Bush's View on Qaeda-Iraq Ties Remains Unchanged After Report

By MARIA NEWMAN

The New York Times

Published: June 17, 2004

A day after the commission investigating 9/11 reported that it had found no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, President Bush reiterated today that there were nonetheless links between the terror group and the Iraqi dictator.

"The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda is because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda," Mr. Bush told reporters after a cabinet meeting today.

But the 9/11 commission staff's lengthy chronology of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, said that although there was evidence of repeated contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the 1990's, "they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship."

In the 1990's, the commission staff determined, Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, approached the Hussein government seeking "space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons." But all indications were that Iraq rebuffed or "never responded" to the requests, the report said, emphasizing that "we have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."

The White House said on Wednesday that it did not see the commission's staff reports as a contradiction of past statements by Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and that the administration had always been careful not to suggest that it had proof of a tie between Mr. Hussein and Sept. 11. Nevertheless, opinion polls show that the majority of Americans believe Iraq and Mr. Hussein had a hand in planning and executing the 9/11 attacks, and critics of the administration say that Mr. Bush and his aides have fueled that public misperception by remarks such as the president made today.

Mr. Bush and his aides stressed today that they never went as far as to say that Mr. Hussein himself was involved in the planning of the attacks.

"This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda," the president said. "We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. For example, Iraqi intelligence officers met with bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda, in the Sudan. There's numerous contacts between the two."

At a White House press briefing this afternoon, Scott McClellan, the president's chief spokesman, said the report did not contradict the president, and he said that he was not necessarily troubled that the administration might be contributing to a misperception about 9/11 and Iraq.

"I guess I don't look at polls and look at it in those terms," he said. "In terms of this administration, we laid out the facts very clearly for the American people."

Later, Thomas H. Kean, the chairman of the commission, and Lee H. Hamilton, the commission vice chairman, sought to parse what the president said.

"What we have found is that, were there contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq? Yes." Mr. Kean said. "Some of it is shadowy, but there's no question they were there. That is correct. What our staff statement found is there is no credible evidence that we can discover, after a long investigation, that Iraq and Saddam Hussein in any way were part of the attack on the United States."

Mr. Hamilton said he had "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," Mr. Hamilton said. "We don't disagree with that. What we have said is what the governor just said, 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."

Still, the president's critics, including his presumed Democratic opponent in November, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, have maintained for some time that Mr. Bush has misrepresented Mr. Hussein's links to terrorists in making the case for war in Iraq. Mr. Kerry, who voted for the Congressional resolution that led to the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, said on Wednesday that the commission's reports were evidence that the "administration misled America, the administration reached too far."

"They did not tell the truth to Americans about what was happening or their own intentions," Mr. Kerry said in an interview with the Detroit radio station WDET.

Speaking to a conservative think tank in Florida on Monday, Mr. Cheney said that Mr. Saddam "had long-established ties with Al Qaeda."

"It's not surprising people make that connection," he said about the polls.

The president himself made clear today that he has no regrets over his remarks.

"I always said that Saddam Hussein was a threat," Mr. Bush said today. "He was a threat because he had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people. He was a threat because he was a sworn enemy to the United States of America, just like Al Qaeda. "

The president, in a lengthy answer to one reporter's question after the cabinet meeting, talked about Mr. Hussein's connections to other terrorist organizations.

"He was a threat, and the world is better off and America is more secure without Saddam Hussein in power," he said.