Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Stephen F. Hayes, the author of The Connection: How al-Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America.
FP: Mr Hayes, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.
Hayes: Great to be here with you again.
FP: First things first, what did you think about the 9/11 Commission report?
Hayes: It was poorly worded, self-contradictory and vague. It seemed to reach conclusions not warranted by the evidence. And it added to the confusion on an already difficult issue. The staff statements felt like the cursory treatment given to an issue by an individual – or group of people – wanting to put the Iraq-al Qaeda issue to bed, rather than explore it in a serious way. Even the commissioners are running away from their own staff statements. It will be very interesting to read the final report – with heavy input from the commissioners themselves. I hope it’s a more balanced and thorough product. If the commissioners dismiss the alleged April 2001 Mohammed Atta meeting without even mentioning his trips to Prague in May/June 2000, as the latest staff report does, the final report will have a gaping hole in it.
FP: Tell us about your new book and how our two most dangerous foes were colluding with one another against us.
Hayes: Sure. The book lays out over almost 200 pages the evidence we have accumulated about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection. Some that evidence is circumstantial, some of it direct. My goal in writing the book is to encourage people to take another look at this evidence – or in many cases, a first look at this evidence – and to consider it as they evaluate the Iraq War. We will be choosing a president in November based largely on the war and its aftermath – it’s important that people see the entire picture as they make up their minds. A second, equally important goal, is to examine the reasons the intelligence community overlooked or downplayed the Iraq-al Qaeda connection for so long. This of course has practical applications for our soldiers today as they face former Baathists and Islamic militants working together in Iraq.
FP: There are reports, as you have noted, that Saddam welcomed bin Laden to come to Baghdad. This is truly a nightmare scenario, considering the Iraqi dictator’s possession of WMDs and willingness to hand them over to the perpetrators of 9/11. What is your angle on this?
Hayes: In late 1998, according to U.S. intelligence documents and numerous reports in the media, Saddam dispatched Faruz Hijazi, a top intelligence officer and longtime al Qaeda liaison, to Afghanistan to offer Osama bin Laden safe haven in Iraq. Saddam was continuing his policy of denying UN inspectors access to sensitive sites. The inspectors left Iraq and a 70-hour bombing campaign – Desert Fox – ensued. Meanwhile, just five months after the simultaneous al Qaeda bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa, the Taliban was receiving intense pressure from the West to expel bin Laden. The overture sparked widespread news media coverage of the possibility that, as you say, our two most dangerous foes could be collaborating against us.
FP: Will the Islamists eventually get their hands on WMDs and, if they do, will they use them?
Hayes: Yes, and Yes. Key question, I think. There is this sense among probably half the country, that we were struck once on September 11 and that we’re in the clear now. You hear this from the media and administration critics (including John Kerry) when they talk about Bush officials exaggerating the threat. In fact, the Bush Administration should be doing more to warn people about the nature of those threats here in the U.S. In 1997, William Cohen, then President Clinton’s Defense Secretary, took to the Sunday shows in DC with a five pound bag of sugar. This amount of anthrax, he argued, could wipe out half of Washington, DC. He took some grief for being dramatic, but I think he was right. The fact is, the Islamists (and their state supporters) want to kill as many Americans as possible. WMDs are the best way.
FP: Why does the media pay so little attention to the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection?
Hayes: Good question. This wasn’t always the case. The Clinton Administration invoked the Iraq-al Qaeda connection at several points throughout the late 1990s. The evidence they cited was sometimes questioned, but their broader argument that Saddam and bin Laden would team up was largely accepted.
A major difference between coverage of the connection under Clinton and Bush is this: Bush acted on the threat and with only one exception, Clinton did not. So journalists scrutinized the evidence more carefully knowing that there would be serious consequences under Bush. This is as it should be. But then journalists went further. There was a readiness, even an eagerness, to discredit the Iraq-al Qaeda connection without actually investigating it. When CIA Director George Tenet released a letter to the Senate Intelligence Community outlining Iraq’s WMD threat and the al Qaeda connection on October 7, 2002, the establishment media largely ignored the entire second half of the letter – the part dealing with the connection. They did so despite the fact that Tenet concluded that the Iraqi regime’s cooperation with Islamic terrorists would likely increase even without military intervention in Iraq. Tenet’s letter was balanced and nuanced; the reporting on it was not.
FP: Why did the intelligence community overlook or downplay the connection for so long? Was it, to some extent, the hang-over from the incompetent Clinton administration?
Hayes: Several reasons. There has long been a sense, particularly at the CIA, that bin Laden and Saddam were natural enemies much more likely to fight one another than join together to fight the United States. In some sense, this assumption wasn't tested strongly enough and frequently enough against incoming intelligence that in fact suggested a more substantive relationship. That said, there are pockets within both the CIA and the DIA that have argued for a good many years that the overlap between Iraq and al Qaeda was something to be taken very seriously.
The Clinton Administration deserves some credit for at least recognizing the problem. In fact, in its spring 1998 indictment of Osama bin Laden, Janet Reno's Justice Department included what it termed an "understanding" between Iraq and al Qaeda whereby al Qaeda agreed not to agitate against the Iraqi regime and, in exchange, Saddam promised help on "weapons development" to al Qaeda. Later that same year, top Clinton official disclosed several pieces of intelligence that tied Iraq to al Qaeda-linked chemical weapons programs in the Sudan. Where the Clinton Administration failed, I think, is that even after having recognized the threat that an Iraq-al Qaeda alliance posed to America, it did very little to eliminate it.
FP: What did you think of Tenet's resignation?
Hayes: I have very mixed feelings about George Tenet's resignation. It is clear that no significant intelligence reform was going to happen under his watch. He was protective of a slow-moving bureaucracy that in many cases didn't deserve protecting. One example: in March 2002 Jeffrey Goldberg from the New Yorker magazine published a remarkable story in which he interviewed several detainees in a Kurdish prison who spoke openly about extensive contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. The Kurds who had captured the prisoners let them speak to Goldberg in part because the CIA, having been informed of their presence and given the basic outlines of their allegations, showed little interest in interviewing them. I assumed that after Goldberg's article, the Agency would have been so embarrassed of its negligence that it would have immediately dispatched interrogators to northern Iraq. Wrong. A senior intelligence official told the Washington Post some six months later that although the agency was aware of the prisoners and their stories, no one had yet been sent to interview them. Inexcusable. Tenet probably should have been fired on the spot.
But from that point forward, Tenet consistently showed an openness to exploring the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship that put him squarely at odds with the bureaucracy beneath him. He authored a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee in October 2002 that laid out some highlights of the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship and reiterated many of his points in congressional testimony as late as March 2004. Publicly discussing the relationship in that fashion certainly didn't make the agency look good since, as you've pointed out, they downplayed it for years.
FP: If we snatched Osama, is it better to get him dead or alive?
Hayes: Probably dead. And I think he’d be a lot more likely than Saddam Hussein to put up a fight. However we get him, I hope he is recognizable and that there is some way to confirm that he is dead.
FP: What is at stake in this election? If someone were to tell you that it doesn't matter who wins, Kerry or Bush, what would you say?
Hayes: I would say that I disagree. John Kerry, in debates with his fellow Democrats several months ago, made two very revealing comments. First, he said the War on Terror is primarily a law enforcement and intelligence matter. Important as those aspects of the war are, I think it’s a mistake to subordinate the military campaign in this way, even rhetorically. Remember, we fought a “War on Terror” under President Clinton, too. It’s hard to argue that we were winning when he left office. Second, Kerry called himself an anti-war candidate. War is always a last resort and it should be. But I have hard time seeing President Bush ever calling himself an anti-war candidate and, frankly, I don’t think touting our pacifism in the middle of a War on Terror sends the message.
FP: Who, in your view, is the most competent individual in the Bush administration? The person who understands best the War on Terror and what must be done about it.
Hayes: Hard to say. As it is in most bureaucracies, I’m sure it’s someone who doesn’t get much acclaim. I think Vice President Cheney understands the threats as well as anyone. His critics would tell you that he obsesses about a WMD attack on the U.S. homeland. If/when that happens, I think we’ll look back and wish we were all as vigilant as he has been.
FP: What do you think our next steps should be in the War on Terror in general and in Iraq in particular?
Hayes: Get Iraq right. Nothing is more important to a victory -- in the long-term -- in the War on Terror. This is not only because there are so many terrorists operating in Iraq today, but also because by establishing some form of representative government in Iraq those in the Middle East will see that we're finally serious about reform in the region. One of the complaints you hear most from moderates in the Middle East is that the U.S. has long talked a good game about democracy and human rights in the region, but our actions have sent the opposite message. We've paid lip service to self-determination and, at the same time, funded oppressive regimes. These changes will, and must, come slowly, but we've already seen some progress. The G-8 leaders this past week endorsed democratic change (however vague) in the Middle East and even the Arab League has made some noises about reform. This big-picture stuff often gets lost in the news-of-the-day reporting that results from a 24-hour news cycle. But it's happening.
I'm cautiously optimistic about the interim government in Iraq. There's reason for Iraqis to be skeptical about new Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (chiefly, his close association with the CIA), but his almost singular focus on security is precisely what Iraqis need. If he create in Iraqi security forces a sense that they are fighting for the future of their own country, that will be more important that anything we can do at this point.
FP: Mr. Hayes, it was a pleasure.
Hayes: Likewise, Jamie.
Rodger W. Claire
Prof. Khaleel Mohammed
Victor Davis Hanson
Ion Mihai Pacepa
Richard Perle and David Frum
Stephen F. Hayes
John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr