Stephen Hayes: Conservatives' favorite authority on "The Connection"

››› ››› SHANT MESROBIAN

Weekly Standard staff writer and author of the book The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America (released on June 1 by Rupert Murdoch's publishing house HarperCollins), Stephen F. Hayes has appeared in recent months on numerous cable and Sunday talk shows to support his contention that there was indeed a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Despite vigorous critiques that have undermined the credibility of Hayes's contention, conservative pundits have embraced Hayes and his book in order to, in the words of Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow Daniel A. Benjamin, "shore up the rickety argument that Baathist Iraq had posed a real national security threat to the United States."

Questions surrounding Hayes's journalistic credibility have been documented by Media Matters for America. His book, which largely relies on the leaking of a discredited Defense Department intelligence memo, was released by the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins and has been vigorously promoted by Hayes in the pages of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard. On February 17, the British daily newspaper The Guardian published a report of Murdoch's support for the Iraq war and the resulting bias in Murdoch-owned media outlets. In addition, the Murdoch-owned New York Post on June 27 gave Hayes's book a glowing review. The review was written by Kenneth R. Timmerman, a senior writer for the conservative Washington Times' sister publication, Insight on the News; in April, Media Matters for America documented Timmerman's assertion in Insight on the News that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq but that the media has chosen to let the story go unreported.

A June 2 Washington Post review by professor and former FBI counterterrorism analyst Matthew A. Levitt took a different tack: "A constellation of suggestions, however, still is not a convincing argument. 'The Connection' raises several important questions, but it left me unconvinced." The only other favorable review of the book by a major newspaper was The Wall Street Journal's on June 22, written by senior editorial page writer Robert L. Pollock:

A reader wanting to make sense of all this couldn't do better than Stephen Hayes's 'The Connection.'[...] In this balanced and careful account, Mr. Hayes describes dangerous liaisons so numerous that, it is clear, leaving Saddam in power was not a responsible option after 9/11.

[...]

Far from exaggerating the evidence linking Iraq and al Qaeda, the Bush administration has soft-pedaled two of the most suggestive connections between Saddam's regime and the 9/11 plot itself.

[...]

One of these goes by the name of Ahmed Hikmat Shakir and is the subject of Mr. Hayes's first chapter.

Coincidentally, a June 21 article by Jonathan S. Landay of Knight Ridder Newspapers and a June 22 article by Washington Post staff writers Walter Pincus and Dan Eggen have called into question this very claim. The first chapter of Hayes's book, as well as an entire Weekly Standard article by Hayes that is adapted from his book, tells the story of how Christopher Carney, deputy to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith, discovered that the name (Ahmed Hikmat Shakir) of an airport greeter for Al Qaeda in Malaysia is the same as that of one of Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen personal militia officers. Hayes wrote, "The Shakir story is perhaps the government's strongest indication that Saddam and al Qaeda may have worked together on September 11." But Landay, as well as Pincus and Eggen, reported that, according to a senior administration official, the story was most likely the result of "confusion over names."

Hayes's first extensive foray into the topic of "the connection" was a cover story in the November 24, 2003, issue of The Weekly Standard titled "Case Closed," which was based on the leak of a classified Defense Department intelligence written by Feith. The memo outlined numerous data points in support of the possible theory that Saddam Hussein had a working relationship with Al Qaeda. Hayes wrote:

Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al Qaeda--perhaps even for Mohamed Atta--according to a top secret U.S. government memorandum obtained by The Weekly Standard.

The Department of Defense subsequently issued a press release downplaying the memo's significance and undermining the conclusion reached by Hayes: "The classified annex was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaida, and it drew no conclusions."

On November 18, 2003, The Washington Post's Pincus reported criticisms of Hayes's article and of the memo itself:

W. Patrick Lang, former head of the Middle East section of the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], said yesterday that the Standard article "is a listing of a mass of unconfirmed reports, many of which themselves indicate that the two groups continued to try to establish some sort of relationship. If they had such a productive relationship, why did they have to keep trying?"

Another former senior intelligence official said the memo is not an intelligence product but rather "data points ... among the millions of holdings of the intelligence agencies, many of which are simply not thought likely to be true."

The most vigorous critique of Hayes's article came from a November 19, 2003, Newsweek article titled "Case Decidedly Not Closed: The Defense Dept. memo allegedly proving a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam does nothing of the sort," in which Investigative Correspondents Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball wrote that Hayes's article was "mostly based on unverified claims that were first advanced by some top Bush administration officials more than a year ago -- and were largely discounted at the time by the U.S. intelligence community, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials." Isikoff and Hosenball discredited the memo upon which Hayes based his argument:

In fact, the tangled tale of the memo suggests that the case of whether there has been Iraqi-Al Qaeda complicity is far from closed...

With a few, inconclusive exceptions, the memo doesn't actually contain much "new" intelligence at all. Instead, it mostly recycles shards of old, raw data that were first assembled last year by a tiny team of floating Pentagon analysts (led by a Pennsylvania State University professor and U.S. Navy analyst Christopher Carney) whom [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J.] Feith asked to find evidence of an Iraqi-Al Qaeda "connection" in order to better justify a U.S. invasion.

In December 2003, Daniel A. Benjamin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff, criticized the so-called "Feith memo" in Slate.com: "[I]n any serious intelligence review, much of the material presented would quickly be discarded."

These criticisms did not stop Vice President Dick Cheney, however, from telling the Rocky Mountain News on January 24 that The Weekly Standard article was the "best source of information" on collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

Hayes's book, like his 2003 "Case Closed" article, largely relies on the Feith memo, as well as on what Hayes describes as "open sources": unclassified government reports, court documents, and news reports. The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page wrote of the book on May 27:

In his new book, "The Connection," Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard puts together all of the many strands of intriguing evidence that the two did do business together. There's no single "smoking gun," but there sure is a lot of smoke.

The conservative Washington Times wrote on June 2:

Stephen Hayes shows that [ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda] to be the case in his cover story of this week's Weekly Standard and in his recently published book on the same subject, "The Connection." While neither publication breaks new ground, they are worthwhile not only for punctuating the collaboration between Osama bin Laden and Saddam, but also for underlining the liberal media's shifting conventional wisdom on the subject.

The fact that Hayes's work failed to "[break] new ground" did not stop CNN host Wolf Blitzer on June 3, before Hayes appeared as a guest on his CNN show Wolf Blitzer Reports, from announcing that Hayes had "[n]ew information ... about an alleged connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden." Though Blitzer added, "Doubts remain [about the connection]" in the teaser for the interview, Blitzer failed to question Hayes about critiques of the Feith memo or Hayes's Weekly Standard article.

Days earlier, on the May 30 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press with Tim Russert, Hayes appeared as a guest on Russert's panel. When questioning Hayes about his book, Russert also failed to mention any criticism of Hayes's work.

Hayes also appeared to discuss his book on the Murdoch-owned FOX News Channel program The O'Reilly Factor on June 2; on CNN's American Morning on June 10; on MSNBC's Scarborough Country on June 16; on NPR's Talk of the Nation on June 17; as well as on CNBC's Capital Report, on FOX News Channel's Hannity & Colmes, and on the National Rifle Association's NRA News radio show on June 18.

Hayes's appearances continued unchallenged, despite the questions surrounding his assertions and despite, perhaps more notably, the release on June 16 of the 9-11 Commission's "Staff Statement 15PDF," finding that there was "no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." Media Matters for America has documented other distortions of the commission statement here and here.

Many conservative commentators and pundits have unconditionally embraced Hayes's work even after the release of the 9-11 Commission findings. On the June 27 edition of FOX Broadcasting Company's FOX News Sunday, guest host Brit Hume called Hayes, "who writes for The Weekly Standard, a political journal owned by the parent company of this network", an "authority" on the subject of the possible connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

On June 21, Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's Scarborough Country and a former U.S. Representative (R-FL), cited Hayes's Weekly Standard article to back up his argument for a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda:

SCARBOROUGH: And I want to read for you all what Stephen Hayes wrote in The Weekly Standard. He said: "No fewer than six top Clinton administration officials on the record cited the Iraq connection to justify its strikes in response to the Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies."

There's so much evidence out there. There's a Pentagon report that was leaked, over 50 connections. It just -- it goes on and on and on.

On the June 20 edition of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown, conservative author and columnist Christopher Hitchens plugged Hayes's book: "I don't think anyone who hasn't read this or doesn't read it can be taken seriously if they say there's no connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. This is the book to beat if you fall for that propaganda." Hitchens has also promoted Hayes's book and its claim of a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda in non-media venues. On June 8, American Prospect writing fellow Matthew Yglesias wrote about a publicity event for Hayes's book that was held at the neoconservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, where Hitchens sought to bolster Hayes's contention of a Saddam Hussein/Al Qaeda connection.

And in a June 16 transcript of Rush Limbaugh's radio show, titled "Believe Hayes, Not 9/11 Commission," Limbaugh promoted Hayes's book and his contention of a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Limbaugh also featured Hayes's book on his online "Limbaugh Library."

Newspapers and columnists, too, have pointed to Hayes's work as a source for bolstering the Saddam/Al Qaeda connection argument. A June 17 New York Post editorial noted, "[A]s Stephen Hayes writes in The Weekly Standard, the conventional wisdom in Washington long before George W. Bush took office was that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were partners in terrorism."

A June 18 Washington Times editorial, seeking to rebut claims that no connection existed, also added, "In his new book, 'The Connection,' Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard details a series of ties between Saddam and al Qaeda dating back nearly a decade."

And in a June 23 United Press International (UPI) column, UPI national political analyst Peter Roff, writing in support of the contention that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were connected, noted, "Journalist Stephen Hayes, writing in The Weekly Standard, has documented several more instances of contact and cooperation that should be enough to close the case."

Since the June 16 release of the 9-11 Commission Staff Statement No. 15PDF, The Weekly Standard has published no fewer than six articles by Hayes challenging the commission's findings.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Stories/Interests
Prewar Intelligence/WMD
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