LAST TUESDAY, Senate Democrats fired the opening shot in the coming battle over prewar intelligence on Iraq when Minority Leader Harry Reid took the Senate into a closed session. The offensive began in earnest this weekend with a New York Times article:
A high Qaeda official in American custody was identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Al Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons, according to newly declassified portions of a Defense Intelligence Agency document. The document, an intelligence report from February 2002, said it was probable that the prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, "was intentionally misleading the debriefers" in making claims about Iraqi support for Al Qaeda's work with illicit weapons.
The document provides the earliest and strongest indication of doubts voiced by American intelligence agencies about Mr. Libi's credibility. Without mentioning him by name, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Colin L. Powell, then secretary of state, and other administration officials repeatedly cited Mr. Libi's information as "credible" evidence that Iraq was training Al Qaeda members in the use of explosives and illicit weapons.
The article, based on declassified excerpts of the DIA report provided by Michigan Senator Carl Levin, goes on to strongly suggest that Bush administration officials simply ignored this warning to scare the public into supporting war in Iraq.
The truth, as it so often is these days, is considerably more complicated.
The Times article cites a claim George W. Bush made in a speech he gave in Cincinnati in October 2002. Bush said: "we've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases."
Why would Bush make such a claim when a DIA report had raised the possibility that al Libi was lying? One possibility: The CIA was saying that al Libi was credible.
On February 11, 2003--a year after the DIA report--CIA Director George Tenet testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said: "Iraq has in the past provided training in document forgery and bomb-making to al Qaeda. It has also provided training in poisons and gases to two al Qaeda associates. One of these associates characterized the relationship he forged with Iraqi officials as successful."
In July 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee released "Phase I" of its evaluation of prewar intelligence on Iraq. The 511-page document focused on the collection and analysis of intelligence by the U.S. intelligence community. Senate Democrats are pushing now for the completion of "Phase II." They hope to use that report to demonstrate that the Bush administration, in the words of Levin, "went way beyond the intelligence, particularly as it relates to any relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda."
The Phase I report criticized Tenet for his failure to note that the intelligence on Iraqi training of al Qaeda had come from sources of "varying reliability." It may be a reasonable criticism. But if Levin and his colleagues want to show that statements from senior Bush administration officials went "way beyond the intelligence," this seems like an odd way to do it. The head of the U.S. intelligence community made the same claim Bush did--using almost exactly the same words--some four months after Bush's speech.
The Times article also provides Levin a platform to criticize the inclusion of al Libi's claims in Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003. From the article:
Mr. Powell relied heavily on accounts provided by Mr. Libi for his speech to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, saying that he was tracing "the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to Al Qaeda."
At the time of Mr. Powell's speech, an unclassified statement by the C.I.A. described the reporting, now known to have been from Mr. Libi, as "credible." But Mr. Levin said he had learned that a classified C.I.A. assessment at the time went on to state that "the source was not in a position to know if any training had taken place."
Why, then, did Carl Levin endorse Phase I of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report? On pages 366-370, the committee evaluated the terrorism portion of Powell's presentation and offered its conclusions.
Conclusion 103. The information provided by the Central Intelligence Agency for the terrorism portion of Secretary Powell's speech was carefully vetted by both terrorism and regional analysts.
Conclusion 104. None of the portrayals of the intelligence reporting included in Secretary Powell's speech differed in any significant way from earlier assessments published by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Neither of these conclusions is mentioned in the Times piece.
Levin told the Washington Post that he did not have the DIA document until after the Phase I report was completed. That's possible. But given his history on the issue, it's also possible that Levin was imply waiting until he could be sure his claims would be most politically damaging to the administration. (This is the man who released his own personal "study" of the intelligence on October 21, 2004, two weeks before the presidential election.) Whatever the truth of the matter, if history holds, Levin was almost certainly cherry-picking the intelligence, using only the information that supports his charges and ignoring the rest.
The rest is important. It provides much-needed context to the Bush administration's prewar claims. For example, we learn from the Phase I report that the CIA produced a classified analysis in September 2002 called Iraqi Support for Terrorism. The report assessed: "The general pattern that emerges is of al Qaeda's enduring interest in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) expertise from Iraq."
Among the conclusions of Iraqi Support for Terrorism were these:
Regarding the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship, reporting from sources of varying reliability points to . . . incidents of training . . . [ellipses in original]
The most disturbing aspect of the relationship is the dozen or so reports of varying reliability mentioning the involvement of Iraq or Iraqi nationals in al Qaeda's efforts to obtain CBW training.
There is no question that al Libi's claims that Iraq trained al Qaeda on chemical and biological weapons were important. But one of the reasons that the CIA and Bush administration policymakers took them so seriously is because they fit a pattern of earlier reporting, albeit reporting from sources of "varying reliability."
These claims did not begin with the Bush administration. Senior Clinton administration officials repeatedly claimed that Iraq had provided chemical weapons expertise--at least--to al Qaeda in 1998. After al Qaeda terrorists struck two U.S. embassies in East Africa the Clinton administration retaliated by striking an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and the al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. In its defense of the al Shifa strikes, Clinton administration officials cited an al Qaeda presence at suspected chemical weapons facilities in Sudan. These facilities, according to both Clinton administration spokesmen and senior intelligence officials, were the result of a collaborative effort between Iraqi scientists, the Sudanese Military Industrial Corporation and al Qaeda terrorists. Clinton administration officials stand by those claims today.
Does Carl Levin think they are wrong?
One final point: For two years Carl Levin has led the Democratic assault on the credibility of Bush administration's claim of an Iraq-al Qaeda connection. It is worth moment to examine his credibility on these same issues.
In the months after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Levin repeatedly accused the Bush administration of pressuring intelligence officials to reach conclusions that supported the case for war. He provided an example in an appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on June 16, 2003, saying, "We were told by the intelligence community that there was a very strong link between Iraq and al Qaeda."
But Levin's allegations were undermined as the Senate Intelligence Committee interviewed analysts to determine whether they were pressured to change their analyses. None of the analysts supported his claim, a finding that was later confirmed in the Phase I report.
So Levin adjusted his allegation. "The intel didn't say that there is a direct connection between al Qaeda and Iraq," he said in an appearance on Fox News Channel on February 2, 2004. "That was not the intel. That's what this administration exaggerated to produce."
So which is it? Did the intelligence claim a "very strong link" or no direct connection?
At his press conference last week, Levin went even further. "The intelligence was not far off as it related to the nonexistent relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein."
Carl Levin may believe that there was no relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. But his claims are at odds with the views of the CIA.
As noted above, the CIA assessed in Iraqi Support for Terrorism that "the most disturbing aspect of the relationship is the dozen or so reports of varying reliability mentioning the involvement of Iraq or Iraqi nationals in al Qaeda's efforts to obtain CBW training." [emphasis added].
Fortunately, we are no longer reliant on Carl Levin's claims or even CIA analyses for our understanding of the Iraq-al Qaeda connection. Documents uncovered in postwar Iraq allow us to test Levin's views and CIA prewar assessments against the words and deeds of the former Iraqi regime.
On June 25, 2004, the New York Times reported on an internal Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) document that discussed relations between Saddam Hussein's regime and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. The document, authenticated by the U.S. intelligence community, reports on meetings between bin Laden emissaries and Uday Hussein in 1994. The document further reports that the Iraqi regime agreed to a request from bin Laden to broadcast sermons from an anti-Saudi cleric. The IIS document advises that "cooperation between the two organizations should be allowed to develop freely through discussion and agreement." And when bin Laden was ousted from Sudan in 1996, the document reports that Iraqis were "seeking other channels through which to handle the relationship."
All of which makes one thing clear: Carl Levin may still believe there was no relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.
But the Iraqis, who might have had unique insight into such matters, thought otherwise.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
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