Iraq-al Qaeda links weak, say former Bush officials

As criticism over the Bush administration's use of prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction continues, a new wave of accusations seems ready to break-this time, over complaints that in its efforts to sell the war, the White House also hyped claims about the links between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime.

Three former Bush administration officials who worked on intelligence and national security issues have told National Journal that the prewar evidence tying al Qaeda to Iraq was tenuous, exaggerated, and often at odds with the conclusions of key intelligence agencies. The Bush alumni, as well as other intelligence veterans and some members of Congress, say they see parallels between how the administration painted the Qaeda connection to Iraq and the way that the White House often portrayed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction as being definitive or rock solid.

"Our conclusion was that Saddam would certainly not provide weapons of mass destruction or WMD knowledge to al Qaeda because they were mortal enemies," said Greg Thielmann, who worked at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research on weapons intelligence until last fall. "Saddam would have seen al Qaeda as a threat, and al Qaeda would have opposed Saddam as the kind of secular government they hated."

Other Bush veterans concur that the evidence linking Al Qaeda to Iraq was overblown.

"Anyone who followed al Qaeda for a living would not have considered Iraq to be in the top tier of countries to be worried about," said Roger Cressey, who left the administration last fall after working on counterterrorism issues at the National Security Council and as a top aide to cyberterrorism czar Richard Clarke. "I'd argue that Iraq would be in the third tier." By contrast, Cressey said, Iran would rate in "the top tier."

And Flynt Leverett, who worked on Middle East issues at the National Security Council until earlier this year and is now with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said that some administration officials pushed the intelligence envelope on the Qaeda connection. "After September 11, there was a concrete effort by policy makers, particularly in the Pentagon and the vice president's office, to come up with links between al Qaeda and Iraq."

Generally, these and other former intelligence officials who talked to National Journal felt that the United States needed to confront Saddam Hussein. But the analysts questioned the war's timing and wondered whether the attack should have come before the battle against al Qaeda was sufficiently far along.

In the reviews that the Senate and the House Intelligence panels are conducting into the accuracy of prewar intelligence, the claims on Iraq and al Qaeda are also a topic of inquiry. Republican leaders of those committees have generally defended the administration's prewar assessment of Qaeda-Iraq links. Democrats, however, have been skeptical.

"I have never believed that the prewar links between al Qaeda and Iraq were very strong," declared Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who voted in favor of the war last fall. "The evidence on the al Qaeda links was sketchy."

Her counterpart on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence also sounded dubious about the administration's effort to link al Qaeda and Iraq. "I think the ties were always tenuous at best," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., who also voted for the war. "The evidence about the ties was not compelling." Rockefeller said that his panel has a staff group focusing on the question and that the panel may hold a hearing just on this issue in the fall.

In two periods during the run-up to the war against Iraq- in late September and early October of 2002, just before the vote in Congress, and then this year in the weeks before the war-administration heavyweights highlighted what they portrayed as significant ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice all weighed in on this point, sometimes in a broad-brush way, sometimes with hints of tantalizing specifics.

Powell, in his major speech to the United Nations on February 5, cited the presence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist who was in Baghdad in May 2002 receiving medical treatment for wounds he received in Afghanistan. Powell referred to al-Zarqawi as "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants."

But several intelligence experts say that Powell overstated these ties. Al-Zarqawi "is at best seen as having linkages to al Qaeda, instead of being a card-carrying member," Cressey said. "There's no question that Zarqawi is a terrorist, but there are real questions about whether he's a member of al Qaeda," said Vince Cannistraro, a former head of counterterrorism operations at the CIA.

In his State of the Union address in January, Bush made the Qaeda-Iraq connection. "Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody," the president said, "reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda." Bush darkly added, "Secretly and without fingerprints, [Saddam] could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists or help them develop their own."

In perhaps the boldest assertion before the war, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on September 27 stated that the administration had several "bullet-proof" sentences in intelligence reports about ties between Iraq under Saddam and al Qaeda. "We have what we consider to be very reliable reporting of senior-level contacts going back a decade," Rumsfeld said.

Bush echoed Rumsfeld's remarks in his major address in Cincinnati on October 7, asserting as well that al Qaeda and Iraq had "high-level contacts that go back a decade." He also stated that "we've learned" that Iraqis trained Qaeda members in "bomb making and poisons and deadly gases." And Bush posited that Iraq "could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists."

But even as the president made these comments, the key classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq making the rounds in the Bush administration presented a more nuanced and less alarmist view. For instance, according to a recent Washington Post account, Bush didn't mention a key conclusion of the intelligence report: that although high-level contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq had taken place in the early 1990s when bin Laden was based in Sudan, these contacts had not been followed by any significant ties between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government. Similarly, intelligence sources have said that the claim that Bush made about Iraq training Qaeda members in bomb making or poison gas use had not been fully verified.

"There wasn't the kind of link between Iraq and al Qaeda that people wanted," said one Bush administration alum. The CIA, he added, had "some measure of intellectual responsibility and didn't come up with a case."

Moreover, the president failed to mention the report's conclusion that the prevailing view in the intelligence community was much more guarded about the prospect of Saddam's transferring weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. In fact, CIA Director George J. Tenet wrote to Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who was then the chairman of the Senate Intelligence panel, that only if a U.S. attack against Iraq seemed imminent or inevitable might Saddam "decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD attack against the U.S. would be his last chance to exact vengeance.... "

Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and Iraq expert who is now director of research at the Saban Center at Brookings, said he also believed before the war that it was "extremely unlikely" that Saddam would have turned over weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda. Furthermore, Pollack has since concluded that there's a "much stronger" argument to be made that "the administration exaggerated its case for war in terms of the al Qaeda issue than on the WMD issue."

Bush particularly irked intelligence analysts when he landed on an aircraft carrier right after Baghdad fell and proclaimed that the U.S. had just "removed an ally of al Qaeda." Thielmann, the former State Department analyst, calls the statement "an outrageous distortion" and a "shameless falsehood."

Bush, when specifically asked at his news conference on July 30 whether the links between Iraq and al Qaeda were exaggerated and whether he now had more definitive evidence pointing to them, gave a long answer justifying the war on other grounds. But on the links between al Qaeda and Iraq, he said only that David Kay, the former U.N. weapons inspector now in Iraq looking for evidence of weapons of mass destruction, was also going through piles of documents to look for such links. "It's going to take time for us to gather the evidence and analyze the mounds of evidence, literally the miles of documents that we have uncovered," Bush said.

Some critics argue that by linking al Qaeda and Iraq, the administration has not only misled the public about Iraq but about the real and continuing danger from al Qaeda.

The Bush administration "created a powerful impression for the American public that al Qaeda and Iraq were joined," said Dan Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the co-author of "The Age of Sacred Terror." Benjamin added, "People don't understand that al Qaeda is a global insurgency distinct from states, and is eager to topple some states."

Other former intelligence officials are also dismayed by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's recent statement that the fight against Iraq is the "central battle" in the Bush administration's war on terrorism. "The idea that the battle in Iraq is the central battle in the war on terrorism flies in the face of reality and all that we know about al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other globally active terrorists," Leverett said.

Looking ahead, some critics worry that the Iraq war could ultimately help al Qaeda more than hurt it. "A lot of people who could have been very helpful working on al Qaeda were working on Iraq," Graham, a presidential candidate, said. "We shifted intelligence assets as well as military and intelligence people to Iraq."

Other Democrats concur. "The war enormously deepened the pool of eager recruits for al Qaeda," Rockefeller said. "I think that al Qaeda was, is, and always will be a greater threat than Iraq."

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