By PHILIP SHENON and CHRISTOPHER MARQUIS
The New York Times
Published: June 17, 2004
WASHINGTON, June 16 - The staff of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks sharply contradicted one of President Bush's central justifications for the Iraq war, reporting on Wednesday that there did not appear to have been a "collaborative relationship" between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The assertion came in staff reports that offer a chilling, richly detailed chronology of the Sept. 11 plot and rewrite much of the history of the attacks.
The chronology, based on the panel's review of highly classified accounts of interrogations of captured Qaeda leaders, shows that Osama bin Laden was far more intimately involved in the planning of the attacks than previously known and approved the selection of each of the 19 hijackers. It also shows that the original plot called for attacks that would have been even larger and more deadly.
The commission's investigators said in a pair of reports released at a public hearing that Mr. bin Laden and his deputies discussed target lists as early as 1999 that would have included the White House, the Capitol, C.I.A. and F.B.I. headquarters, nuclear power plants and skyscrapers in California and Washington State. The plot involved hijacking 10 jets instead of 4 and, the commission's staff said, originally included a plan for simultaneous hijackings of American passenger planes in Southeast Asia.
The reports say that Mr. bin Laden, who has been depicted in the past as being far less involved in the logistics of the operation, ordered the Sept. 11 attacks over the opposition of many of his advisers and of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader in Afghanistan.
"Bin Laden effectively overruled their objections, and the attacks went forward," one report said, adding that Mr. bin Laden "thought that an attack against the United States would reap Al Qaeda a recruiting and fund-raising bonanza."
The commission's investigators said information found in a captured Qaeda computer showed that Mohamed Atta, a ringleader of the plot and the pilot of one of the hijacked planes, selected the date for the attacks, choosing a day after the first week of September, when he knew that Congress would be in session after a summer recess. The report said information suggested that the Capitol was the target of the hijacked United Airlines plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11.
As for Iraq, the commission's staff said its investigation showed that the government of Mr. Hussein had rebuffed or ignored requests from Qaeda leaders for help in the 1990's, a conclusion that directly contradicts a series of public statements President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made before and after last year's invasion of Iraq in justifying the war.
"We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States," one of the staff reports released on Wednesday said. "Bin Laden is said to ha ve requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded." The report said that despite evidence of repeated contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the 90's, "they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship."
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 Mr. 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.
"It is not inconsistent for Iraq to have ties with Al Qaeda and not to have been involved in 9/11 or other potential plots against America," Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent in the November election, said tha t the reports by the Sept. 11 commission were evidence that the "administration misled America, the administration reached too far." In an interview with the Detroit radio station WDET, Mr. Kerry said that "they did not tell the truth to Americans about what was happening or their own intentions."
While Republican members of the bipartisan commission suggested in the past that their investigation might support the White House by uncovering broad links between Mr. Hussein and the terrorist network, the full panel appeared to embrace the staff reports, suggesting that they would be used as the framework for chapters in the commission's final report next month.
"There were systematic efforts by Al Qaeda to connect with Iraq - many of them failed," Thomas H. Kean, a Republican and former governor of New Jersey, said in an interview.