By Warren P. Strobel,
Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott KNIGHT RIDDER TRIBUNE
Nearly a year after U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq, no evidence has turned up to verify allegations of Saddam's links with al-Qaida, and several key parts of the administration's case have either proved false or seem increasingly doubtful.
Senior U.S. officials now say there never was any evidence that Saddam's secular police state and Osama bin Laden's Islamic terrorism network were in league. At most, there were occasional meetings.
Moreover, the U.S. intelligence community never concluded that those meetings produced an operational relationship, American officials said. That verdict was in a secret report by the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence that was updated in January 2003, on the eve of the war.
"We could find no provable connection between Saddam and al-Qaida," a senior U.S. official acknowledged. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the information involved is classified and could prove embarrassing to the White House.
The administration's allegations that Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction have been the subject of much greater public and political controversy than its suggestions that Iraq and al-Qaida were in league. They were based on the Iraqi leader's long history of duplicity regarding WMD, which appeared to be confirmed by spy satellite photographs, defectors and electronic eavesdropping.
But the evidence of Iraq's ties to al-Qaida was always sketchy, based largely on testimony of Iraqi defectors and prisoners, supplemented with limited reports from foreign agents and electronic eavesdropping.
Much of the evidence that's now available indicates that Iraq and al-Qaida had no close ties, despite repeated contacts between the two; that the terrorists who administration officials claimed were links between the two had no direct connection to either Saddam or bin Laden; and that a key meeting between an Iraqi intelligence officer and one of the leaders of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks probably never happened.
A Knight Ridder review of the Bush administration statements on Iraq's ties to terrorism and what's now known about the classified intelligence has found that administration advocates of a pre-emptive invasion frequently hyped sketchy and sometimes false information to help make their case. On two occasions, they neglected to report information that painted a less sinister picture.
The Bush administration has defended its prewar descriptions of Saddam and is calling Iraq "the central front in the war on terrorism," as the president told U.S. troops two weeks ago.
But before the war and since, Bush and his aides made rhetorical links that now appear to have been leaps:
• Vice President Dick Cheney told National Public Radio in January that there was "overwhelming evidence" of a relationship between Saddam and al-Qaida. Among the evidence he cited was Iraq's harboring of Abdul Rahman Yasin, a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Cheney didn't mention that Iraq had offered to turn over Yasin to the FBI in 1998, in return for a U.S. statement acknowledging that Iraq had no role in that attack. The Clinton administration refused the offer, because it was unwilling to reward Iraq for returning a fugitive.
• Administration officials reported that Farouk Hijazi, a top Iraqi intelligence officer, had met with bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1998 and offered him safe haven in Iraq. They left out the rest of the story, however. Bin Laden said he'd consider the offer, U.S. intelligence officials said. But according to a report later made available to the CIA, the al-Qaida leader told an aide afterward that he had no intention of accepting Saddam's offer because "if we go there, it would be his agenda, not ours."
• The administration tied Saddam to a terrorism network run by Palestinian Abu Musab al Zarqawi. That network may be behind the latest violence in Iraq, which killed at least 143 people Tuesday. But U.S. officials say the evidence that Zarqawi had close operational ties to al-Qaida appears increasingly doubtful.
Asked for Cheney's views on Iraq and terrorism, vice-presidential spokesman Kevin Kellems referred Knight Ridder to the vice president's television interviews Tuesday.
Cheney, in an interview with CNN, said Zarqawi ran an "al-Qaida-affiliated" group. He cited an intercepted letter that Zarqawi is believed to have written to al-Qaida leaders, and a White House official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said the CIA has described Zarqawi as an al-Qaida "associate."
But U.S. officials say the Zarqawi letter contained a plea for help that al-Qaida rebuffed. Linguistic analysis of the letter indicates it was written from one equal to another, not from a subordinate to a superior, suggesting that Zarqawi considered himself an independent operator and not a part of bin Laden's organization.
• Iraqi defectors alleged that Saddam's regime was helping to train Iraqi and non-Iraqi Arab terrorists at a site called Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. The allegation made it into a September 2002 white paper that the White House issued. The U.S. military has found no evidence of such a facility.