The Plain Truth

Editorial

The New York Times

Published: June 17, 2004

It's hard to imagine how the commission investigating the 2001 terrorist attacks could have put it more clearly yesterday: there was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11.

Now President Bush should apologize to the American people, who were led to believe something different.

Of all the ways Mr. Bush persuaded Americans to back the invasion of Iraq last year, the most plainly dishonest was his effort to link his war of choice with the battle against terrorists worldwide. While it's possible that Mr. Bush and his top advisers really believed that there were chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq, they should have known all along that there was no link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. No serious intelligence analyst believed the connection existed; Richard Clarke, the former antiterrorism chief, wrote in his book that Mr. Bush had been told just that.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration convinced a substantial majority of Americans before the war that Saddam Hussein was somehow linked to 9/11. And since the invasion, administration officials, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, have continued to declare such a connection. Last September, Mr. Bush had to grudgingly correct Mr. Cheney for going too far in spinning a Hussein-bin Laden conspiracy. But the claim has crept back into view as the president has made the war on terror a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.

On Monday, Mr. Cheney said Mr. Hussein "had long-established ties with Al Qaeda." Mr. Bush later backed up Mr. Cheney, claiming that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist who may be operating in Baghdad, is "the best evidence" of a Qaeda link. This was particularly astonishing because the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, told the Senate earlier this year that Mr. Zarqawi did not work with the Hussein regime.

The staff report issued by the 9/11 panel says that Sudan's government, which sheltered Osama bin Laden in the early 1990's, tried to hook him up with Mr. Hussein, but that nothing came of it.

This is not just a matter of the president's diminishing credibility, although that's disturbing enough. The war on terror has actually suffered as the conflict in Iraq has diverted military and intelligence resources from places like Afghanistan, where there could really be Qaeda forces, including Mr. bin Laden.

Mr. Bush is right when he says he cannot be blamed for everything that happened on or before Sept. 11, 2001. But he is responsible for the administration's actions since then. That includes, inexcusably, selling the false Iraq-Qaeda claim to Americans. There are two unpleasant alternatives: either Mr. Bush knew he was not telling the truth, or he has a capacity for politically motivated self-deception that is terrifying in the post-9/11 world.