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Links Between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida

October 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: It was a central argument at last night’s vice presidential debate: Were there links between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks, and were they a reason to go to war?

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: The concern about Iraq specifically focused on the fact that Saddam Hussein had been for years listed on the state sponsor of terror, and he had an established relationship with al-Qaida.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Mr. Vice President, there is no connection between the attacks of Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein. The 9/11 Commission has said it, your own secretary of state has said it, and you’ve gone around the country suggesting that there is some connection. There’s not. And in fact, the CIA is now about to report that the connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein is tenuous at best. And in fact, the secretary of defense said yesterday that he knows of no hard evidence of the connection. We need to be straight with the American people.

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: The senator’s got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there’s a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but there’s clearly an established Iraqi track record with terror. And the point is that that’s the place where you’re most likely to see the terrorist come together with weapons of mass destruction, the deadly technologies that Saddam Hussein had developed and used over the years.

MARGARET WARNER: The administration has suggested a connection in the past. On Meet the Press in December 2001, Cheney said 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official. The administration’s assertions about a connection continued as recently as last year. President Bush in February 2003:

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Saddam Hussein has longstanding, direct and continuing ties to terrorist networks. Iraq has also provided al-Qaida with chemical and biological weapons training.

MARGARET WARNER: Vice President Cheney in September 2003:

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: If we’re successful in Iraq, then we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.

MARGARET WARNER: Democratic nominee John Kerry has repeatedly disputed the administration’s assertions. On the stump:

SEN. JOHN KERRY: His two main rationales, weapons of mass destruction and the al-Qaida-Sept. 11 connection, have both been proved false by the president’s own weapons inspectors and by the 9/11 Commission. And just last week, Secretary of State Powell acknowledged those facts. Only Vice President Cheney still insists that the earth is flat. (Cheers and applause)

MARGARET WARNER: And at last week’s debate:

SEN. JOHN KERRY: The president just talked about Iraq as a center of the war on terror. Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it.

MARGARET WARNER: One major point of dispute today, whether Saddam Hussein harbored Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Baghdad before the war. Zarqawi is now a leader of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, our own debate on this hotly debated issue. Daniel Benjamin held a National Security Council post in the Clinton administration. He co-authored “The Age of Sacred Terror,” about the rise of al-Qaida. Stephen Hayes writes for the Weekly Standard Magazine; he authored the book: “The Connection: How al-Qaida’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America.” Welcome to you both.

Let’s start with the narrow question, an Iraq-9/11 connection. Is there any evidence, Dan Benjamin, that Saddam Hussein’s government assisted the 9/11 plot in any way?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: There is no evidence to that effect, none whatsoever.

STEPHEN HAYES: Well, the Senate Intelligence Committee actually reported some evidence and they’ve said that it was tantalizing but that it was inconclusive. One person named Ahmed Hikmat Shakir is alleged to have had ties with Iraqi intelligence, facilitated the travel of two of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Kuala Lumpur in January of 2000. But even if he were found to have had connections with the Iraqi regime, it doesn’t indicate that Saddam had fore knowledge or that he was in any way behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

MARGARET WARNER: Could what Stephen Hayes just talked about constitute indirect help?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: It wouldn’t be surprising to find that someone who had connections with the Iraqi regime had perhaps facilitated travel without having any knowledge of what these people were up to, and it wouldn’t be inconsistent with things that we have seen that were done by Iran in far greater… with far greater frequency, for example; it’s still a long way from state sponsorship or any kind of collusion or collaboration of any kind.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, let’s turn to the second charge. John Edwards made it as a charge — that nonetheless, the vice president in particular and this administration, has continued to suggest or at one point he used the word “insinuate” that Iraq was behind or connected to the 9/11 attacks. Do you think that… and of course we heard Vice President Cheney say I have never suggested that. Where’s the truth there?

STEPHEN HAYES: Well, I think that by and large the vice president and the administration have been careful actually, to separate out this question just as you’ve done on Iraq and 9/11 on the one hand, Iraq and al-Qaida on the other. There are several interviews, including other Meet the Press interviews, including an interview with David at the Rocky Mountain News where he said it’s important to separate these issues. On the one hand we don’t have any evidence. We don’t have any proof that Saddam Hussein directed these attacks, that he was behind the attacks on Sept. 11. On the other hand, there is an established relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida and it’s something that we considered as we made the case for war.

MARGARET WARNER: Where do you think the balance lies on this question of how strongly the administration has tried to leave Americans with the impression there was a connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I think the administration pursued a well thought out strategy of associating the two at virtually every opportunity. There was a reason why 70 percent of the American people believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, and that is because the administration time after time put the two of them together in the same framework. Look, long after the CIA and the FBI had knocked down the story of Mohamed Atta meeting with an Iraqi agent in Prague, the vice president was peddling the story over and over again. And that’s just one of many different instances of this kind of association. I think that when the vice president says that he never said that they were connected or never involved in 9/11, he is technically correct but in a way that not even a trial lawyer would find serious.

STEPHEN HAYES: You know, if could I just respond to that. I mean, if you look at John Edwards’ language, to use him because he was involved in the debate last night, he often associated or used the Sept. 11 attacks as a way to make the case that we should remove Saddam Hussein. He did it on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks or one day after it on Sept. 12, 2002. And he gave what I thought was a quite compelling and persuasive speech about how Sept. 11 had changed everything; how we needed to look at threats in a new way and how that Saddam Hussein had every reason — we had every reason to believe that Saddam Hussein would pass his weapons to these terrorists.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let’s go to the broader question now of the Iraq-al-Qaida connection. Now, what do you think is the strength of the evidence that Saddam Hussein’s government assisted, aided, gave safe harbor to al-Qaida or al-Qaida figures?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, I don’t think it’s very strong at all. When I was working at the National Security Council, I actually conducted a review of all the evidence – and this was the late 90s, around the time – after the time, in fact, that we had two embassies blown up by al-Qaida, looking at all of the intelligence regarding Iraq and al-Qaida and Iran and al-Qaida, there is substantially more information regarding ties between the Iranian regime and al-Qaida but still nothing that met the test of state sponsorship or collaborative relationship. Since that time, we have had 9/11, we’ve had the war in Iraq and we’ve had a number of different bodies look at this intelligence and come to exactly the same conclusion. The 9/11 Commission said authoritatively there was no collaborative relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: If fact we have a graphic that let me just put this up right now, what the 9/11 Commission said. It said that there were meetings in the late ’90s between Iraqi and al-Qaida officials, but the Commission goes on to say, but to date we have seen no evidence that these ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship; nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al-Qaida in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States. Now Stephen Hayes, your book is called the collaboration, “The Connection, How al-Qaida’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Endangered America.” What is the evidence of collaboration in an active sense?

STEPHEN HAYES: Well, I think that there is plenty of evidence of collaboration. If you look at George Tenet’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on various occasions, he talked about training, he talked about safe haven, he talked about financing from the Iraqi regime to al-Qaida. Actually if you go back and you look at when Dan was working for President Clinton, the al-Shifa attacks, what happened was al-Qaida had hit the United States on Aug. 7, 1998; we responded. They hit two embassies in East Africa. We responded. 13 days later by striking Afghanistan and Sudan. The Clinton administration made its case justifying the attacks in Sudan because of an al-Qaida-Iraq connection. Richard Clark said several times that he was sure that the chemical weapons precursor that was present at this particular facility was of Iraqi provenance. That to me suggests a very strong Iraq-al-Qaida collaboration.

MARGARET WARNER: Training, financial help, chemical weapons training?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Al-Shifa first. It is true that the method for producing VX gas, the chemical weapon, was an Iraqi method but we have no indication whatsoever that the Iraqis knew that bin Laden had invested in this or that there was any contact between them in this project. And I think that the consensus in the intelligence community was that there was no connection between them at the time.

MARGARET WARNER: And I’m sorry. Explain what you mean by Al-Shifa.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I’m sorry. Al-Shifa was the chemical plant in Khartoum that we attacked with Cruise missiles on Aug. 20, 1998 — Safe Haven. We’re about to, I believe, get a report from the CIA saying that Baghdad actually did not offer Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the top terrorist in Iraq today, safe haven. He simply came into the country and was there. The allegations about training have never stood up actually. My sources in the intelligence community cast a lot of doubt on them; there’s some question as to whether or not these people were trained before they migrated to al-Qaida or whether there was any training at all. And, in fact, the 9/11 Commission seems to have looked into this and simply not believed it, and, as for funding, I don’t know of any indication whatsoever that the money ever changed hands.

STEPHEN HAYES: Well, it’s important to note going back to the Al-Shifa plan attacks, in the Clinton administration’s case, the Clinton administration in its formal indictment of Osama bin Laden included a paragraph talking about the Iraq-al-Qaida connection. That seems to me to be a significant point.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But go to the Zarqawi point because that is now — there was a slight discussion about it last night in the debate. One: is Zarqawi an al-Qaida figure and, two, what about Sen. Kerry’s assertion that in fact Iraq never was a haven for terrorists, not even for Zarqawi at least not deliberately, until after the war?

STEPHEN HAYES: Well, I think Sen. Kerry’s assertion is silly to be honest and I think his campaign staff, his surrogates, should have gone much further and said that Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism whatsoever. That’s a gross overstatement and I think he is vulnerable on that particular point. With respect to Zarqawi, I think there is no question that Zarqawi is an al-Qaida associate. Whether or not he swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden is another question. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly never swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Nobody would suggest that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was not an active member or participant in al-Qaida attacks.

MARGARET WARNER: Final last word.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, first of all, that indictment from the U.S. attorney in New York was retracted a month later and that paragraph was taken out. Zarqawi is in the assessment of most intelligence services, an independent operator who shares a broad world view with bin Laden but he is not working with bin Laden. He has a very different strategy than bin Laden and the connection has never been made firm. In fact most people think that he’s a rival to bin Laden. And as for a haven for terrorists, there is no question, we face a disaster in that western Iraq has become a terrorist sanctuary. And we are going to have a very hard time changing that. There were not terrorists from al-Qaida working out of Iraq or against the United States in any way since 1993 out of Iraq. So things have changed.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. The debate will continue. Dan Benjamin, Stephen Hayes, thank you.