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.
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.
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.
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 and many seasoned professionals of both parties 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.”
“Anonymous,” the senior CIA counter-terrorism official whose forthcoming Imperial Hubris has been widely anticipated by critics of Bush Administration, 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.
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.
Former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, responding to a question about Vice President Cheney’s continued insistence 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.
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.
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.”
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.