With the prescience that often accompanies a queasy conscience, Vice President Dick Cheney opposed an independent investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks from the very beginning. In the spring of 2002, Mr. Cheney sought to intimidate Senator Tom Daschle, then the Senate Majority Leader, from undertaking or authorizing such an investigation. Any probe of the events leading up to the catastrophe might somehow damage the “war on terrorism,” he warned.
The Bush administration lost that fight when Congress authorized the creation of the 9/11 commission, officially known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, and the President reluctantly signed that legislation.
Now we know what lay behind the Vice President’s troubled premonitions. The commission’s activities haven’t hampered American action against terrorism. But its hearings and reports have brought considerable discredit upon the Bush administration-not only for the administration’s handling of the terror threat before 9/11, but most recently for White House propagandizing about alleged links between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
During the past week, coinciding with the commission’s final public hearings, its staff released a report that rejected the White House claims of collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden against the United States. On that murky issue, the report’s words are worth quoting in full:
“A senior Iraqi intelligence official reportedly made three trips to Sudan, finally meeting bin Ladin [ sic ] in 1994. Bin Ladin is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after Bin Ladin had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior Bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”
The White House propaganda campaign leading up to the invasion of Iraq was so successful that polls once showed nearly 70 percent of the American public believed that Iraq was somehow responsible for the 9/11 atrocities. Along with Saddam’s mythical nuclear arsenal and other “weapons of mass destruction,” his alleged links to Al Qaeda provided the chief argument for the Bush-Cheney war policy.
Although President George W. Bush has since admitted there is no evidence that the deposed dictator was behind the 9/11 attacks, he sent a letter to Congress in 2002 indicating he knew otherwise: “I have also determined that the use of armed force against Iraq is consistent with taking necessary action against those nations who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11.” In his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, the President boasted, “We have removed an ally of Al Qaeda.”
Since then, Mr. Cheney also has repeatedly contended that Iraq directly assisted Al Qaeda, although he hesitates to suggest that Saddam was behind 9/11. He claims that Iraq assisted Osama bin Laden’s criminal associates with bomb-making and with training in the use of biological and chemical weapons.
So the commission staff’s latest findings infuriated the Vice President. His echo in The New York Times , Op-Ed columnist William Safire, denounced them as the work of a “runaway” staff. (Mr. Safire forgot to mention, however, that the commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, is a Republican and a close associate of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.)
Attempting to rebut the offending report, Mr. Cheney told an interviewer that he “probably” has more information about the “relationship” between Al Qaeda and Iraq than the commission does.
If so, he should be asked to present that information to the commission, whose chairman, Thomas Kean, and vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, have tried to downplay their stark differences with the White House. They have yet to answer the Vice President’s taunts with a firm request for any additional proof he may possess about Iraq and Al Qaeda.
To fulfill their responsibility to the nation, Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton need to show that they will insist on the truth, no matter how much embarrassment that may prove to the President and the Vice President. And since Mr. Cheney has taken upon himself the nasty task of discrediting the commission, he may also be asked to answer some more questions about his own “war on terrorism.”
According to a knowledgeable source, the commission has not yet investigated the White House counterterror task force that the Vice President was appointed to chair in the spring of 2001. That task force reportedly held no significant meetings and achieved nothing of consequence during the six months leading up to Sept. 11.
Before the 9/11 commission completes its work and issues its final report this summer, Mr. Cheney should be asked to explain why, despite all the warnings about Al Qaeda, he did so little.