By DAVID E. SANGER and ROBIN TONER
The New York Times
Published: June 18, 2004
President Bush< and Vice President Cheney said yesterday that they remain convinced that Saddam Hussein's government had a long history of ties to Al Qaeda, a day after the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks reported that its review of classified intelligence found no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" that linked Iraq to the terrorist organization.
Mr. Bush, responding to a reporter's question about the report after a White House cabinet meeting yesterday morning, said: "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."
He said: "This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda. 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."
He repeated that Mr. Hussein was "a threat" and "a sworn enemy to the United States of America."
Last night Mr. Cheney, who was the administration's most forceful advocate of the Qaeda-Hussein links, was more pointed, repeating in detail his case for those ties and saying that The New York Times's coverage yesterday of the commission's findings "was outrageous."
"They do a lot of outrageous things," Mr. Cheney, appearing on "Capital Report" on CNBC, said of the Times, referring specifically to a four-column front page headline that read "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie." Mr. Cheney added: "The press wants to run out and say there's a fundamental split here now between what the president said and what the commission said."
He said that newspapers, including the Times, had confused the question of whether there was evidence of Iraqi participation in Sept. 11 with the issue of whether a relationship existed between Al Qaeda and Mr. Hussein's regime.
Speaking of the commission, he said, "They did not address the broader question of a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda in other areas, in other ways." He said "the evidence is overwhelming." He described the ties and cited numerous links back to the 1990's, including contacts between Osama bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence officials.
Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, also jumped into the debate yesterday, saying: "It is clear that President Bush owes the American people a fundamental explanation about why he rushed to war for a purpose that it now turns out is not supported by the facts. That is the finding of this commission. The war against Al Qaeda is not the war in Iraq, when it began."
Staff Report 15, released by the commission Wednesday, detailed how a senior Iraqi intelligence officer "reportedly made three visits to Sudan" and met with Mr. bin Laden in 1994. At that meeting, the report concluded, Mr. bin Laden sought permission to establish training camps in Iraq and help in obtaining weapons, "but Iraq apparently never responded."
"There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," the report continued. "Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between Al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."
Mr. Cheney expressed a slightly different view last night, saying, "We have never been able to prove that there was a connection there on 9/11." He went on to cite a Czech intelligence service report that Mohammad Atta, one of the lead hijackers, met a senior Iraqi intelligence official in April 2001. "That's never been proven," he said. "It's never been refuted."
The commission report released on Wednesday concluded: "We do not believe that such a meeting occurred," citing phone records and other evidence that Mr. Atta had been in Florida at that time, not Prague.
Mr. Cheney returned to the subject of the Times's coverage later in his appearance on CNBC when Ms. Borger began saying, "But the press is making a distinction between 9/11 and . . ."