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Forging bogus ties: the Bush administration committed our nation to war despite being informed by U.S. intelligence agencies that no working relationship existed between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

"We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.... Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists," President Bush told a Cincinnati audience on October 7, 2002. "Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof--the smoking gun--that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

The problem with the president's statement, recent reports from the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 Commission reveal, is that it flatly contradicted what his own intelligence agencies were telling him at the time about the threat--or in this case, the non-threat--from Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The case for the Iraq War was based upon the Bush administration's assertion that Iraq: (1) had massive stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs); and (2) would use them on Americans or give them to al-Qaeda operatives with whom Saddam Hussein was working.

The CIA did tell the Bush administration before the war that Iraq possessed WMDs, an assessment that that turned out to be inaccurate. The administration seized on those inaccurate reports and embellished them even further for public consumption.

But WMDs alone didn't make Hussein a threat: he had to be working with terrorists who were inclined to use them on Americans in order to be a threat to the United States. And the CIA definitively informed the administration that Hussein was not working with al-Qaeda and that, in fact, Hussein regarded al-Qaeda terrorists as enemies of the state and had actively worked against al-Qaeda.

The CIA concluded that Hussein would not use WMDs or engage in terrorist attacks against the U.S., either directly through the Iraqi Intelligence Service or through a surrogate like al-Qaeda, unless he believed an American invasion to remove him from power was imminent. The recently released Senate Select Intelligence Committee Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq stated flatly: "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."

According to the Senate report, the CIA had repeatedly told the administration that Hussein "generally viewed Islamic extremism ... as a threat to his regime, noting that he had executed extremists from both the Sunni and Shi'a sects to disrupt their organizations. The CIA provided two specific HUMINT [Human Intelligence] reports that support this assessment, both of which indicated that Saddam Hussein's regime arrested and in some cases executed Wahhabists and other Islamic extremists that opposed him. The CIA also provided a HUMINT report ... that indicated the regime sought to prevent Iraqi youth from joining al-Qaeda."

The recently released 9/11 Commission Report also noted that while bin Laden was willing to take help from wherever it was offered, he regarded the Hussein regime as an enemy and "had in fact been sponsoring anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan, and sought to attract them into his Islamic army."

Not only had the CIA informed the administration of the mutual antipathy between bin Laden and Hussein, but before the war the Bush administration's National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, the most authoritative U.S. government intelligence assessment on national security issues, concluded that Iraq wouldn't cooperate with al-Qaeda. According to the National Intelligence Estimate, Hussein's regime feared "Iraqi involvement would provide Washington a stronger case for making war."

In its march to war, the Bush administration not only listened to (and embellished) erroneous intelligence on WMD stockpiles, but pointedly ignored accurate intelligence that no working relationship existed between al-Qaeda and Hussein's Iraq.

Evaporating Claims

Despite the clear intelligence signals being given to the administration, spokesmen such as Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations Security Council on February 14, 2003 that "'we find a post 9/11 nexus between Iraq and terrorist organizations that are looking for just such weapons [WMD]--and I would submit and will provide more evidence that such connections are now emerging and we can establish that they exist--we cannot wait for one of these terrible weapons to show up in one of our cities and wonder where it came from after it's been detonated by al-Qaeda or somebody else." Powell has since recanted his UN testimony, at least in part, conceding in a January 8, 2004 press conference that "I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection" between al-Qaeda and Saddam's Iraq.

CIA Director George Tenet, in prewar testimony to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, made similar claims: "There is evidence that Iraq provided al-Qaeda with various kinds of training--combat, bomb-making, and CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear]. 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." Tenet qualified his allegation with the caveat that he was relying upon "sources of varying reliability."

In its recent report, the Senate Intelligence Committee noted that the CIA had no information indicating that any training had token place. An internal CIA report entitled Iraqi Support for Terrorism explained that "in about half of the reports [of a Saddam--al-Qaeda connection], we cannot ... determine if the Iraqi nationals [involved in al-Qaeda] mentioned had any relationship with the Baghdad government or were expatriate or free lance scientists or engineers." Other reports linking Saddam with al-Qaeda were based upon hearsay evidence or "simple declarative accusations with no substance or detail to help corroborate them."

More importantly, the 9/11 Commission Report noted that the CIA had concluded that its original intelligence report on training turned out not to be inaccurate: "Although there have been suggestions of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda regarding chemical weapons and explosives training, the most detailed information alleging such ties came from an al-Qaeda operative who recanted much of his original information."

Tenet also told the Senate committee: "We have no credible information that Baghdad had foreknowledge of the 11 September attacks or any other al-Qaeda strike...." So why would Saddam provide chemical weapons training and haven for al-Qaeda terrorists without having any knowledge of what they would do, and without any control over what they would do? The CIA's conclusion: Hussein's regime didn't provide any training, and Iraqi trained individuals in al-Qaeda had been defectors from the Iraqi army. But Tenet went ahead and delivered his alarmist message to a skeptical Congress anyway.

Pressure on Intelligence Officials

Why would Tenet knowingly convey to Congress alarmist information he knew to be unreliable? Part of the answer may be that there was tremendous pressure from the administration to produce intelligence information to justify war with Iraq. While the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that "none of the analysts ... said that they were pressured to change their conclusions related to Iraq's links to terrorism," the Senate report noted that there were "several ... allegations of pressure on [the] intelligence community." This purported pressure came in the form of "repeated questioning" by White House officials to get answers that coincided with conclusions top administration officials bad already publicly propounded.

One product of repeated administration calls for tools to justify its public case for a terrorist threat from Iraq was the publication of Iraq and al-Qaeda: Interpreting a Murky Relationship in June 2002. This CIA report sought to extend the lines of evidence to the maximum plausible threat. The preface to the report stated: "Our approach is purposefully aggressive in seeking to draw connections, on the assumption that any indication of a relationship between these two hostile elements could carry great dangers to the United States."

Publication of Iraq and al-Qaeda: Interpreting a Murky Relationship created immediate complaints within the CIA that the report was politicized and that it ignored traditional intelligence assessment methods. "The CIA Ombudsman for Politicization received a confidential complaint five days after the publication of Iraq and al-Qaeda: Interpreting a Murky Relationship," the Senate Intelligence Committee repotted, "which claimed that the Office of Terrorism Analysis (OTA) product did not reflect the Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia's (NESA) views. According to the Ombudsman, the complainant expressed concern that the product was misleading and did not make it clear that it was an uncoordinated product that did not reflect the NESA's views and assessments."

Leading Democrats on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee charged: "Not only did the Intelligence Community produce a white paper that failed to accurately state its own analytical beliefs, and, in turn mislead the public, it selectively declassified information in a way that kept from the public important judgments central to the debate at the time, namely that Baghdad would launch a terrorist attack against the United States or assist Islamic terrorists in launching such an attack, especially using weapons of mass destruction." They also noted: "Even though the CIA's June 2002 report was 'purposefully aggressive' in seeking to draw connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda, the intelligence analysis did not find the relationship sought by Pentagon policy officials."

Why did Saddam have any contacts with al-Qaeda? According to the more "aggressive" intelligence view: "Baghdad sought and obtained a nonaggression agreement or made limited offers of cooperation, training, or even safe haven (ultimately uncorroborated or withdrawn) in an effort to manipulate, penetrate or otherwise keep tabs on al-Qaeda or selected operatives." That is, the Hussein regime remained enemies with al-Qaeda, but lied to the terrorist group in order to get it to stop trying to topple Hussein's dictatorship. Saddam, in brief, actually had a functioning intelligence service collecting information on, and running operations against, his regime's enemies--including al-Qaeda.

The CIA report was passed on through the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy offices with the caveat that the report, in the words of one policy analyst, "should be read for content only--and the CIA's interpretation ought to be ignored." Politicians from the Pentagon office of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith then went into high-gear pressure mode. "[O]fficials under the direction of Undersecretary Feith took it upon themselves to push for a change in the intelligence analysis so that it bolstered administration policy statements and goals," leading Democrats concluded. "The CIA Ombudsman told the Committee that he felt the 'hammering' by the Bush administration on Iraq intelligence was harder than he had previously witnessed in his 32-year career with the agency."

The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy created the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group (PCTEG) after the September 11 attacks. PCTEG soon created a presentation entitled Summary of Known Iraq-al Qaida Contacts, 1990-2002. This presentation prominently featured the alleged meeting between Prague Iraqi Intelligence Chief al-Ani and al-Qaeda leader Mohammad Atta in April 2001. It also criticized traditional intelligence information packaging for requiring "juridical evidence" and for "consistent underestimation" of Iraq's and al-Qaeda's efforts to hide a relationship.

When the CIA vetted a draft of its new Iraqi Support for Terrorism with two representatives of PCTEG on August 15, 2002, the PCTEG representatives told Senate investigators that "we raised numerous objections to the paper," including that "it makes no reference to the key issue of Atta." Vice President Dick Cheney had already publicly stated that the meeting with Atta was "pretty well confirmed," but Senate Democrats noted that "the intelligence community did not buckle under the pressure brought to bear by Pentagon policy officials on August 20th."

The CIA had learned that cell phone records and bank surveillance video placed Atta in Florida at the same time he was supposed to have been in Prague. For that reason, the CIA didn't include any reference to the alleged meeting in the final report. The Senate report concluded that the CIA had deemed at the time that there was no "credible reporting on the leadership of either the Iraqi regime or al-Qaeda, which would have enabled it to better define a cooperative relationship, if any did in fact exist."

Nevertheless, the final report and the National Intelligence Estimate that followed in October both contained much of the same "aggressive" outlook of attempting to draw lines of cooperation which the CIA had already concluded didn't exist. "It is no coincidence that the analytical errors in the [National Intelligence] Estimate all broke in one direction," senior Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee contended. "The Estimate and related analytical papers assessing Iraqi links to terrorism were produced by the Intelligence Community in a highly pressurized climate wherein senior Administration officials were making the case for military action against Iraq through public and often definitive pronouncements."

Increasing the Terrorist Threat

Even worse, evidence from the Senate committee report reveals that the Bush administration knowingly heightened the terrorist danger against the United States by attacking Iraq. "The Intelligence Community did not believe that Saddam Hussein was likely to use his own forces or an outside group like al-Qaeda to attack the United States--with one important caveat," commented Intelligence Committee member Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "The Intelligence Community believed that an impending U.S.-led attack to remove Hussein from power would increase the likelihood of a terror attack."

President Bush's defenders insist that he was correct to accept, and act on, bad intelligence about Iraq's supposed arsenal of WMDs. At the same time, they insist that he was correct to dismiss--or to misrepresent--sound intelligence findings that Iraq and al-Qaeda were enemies, rather than collaborators. The only argument left in their rhetorical arsenal is an invitation for the public to play "let's pretend."

"Can you just picture what would have happened if al-Qaeda attacked America with deadly weapons acquired from Baghdad, and had President Bush rejected intelligence reports about WMDs?" wrote radio and television personality Bill O'Reilly in a recent column. But the evidence is clear that our country was never at risk of a Baghdad-backed attack and the administration knew this, even as it banged the war drums. Neither the president nor his defenders are willing to accept moral responsibility for our nation's involvement in an aggressive war that has left hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis dead--and our nation less secure.
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Title Annotation:Iraq War
Author:Eddlem, Thomas R.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 23, 2004
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