managed to con a slew of Americans into believing that he had. Opinion surveys before and after the war showed that more than half of America believed Saddam Hussein "was personally involved." As recently as last month, with White House credibility having been pummeled by a steady stream of damaging revelations, the believers were still at about 40 percent.