L.A. Times Has Hit Piece on McCain — Which Resurrects the Old Canards About Ties Between Saddam and Al Qaeda
The L.A. Times saves space on its Sunday front page for a hit piece on John McCain. The main thrust of the piece is to say, in essence, “Nyaah, nyaah, John McCain said that Iraq would be a cakewalk, but it wasn’t.”
A little context would be nice. Plenty of liberals were surprised at how easily we overran Baghdad and kicked Saddam out of power. Indeed, plenty of liberals — including Bill Richardson, a strong contender for the second spot on Obama’s ticket — were surprised at how quickly we overran Kabul. So yeah, like most of the rest of America, John McCain failed to predict the insurgency — but he reacted to it faster than just about anyone else out there, and in the right way.
But never mind that. I want to concentrate on the article’s revival of a set of hoary old howlers regarding ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda:
But McCain openly disputed Bush administration claims that Hussein appeared linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “I doubt seriously if there’s this close relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein,” he told CBS News in September 2002.
Postwar investigations, including the 9/11 Commission Report and a report this month financed by the Pentagon, found no evidence of a “collaborative relationship” between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime.
Two paragraphs, three misstatements of fact. That’s a pretty impressive ratio, even for the L.A. Times. Let’s take them one at a time.
First, to my knowledge, the Bush administration did not claim that Saddam Hussein was (or appeared to be) linked to September 11. Bush and other administration officials have said that there were ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda — a claim that, as I explain below, is fully borne out by the 9/11 Commission Report and the Pentagon report. But, far from claiming that Iraq was behind 9/11, President Bush has said the exact opposite, as this Associated Press story from September 2003 shows:
President Bush said Wednesday there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — disputing an idea held by many Americans.
“There’s no question that Saddam Hussein had al Qaeda ties,” the president said. But he also said, “We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11” attacks. . . . The president’s comment on Saddam, the deposed Iraqi leader, was in line with a statement Tuesday by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said he not seen any evidence that Saddam was involved in the attacks. . . . Rumsfeld said, “I’ve not seen any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that.”
Many liberals have argued that, by referring to (and allegedly exaggerating) the links between Al Qaeda and Iraq, the Bush administration has deliberately implied that Saddam was behind 9/11. But any such implication is in the eye of the beholder. There is absolutely no doubt that Saddam’s regime was a state sponsor of terrorism — as the more recent Pentagon report makes painfully clear — and after 9/11/01, the Bush Administration decided to go after state-sponsored terrorism in an aggressive way. Back when Americans cared about 9/11, a lot of us felt the same way. I know I did.
This naturally meant that Bush and Cheney sometimes justified the war in Iraq by referring to the fact that, after 9/11, America had decided to go after terrorists rather than wait for the terrorists to come to us. This explanation does not constitute “claims” that Iraq was linked to the 9/11 attacks.
Moving to the next misrepresentations, neither the 9/11 Commission report (misrepresentation #2) nor the Pentagon report (misrepresentation #3) uses the phrase “collaborative relationship” as the article claims.
Both reports provide evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, but emphasized that the links did not amount to an operational relationship in which in which Iraq participated in the 9/11 attacks, or other attacks on the U.S. This is entirely consistent with the assertions of the Bush Administration, which has repeatedly and accurately pointed to links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, while refusing to claim (and at times explicitly denying the existence of evidence to indicate) that Saddam was behind 9/11.
The 9/11 Commission Report took care to use the word “operational” when discussing the concept of a collaborative relationship. At page 66, the report details numerous links between Saddam’s Iraq and Al Qaeda, but explains that these links did not lead to an operational relationship with respect to attacks on the U.S.:
In March 1998, after Bin Ladin’s public fatwa against the United States, two al Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence. In July, an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan to meet first with the Taliban and then with Bin Ladin. Sources reported that one, or perhaps both, of these meetings was apparently arranged through Bin Ladin’s Egyptian deputy, Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis. . . . Similar meetings between Iraqi officials and Bin Ladin or his aides may have occurred in 1999 . . . The reports describe friendly contacts and indicate some common themes in both sides’ hatred of the United States. But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”
It is not splitting hairs to note that the L.A. Times asserted the use of the phrase “collaborative relationship” rather than “collaborative operational relationship.” As I repeatedly documented in posts from 2004, the 9/11 Commissioners made it abundantly clear that they saw a clear distinction between an “operational relationship” (which did not exist) and a “cooperative relationship” or “ties” or “links” in general (which they said did exist). The commissions repeatedly emphasized that Iraq and Al Qaeda had numerous ties — but that those ties did not amount to an operational relationship that resulted in 9/11.
For example, in one of those posts I quoted Lee Hamilton, the Democrat Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, as follows:
I must say I have trouble understanding the flack over this. The Vice President is saying, I think, that there were connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s government. We don’t disagree with that. What we have said is [that] we don’t have any evidence of a cooperative, or a corroborative relationship between Saddam Hussein’s government and these al Qaeda operatives with regard to the attacks on the United States. So it seems to me the sharp differences that the press has drawn, the media has drawn, are not that apparent to me.
Hamilton reinforced the point on Twitchy Chris Matthews’s “Hardball”:
There are all kinds of ties. There are all kinds of connections. And it may very well have been that Osama bin Laden or some of his lieutenants met at some time with Saddam Hussein lieutenants.
They had contacts, but what we did not find was any operational tie with respect to attacks on the United States.
As another example, after the issuance of the staff report (the findings of which were very similar to those of the final report), Commissioner Lehman said on “Meet the Press”:
MR. LEHMAN: There’s really very little difference between what our staff found, what the administration is saying today and what the Clinton administration said. The Clinton administration portrayed the relationship between al- Qaeda and Saddam’s intelligence services as one of cooperating in weapons development. There’s abundant evidence of that. . . . [I]t confirms the cooperative relationship, which were the words of the Clinton administration, between al-Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence.
The Bush administration has never said that they participated in the 9/11 attack. They’ve said, and our staff has confirmed, there have been numerous contacts between Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaeda over a period of 10 years, at least.
The Pentagon report also notably omits the phrase “collaborative relationship” that the L.A. Times puts between quotation marks.
Like the 9/11 Commission Report, the Pentagon report details numerous ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, while disclaiming the existence of any “smoking gun” evidence in the reviewed documents that there was any “direct coordination and assistance” between the two. But this observation is 1) subject to several caveats evident elsewhere in the report, and 2) contradicted by other portions of the executive summary and report.
First, the caveats. The report does not purport to be an exhaustive summary of any potential contacts, because 1) “many potentially relevant documents were either inadvertently destroyed by Coalition forces during major combat actions or else were hidden or destroyed by members of the former regime”; and 2) the report concedes that it didn’t examine all of the documents that were captured.
Second, as Stephen Hayes explained here, the denial of evidence of a direct relationship is belied by numerous statements in the report, such as this: “Captured documents reveal that the regime was willing to co-opt or support organizations it knew to be part of al Qaeda — as long as that organization’s near-term goals supported Saddam’s long-term vision.” So Saddam supported Al Qaeda — but had no direct relationship with him? Hoo-kay then.
The confusion and self-contradiction inherent here is on display in the executive summary, which states in part:
While these documents do not reveal direct coordination and assistance between the Saddam regime and the al Qaeda network, they do indicate that Saddam was willing to use, albeit cautiously, operatives affiliated with al Qaeda as long as Saddam could have these terrorist-operatives monitored closely. Because Saddam’s security organizations and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network operated with similar aims (at least in the short term), considerable overlap was inevitable when monitoring, contacting, financing, and training the same outside groups. This created both the appearance of and, in some way, a “de facto” link between the organizations. At times, these organizations would work together in pursuit of shared goals but still maintain their autonomy and independence because of innate caution and mutual distrust.
Got that? There was no direct coordination and assistance, but Saddam “was willing to use . . . operatives affiliated with al Qaeda” — and the Iraqi government and Al Qaeda “would work together in pursuit of shared goals” creating a “de facto link.” Makes perfect sense to me — how ’bout you?
Regardless of how one interprets the report as a whole, it is inaccurate to state that it denied a “collaborative relationship” — with those words inside quotation marks.
You might want to ask Readers’ Representative Jamie Gold where that “collaborative relationship” quote came from — as well as where the paper gets the idea that the Bush administration claimed that Saddam appeared to be linked to the 9/11 attacks. You can reach her at Readers.Rep@latimes.com. As always, be polite.
UPDATE: My letter to the Readers’ Representative is here. In it, I tell Ms. Gold where the phrase “collaborative relationship” comes from: a “staff statement” prepared by the staff for the Commission, as distinguished from the final report by the Commission itself. (H/t: Foo Bar.) As I explain in my letter to her, the distinction is meaningful. The New York Times quoted Commissioner Kean as saying of the staff statement: “This was a staff statement, and we’ve had commissioners who have disagreed occasionally with the staff statements, and this may be one of those occasions.”
And indeed, the conclusion regarding Iraq/Al Qaeda contacts was worded differently in the Commission’s final report, which took care to refer to an absence of “collaborative operational relationship” — while the report listed many contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
The inclusion of the word “operational” in the 9/11 Commission Report was a critical difference, as the post above shows.
I don’t even raise the issue of the article’s claim that the Bush administration made claims that Iraq was tied to 9/11. In all the comments below, nobody has produced any evidence of that, but I’m sticking with the error that is cut and dried, rather than raising one where they can try to argue with me based on alleged implications and such.