Now that America knows who was responsible for those 16 misleading words about African uranium-namely anybody except the man who uttered them-perhaps the time has come to move on to other pertinent issues of war and terror. Now, perhaps, we should inquire about another dubious premise underlying the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq: the insistence by the President and his associates that Saddam Hussein’s regime provided support to Al Qaeda and conspired with Osama bin Laden against the United States.
That incendiary charge is again under scrutiny, following the partial release of the report prepared by the House and Senate intelligence committees after last year’s joint investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. While the government censored critical portions of the Congressional report, leaks did emerge about the redacted section concerning “foreign support” for the hijackers. Those leaks indicate that such support came from officials and “businessmen” linked to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia-and not from Iraq.
Such a finding might be expected to perturb the citizens who accepted White House insinuations about the supposed connection between Iraq and Islamist terror. Polls indicate that this accusation thoroughly pervaded public consciousness; many if not most Americans even believed that the hijackers were of Iraqi origin. Nearly all were Saudis, of course.
Nevertheless, the President and members of his cabinet repeatedly warned that Saddam Hussein would someday provide Al Qaeda with the most deadly weapons ever made, creating the imminent threat of an immense atrocity far worse than Sept. 11.
As Mr. Bush put it, “Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.” In his famous Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati, the President stated: “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.”
Was any of that terrifying rhetoric based in truth? Leaving aside the fact that American and British forces have so far discovered no poisons or deadly gases in occupied Iraq, let alone nuclear weapons, the available evidence offers no solid proof of a conspiracy between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Moreover, the President and his aides had every reason to know that they were misleading us on this question.
Classified material in the National Intelligence Estimate prepared by the C.I.A. last year cast doubt on the ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq, and also noted how unlikely it was that Saddam Hussein would deliver his most lethal weapons to terrorists. According to C.I.A. director George Tenet, the consensus reflected in the National Intelligence Estimate was that Saddam Hussein would foment a terrorist strike only as an “extreme” final act of revenge for an American invasion. So the White House kept Mr. Tenet’s full report in the top-secret file, where the doubts expressed by the C.I.A. director couldn’t interfere with the drive toward war.
The urge to conceal embarrassing secrets never abates. So last week, when the joint Congressional committee released its report on Sept. 11, the chapter on foreign support for the terrorists was blacked out at the insistence of the White House. The ostensible reason was to prevent worsening relations with Saudi Arabia, since the report examined financial and other ties between the kingdom’s agents and two of the hijackers.
According to sources quoted widely in the mainstream media, the Congressional probers discussed the activities of Saudi nationals residing here who assisted hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. One of the suspect Saudis was an employee of the kingdom’s civil-aviation authority named Omar Al-Bayoumi. Suspected by the F.B.I. of terrorist ties as early as 1998, Mr. Bayoumi had paid the security deposit on the hijackers’ San Diego apartment and found them an English translator. Another Saudi national with connections to a Saudi charity is suspected of providing financial aid to the conspirators. The report’s declassified sections quote U.S. officials complaining about the kingdom’s lack of cooperation with investigations of the hijackers.
Imagine what the President would have said-or would say now-if the C.I.A. or the F.B.I. had discovered such intimate connections between the hijackers and agents of Iraq.
Apparently, there were so few clues to Iraqi links with the Sept. 11 hijackers that the Congressional report doesn’t even mention the subject. Yet we’re supposed to believe that the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein was deeply involved with Al Qaeda-and that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is our friend and ally.
On July 29, Mr. Bush refused the Saudi foreign minister’s request to declassify the 28 pages of the Congressional report that pertain to the kingdom. The President said he doesn’t want to “compromise” the ongoing investigation of the terror attacks. Full disclosure might also compromise other important interests-including his own political future.