In the politicized debate over the former Iraqi regime's relationship with al-Qaeda, no politician has been a more vocal naysayer than Senator Carl Levin. For almost two years the Democratic senator from Michigan has attempted to discredit the notion that the two could have worked together in any way. In so doing he has been willing to advance almost any argument, even if it is at odds with his earlier lines of reasoning.
His modus operandi has been to quote a Bush administration official (usually out of context) and then juxtapose these comments with other evidence (usually mischaracterized) derived from the intelligence community. At the heart of Levin's crusade to discredit Bush administration policymakers has been the charge that those officials "cherry-picked" intelligence--citing only intelligence that supported their views and discarding the rest. But nowhere is there a better example of cherry-picking than Levin's own press release from Friday, April 15.
Headlined "Levin Releases Newly Declassified Intelligence Documents on Iraq-al Qaeda Relationship: Documents show Administration claims were exaggerated, " the release fails to deliver the goods.
In all, the newly released documents total eight (mostly redacted) pages. Meaning that out of a total catalogue of--according to former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer--"roughly 19,000 documents, probably totaling 50,000 to 60,000 pages" Senator Levin managed to declassify only a handful of excerpts from three summary documents.
Levin attempts to use these excerpts to question President Bush's veracity and to challenge his October 7, 2002 remark that "Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases." Levin argues that this assessment ran counter to the prevailing wisdom of the U.S. intelligence community and, therefore, was an "exaggeration."
In reality, however, the president's assessment was in line with what the U.S. intelligence community was arguing and the newly declassified excerpts do not show otherwise.
For example, George Tenet, then director of Central Intelligence--a man with access to far more intelligence reporting than that contained in Levin's excerpts--offered nearly the same assessment as Bush on the same day in a letter to Senator Graham.
"We have credible reporting that al Qa'ida leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities," Tenet wrote, "the reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al Qa'ida members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs."
Tenet offered the Senate Intelligence Committee this more expansive account on February 11, 2003:
Iraq has in the past provided training in document forgery and bomb making to al Qa'ida. It also provided training in poisons and gasses to two al Qa'ida associates; one of these associates characterized the relationship as successful. Mr. Chairman, this information is based on a solid foundation of intelligence. It comes to us from credible and reliable sources. Much of it is corroborated by multiple sources.
That is, the head of the intelligence community was offering the same assessment as the president even five months after the fact.
The excerpts released by Levin do not appear to directly address the evidence cited by Tenet. In fact, the only picture the excerpts paint is of an intelligence community trying to interpret (with mixed results) a wealth of reporting on a relationship that supposedly did not exist.
In his press release Senator Levin chooses to emphasize only the uncertainties, leaving the reader without any realistic sense of scope or context. Reviewing the full passages released for public consumption gives a very different impression of the data contained in these reports. For example, in the passages reproduced below the words and phrases cited in the Levin press release are highlighted in bold:
From "Iraq and al-Qa'ida: Interpreting a Murky Relationship" (June 21, 2002):
In the past several years, Iraq reportedly has provided specialized training to al-Qa'ida in explosives and assistance to the group's chemical and biological weapons programs, although the level and extent of this assistance is not clear.
Our knowledge of Iraqi links to al-Qa'ida still contains many critical gaps because of limited reporting [redacted] and the questionable reliability of many of our sources. [redacted]
From the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (October 2, 2002):
As with much of the information on the overall relationship, details on training and support are second-hand or from sources of varying reliability. The most conspicuous pattern in the reporting is of al-Qa'ida's enduring interest in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) expertise from Iraq. [redacted] suggest the involvement of Iraq or Iraqi nationals in al-Qa'ida CBW efforts. We cannot determine, however, how may of these Iraqi nationals were directed by Baghdad or how many of the reported plans for CBW training or support were actually realized.From CTC Iraqi Support for Terrorism (CTC 2003-1000/HS) (January 29, 2003):
The Levin press release also cites two passages from Iraqi Support for Terrorism which categorize some of the reporting as "hearsay" and some other reports as "simple declarative accusations of Iraqi-al-Qa'ida complicity with no substantiating detail or other information that might help us corroborate them." But these two passages appear on a page in which the entire remaining contents are redacted and there is no sense given of how much (or little) of the reporting falls into these two categories.
After contacts, the [redacted] reporting touches most frequently on the topic of Iraq training of al-Qa'ida. Details on training range from good reports [redacted] varying reliability, often the result of long and opaque reporting chains or discussions of future intentions rather than evidence of completed training. The general pattern that emerges is of al-Qa'ida's enduring interest in acquiring CBW expertise from Iraq.
Most of the reports do not make clear whether training initiatives offered by Iraqis or discussed by the two sides remained in the planning stages or were actually implemented.
What do the sentences not cited by Levin in his press release tell you? Do they reveal that there was "no connection" as critics have maintained?
Hardly. That there were vagaries surrounding much of the reporting is beyond dispute and is to be expected in any intelligence analysis. This is especially true in this instance since we know that, based on several government investigations of intelligence failures, the U.S. intelligence community failed to penetrate the upper echelons of either Saddam's regime or al Qaeda.
Indeed, these uncertainties coupled with a pre-Gulf War paradigm for understanding Saddam Hussein's relationship with various Islamist groups led "some analysts," as noted in the excerpts, to "contend that mistrust and conflicting ideologies and goals tempered these contacts and severely limited the opportunities for cooperation." "Some analysts" reached this conclusion despite the possibility that the two parties forged "a nonaggression agreement or made limited offers of cooperation, training, or safehaven (ultimately uncorroborated or withdrawn) in an effort to manipulate, penetrate, or otherwise keep tabs on al-Qa'ida or selected operatives."
Other analysts would not interpret the data in such a way.
Therein lays the problem. Why would al Qaeda have an "enduring interest" in acquiring CBRN expertise from Iraq if their ideological differences were irreconcilable? What are the "good reports" of training? What are the "long and opaque reporting chains or discussions of future intentions"? What evidence suggests "Iraq or Iraqi nationals" were involved "in al-Qa'ida CBW efforts"? Excerpts not parsed in the Levin press release lead to the same questions as well as additional ones.
It is also worth noting that others, outside of the Bush administration, have analyzed the evidence and come to a conclusion that is radically different from the one Senator Levin prefers. For example, the first bin Laden-hunter-turned-Iraq-war-critic, Michael Scheuer, was able to cite multiple pieces of evidence on Iraq's CBRN cooperation with al Qaeda in 2002. Before his own flip-flop on the issue he was able to conclude, "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."
Richard Clarke, another Bush administration critic who would routinely claim that there was no real relationship, was once able to look at the evidence of Iraqi chemical experts involved in Sudan's "military-industrial complex" and conclude that is was "probably a direct result of the Iraq-al Qa'ida agreement."
Indeed, Clarke and the rest of the Clinton administration repeatedly connected the dots in 1998 and 1999 as did numerous other observers.
In addition to his specious arguments concerning one assessment by President Bush, Levin returns to one of his favorite arguments in his latest press release: that Vice President Cheney exaggerated the evidence concerning Muhammad Atta's alleged meeting with Iraqi intelligence in Prague. The implication is that the administration misled the American people about the possibility of Iraqi complicity in the September 11 attacks. (Note: I have been and remain skeptical of this particular piece of evidence for various reasons.)
In advancing this argument the Levin press release cites three appearances by Cheney. Levin's argument concerning the first of these has already been thoroughly debunked and his selective use and interpretation of the second and third citations follow his familiar pattern.
For example, the second citation, which refers to Cheney's September 8, 2002 appearance on Tim Russert's Meet the Press, is--once again--taken completely out of context. The portions of the exchange parsed out in the Levin press release are in bold:
RUSSERT: One year ago when you were on MEET THE PRESS just five days after September 11, I asked you a specific question about Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Let's watch:
Thus, the vice president offered a far more balanced picture of the intelligence concerning Muhammad Atta's alleged meeting with an Iraqi intelligence officer than Levin would have us believe. Indeed, the third citation provided by Levin (to a Cheney assessment on January 9, 2004) is actually a demonstrably true statement. All Cheney did was summarize what the Czech government had told the U.S. government about the alleged meeting.
(Videotape, September 16, 2001):
RUSSERT: Do we have any evidence linking Saddam Hussein or Iraqis to this operation?
RUSSERT: Has anything changed, in your mind?
CHENEY: Well, I want to be very careful about how I say this. I'm not here today to make a specific allegation that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11. I can't say that. On the other hand, since we did that interview, new information has come to light. And we spent time looking at that relationship between Iraq, on the one hand, and the al-Qaeda organization on the other. And there has been reporting that suggests that there have been a number of contacts over the years. We've seen in connection with the hijackers, of course, Mohamed Atta, who was the lead hijacker, did apparently travel to Prague on a number of occasions. And on at least one occasion, we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center. The debates about, you know, was he there or wasn't he there, again, it's the intelligence business.
RUSSERT: What does the CIA say about that and the president?
CHENEY: It's credible. But, you know, I think a way to put it would be it's unconfirmed at this point. We've got . . .
It may very well be the case that the meeting never took place. However, that is not what the excerpts concerning the meeting provided by Levin say. The excerpts read,
Reporting is contradictory on hijacker Mohammed Atta's alleged trip to Prague and meeting with an Iraqi intelligence officer, and we have not verified his travels.
Many in the intelligence community cast doubt on the evidence suggesting that such a meeting took place. But Sen. Levin routinely exaggerates the Bush administration's positions and proclaims certainty where there is none. Levin is again practicing the very same politicization he claims to warn against.
. . . some information asserts that Atta met with . . . al-Ani, but the most reliable reporting to date casts doubt on this possibility.