9/11 Panel Members Differ on Significance of Prewar Qaeda Contacts With Baghdad's Ruler

By SUSAN JO KELLER

The New York Times

June 21, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 20 Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, reiterated Sunday that the inquiry turned up no evidence that Iraq or its former leader, Saddam Hussein, had taken part "in any way in attacks on the United States."

But Mr. Kean said that conclusion, made public last week, did not put the commission at odds with the Bush administration's contention that links existed between the terrorist group Al Qaeda and Iraq.

In an interview on the ABC News program "This Week," Mr. Kean said, "All of us understand that when you begin to use words like `relationship' and `ties' and `connections' and `contacts,' everybody has a little different definition with regard to those statements."

Vice President Dick Cheney said in an interview on Friday that "the evidence is overwhelming" of a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Asked if he had information that the commission did not have, he replied, "Probably."

Mr. Kean said Sunday that if such information exists, "we need it and we need it pretty fast." The panel concluded its public hearings last week and will now turn to writing its final report, due in late July. Mr. Kean added that the administration had been cooperative in providing material that the commission had requested during its 18-month investigation.

Mr. Cheney's statements, and the broader question of whether the commission and the administration were at odds, came up repeatedly as commission members and others made the rounds of the Sunday morning talk shows.

"I find it, frankly, shocking that the exaggerations of the administration before the war relative to that connection continue to this day," Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said in an interview on the CNN program "Late Edition."

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, appearing on the CBS News program "Face the Nation," said he had "no doubt that there was communications, meetings, connections" between terrorist groups including Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government, though not necessarily in connection with Sept. 11. Asked if the administration should turn over the additional information that the vice president talked about, he said he saw "no reason why not."

Another Republican member of the commission, John Lehman, said Sunday that new information not yet confirmed suggested that a lieutenant colonel in Mr. Hussein's Fedayeen fighter force was a "very prominent member" of Al Qaeda.

"We are now in the process of getting this latest intelligence," he said in an interview on the NBC News program "Meet the Press."

Mr. Lehman also predicted that the commission's final report would include unanimous recommendations for change in the intelligence services, which he said could not distinguish "between a bicycle crash and a train wreck."

"It is dysfunctional," he said. "It needs fundamental change, not just tweaking and moving the deck chairs or the organization boxes around."