"THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that Saddam Hussein was connected in any way to al Qaeda."
So declared CNN Anchor Carol Costello in an interview yesterday with Representative Robin Hayes (no relation) from North Carolina.
Hayes politely challenged her claim. "Ma'am, I'm sorry, but you're mistaken. There's evidence everywhere. We get access to it. Unfortunately, others don't."
CNN played the exchange throughout the day. At one point, anchor Daryn Kagan even seemed to correct Rep. Hayes after replaying the clip. "And according to the record, the 9/11 Commission in its final report found no connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein."
The CNN claims are wrong. Not a matter of nuance. Not a matter of interpretation. Just plain incorrect. They are so mistaken, in fact, that viewers should demand an on-air correction.
But such claims are, sadly, representative of the broad media misunderstanding of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post, regularly chides the Bush administration for presenting what he calls fabricated or "fictive" links between Iraq and al Qaeda. The editor of the Los Angeles Times scolded the Bush administration for perpetuating the "myth" of such links. "Sixty Minutes" anchor Lesley Stahl put it bluntly: "There was no connection."
Conveniently, such analyses ignore statements like this one from Thomas Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission. "There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda." Hard to believe reporters just missed it--he made
the comments at the press conference held to release the commission's final report. And that report detailed several "friendly contacts" between Iraq and al Qaeda, and concluded only that there was no proof of Iraqi involvement in al Qaeda terrorist attacks against American interests. Details, details.
There have been several recent developments. One month ago, Jordan's King Abdullah explained to the Arabic-language newspaper al Hayat that his government had tried before the Iraq war to extradite Abu Musab al Zarqawi from Iraq. "We had information that he entered Iraq from a neighboring country, where he lived and what he was doing. We informed the Iraqi authorities about all this detailed information we had, but they didn't respond." He added: "Since Zarqawi entered Iraq before the fall of the former regime we have been trying to have him deported back to Jordan for trial, but our efforts were in vain."
One week later, former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told the same newspaper that the new Iraqi government is in possession of documents showing that Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden's top deputy, and Zarqawi both entered Iraq in September 1999. (If the documents are authentic, they suggest that Zarqawi may have plotted the Jordanian Millennium attacks from Iraq.)
Beyond what people are saying about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, there is the evidence. In 1992 the Iraqi Intelligence services compiled a list of its assets. On page 14 of the document, marked "Top Secret" and dated March 28, 1992, is the name of Osama bin Laden, who is reported to have a "good relationship" with the Iraqi intelligence section in Syria. The Defense Intelligence Agency has possession of the document and has assessed that it is accurate. In 1993, Saddam Hussein and bin Laden reached an "understanding" that Islamic radicals would refrain from attacking the Iraqi regime in exchange for unspecified assistance, including weapons development.
This understanding, which was included in the Clinton administration's indictment of bin Laden in the spring of 1998, has been corroborated by numerous Iraqis and al Qaeda terrorists now in U.S. custody. In 1994, Faruq Hijazi, then deputy director of Iraqi Intelligence, met face-to-face with bin Laden. Bin Laden requested anti-ship limpet mines and training camps in Iraq. Hijazi has detailed the meeting in a custodial interview with U.S. interrogators. In 1995, according to internal Iraqi intelligence documents first reported by the New York Times on June 25, 2004, a "former director of operations for Iraqi Intelligence Directorate 4 met with Mr. bin Laden on Feb. 19." When bin Laden left Sudan in 1996, the document states, Iraqi intelligence sough "other channels through which to handle the relationship, in light of his current location." That same year, Hussein agreed to a request from bin Laden to broadcast anti-Saudi propaganda on Iraqi state television. In 1997, al Qaeda sent an emissary with the nom de guerre Abdullah al Iraqi to Iraq for training on weapons of mass destruction. Colin Powell cited this evidence in his presentation at the UN on February 5, 2003. The Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded that Powell's presentation on Iraq and terrorism was "reasonable."
In 1998, according to documents unearthed in Iraq's Intelligence headquarters in April 2003, al Qaeda sent a "trusted confidante" of bin Laden to Baghdad for 16 days of meetings beginning March 5. Iraqi intelligence paid for his stay in Room 414 of the Mansur al Melia hotel and expressed hope that the envoy would serve as the liaison between Iraqi intelligence and bin Laden. The DIA has assessed those documents as authentic. In 1999, a CIA Counterterrorism Center analysis reported on April 13 that four intelligence reports indicate Saddam Hussein has given bin Laden a standing offer of safe haven in Iraq. The CTC report is included in the Senate Intelligence Committee's review on prewar intelligence.
In 2000, Saudi Arabia went on kingdom-wide alert after learning that Iraq had agreed to help al Qaeda attack U.S. and British interests on the peninsula. In 2001, satellite images show large numbers of al Qaeda terrorists displaced after the war in Afghanistan relocating to camps in northern Iraq financed, in part, by the Hussein regime. In 2002, a report from the National Security Agency in October reveals that Iraq agreed to provide safe haven, financing and weapons to al Qaeda members relocating in northern Iraq. In 2003, on February 14, the Philippine government ousted Hisham Hussein, the second secretary of the Iraqi embassy in Manila, for his involvement in al Qaeda-related terrorist activites. Andrea Domingo, head of Immigration for the Philippine government, told reporters that "studying the movements and activities" of Iraqi intelligence assets in the country, including radical Islamists, revealed an "established network" of terrorists headed by Hussein.
Can CNN stand by its claim that "there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein was connected in any way to al Qaeda?"
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He is author of The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America, published by Harper Collins