On November 14, 60 Minutes aired a segment with Michael Scheuer, who made headlines after resigning from the CIA to pursue his second career as a critic of the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Scheuer was the head of the CIA's bin Laden unit (codenamed "Alec") from 1996 to 1999. With the publication this past summer of his "anonymous" book Imperial Hubris, he became a media star, giving countless interviews as "one of the CIA's foremost authorities on Osama bin Laden." Out of government, he appears poised to become a regular pundit. His appearance on 60 Minutes was followed two days later by appearances on Chris Matthews's Hardball on MSNBC and Aaron Brown's NewsNight on CNN.
During his appearance on 60 Minutes (and his follow-up interviews), Scheuer warned that al Qaeda's detonating a weapon of mass destruction on American soil was "pretty close to being inevitable." When asked what type of weapon al Qaeda could detonate, Scheuer responded that it would be "a nuclear weapon of some dimension, whether it's actually a nuclear weapon, or a dirty bomb, or some kind of radiological device . . . it's probably a near thing."
Such dire predictions call to mind warnings that both Presidents Clinton and Bush have made about the dangers of WMD in the hands of terrorists. Scheuer says also that within the first year of the "Alec" unit's existence, he learned that bin Laden and al Qaeda "were involved in an extraordinarily sophisticated and professional effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction. In this case, nuclear material, so by the end of 1996, it was clear that this was an organization unlike any other one we had ever seen."
Did bin Laden receive any outside assistance in his effort to acquire a nuclear capability? Scheuer did not say. Nor did 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft or any of the other interviewers ask.
But Scheuer did consider this question two years ago, and his answer was yes, bin Laden did receive outside help--from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Does Scheuer agree with the case for the war in Iraq more than he is letting on?
Scheuer's 2002 book, Through Our Enemies' Eyes offered startling conclusions regarding Saddam Hussein's willingness to assist al Qaeda's effort to obtain nuclear weapons. "In pursuing tactical nuclear weapons, bin Laden has focused on the FSU [Former Soviet Union] states and has sought and received help from Iraq," wrote Scheuer. In fact, bin Laden's "first moves in this direction were made in cooperation with NIF [Sudan's National Islamic Front] leaders, Iraq's intelligence service, and Iraqi CBRN [chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear] scientists and technicians."
Through Our Enemies' Eyes pointed to evidence indicating a relationship between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda beginning in the early 1990s. And "there is information," Scheuer wrote, "showing that in the 1993-1994 period bin Laden began work with Sudan and Iraq to acquire a CBRN capability for al Qaeda."
These efforts were far-reaching, according to Scheuer, who cited open-source reporting and other evidence--mostly from the late 1990s--to support the claim that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on multiple projects. Areas of cooperation included everything from assistance in the development of chemical and biological weapons facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan, to the possible training of al Qaeda operatives at Mujahedeen Khalq training camps in Iraq starting in June 1998 (the "MEK" was an anti-Iranian terrorist group sponsored by Saddam), to the possibility that MEK operatives (under Saddam's direction) provided "technical and military training for the Taliban's forces" as well as "running the Taliban's anti-Iran propaganda."
In Through Our Enemies' Eyes, Scheuer also reported on bin Laden's relationship with the former deputy director of Iraq's intelligence service, Faruq Hijazi. Scheuer approvingly cited evidence of meetings between bin Laden and Hijazi, whom Saddam made responsible for "nurturing Iraq's ties to [Islamic] fundamentalist warriors," in June 1994 and again in December 1998. During their first meeting in Sudan, Scheuer wrote, Hijazi and bin Laden "developed a good rapport that would 'flourish' in the late 1990s." Hijazi was not a low-level flunky; he was one of Saddam's most trusted intelligence operatives.
A close relationship between Hijazi and bin Laden suggests there is far more to the relationship between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda than the president's critics would have Americans believe. Curiously, it now seems as if Scheuer himself has forgotten the evidence of a relationship between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda that he cited just two years ago. Consider the following exchange with Chris Matthews on November 16:
SCHEUER: The only part of that I know about, sir, is that the--I happened to do the research on the links between al Qaeda and Iraq.
MATTHEWS: And what did you come up with?
Nothing? That's not the story Scheuer tells on, for example, pages 124-125, 184, 188-190, and 192 of Through Our Enemies' Eyes.
Commentators such as Matthews use Scheuer's words to undermine justifications for the war in Iraq. Consider Matthews's comments toward the end of his interview, "I hate to think what history is going to say about this war. They're going to say there was [no] WMD, because we know that. They're going to say there was no connection to al Qaeda, because we know that now."
But was there, according to Scheuer, really "no connection" between Iraq and al Qaeda? Or is Matthews simply unaware that Scheuer's newfound skepticism directly contradicts his research on this topic published just two years ago?
In his recent interviews, Scheuer stresses that the possibility of an attack using a nuclear device or another weapon of mass destruction is now greatly heightened. But absent from his talking points is any mention that bin Laden's longstanding pursuit of these weapons was aided by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Of course, if Scheuer openly discussed the evidence of Iraq's collaboration with al Qaeda that he cited in Through Our Enemies' Eyes, many would likely disagree with his characterization of the Iraq war as an "avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked" war and a "Christmas present" for bin Laden. They would also probably disagree with Matthews's assertion that there was "no connection" between Iraq and al Qaeda.
Perhaps in the months leading up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration should have cited Through Our Enemies' Eyes as a source for its claim that there was a relationship between Saddam's Iraq and bin Laden's al Qaeda. They might have quoted the passage in which Scheuer, scourge of the Bush administration, wrote, "We know for certain that bin Laden was seeking CBRN weapons . . . and that Iraq and Sudan have been cooperating with bin Laden on CBRN weapon acquisition and development."