Blogs > Liberty and Power > Osama and Saddam, Yet Again

Jun 17, 2004 9:52 am

Osama and Saddam, Yet Again

For many months now, a debate has raged about the possibility of links between Saddam Hussein's regime and Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. I doubt that this debate will be ended any time soon, but I do think that the evidence offered up till now has been tenuous and speculative at best; if such a formal link had been documented in the days leading up to the US invasion, it would have impacted considerably on my own views of that campaign, even if it would never have altered my opposition to nation building as a foreign policy goal. In this regard, I share much with the 2000 Presidential Campaign Candidate, George W. Bush

In response to a Weekly Standard piece written by Stephen Hayes, who has published a new book on the subject of"The Connection," I've written a number of brief posts (see, for example, here, here and here), and have read a lot of very interesting literature, both pro and con (see, for example, here, here, and here).

It now seems, however, that the 9/11 Commission, which has access to many confidential, classified documents, has declared, finally, that there was no operational link between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

I don't think anyone has denied that there were talks between various individuals connected to Al Qaeda and the Ba'athist regime in Iraq. But these talks never materialized into any kind of formal," collaborative relationship," like, say, that between the Taliban and Bin Laden's thugs.

A Hussein regime, in possession of WMDs, and in a" collaborative relationship" with Al Qaeda, would have been a threat to the security of the United States, in my opinion, meriting some kind of action. That Hussein possessed neither WMDs nor a cozy relationship with Bin Laden fortifies further my judgment that this war was an unnecessary and deeply troubling drain on national security resources at a time when Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-ism marches on.

Unfortunately, the situation in Iraq now makes US extrication impossible, practically speaking, insofar as the structural institutionalization of the US presence will not be challenged by either George W. Bush or his potential successor, John Kerry. Worse still, the"magnet theory" has failed: Al Qaeda may have been drawn into Iraq to do battle with the American"infidels," as the Bush administration predicted, but it has not departed from anywhere else on the planet; from Madrid to Riyadh, from Cleveland, Ohio to Brooklyn, New York, its minions continue to conspire. This"War on Terrorism" has many chapters left, and the outcome is by no means certain.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

To Keith: Those who claim that there was "no" evidence of a connection between Al Qaeda and Baathist Iraq are flouting the evidence. The question is not whether there was evidence of *a* connection but: what are the implications of the evidence we actually have? This has nothing to do with "proving a negative." Those claiming "no connection" now have the burden of dealing with the evidence indicating a connection. That this evidence exists is incontrovertible, and at this point anyone who denies it simply has to catch up and learn what the evidence actually indicates. I'd recommend reading Stephen Hayes's "The Connection" for that.

Incidentally, I rather doubt that an Al Qaeda operative like Atta would have flown specifically to Prague to meet with the #2 Iraqi diplomatic officer in the Iraqi embassy to talk about soccer scores. But if you want to keep that hypothesis in the running, be my guest. The fact is that no one knows what they talked about (assuming the meeting took place), but since both men were known terrorists, and Atta's various preceding trips to Prague were conducted under mysterious circumstances, a meeting would itself be suspicious.

Likewise, those who said there were "no" WMDs were simply wrong--and have been demonstrated to be wrong. WMD were found before the war (mustard gas bombs were declared to the inspectors and destroyed by UNMOVIC), and have now been found as well (both sarin and mustard gas rounds were recently found). Both UNMOVIC and the Iraq Survey group assert now, and have consistently asserted since the passage of UN Res 1441, that it is impossible to assert with certainty that there are/were "no" WMD in Iraq. I am curious to know where you have gotten the confidence to overrule their judgment.

Prior to the war, there was no evidential basis *whatsoever* for the claiming that there were "no WMD." What we now have is an evidential basis for surmising that there are probably no large stocks of WMD--a basis that we got because we invaded the country and took a look. But the surmise is only probable, and anyway, "absence of large stocks" does not = "absence of WMD." WMD include stocks, programs and capacities. There is also the hypothesis that WMD have been smuggled out of the country. The jury is out on all of that.

As for Arnold's point, the presumption of innocence governs a trial after an indictment has been made. It doesn't govern the investigation that leads up to the indictment. If it did, you'd have the logical paradox of having to try someone before investigating them in order to declare their guilt before putting them on trial. That makes no sense whatsoever. You have simply taken the "presumption of innocence" out of its proper context and applied it to something to which it is totally irrelevant.

The presumption of innocence would be irrelevant to the investigative phase of a prosecution even if we were talking about an ordinary crime. But we are not talking about anything like that. We are talking an investigation into covert activities outside the context of the criminal law. The question is whether there is enough evidence of an Iraq-Qaeda connection to warrant a thorough investigation. The answer is that there is. The 9/11 Commission has neither conducted such an investigation nor said anything that rules out the need to conduct one.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Chris, I am curious what you think of reporting of the 9/11 Commission's treatment of the controversial "Prague" connection. From what I've read in the NY Times, it strikes me as feeble and borderline dishonest. I'm thinking of James Risen's article in today's Times, "No Evidence of Meeting with Iraqi," A14 of the print version.

Risen asserts that reports of the Prague meeting "surfaced" after 9/11 (as though they were mere rumors), and says that reports of the meeting were "repeatedly cited by some Bush administration officials and others...."

Why aren't the "others" mentioned? Jan Kavan and Edward Jay Epstein are not Bush administration officials. The first is a top Czech diplomat, the second is a left-leaning journalist. Both take the Prague meeting very seriously. Why is it necessary to link the Prague story so insistently to Dick Cheney while never discussing the non-Bush sources who have seriously advanced it?

Risen then asserts that "commission staff disclosed for the first time FBI evidence that strongly suggested that Mr Atta was in the US at the time of the supposed Prague meeting." The phrase "disclosed for the first time" is ambiguous. What was "disclosed for the first time" were the actual physical *pieces* of evidence, not their contents. It is old hat that the FBI believes that Atta was in Florida on April 8/9, 2001 (the date of the Prague meeting), and that it does so on the basis of bank surveillance footage and cellphone records. What was disclosed was the actual physical footage and records. Their contents have been known for years.

Incidentally, the FBI's track record on such issues is not exemplary. Think of the Wen Ho Lee scandal, their handling of the Atlanta Olympics bombing, their handling of the Oklahoma City evidence, their failure to track the 9/11 hijackers, or Robert Mueller's false assertion after 9/11 that the FBI had no knowledge of Arab men being trained in flight-training facilities. Not to mention their failure to resolve the anthrax murders.

But what difference does "disclosure" of the physical evidence make? Risen cites two pieces of evidence:

1) Atta withdrew money from his bank account in VA on April 4. How this precludes his being in Prague on April 8/9 is unclear to me, unless he was trying to get there by foot, ship, or Conestoga wagon.

2) We are then told that there are records that Atta's cellphone was being used on April 6, 9, 10 and 11 in Florida. (Ah...but how did he get to Florida on the 6th if he was in Virginia on the 4th...? A mystery....) Since a person is not metaphysically identical with his cellphone, I am not sure what this is supposed to show.

Consider: An eyewitness currently claims that my girlfriend is in Paris right now (the eyewitness is her mother). And yet my girlfriend's cellphone records show calls being made this very morning from New Jersey! Should we infer that contrary to eyewitness accounts, my girlfriend is really in NJ? Are no other hypotheses possible?

Finally, Risen asserts that the commission said "that the meeting never took place." But that's ambiguous, too. Does
he mean that the Atta-Ani meeting didn't take place--or that NO meeting of ANY kind involving Ani took place in Prague? If he means the latter, then what precisely was the Czech government's justification for expelling Ani from the country? And what does Risen (or anyone) have to say to the Czech intelligence officer who witnessed a meeting between Ani and some as-yet undetermined person? Was he lying? Mistaken? What? Risen says that "Czech officials said they had received reports that Mr Atta had met" Ani in Prague. "Received?" It was the Czech intelligence service that was the *source* of the report! Risen derides this source as a mere "single source." But the "single source" was more physically proximate to the event than any source that has denied the meeting (except perhaps Al Ani himself, who is a professional liar).

What is astonishing about this article--and why I call it borderline dishonest--is that its headline claims that it is about the Prague meeting, but the meeting is discussed (incompetently) only in about six paragraphs of an eighteen-paragraph article. Little of the rest of the article has anything to do with Prague. Risen makes no attempt anywhere in the article to discuss the broader context that makes the idea of an Atta/Ani meeting plausible (e.g., the 1998 Iraqi plot to bomb Radio Free Europe in Prague, and RFE's role in anti-Iraqi propaganda). Nor does he raise, even by implication, any of the obvious questions I've raised here. Without answers to those questions, however, we know nothing--and can rule out nothing. If this is all that the 9/11 Commission has on the subject (I'll wait for the report to see for myself), they have nothing.

Putting aside what the 9/11 C report says, what's eminently clear is that this isn't responsible reporting. It's a travesty, obviously motivated by partisan considerations--and a microcosm of the incompetence that's governed reporting of this issue from the very beginning.

A last point: I've referred to the (alleged) Prague meeting as taking place on April 8/9, because there is now dispute about whether it's to have taken place on the 8th or 9th. Risen now says 9th; I have previously seen 8th.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I agree that the Bush Administration played fast and loose with the intelligence. Thankfully, I didn't vote for Bush and don't intend to. My whole complaint is with the insistence on framing the debate in terms of party affiliations.

Maureen Dowd's column is surreal in its stupidity--par for the course with her. If anyone deserves the Stepford designation, she does. She is the one who has repeated over and over that bin Laden would never cooperate with Hussein because of UBL's antipathy to Saddam's secularism. She seems to have missed Gov Kean's assertion that bin Laden "systematically" sought to cooperate with Iraq but was (apparently) rebuffed by *Saddam*. Apparently, in Dowd's universe, a systematic desire to cooperate equals an aversion to cooperation. And a quotation from "two senior Al Qaeda" operatives is something to be taken at face value. In this universe, Dick Cheney and George Bush are liars, but senior Al Qaeda operatives are representatives of candor and probity.

Of course, since the leaders of Saudi Arabia are ultimately secularists in religious disguise, and bin Laden has previously cooperated with them, it's a little unclear what earthly basis anyone would have for holding the "no cooperation with secularists" dogma in the first place. Anyone who knows a bit of Islamic history knows that the Prophet Muhammad himself cooperated with outright pagans in the Treaty of Hudaibiyah. So unless bin Laden takes himself to be more Muslim than the Prophet--which would be blasphemy--I have yet to see any remotely plausible theological reason why he wouldn't cooperate with secularists if he thought it would serve his ends.

On the same subject: if bin Laden would "never" cooperate with anyone secular, what does Maureen Dowd make of the Commission's findings about Ziad al Jarrah? Ziad al Jarrah was about as secular as they come. Why did bin Laden tolerate Jarrah when he (bin Laden) had no dearth of true believers to do the same job? Don't expect Maureen Dowd to look into that one.

For what it's worth, I think the main intelligence "mangling" has come from the FBI--the one agency responsible more than any other for the failures that led to 9/11. But you're right, Chris: we don't have a good reason to feel secure. We aren't.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/18/2004


You made an excellent point, when mentioning kind of 'presumption of innocence' issue in regard to the
Bin Laden- Hussein connection and WMD.
I was raising basically the same issue for months by now without receiving a single coherent and logically solid response from any supporter of Bush-Cheney 'legend', who stubbonly maintain the lost position on the issue.
Since when the accused has to prove they are innocent?
Isn't it the full responsibility of the accusers to
prove the guilt 'beyond a reasonable doubt', even when
a fate of just one person is concerned, not mentioning
the millions of people?
This should be the focus of the respective discussion, not some circumstantial evidence, even if it is confirmed.

Keith Halderman - 6/18/2004

The only reason the average America cared about Iraq was because the neo-conservatives and the Bush administration were constantly promoting the idea that he was a threat. They were the ones talking about WMDs (that turned out to have been already destroyed) and implicily claiming involvement with 9-11 (which was untrue). Without this self-generated propaganda they could have come to an accomadation with Hussein, a natural enemy of Bin Laden concerned solely with self-preservation. He could have been turned into an asset in the war on terror, a political plus.

Jason Pappas - 6/18/2004

I certainly can't argue with that in any fundamental way.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 6/18/2004

I agree that a principled intellectual war is a prerequisite.

The problem that I have been noting, however, for a very long time now is this: The political economy of what Rand called "the New Fascism"---her description of the current social system---is such that principles are the first thing sacrificed, along with honesty, integrity, independence, and justice. The system itself both creates and reproduces the pressure groups that gain power over the apparatus of political decision-making. This takes place in the realms of both domestic and foreign policy, and the process is reciprocally reinforcing.

So, while I thoroughly agree that an intellectual war is a prerequisite and that US "alliances" are often as (or more) problematic than the "enemies" it targets, the bald truth is that little can be done to alter the structural dynamics of this social system once its players set into motion certain broad policies. The means by which political decisions are made are so deeply embedded in institutional structures that no change in leadership makes a fundamental difference.

Now, it is true that Presidents can make a rhetorical difference; witness Reagan. But for all his libertarian-tinged rhetoric, for all his profound influence on the parameters of American political debate, he did very little to alter the structural dynamics of the system. The welfare and regulatory state remains intact, the budget deficits never really went away (creative budgeting notwithstanding), and the incestuous ties of business and government at home, and abroad, are as strong as ever.

I don't wish to imply that the US can't do anything before it transforms everything fundamentally; that would be a prescription for nonaction in the face of any threats to national security. But because it can't alter everything, it needs to focus on doing a few things ~right~. And in my view, the Iraq war was not one of these ~right~ things.

Be that as it may: The US presence in Iraq is now a fact, and the complications that have been set in motion were a necessary consequence of the insidious Wilsonian premises upon which that presence was built.

Jason Pappas - 6/18/2004

I'm not too sure what you mean here.

However, let me introduce another factor. You may notice how the 9/11 commission continues to imply that more action should have been taken on the tiniest sliver of evidence or even rumor. Now, imagine if we didn’t invade Iraq. The continual reports about Saddam would have created a ground swell from Bush’s opposition: why aren’t we doing something about Iraq? Regime change was Clinton’s policy as was bombing Iraq and sanctions (via the UN). Given Saddam’s history, I don’t see how Bush could have avoided doing something about Saddam. With Saddam there are many claims, articles, books, media reports and rumors. If Saddam did become involve in some hostile act or attack, imagine the political costs.

I can imagine an intelligent and articulate President creating a clear and coherent policy which avoided action in Iraq – but not Bush. Bush is severely handicapped. Now that is a problem of his own making! Now, I'm guess I'm focusing too much on the man when criticism should be directed against his policy and principles (or lack of them).

Jason Pappas - 6/18/2004

What Chafetz is saying is true. Bush is an intellectual coward. He won't name what we are fighting but refers to the enemy by the tactic they are using. Thus, his program has no moral clarity or clear aim. And he is friendly with Saudi Arabia, who clearly embraces, in principle and practice, the Islamo-fascist movement. His Pragmatist approach is failing in the field and losing his support at home. Hmmmm. Who taught us about that?

I've been arguing on Atlantis II that a vigorous intellectual war and propaganda campaign is a prerequisite to a successful war or, even better yet, a substitute. And it makes it clear when and where military force should be used and in what limited manner. As you make clear, but few pick up, nation building is not appropriate. Nor is coalition-building (entangling alliances) - with a few exceptions for immediate action against common threats.

Keith Halderman - 6/17/2004

There may have been political costs to not invading Iraq but they would been entirely self-generated.

Keith Halderman - 6/17/2004

While we are discussing this issue let us keep one thing in mind, those who argue that there was no connection between Bin Laden and Hussein are being asked to prove a negative just as those who said there were no WMDs and therefore no threat. This is impossible and the argument can go on forever.

Even if you could prove that some kind of meeting took place, what would that mean? What did they talk about? Maybe it was the soccer scores.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 6/17/2004

Irfan sent me the link offlist to the Risen article:

Now having read this, I do think I'm going to have to read the report when it is issued.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 6/17/2004

Jason, I agree that there were political costs involved in doing nothing; however, I also believe that the Bush administration was predisposed to taking out Hussein. If it had not been pressing this case, I could not imagine how the political costs would have been prohibitive, considering that the administration still had its hands full with Al Qaeda, on which blame for the 9/11 attack was firmly placed. Demands for military action against that network would certainly have quenched the cultural thirst for justice.

I do agree that we are ultimately debating strategy here; but in terms of political costs---I sincerely doubt that this administration will do anything to undermine the House of Sa'ud.

BTW, I think you'd find this article by Zev Chafets interesting; I don't agree with Chafets---but he does have a point about how the case for war against Iraq was seriously undermined by the administration's own rhetorical failings:

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 6/17/2004

Irfan, I must confess that I've not seen the print version of the NY TIMES today, and have tried to access the James Risen article that you mention online... and it appears nowhere on the site. Like you, I would prefer to read the 9/11 Commission report when it comes out; I suspect that it will make a lot of people very unhappy on all ends of this debate.

I, myself, do not believe the case is "closed" to debate; but this is the kind of thing that should have been ~nailed~, intelligence wise, in order to build the case for military action against the Hussein regime.

I don't think one has to be a rocket scientist to know, however, that there is enormous bias going on all over the political map on this question, which is why I think this debate is not going to be put to rest any time soon. Take a look at Maureen Dowd today <
>, and you'll see the same axe-grinding against Vice President Cheney. I think there's no doubt that the intelligence agencies mangled so much concerning the 9/11 attack. How can anyone feel secure seeing such a massive failure across so many dimensions?

Jason Pappas - 6/17/2004

The commission seems to be going into details which had no sway in the policy decision. In the big picture, Saddam is a decades-long sadistic mass murderer who has used WMD and ambition to produce WMD. His deliberately cultivated image of supporting terrorists and WMD posturing was enough for the American people to demand that something be done. The political costs of doing nothing were far greater than the costs of doing something. I still believe you’re not fully appreciating the cultural forces that allow for or restrict support for a war.

I agree, however, that the nation-building was never a popular objective except for a short period of time when supporters believed it would be at no additional cost. It’s the nation-building that has been the costliest part in terms of lives, wealth, and political support. If the Iraqi government was left in place and the top leaders removed, we could have been out of Iraq in a month or two. After all, Chris, you would have supported an invasion under some circumstances. The question of how to fight a war still remains an important question.

And, finally, you are completely correct on Saudi Arabia. Here is a case where any President could rally the country against the corrupt Saudi regime and fountainhead of the Islamists movement (not that war is needed). Iraq is a surrogate target for many people.

Again, you're a big picture guy like any philosopher - especially the dialectical kind. You might want to explore these cultural forces especially since there will most likely be another attack on US soil. Let the others nickel and dime the day to day run-up to 9/11 or Iraq. If we can focus and prepare for the future …