A Disconnect on the Al Qaeda Link

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 17, 2004; 11:45 AM

Is there a contradiction, or not?

Yesterday, a staff report from the Sept. 11 commission concluded that there was "no collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda.

And this morning, pretty much every mainstream media outlet in the world concludes that this knocks down one of the Bush administration's few still-standing justifications for the war in Iraq.

But the White House says there's no contradiction, because President Bush never made an explicit link between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11.

On CNN yesterday, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said: "Just because al Qaeda and Iraq may not have collaborated in a specific attack on 9/11 does not mean that there's not a relationship or past relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. . . .

"President Bush has made it very clear that there was not direct evidence linking to the 9/11 plot, and never did he make that suggestion."


Sifting through the previous statements of Bush administration officials has become a cottage industry here in Washington.

There are certainly a legion of quotes from Bush and Cheney directly asserting a connection between Hussein and al Qaeda -- and at the very least intimating a link between Hussein and 9/11.

Here's one collection, from the Associated Press.

Iraq on the Record, a database commissioned by Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, offers up a list of statements by Bush, Cheney and others asserting a link between al Qaeda and Iraq.

And the liberal Center for American Progress's claimvfact.org database leads to this one from Bush: "The war on terror, you can't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror." (Here's the text of that Sept. 9, 2002, statement.)

But today's prize may belong to Mimi Hall of USA Today, who simply reminds her reader: "In a letter to Congress on March 19, 2003 -- the day the war in Iraq began -- Bush said that the war was permitted under legislation authorizing force against those who 'planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.'"

Here's that letter.

The Morning of September 11

But before I go into more detail about the alleged Iraq-al Qaeda connection, here's what everyone will be writing about tomorrow.

Dan Eggen reports on washingtonpost.com that the latest staff report from the Sept. 11 Commission concludes that the White House did not issue orders to shoot down hostile aircraft until it was much too late to do any good.

The report is full of new details about that morning. Among them, the first official timetable for President Bush.

"The President was seated in a classroom of second graders when, at approximately 9:05, Andrew Card whispered to him: 'A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.' The President told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis. The national press corps was standing behind the children in the classroom; he saw their phones and pagers start to ring. The President felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening."

(The grainy video from that classroom, a hallmark of Michael Moore's new movie, can also be found here, at The Memory Hole.)

The report continues: "The President remained in the classroom for another five to seven minutes, while the children continued reading. He then returned to a holding room shortly before 9:15, where he was briefed by staff and saw television coverage. He then spoke to Vice President Cheney, Dr. Rice, Governor Pataki, and FBI Director Mueller. He decided to make a brief statement from the school before leaving for the airport. The Secret Service told us they were anxious to move the President to a safer location, but did not think it imperative for him to run out the door.

"Between 9:15 and 9:30, the staff was busy arranging a return to Washington, while the President consulted his senior advisers about his remarks. No one in the traveling party had any information during this time that other aircraft were hijacked or missing. As far as we know, no one was in contact with the Pentagon. The focus was on the President's statement to the nation. No decisions were made during this time, other than the decision to return to Washington.

"The President's motorcade departed at 9:35, and arrived at the airport between 9:42 and 9:45. During the ride the President learned about the attack on the Pentagon. He boarded the aircraft, asked the Secret Service about the safety of his family, and called the Vice President. According to notes of the call, at about 9:45 the President told the Vice President: 'Sounds like we have a minor war going on here, I heard about the Pentagon. We're at war. . . . somebody's going to pay.'"

Iraq and al Qaeda

Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post: "The Sept. 11 commission reported yesterday that it has found no 'collaborative relationship' between Iraq and al Qaeda, challenging one of the Bush administration's main justifications for the war in Iraq.

"Along with the contention that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top administration officials have often asserted that there were extensive ties between Hussein's government and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network; earlier this year, Cheney said evidence of a link was 'overwhelming.'"

(Here's that NPR interview.)

Pincus and Milbank note that "Bush, speaking to troops in Tampa yesterday, did not mention an Iraq-al Qaeda link, saying only that Iraq 'sheltered terrorist groups.' That was a significantly milder version of the allegations administration officials have made since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

(Here's the text of his Tampa speech.)

Pincus and Milbank wrote that the report found "there had been contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda but no cooperation." But they also note that the report "did not specifically address two of the other pieces of evidence the administration has offered to link Iraq to al Qaeda: [Abu Musab] Zarqawi's Tawhid organization and the Ansar al-Islam group."

In a news analysis for the New York Times, Richard W. Stevenson writes: "The bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks further called into question on Wednesday one of President Bush's rationales for the war with Iraq, and again put him on the defensive over an issue the White House was once confident would be a political plus.

"In questioning the extent of any ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the commission weakened the already spotty scorecard on Mr. Bush's justifications for sending the military to topple Saddam Hussein."

And Stevenson writes: "The official White House strategy for Wednesday may have been to deny any real differences with the commission. But on this day as on many others recently, its real goal appeared to be to stick a bandage on whatever wound it might have suffered, keep moving toward June 30, when the United States will return sovereignty to the Iraqis, and then bank on its ability to redefine the election on terms more favorable to Mr. Bush."

Terence Hunt writes in a news analysis for the Associated Press: "More than two-thirds of Americans expressed a belief last year that Iraq was behind the attacks, and Cheney said at the time, 'It's not surprising people make that connection.'"

(Here's that "Meet the Press" transcript.)

Hunt writes: "Bush worked to fuel the connection, talking about the Sept. 11 terrorists and Saddam in the same breath. 'Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans -- this time armed by Saddam,' Bush said in his State of the Union message last year, before the war."

(Here's the text of the speech.)

Josh Meyer writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The findings appeared to be the most complete and authoritative dismissal of a key Bush administration rationale for invading Iraq: that Hussein's regime had worked in collusion with Al Qaeda."

On the CBS Evening News, John Roberts reported: "It is one of President Bush's last surviving justifications for war in Iraq and today it took a devastating hit when the 9/11 Commission declared there was no collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. . . .

"[T]he Commission today put the nail in that connection, or for that matter, any other al Qaeda acts of terror against America, declaring there is no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States. The report is yet another blow to the President's credibility as he struggles to find the exit door in Iraq, and opens him up to new criticism on the wisdom of taking on Saddam with al Qaeda's leadership still at large."

Will Cheney Retract His Statements?

"Hell no!" an administration official tells Adam Entous of Reuters.

Editorial Roundup

New York Times: "Now President Bush should apologize to the American people, who were led to believe something different.

"Of all the ways Mr. Bush persuaded Americans to back the invasion of Iraq last year, the most plainly dishonest was his effort to link his war of choice with the battle against terrorists worldwide."

Los Angeles Times: "[P]rewar Iraq spurned Al Qaeda's overtures. Though. . . . Baghdad may now be Terror Central, it is a consequence of the war itself."

Washington Post: "The administration has not recently suggested that Iraq was behind Sept. 11. Nor, in fact, did the commission yesterday contradict what Mr. Cheney actually said -- and President Bush backed up -- earlier this week: that there were 'long-established ties' between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

"The trouble for the administration is that Mr. Cheney has not always been careful to distinguish between Iraqi ties to al Qaeda and supposed support for the attacks. . . . If the U.S. intelligence community now believes that the relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein consisted of no more than what the commission reports, Mr. Cheney ought not be implying more."

Chicago Tribune: "The Tribune has been agnostic-to-skeptical on alleged ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq. It would be helpful if those 12 lines put the question to rest. Unfortunately, they do not."

Bush in Tampa

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that when Bush visited the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa 14 months ago, it was to rally troops in their first week of war in Iraq.

Yesterday, Bush "delivered another pep talk to the troops, this time assuring them, despite the doubts of many Iraqis and much of the world, that their occupation of Iraq has been good for that country. . . .

"The military audience, subdued by Tampa's oppressive heat, was not as enthusiastic as the wartime crowd Bush addressed on March 26, 2003. And instead of lunching with the troops, as he did last year, the president mourned with the families of 10 soldiers who had died."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush has repeatedly returned to Florida, a state that he narrowly won in 2000 and that is widely viewed as up for grabs this year, to drive home the major themes of his re-election campaign. So it was no surprise he chose Centcom, as it is known, for another of his speeches explaining his goals in Iraq.

"Local television coverage was heavy, and Air Force One was parked as a backdrop outside the hangar where he spoke."

Bush Weeps

Nevy Kaminski of the Bradenton (Fla.) Herald spoke to Sheila Cobb, the mother of 19-year-old Marine Pfc. Christopher Cobb, who was killed in Iraq, and Jamie Miller, the widow of Army Sgt. Fred Miller, 27, who died in September 2003 when an improvised explosive device struck his vehicle while in the Iraqi town of Ramadi.

Kaminski writes: "The loved ones of 10 U.S. troops killed in action met privately with the president after his speech Wednesday. He was caring, concerned and even shed tears with them, the women said."

"'The president was so nice to us,' Sheila said. 'He had one-on-ones with us. He spent 15 minutes with each family.'

"'I'm glad he's so concerned about us,' Sheila said, crying."

McCain to Appear

Dan Balz and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "After being courted by John F. Kerry to consider joining the Democratic presidential ticket, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will join President Bush on Air Force One on Friday and introduce him at a campaign event in Reno, Nev., campaign officials said yesterday."

Calling for Change

Peter Slevin writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration does not understand the world and remains unable to handle 'in either style or substance' the responsibilities of global leadership, a group of 27 retired diplomats and military commanders charged yesterday."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The call for President Bush's defeat in a statement released Wednesday by a group of former diplomats and military officials highlighted the stark divide that has opened among foreign policy experts over the administration's national security strategy."

Here's the statement on the group's Web site.

Impeach Bush?

Lolita C. Baldor writes for the Associated Press about a letter from "more than 400 legal scholars urging members of the House and Senate to consider impeaching the president and any high level administration officials who approved the Iraqi prisoner abuses."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) appeared with the group yesterday, but declined to endorse the idea himself.

Hot One in the White House

Washington Post gossip columnist Richard Leiby has this scoop: "People magazine unveils its '50 Hottest Bachelors' issue tomorrow and, yes ladies, a Washingtonian made the list: Jim Wilkinson, 33, who has the very impressive title of deputy national security adviser for communications (we call him a flack). Condi Rice's spin doctor -- who's also penned a screenplay about dating in D.C. appropriately called 'So Who Do You Work For' -- told the mag: 'I'm a great catch. Think of all the background checks I've been through.'"

Today's Calendar

Bush meets with his Cabinet and speaks at a meeting of the National Federation of Independent Business today.

Paul Queary of the Associated Press writes that President Bush touches down in Spokane tonight, looking for votes in the Pacific Northwest.

The New, Open Look

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Times: "The Bush administration, which has long been criticized for being secretive, is suddenly opening up just in time for re-election. . . .

"'The president has done three extended news conferences in the very recent past,' said White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy. 'That is something that is new.'"

Mesnier Watch

More news about Bush's palate emerges with every story about the upcoming departure of longtime White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier.

AFP reports today: "Since Bush arrived at the White House, Mesnier has made a seven-layer chocolate cake each year for the president's July 6 birthday."

There's also a delicious Chelsea Clinton tidbit in there, if you care.

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