TOPICS > Politics

9/11 Commission Questions Iraq Connection

June 18, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: When President Bush declared an end to major hostilities in Iraq a year ago, he once again linked Saddam Hussein to the terror attacks on Sept. 11.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001, and still goes on. We’ve removed an ally of al-Qaida and cut off a source of terrorist funding.

KWAME HOLMAN: The debate over Hussein’s ties to al-Qaida was reignited this week with one paragraph of a 9/11 Commission staff report.

DOUGLAS MACEACHIN, Staff, 9/11 Commission: There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida also occurred after bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior bin Laden two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al-Qaida and Iraq. And so far we have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States.

KWAME HOLMAN: But yesterday, President Bush again insisted there were links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qaida, because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida. This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaida. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

KWAME HOLMAN: The 9/11 Commission’s Democratic vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, said he saw no major difference between the president’s position and the commission’s finding.

LEE HAMILTON, Vice chairman, 9/11 Commission: The president is saying, I think, that there were connections between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein’s government. We don’t disagree with that. What we have said is what the governor just said: We don’t have any evidence of a cooperative or a corroborative relationship between Saddam Hussein’s government and these al-Qaida operatives with regard to the attacks on the United States.

KWAME HOLMAN: But presidential candidate John Kerry seized on the 9/11 Commission report. He said it contradicted administration claims. He told a Detroit radio station: “The administration misled America, the administration reached too far…they did not tell the truth to Americans about what was happening or their own intentions.”

Last night, Vice President Cheney defended the administration’s position on the cable station CNBC.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: The notion that there is no relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida just simply is not true.

KWAME HOLMAN: Cheney said Iraq sheltered al-Qaida associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi prior to the U.S. invasion.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: He ran training camps in Afghanistan back before we went to war in Afghanistan. After we went in and hit his training camp, he fled to Baghdad, found safe harbor and sanctuary in Baghdad in May of 2002.

There clearly was a relationship there that stretched back over that period of time to at least May of ’02, a year before we launched into Iraq.

KWAME HOLMAN: In a speech today, the president also mentioned that al-Zarqawi was in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, to analysis of this and other matters from Shields and Kristol: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. David Brooks is off this week. Welcome to you both.

So, Mark, what do you make, what do you think the political fallout is from this 9/11 commission staff report on this Iraq-al-Qaida ongoing controversy?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, what’s most fascinate sergeant White House’s reaction which has been a full court press. I mean, you could even call it an overreaction.

And I think what’s at stake here, Margaret, is the credibility of the White House, the credibility of President Bush. President Bush has not relied upon fancy rhetoric and prose, he’s been a straight talking, plain spoken guy. And what this does is it goes right to, once the weapons of mass destruction argument was gone, once obviously a mistake was incredibly that the military quite frankly, that they were complicit and not objecting to the inadequate number of troops that the troops would be overburdened and overstretched and strained, that we didn’t have enough troops, everything about it, the war has been costly, deadly and increasingly unpopular.

Now to find out that what had been a stated implicit argument by the administration that now we’re talking about connection versus collaboration but that to have them say that there was none, that this was not a relationship, that ten years ago Osama bin Laden met in Sudan with an intelligence official from Iraq requesting training facilities in Baghdad, never heard back, and that to have this come out I think really raises the question of credibility in the election and no president wants to run for reelection, especially one who is based on his integrity and outspoken candidness on the basis of did he mislead us into this war and knowingly deceived the American people.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that’s why we’re seeing this fierce counterattack?

WILLIAM KRISTOL: I think we’re seeing a fierce counterattack because the president and vice president believe and I happen to agree that there were connections between Saddam and al-Qaida. They are pretty well documented. The commission report acknowledges many of them. There’s a question of how serious and consequential they were. There was more than one meeting ten years ago and the administration wants to have this fight. I mean, John Kerry stepped forward based on misleading press accounts of what the commission said. The New York Times headline “No Tie Between al-Qaida and Iraq” is no what the commission staff report said.

John Kerry was willing to step forward and say they have misled us on this and I think the Bush administration attitude is fine, let’s have the debate because the implication of what Senator Kerry has said is the ties were not sufficiently consequential as to justify the war in Iraq, and let’s discuss whether the war on terror could have been successfully prosecuted leaving Saddam Hussein in place in Iraq. That is a fundamental disagreement between the president and his critics. Senator Kerry so far has tried to straddle in a sense though, he hasn’t been a critic of the war — he voted for the war and he’s been careful the last couple of months not to really sound like a fierce critic of the war. He’s going to see it through, it’s complicated, would have done it differently.

I do think this is a big moment because I think Kerry has basically now signed on to the anti-war side.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don’t think that the Bush-Cheney administration is at all vulnerable on statements, such as one Cheney made on Meet the Press last September when he said Iraq had been a geographical base for terrorists, including those who put us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11? You don’t think they were making a connection between Iraq and 9/11?

WILLIAM KRISTOL: Well, I think the president’s view that he has said many times — as Mark said he’s been clear about this — is that we’re on a global war on terror. 9/11 was the big attack that launched the war but that Iraq — and the battle of Iraq is part of that global war. It doesn’t mean that Iraq was connected to 9/11. Look, one of the World Trade Center bombers from 1993 fled, got away, unfortunately, went to Iraq and has been in Iraq for the last ten years, Abu Nidal was in Iraq for the last ten years. There’s no doubt that Saddam had connection with terrorists. Then the question is was that a reason to go to war against Saddam?

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah, let’s be very frank. The connection — the established connection between Saddam Hussein and terrorists was with Hamas. It was not with al-Qaida. And was he supporting terrorists? He did offer $25,000 to the families of Palestinians of suicide bombers.

There is no money trail, there’s no nothing here. Margaret, this war has been an absolutely unmitigated, unequivocal disaster. The president has called himself the war president, and if this war — if this war continues to be — the president is talking about this war in September, he has lost the election.

WILLIAM KRISTOL: I totally disagree. I think this is the debate that we’ll have. Because obviously if the war is a disaster, if the American voters shares Mark’s judgment, Bush will lose. And that is why Bush is engaged in this debate. The Clinton administration indicted bin Laden in 1998 and part of the indictment has to do with his connections with Iraq. It’s not the case that this is something invented by the Bush administration but it does ultimately come to a judgment. Mark says the war is a disaster.


WILLIAM KRISTOL: Would it have been better if Saddam was in power?

MARK SHIELDS: No it was not. Not a question of whether Saddam should be in power. It’s whether the United States and whether you do this to the United States of America, whether we alienate allies gratuitously, whether we go in under false pretenses, which was false pretenses, and we go into Iraq today, according to our own polling, 2 percent of the American — of the Iraqi people do not see us as occupiers.

WILLIAM KRISTOL: Mark, you’ve been consistent on this. But, does John Kerry agree with you that we should not have gone to war to remove Saddam?

MARK SHIELDS: John Kerry will explain his position.

WILLIAM KRISTOL: That’s why — that is why —

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask Mark something though. John Kerry did jump right on this and said this shows that the Bush administration misled America. Has the campaign decided that this is an effective kind of symbol of everything that they want to say is wrong about this war?

MARK SHIELDS: John Kerry —

MARGARET WARNER: To continue this?

MARK SHIELDS: John Kerry led with his chin and there’s no pun intended there, and I would build in. The counterattack is Kerry is in there; this is what Kerry is saying. I’ve been advising John Kerry, he wouldn’t have won the nomination then. (Laughs)

But if I had been advising John Kerry I would have said what you want to do is we want greater questions, information. This raises important questions and not rush to a conclusion on it, but I think there are questions here, and I think the questions are not going to go away.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now what do you all think is the state of the race, because even while they were both arguing about Iraq this week, they were also having an economic argument which seemed to be about who is the optimist and who is the pessimist. What’s that about?

WILLIAM KRISTOL: It’s about nothing. You know, every time — the campaign professionals, they learned in 1992 that “it’s the economy stupid.”

And everyone like the generals fight the last war, campaign consultants fight the last campaign, so they keep thinking we’ve got to get back to the economy and, of course, this week is a perfect example. No one cares. The economy is okay. It’s good enough for Bush not to lose, it’s not good enough for Bush to win on it.

The election is entirely in my view about the war, the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror. Is Bush right to say it’s one big war and we had to remove Saddam as part of winning that war and transforming the Middle East, or as Mark argues, was Iraq wrong, was it a diversion, a disaster? That’s what the election is about.

MARGARET WARNER: I mean, today Kerry was out let’s raise the minimum wage and he tied it to the tax cuts by President Bush “to the wealthy.” Quote-end quote. Is that a non-issue?

MARK SHIELDS: Both candidates run a risk on the economy. I think President Bush runs the risk of being seen as his father was in 1992. If he goes around saying how good the economy is, there are an awful lost people in this country who have lost health insurance, who have seen their premiums go off the board, seen jobs go overseas, who don’t feel that this has been a wonderful boom and there’s very few people who think they are better off than they were four years ago under George W. Bush.

I think the war drives this election. I think it takes the oxygen right out of the rest of the debate. That’s one of the reasons President Bush has gotten no credit for the job increase in the past three months.

But you asked about the state of the race, Margaret. Here’s the state of the race: The Republicans are a lot worse off than they expected to be at this point. They expected in the three months after John Kerry was the nominee chosen that they would be able to identify him, go on television and put him squarely on the defensive, and at this point —


MARK SHIELDS: Negatively as a back and forth, waffler, whatever you choose, Massachusetts liberal, whatever. Instead the focus has solely been on the war. It’s been on the president — the president’s defense, torture, Abu Ghraib, this week and so the president’s playing defense. Whatever you say about this report of the 9/11 commission he’s playing defense. You don’t win elections on defense.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re nodding. He is playing defense.

WILLIAM KRISTOL: I think the president had a bad three months and I very much agree with Mark that Republicans thought they could really define Kerry in March, April and May with paid advertising and they failed.

The reason they failed again is that the war is the issue and when Iraq started to go very bad people turned against President Bush. Bush has ticked up in the polls in the last two or three weeks. The June 30 transfer, to a degree that’s going to happen, despite the terror there, the fact there is going to be a political transfer, we seem to be moving towards elections. I think it’s reassured people about Iraq, three different polls — Bush has moved up a little bit but it’s an even race, totally unpredictable and everything depends on the war, I think.

MARGARET WARNER: Another bit of news that came out this week related is that Kerry has now raised — he raised $100 million just in three months and outpaced President Bush. One, what do you make of that, how do you explain that, but, two, he has been spending it in battleground states on ads? To what degree is that responsible for the fact that Kerry has inched up in a lot of these tossup states to ahead of Bush?

WILLIAM KRISTOL: I don’t think the paid advertising on either side has made much of a difference. I happen to think Kerry as a technical matter is better than Bush’s.

His biographical ads about Vietnam are not a bad way of introducing him to the American people whereas Bush’s ads have not been very effective. But when you have events of the magnitude Mark and I have been talking about, 135,000 soldiers in Iraq, when you have an American being killed in Saudi Arabia and more than one American being killed in the sense that we’re in a global war on terror, a 30-second ad in which — with some nice music — I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, President Bush is struggling against events of the day rather than the fact that the Kerry campaign has been particularly effective using its money?

MARK SHIELDS: First of all, I think the Kerry campaign, John Kerry is a legendary fund-raiser, tireless, he’s indefatigable and he’ll call and call and call. He’s always been that. That’s part of it. He has a very good fund-raising team, Lou Sussman, a whole bunch of people that are very experienced but John Kerry is not driving this race. What’s driving this race is George W. Bush.

Those people who are voting for George W. Bush are voting for George W. Bush. Those people right now who are voting for John Kerry are voting against George W. Bush. John Kerry was the recipient of an awful lot of pent-up Democratic dollars once he became the nominee of the party. You know, I think John Edwards might not have gotten as much if he were the nominee or maybe Dick Gephardt — Dick Gephardt probably wouldn’t have gotten as much. But I think it was there. It was ready to tumble to the Democratic nominee. I think Kerry’s biographical stuff is more important because he has to meet the commander in chief test, and I think Bill is right there, that — because Bush has already met that and it’s become a relevant job description in this president whereas in 2000 or ’92 or ’96 — commander in chief didn’t matter to voters.

MARGARET WARNER: And does it also help at least inoculate Kerry from attacks from the Bush campaign?

WILLIAM KRISTOL: A little bit, though I think — I think Kerry is very smart the last couple of months to be very moderate, even quick hawkish on foreign policy and defense policy. I think he made a mistake this week, I happen to disagree with him, but I actually think as a political matter by making it, by attacking Bush for making it seem it was ridiculous to go to war in Iraq, that this is a war we wanted to have, he said of President Bush.

That’s a tough — he’s now forcing a debate on this fundamental question and I do think it opens him up to the counterattack that if John Kerry had been president, Saddam Hussein would still be in power.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and we’re out of time. Thank you both.