Los Angeles Times
September 9, 2006
WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday said it had found no evidence that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda or provided safe harbor to one of its most notorious operatives, Abu Musab Zarqawi — conclusions contradicting claims by the Bush administration before it invaded Iraq.
In a long-awaited report, the committee instead determined that the former Iraqi dictator was wary of Al Qaeda; repeatedly rebuffed requests from its leader, Osama bin Laden, for assistance; and sought to capture Zarqawi when the terrorist turned up in Baghdad.
The findings are the latest in a series of high-profile studies to dispute some of the Bush administration's key arguments for invading Iraq — mainly that the Hussein regime possessed stockpiles of banned weapons and had cultivated ties to terrorist networks. Presenting these since-discredited allegations as fact, President Bush and other high-ranking officials argued that Hussein's government posed an intolerable risk in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The 356-page report is certain to fuel the election-season debate over the administration's foreign policy at a time when Bush is seeking to shore up support for the war in Iraq through a series of speeches that cast the conflict as central to winning the larger war on terrorism.
Bush on Thursday again asserted that the battle in Iraq was inextricably linked to Al Qaeda, and disparaged those who considered it a "diversion" from the war on terrorism.
White House spokesman Tony Snow on Friday downplayed the significance of the report, describing it as "nothing new."
"It's kind of relitigating things that happened three years ago," Snow said. "In 2002 and 2003, members of both parties got a good look at the intelligence we had, and they came to the very same conclusions about what was going on."
In one of its main conclusions, the report said that "postwar findings indicate that Saddam Hussein was distrustful of Al Qaeda and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from Al Qaeda to provide material or operational support."
According to the report, Hussein has told U.S. interrogators that "if he wanted to cooperate with the enemies of the U.S., he would have allied with North Korea or China." His former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, told U.S. interrogators that "Saddam only expressed negative sentiments about Bin Laden."
The report's disclosures include a classified assessment by the CIA last year that Hussein's regime "did not have a relationship, harbor or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates."
The committee, made up of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, said U.S. intelligence agencies before Sept. 11 "accurately characterized" Bin Laden's intermittent interest in pursuing assistance from Iraq, but were largely wrong about Hussein's attitudes.
The Iraqi leader, according to the report, was so wary of the terrorist network that he "issued a general order that Iraq should not deal with Al Qaeda."
Democrats seized on the findings Friday to accuse the Bush administration of having distorted the threat Iraq posed.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, accused the White House of pursuing "a deceptive strategy of using intelligence reporting that the intelligence community had already warned was uncorroborated, unreliable and, in critical instances, fabricated."
The report released Friday is based largely on documents recovered from Iraqi facilities in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in March 2003, as well as interrogations of Hussein and other Iraqi officials captured by coalition forces.
As a result, it represents the most thorough comparison to date of prewar suspicions with evidence subsequently collected. Much of the information was unavailable to U.S. intelligence agencies and policymakers before the war.
The report's publication was marked by intense political wrangling within the Republican-controlled Intelligence Committee, with two GOP members — Sens. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska — breaking ranks to vote in favor of conclusions drafted by Democrats.
In a statement, Snowe cited the "obligation of our government to learn from these horrific mistakes" and complained that the intelligence panel, "once noted for its bipartisanship, has become marred by partisan feuding." Hagel was not available for comment.
The dispute put Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the committee's chairman, in the awkward position of touting the work of his panel while urging the public to ignore some of its conclusions.
"Overall, I am disappointed that some of my colleagues have twisted the facts to reach conclusions that support other agendas," Roberts said. "It is my view that the public should not focus on the conclusions in this report, but rather on the underlying facts."
In particular, Roberts objected to findings that he said overstated the influence of the Iraqi National Congress — an exile group led by Ahmad Chalabi that had close ties to the Bush administration and has been accused of funneling prewar misinformation about Baghdad's weapons programs to U.S. intelligence agencies and news organizations.
The committee devoted 207 pages to an analysis of the INC, concluding that it had "attempted to influence U.S. policy on Iraq by providing false information through defectors."
Another section focused on the erroneous prewar estimates by the CIA and other agencies that Baghdad had stockpiles of chemical and biological munitions and was pursuing the development of nuclear arms.
But the most significant new information in the report focuses on Baghdad's alleged ties to Al Qaeda.
The CIA and other intelligence agencies were generally skeptical that Hussein had significant links to the terrorist group. But Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior administration officials have persistently highlighted isolated intelligence reports suggesting a relationship between Hussein and Bin Laden. The Senate report contradicts many of those assertions.
The report concludes, for instance, that it is true that Zarqawi was in Baghdad for about seven months in 2002. But Hussein was initially unaware of his presence in the country and later ordered his intelligence services to capture Zarqawi, according to the report.
The attempt was unsuccessful, and Zarqawi escaped to Iran. He also hid in areas of northern Iraq beyond Hussein's reach. After Hussein was overthrown, Zarqawi led the deadly insurgency against U.S. forces before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike in June.
Even as administration officials insisted on a Hussein-Al Qaeda link, they steered clear of alleging a direct role by the Iraqi strongman in the Sept. 11 attacks.
And at a news conference last month, Bush said flatly that Hussein had "nothing" to do with the assaults. Still, a CNN poll released this week found that 43% of U.S. residents said they believed Hussein was personally involved in the attacks; 52% said he was not.
The committee's report also dismisses a contention repeatedly cited by Cheney that an Iraqi intelligence agent met with Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta in Prague in April 2001. That claim has bolstered public perceptions that Iraq was somehow linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.
But postwar evidence indicates no such meeting ever occurred, the committee found, citing Atta's travel and cellphone records obtained by the FBI, as well as information from the Iraqi agent alleged to have attended the meeting.
The report casts similar doubt on assertions that Iraq had provided chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda operatives, or allowed terrorist organizations to practice for attacks on aircraft at a facility south of Baghdad known as Salman Pak.
Despite reports of repeated contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the committee said, U.S. intelligence has been able to assemble evidence of only a single meeting — a 1995 encounter in Sudan between Bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence officer Faruq Hijazi.
In postwar debriefings, Hijazi said that Hussein had instructed him to "only listen" and not negotiate or offer support to Bin Laden. He said that Bin Laden "requested an office in Iraq, military training for his followers, Chinese sea mines and the broadcast of speeches from an anti-Saudi cleric."
Hijazi said that he "immediately rejected" virtually all of the requests, offering only to consider broadcasting anti-Saudi speeches.
Overall, the document portrays Hussein and his underlings as alarmed by U.S. accusations linking him to Al Qaeda.
At one point, the report said, Hussein was warned by the director of Iraq's intelligence service "that U.S. intelligence was attempting to fabricate connections between the [Iraqi intelligence services] and Al Qaeda" to justify an invasion.
The Senate report also offers new theories as to why Hussein's regime was unable to convince U.N. inspectors before the U.S. invasion that it no longer had stocks of illegal weapons.
A recent CIA analysis concluded that Hussein was stunned by the aggressiveness of weapons inspections after the 1991 Gulf War, and ordered the covert destruction of undeclared weapons and documents.
In the process, Hussein destroyed the very records U.N. inspectors sought a decade later when putting pressure on Iraq to account for its illicit weapons.
"The result was that Iraq was unable to provide proof when it tried at a later time to establish compliance," the report said, citing the CIA study.