Bush's 9-11 Problem

The President wants to link Al Qaeda and Iraq, but the knot keeps slipping

Almost every week or so, the American predicament that is Iraq seems to expand and, in expanding, to consume our government. It has grown like kudzu out of the methods President Bush used to win congressional and public approval for the invasion of Iraq. The core issue is: Did he mislead the nation into a needless war?

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.

Further, when they were rallying support for the war in 2002 and early 2003, the president and his key aides flatly said they had hard intelligence based on original documents that showed Iraq had tried to purchase uranium "yellowcake" from Niger to make nuclear weapons. The documents turned out to be obvious forgeries. The Bush team, offering no apology to the public, simply stopped telling this yarn.

As its strongest justification for going to war, the White House claimed that Hussein had large, hidden stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that threatened the Middle East and, if passed to Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, placed the security of the United States and other democracies in jeopardy as well. So far, more than a year into the American occupation, no such stockpiles have been found.

To put it succinctly, very little of what the White House told Congress to persuade it to pass the war resolution has turned out to be true or come to pass. Poor planning by the civilian chiefs at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his two top aides, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, has contributed to needless casualties. Washington didn't have a contingency plan for a serious insurgency after cities were taken and "major combat" was over. U.S. occupation casualties continue to rise even as newly trained Iraqi forces begin taking over security duties. The prisoner torture scandal at the Abu Ghraib jail has also stained the Defense Department and the CIA.

Aside from acknowledging the yellowcake debacle and passing the buck on the mystery WMD by saying it received faulty intelligence from the CIA, the White House has sealed itself tight, admitting to no misstatements or exaggerations in the selling of the war.

In my research about the alleged Iraq-Al Qaeda link, I came across a document I'd never seen or heard about before, though someone in the vast news machine must have referred to it prior to this. It's not a closely held document—in fact, it's in the public record—and I would like to offer it as a concluding piece of evidence in the debate.

On March 21, 2003, the day after the war began, President Bush sent a letter to both houses of Congress laying out the legal backing and underpinning for his decision to go to war. In the letter's second paragraph, Bush wrote: "I have also determined that the use of armed force against Iraq is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."

Read his lips. He keeps swearing he never claimed a direct link, but here it is, as the saying goes, in black and white. It is very difficult to think of any interpretation of the above sentence other than that the president of the United States was declaring that Iraq was one of the "nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."

Still, this debate is too primal to be shut down by the exposure of a single quote. Presidents have lied before. The screaming match will continue. The outcome will be decided only on Election Day in November, when the people will say whether this president's conduct can be tolerated.

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