Did Administration Used Discredited Source for Iraq War Case?

The New York Times fronts a Douglas Jehl report contends that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a high level al Qaeda prisoner used as a major source by the Bush administration in its attempts to link Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, was previously identified as unrealiable in a February 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency document.

Report Warned Bush Team About Intelligence Suspicions

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 newly declassified portions of the document were made available by Senator Carl M. Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Mr. Levin said the new evidence of early doubts about Mr. Libi’s statements dramatized what he called the Bush administration’s misuse of prewar intelligence to try to justify the war in Iraq. That is an issue that Mr. Levin and other Senate Democrats have been seeking to emphasize, in part by calling attention to the fact that the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee has yet to deliver a promised report, first sought more than two years ago, on the use of prewar intelligence.

[…]

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.”

[…]

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Levin also called attention to another portion of the D.I.A. report, which expressed skepticism about the idea of close collaboration between Iraq and Al Qaeda, an idea that was never substantiated by American intelligence agencies but was a pillar of the administration’s prewar claims. “Saddam’s regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements,” the D.I.A. report said in one of two declassified paragraphs. “Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control.”

It may well be the case that Libi was a “fabricator.” But there is simply no question that Saddam had a long history of dealings with Islamist terrorist groups, including those he could not “control,” going back to the 1980s as part of his campaign to establish himself as the logical successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser. As I documented in a Strategic Insights essay in July 2004,

[T]he fact that Saddam Hussein actively supported Islamic terrorists has been an article of faith since the Carter Administration. Indeed, Iraq was one of the original five states (along with Iran, Libya, Syria, and Cuba) on the first “Patterns of Global Terrorism” list compiled by the State Department in 1979. Saddam was a major sponsor of various terrorist groups, including the PLO, HAMAS, Mujaheddin e Khalq, and the Abu Nidal Organization long before al Qaeda was founded. There is credible evidence that Saddam actively backed the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center[5].

The paper trail for the al Qaeda connection is more difficult to establish given the cellular nature of that organization and its recent provenance. Losing bin Laden author Richard Minter observed last September that,

[M]any of those sniping at U.S. troops are al Qaeda terrorists operating inside Iraq. And many of bin Laden’s men were in Iraq prior to the liberation. A wealth of evidence on the public record — from government reports and congressional testimony to news accounts from major newspapers — attests to longstanding ties between bin Laden and Saddam going back to 1994[6].

Minter outlines-with twenty-three bullet points-details of proven contacts between senior al Qaeda leaders and Saddam Hussein or his representatives. Stephen Hayes notes that the Clinton Administration[7] and many seasoned professionals of both parties[8] believed Saddam and al Qaeda were connected. American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen, an opponent of the Iraq War, asserted in 2002 that “a relationship with bin Laden is as close to certain as you can get in the world of clandestine operations[9].”

“Anonymous,” the senior CIA counter-terrorism official whose forthcoming Imperial Hubris has been widely anticipated by critics of Bush Administration[10], details this tie in his first book, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes. Not only did the Iraqis participate in military training but there was active cooperation in the effort to obtain CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) capability:

Bin Laden’s first moves in this direction were made in cooperation with [National Islamic Front] leaders, Iraq’s intelligence service, and Iraqi CBRN scientists and technicians. He made contact with Baghdad through its intelligence officers in Sudan, and by a [Hassan al-] Turabi-brokered June 1994 visit by Iraq’s then-intelligence chief Faruq al-Hijazi; according to Milan’s Corrier della Sera, Saddam, in 1994, made Hijazi responsible for “nurturing Iraq’s ties to [Islamic] fundamentalist warriors.” . . . . Turabi’s scheme for an overall strategy was not achieved, but there is information shiowing that in the 1993-1994 period bin Laden began work with Sudan and Iraq to acquire a CBRN capability for al Qaeda.

. . . . A Sudanese military engineer named Colonel Abd-al-Basit Hamza . . . reportedly manages “a group of companies. . .run by the NIF in cooperation with Iraq and bin Laden. The operation of this program is led by Iraqi scientists and technicians, led by Dr. Khalil Ibrahim Mubaruhah, and by Asian and foreign experts.” The New Republic quotes a Sudanese military defector as saying that “up to 60 Iraqi military experts rotate through Sudan every six months, and that some of these experts are involved in some kind of munitions development” at the MIC. In addition, Sudanese oppositionists–not the most unbiased sources–claim Iraq’s technicians are helping Sudan build chemical weapons at MIC facilities in Khartoum and , in return, Iraqi chemical weapons have been hidden by Sudan at the Yarmuk Military Manufacturing Complex in Sheggara, south of Khartoum[11].

As is made clear elsewhere in the book, the relationship between MIC and al Qaeda during this period was symbiotic, making distinction between cooperation with one or the other both difficult to discern and irrelevant.

Apparently surprised by the furor over their report, the 9-11 panel’s co-commissioners finally weighed in to quiet it down. Chairman Thomas Kean, interviewed on PBS’ Newshour, noted

[T]here were contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda, a number of them, some of them a little shadowy. They were definitely there. But as far as any evidence that Saddam Hussein was in any way involved in the attack on 9-11, it just isn’t there[12].

Former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, responding to a question about Vice President Cheney’s continued insistence[13] that there were indeed ties between Saddam and al Qaeda, said

I must say I have trouble understanding the flak over this. The vice president is saying, I think, that there were connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s government. We don’t disagree with that. What we have said is … we don’t have any evidence of a cooperative, or a corroborative relationship between Saddam Hussein’s government and these al Qaeda operatives with regard to the attacks on the United States. So it seems to me the sharp differences that the press has drawn, the media have drawn, are not that apparent to me[14].

This effort was to little avail, with pieces such as a widely-publicized New York Times op-ed by New America Foundation fellow Peter Bergen continuing to flow[15].

The cooperation between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda was of no minor consequence, especially as it pertained to the pursuit of CBRN weapons. As Anonymous argues, “What al Qaeda wants, simply, is a tool to kill as many non-Muslims . . . as possible in one stroke. . . . What al Qaeda wants is a high body count as soon as possible, and it will use whatever CBRN materials it gets in ways that will ensure the most corpses[16].”

While links between Saddam and al Qaeda are long established, evidence of Saddam’s involvement in the 9-11 attacks has always been sketchy at best.

See the original piece for the footnotes.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ken says:

    Nice try James. The WP is further proof of what we already knew about how Bush lied to us about Saddam and Al Qaeda.

    Your Strategic Insights essay is not credibile as it is based, unwittingly I am sure, on the same sources Bush used.

    The difference is that Bush was told directly that the sources were either unreliable or weak. Yet he presented the information to us as if it were uncontroversial. Telling us half the truth, that the CIA had an informant who says Saddam had ties with Al Qaeda, without telling us that the CIA beleives he is lying, is telling us a complete lie.

  2. ken says:

    James, here is an interesting question. I have always wondered how otherwise intellegent people can believe things that are obviously, at least to me, not true. I think you are an intellegent person.

    Before the war on Iraq you beleived two things I knew to be untrue. I know why I didn’t beleive them but I don’t know why you did.

    Today we both know that Iraq 1) had no WMD capable of harming the US and 2) had no ‘ties’ to Al Qaeda.(As that term is understood to mean something beyond occasional dialoque as we have dialoque with NK but no one can say we have ‘ties’ to them)

    What led you to believe in what we now know is mistaken information before the war?

    If you can honestly answer that question you will go a long way in not making the same kind of mistake again.

  3. odograph says:

    “echo chamber”

  4. Barry says:

    ken, you’re assuming that James made a mistake.

  5. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Ken, you state you had knowledge of two things. Proof is important. Scott Ritter claimed Saddam had no WMD also, but we find he had been bribed. He made a speech in 1998 that totally contradicts his later statements. Unless you were there, you would not know. Mossad said 18 Semis with trailers left Iraq for Syria aided by Russina Special Forces. If you have such inside info, what was in those trucks, or is Israeli intel lying? How do you account for the 17 projectiles filled with cyclosarin, or the binary shells found, or the 1500 gallons of precurser found? You made a statement that Saddam did not have WMD. I think you are blowing smoke. Prove me wrong.

  6. ken says:

    You made a statement that Saddam did not have WMD. I think you are blowing smoke. Prove me wrong.

    Jack, the US has spent billions of dollars, killed tens of thousands of innocent people and lost over 2000 soldiers in order to prove you wrong. And you still hold false beliefs?

    Why should I think you are seriously asking for information from me when it is readily available to you from a thousand and one sources?

  7. Dave Johnson says:

    “Scott Ritter claimed Saddam had no WMD also, but we find he had been bribed. He made a speech in 1998 that totally contradicts his later statements.”

    Are you referring to Ritter’s speech in 98 saying we weren’t doing enough to destroy Iraq’s WMD programs?

    You left out that Clinton launched a massive bombing campaign at the end of 98, which entirely destroyed Iraq’s capabilities. We (US and British under UN authority) bombed and destroyed every known and suspected WMD-related facility, lab, dept, etc.

    What’s this “bribed” stuff? Nice try.

    “Mossad said 18 Semis with trailers left Iraq for Syria aided by Russina Special Forces.”

    Right. So how come we haven’t found even one single person, not one janitor, assistant, or anyone else who says they worked on weapons programs after Clinton’s 98 bombing campaign? Did every single Iraqi involved in the supposedly huge program just *poof* disappear?

  8. Pers says:

    But there is simply no question that Saddam had a long history of dealings with Islamist terrorist groups, including those he could not “control,” going back to the 1980s as part of his campaign to establish himself as the logical successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser.

    Nasser was adamantly against islamicism and was an ardent nationalist and modernist. He consistently persecuted elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. Comparing him in that regard to Saadam is inaccurate.

    In reading your “Strategic Insights” piece, you basically cobble together a bunch of secondary information from questionable sources. It is important to point out that you didn’t “document” anything–the piece is not based on any original research.

    It is also quite sloppy. You make claim that “the war unquestionably removed a significant state sponsor of jihadist terrorists” and offer a citiation to Michael Ware’s June 24, 2004 piece which is entirely about the conditions in US-occupied Iraq.

    In fact, the piece’s basic premise is that coalitions between underground Baathist elements and foreign jihadists only were occuring AFTER the US invasion. There is no discussion of anything related to your premise.

    One question about that article: Strategic Insights claims to be “a peer-reviewed electronic journal.” Was your article subject to blind peer review? If so, what did the reviewers say about it?

  9. pete says:

    Yes – that was a nice assembly of the sort of questionable intelligence that the WHIQ cherry-picked through to prove their case, which was absolutely wrong, as we all now know.

    On the face of it, cooperation between a radical Islamic group and a secular, socialist dictator is pretty absurd. Bin Laden and friends basically wanted to remove all secular elements from the Middle East. Saddam was in their top group of people they wanted to murder. If Saddam had given them any serious weapons, they most likely would have turned them on Baghdad and Saddam.

    It’s hard to believe Saddam would be that crazy. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proofs. Our adminstration offered none. It’s a shame that our representatives in Congress didn’t investigate the claims before given Bush his war.

    And of course, it’s an even bigger shame that the adminstration felt it was so urgent to start the war that they did almost no planning for the “nation building” end of things. Because of them, we will probably go from a series of secular dictators in Iraq to potentially a radical Islamic state, unstable and in constant civil war, making it a wonderful breeding ground for terroists of all kinds.

    Thanks, George W.

  10. Herb says:

    Ken:

    You gutless, spineless, liberal liar, PRODUCE YOUR PROOF, Here and now.

    PUT UP or SHUT UP.

  11. Jack Ehrlich says:

    There was no massive Clinton bombing campaign that destroyed anything. A few cruise missles is not a massive bombing campaign. You have no idea what we have found out and what we have not found out. You on the left, use a twisted view of truth to backup your assertions. Democrats were all for deposing Saddam until the cowardly left wing base of the party got vocal, claiming it was about WMD, it was about removing Saddam. That is it and that is all.

  12. odograph says:

    You know Herb, if you applied the same standards to the “PROOF” provided by the administration before the war, you’d be on the other side of this.

    A double standard works wonders, doesn’t it?

  13. ken says:

    There was no massive Clinton bombing campaign that destroyed anything. A few cruise missles is not a massive bombing campaign.

    Jack, here’s a hint: Operation Desert Fox. Google it.

    I know it’s hard, but try not to be such an idiot next time.

  14. Sum Guy says:

    Is this the same Saddam the United States actively supported?

  15. Christoph says:

    So I’m curious when the conservatives are going to start their uproar about the Bush administration using “Fake but accurate” information to start a very costly (undebatable) and unjustifiable (possibly debatable) war.

  16. Herb says:

    Odo:

    Are you a clone of Ken?

  17. Christoph says:

    it was about removing Saddam. That is it and that is all.

    If it was only about deposing Saddam because he was a brutal dictator, then how about we also go into Cuba. How about half the sub-saharan african nations. How about the other countries in the middle east, including (and in particular) Saudi Arabia. And of course, we can’t forget about North Korea. Why aren’t were there now whipping Kim Jong Il’s ass?

    Once you start peddling that as a valid and justifiable rationale for going to pre-emptively attaching another country then you open the door to endless, bankrupting warfare. Yes, Saddam was a ‘bad man'(tm). But that wasn’t reason enough to declare war on Iraq, especially using “Fake but accurate” information.

  18. odograph says:

    I don’t know Herb, does Ken lean a little bit toward the William F Buckely, Jr. end of the conservative movement? As opposed to, the more anti-intellectual wing?

  19. james says:

    When you use as sources articles with quotes like this it’s pretty clear you don’t care about lying or at a minimum very, very, very sloppy journalism:

    ———————————-
    American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen, an opponent of the Iraq War, asserted in 2002 that “a relationship with bin Laden is as close to certain as you can get in the world of clandestine operations[9].”
    ———————————–

    Intelligence collecting is not about generalities and truisms, it’s not about reinforcing preconceptions. Yes we knew that Iraq was an unsavory regime that didn’t like us, that had contacts with other nasties, that had lied and in the past had collected dastardly weapons.

    All sorts of plausible guesses could be made from this.

    The purpose of intelligence is to try and corraboate. When you have powerful individuals presenting shaky sources as fact and doing all they can to discredit those who question, you have distorted the process.

    These people did not say “according to some curcumstantial evidence and our best guesses Iraq poses an immediate threat,” they purposefully misrepresented information to support ther view.

    This kind of distortion destroys what distinguishes our imperfect but still often effective bureacracies from the “intelligence” of “Comical Ali.”

    We have seen continuing coups within the intelligence agencies and the military to encourage “faith based” reality. Many of ouir most competent including Arabic speakers have been forced out or resigned in disgust.

    The legitimate claim that the CIA and other organizations were imperfect and perhaps inadequete does not establish that *any* change is an improvement. Things can be worse and the opinion of people like Colonel Wilkerson and General Scowcroft is that they are.

    Your argument that it is legitimate to use bad data for a higher truth is wrong. As soon as you accept this corruption as the best way to do things you are headed dowm the path of regimes like the USSR. Such regimes lost all capacity to interact with reality because they edited it.

  20. PIP says:

    When you use as sources articles with quotes like this it’s pretty clear you don’t care about lying or at a minimum very, very, very sloppy journalism:

    Given Dr. Joyner’s failure to address any of the legitimate arguments in these comments against his “Stratgeic Insights” hack job is evidence enough that his ideology is driving his “analysis.”

  21. Bill says:

    How could it be that the most secular despot in the Middle East could have a working relationship with the most extreme proponents of theocracy? Simple. There was no real relationship. Osama stated publicly that he hated Saddam because of his secularism.

    The only serious terrorist pre invasion was Zarqawi, based in the Kurdish-controlled north. According to the Pentagon, in a report published by the Washington Post, the military offered the Bush administration a plan to kill Zarqawi on three separate occasions, but the administration refused each time because killing Zarqawi would “undercut their rational for invasion.” Zarqawi has gone on to kill hundreds in Iraq and personally cut two Americans’ heads off. Why don’t conservatives hold the Bush administration responsible for this?

  22. Bill says:

    Herb: “You gutless, spineless, liberal liar, PRODUCE YOUR PROOF, Here and now.

    PUT UP or SHUT UP.”

    How funny that a Bush supporter would post something like that. Hey Herb, any thoughts on why the Bush administration would allow Zarqawi the freedom to cut Americans’ heads off?