THE INDISPENSABLE Glenn Reynolds has linked to an article in the Nashville Tennessean written by a Tennessee judge who believes he is in possession of documents linking Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
The judge is Gilbert S. Merritt, a federal appeals court judge invited to help Iraqis construct a legal system in postwar Iraq. He is, according to Reynolds, "a lifelong Democrat and a man of unimpeachable integrity."
Here is an excerpt of his account:
The document shows that an Iraqi intelligence officer, Abid Al-Karim Muhamed Aswod, assigned to the Iraq embassy in Pakistan, is ''responsible for the coordination of activities with the Osama bin Laden group.''
The document shows that it was written over the signature of Uday Saddam Hussein, the son of Saddam Hussein. The story of how the document came about is as follows.
Saddam gave Uday authority to control all press and media outlets in Iraq. Uday was the publisher of the Babylon Daily Political Newspaper.
On the front page of the paper's four-page edition for Nov. 14, 2002, there was a picture of Osama bin Laden speaking, next to which was a picture of Saddam and his ''Revolutionary Council,'' together with stories about Israeli tanks attacking a group of Palestinians.
On the back page was a story headlined ''List of Honor.'' In a box below the headline was ''A list of men we publish for the public.'' The lead sentence refers to a list of ''regime persons'' with their names and positions.
The list has 600 names and titles in three columns. It contains, for example, the names of the important officials who are members of Saddam's family, such as Uday, and then other high officials, including the 55 American ''deck of cards'' Iraqi officials, some of whom have been apprehended.
Halfway down the middle column is written: ''Abid Al-Karim Muhamed Aswod, intelligence officer responsible for the coordination of activities with the Osama bin Laden group at the Iraqi embassy in Pakistan.''
The story Judge Merritt relates is similar to an account reported in The Weekly Standard last May. Splashed across the front page of the November 16, 2002, edition of Uday Hussein's Babil newspaper were two "honor" lists, one of which included Aswod (spelled "Aswad") and identified him as the "official in charge of regime's contacts with Osama bin Laden's group and currently the regime's representative in Pakistan."
I stumbled upon this passage doing research for another piece. So I brought the article to the attention of administration officials, who hadn't yet seen it, and asked for comment. Intelligence analysts were perplexed, particularly because of a passage in the text preceding the list. It read: "We publish this list of great men for the sons of our great people to see." And below that: "This is a list of the henchmen of the regime. Our hands will reach them sooner or later. Woe unto them. A list of the leaders of Saddam's regime, as well as their present and previous posts."
The second description was clearly hostile in tone--"henchmen of the regime" and "woe unto them." Analysts weren't sure what to make of the introduction or the list, but suggested Uday Hussein may have simply republished a list of "henchmen" distributed by an Iraqi opposition group without realizing he was publicly linking his father to Osama bin Laden.
That still seems like the most plausible explanation to me. (Although Judge Merritt's report that the front page of the four-page newspaper carried side-by-side photographs of bin Laden and Saddam is interesting.) Still, some intelligence officials believe that Aswad--who publicly raised doubts after September 11 about whether Osama bin Laden is a terrorist--was an important link between Iraq and al Qaeda.
If the newspaper reports are interesting but inconclusive, two other recent reports are more compelling. Jessica Stern, a Harvard professor and Clinton administration national security official, discusses the links in a fascinating and sober analysis of the Al Qaeda threat in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
Under the subheading, "Friends of Convenience," she writes:
Meanwhile, the Bush administration's claims that al Qaeda was cooperating with the "infidel" (read: secular) Saddam Hussein while he was still in office are now also gaining support, and from a surprising source. Hamid Mir, bin Laden's "official biographer" and an analyst for al Jazeera, spent two weeks filming in Iraq during the war. Unlike most reporters, Mir wandered the country freely and was not embedded with U.S. troops. He reports that he has "personal knowledge" that one of Saddam's intelligence operatives, Farooq Hijazi, tried to contact bin Laden in Afghanistan as early as 1998. At that time, bin Laden was publicly still quite critical of the Iraqi leader, but he had become far more circumspect by November 2001, when Mir interviewed him for the third time.
Hijazi has acknowledged meeting with al Qaeda representatives, perhaps with bin Laden himself, even before the outreach in 1998. According to news reports and interviews with intelligence officials, Hijazi met with al Qaeda leaders in Sudan in 1994.
Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a member of the congressional commission investigating the September 11 attacks, added to the intrigue this week when he flatly declared, "there is evidence" of Iraq-al Qaeda links. Lehman has access to classified intelligence as a member of the commission, intelligence that has convinced him the links may have been even greater than the public pronouncements of the Bush administration might suggest. "There is no doubt in my mind that [Iraq] trained them in how to prepare and deliver anthrax and to use terror weapons."