The New York Times
July 20, 2004
WASHINGTON, July 19 - President Bush said on Monday that the United States was actively investigating ties between the Iranian government and Al Qaeda, including intelligence unearthed by the independent Sept. 11 commission showing that Iran may have offered safe passage to terrorists who were later involved in the attacks.
Mr. Bush noted in a brief Oval Office meeting with reporters that the Central Intelligence Agency had found "no direct connection between Iran and the attacks of Sept.11," but he said "We will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved."
Intelligence officials have said emphatically that while Iran's Muslim fundamentalist leaders appeared to have offered a transit point to some of the Sept. 11 terrorists and other Qaeda members, there was nothing to indicate that Iran knew in advance about the plot.
Mr. Bush's comments came as the White House suggested for the first time that it was open to a proposal for the creation of a national intelligence director post, which is expected to be the central recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission in its final report.
The long-awaited report is due out on Thursday, and government officials who have been briefed on its contents say the commission will call for appointment of a so-called spy czar to oversee all 15 of the nation's intelligence agencies, including the C.I.A., the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Mr. Bush did not comment on news reports about the commission's proposal for a national intelligence director, but he said, "The 9/11 commission will issue a report this week and evidently will lay out recommendations for reform of the intelligence services of the United States," adding, "I look forward to seeing those recommendations."
"They share the same desires I share, which is to make sure that the president and the Congress gets the best possible intelligence," he said, referring to the 10-member bipartisan commission. "Some of the reforms I think are necessary: more human intelligence, the better ability to listen or to see things and better coordination amongst the variety of intelligence-gathering services."
Scott McClellan, Mr. Bush's press secretary, went further in suggesting that the White House would be receptive to the commission's proposal for a national intelligence director.
Mr. McClellan pointedly distanced the administration from comments made over the weekend by the acting director of central intelligence, John E. McLaughlin, who warned in a television interview against creation of an intelligence director, saying it would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to intelligence gathering.
Mr. McClellan said Mr. McLaughlin had been expressing a personal view, not necessarily that of the administration, and he said the White House was eager to see the commission's final report. "The president is open to additional ideas that build upon the reforms we are already implementing," he said.
The evidence about an Iran-Qaeda tie contrasts sharply with what the Sept. 11 commission staff has concluded is a dearth of intelligence showing a working relationship between Iraq and the terror network, a judgment that has alarmed the White House since it appears to undermine a central justification of last year's invasion of Iraq.
Government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the commission's report would offer extensive new evidence to show that Iran had provided logistical support over the years to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.
Most alarmingly, they said, the commission recently obtained intelligence showing that Iran had allowed as many as 10 of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks to pass through border stations in late 1990 and early 1991 without having their passports stamped, making it easier for them to enter the United States without raising suspicions.
In his television interview on Sunday, Mr. McLaughlin said eight of the hijackers had passed through Iran "at some point in their passage along their operational path." But he cautioned that the C.I.A. did not have evidence to implicate Iran in the attacks.
"We have no evidence that there is some sort of official sanction by the government of Iran for this activity," he said. "We have no evidence that there is some sort of official connection between Iran and 9/11."
In his meeting with reporters on Monday, Mr. Bush seemed to suggest that despite the C.I.A.'s appraisal, the administration believed there might in fact be an Iranian connection to Sept. 11.
"As to direct connections with September the 11th, you know we're digging into the facts to determine if there was one," he said. "We will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved."
He also said: "I have long expressed my concerns about Iran. After all, it's a totalitarian society where free people are not allowed to, you know, exercise their rights as human beings." He said, "This has been an issue that I have been concerned about ever since I've been the president."
But Mr. McClellan, his spokesman, later suggested to reporters that the president's remarks should not be read to imply that the United States had any evidence that Iran knew in advance about the Sept. 11 plot. "There's no evidence to suggest anything there," he said.
A spokesman for the Sept. 11 commission, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, said the panel welcomed the president's comments suggesting that he was receptive to its findings and that he would act on the report.
"We're gratified by the president's comments," said the spokesman, Al Felzenberg, who said the commission planned to brief Mr. Bush and Congressional leaders in person about the findings of the report before its release to the public on Thursday.
In a statement, the panel's vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, a former House member from Indiana, said the commission hoped "that the president and the Congress study our recommendations with care and act on them quickly." Mr. Hamilton added: "The terrorist threat to the United States has not disappeared. Future attacks are expected."
Mr. Felzenberg said the report had been completed over the weekend and sent to publishers on Monday morning. The government's version is being published by the Government Printing Office, while a private, authorized version is being published by W. W. Norton, which is planning to distribute 500,000 copies to bookstores across the country.
Mr. Felzenberg said that a pre-publication review of the report by the White House had gone relatively smoothly and that in declassifying the book-length document, the White House had not demanded any substantial editing of the contents.
"I was told that none of the contents were changed, none of the findings," he said, adding that there would be no deletions or whited-out pages in the report released to the public. "We had a good experience with the White House on this."