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The Iraq-Al Qaeda Link Revisited

WASHINGTON - MARCH 27: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (L) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) hold a news conference at the US Capitol March 27, 2007 in Washington, DC.
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This column was written by Thomas Joscelyn.
Last week, the Washington Post ("Hussein's Prewar Ties To Al Qaeda Discounted") covered the latest round in Senator Levin's ongoing struggle to prove that the connection between Iraq and al Qaeda was nothing more than a fiction. Levin has been at this game for a while, and this time the Post's story centered on Levin's request for the declassification of a report written by the Pentagon's acting inspector general, Thomas F. Gimble. The report's conclusion: a Pentagon analysis shop, once headed by former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, "developed, produced, and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al Qaeda relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision-makers."

The inspector general determined that Feith's shop did nothing illegal, but still maintained that his office's analyses were "inappropriate." Why? According to the inspector general, Feith & Co. did not sufficiently explain that their conclusions were at odds with the CIA's (and the DIA's) judgments. That was enough for Levin to go on the attack once again.

But Levin's story, which was simply repeated without any real investigation by the Post or even the inspector general's office, relies on a false dichotomy. The senator now pretends that the CIA and other intelligence outfits had reached a rock-solid conclusion that there was no noteworthy relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda in 2002, but Feith's shop improperly pressed on. The Post summarized the inspector general's report as saying: "the CIA had concluded in June 2002 that there were few substantiated contacts between al Qaeda operatives and Iraqi officials and had said that it lacked evidence of a long-term relationship like the ones Iraq had forged with other terrorist groups."

This is simply revisionist history at its worst.

Although there were certainly disagreements between the CIA and Feith's shop, both argued in 2002 that there was a relationship between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda. George Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, stated the CIA's position quite clearly in an October 7, 2002 letter to then head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Bob Graham, D-Fla. Tenet explained, "We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade." Iraq and al Qaeda "have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression." Tenet warned, "We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs." And, "Iraq's increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda, suggest that Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action."

Tenet was far from alone in these assessments. Michael Scheuer, the one-time head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, also used to be certain that Iraq and al Qaeda were working together. Scheuer's first book on al Qaeda, "Through Our Enemies' Eyes," which was published in 2002, went into elaborate detail about the support the Iraqi regime was providing to al Qaeda. Among the areas of concern was Iraq's ongoing support for al Qaeda's chemical weapons development projects in the Sudan.

In 2004, after fashioning a career as a critic of the Bush administration, Scheuer did an about face. He suddenly claimed that there was no evidence of a relationship. He even decided to re-write history — literally. He revised "Through Our Enemies' Eyes" to be consistent with his newly formed opinion by claiming he was simply mistaken.

The bottom line is that members of the CIA, including the Agency's director, certainly believed in 2002 that there was a relationship between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda. And no matter what he says now, Senator Levin knows that. In a June 16, 2003 appearance on "NewsHour," Senator Levin explained:

"We were told by the intelligence community that there was a very strong link between al Qaeda and Iraq, and there were real questions raised. And there are real questions raised about whether or not that link was such that the description by the intelligence community was accurate or whether or not they [note: "they" here refers to the intelligence community, not the Bush administration] stretched it."

The idea that Feith's analysts cooked up the connection, while the CIA shunned the very notion, is pure fantasy — a fantasy dreamed up by Senator Levin and some former CIA members who have repeatedly made clear their disdain for the Bush administration.

But all of this is almost entirely beside the point. Instead of focusing on Levin's "who said what in Washington" game, we'd be better served by focusing on the best evidence available: Saddam's own intelligence files. Here, the Post's account is thoroughly lacking.

The story leads off with this startling conclusion, purportedly gleaned from the inspector general's report:

"Captured Iraqi documents and intelligence interrogations of Saddam Hussein and two former aides 'all confirmed' that Hussein's regime was not directly cooperating with al Qaeda before the U.S. invasion of Iraq "