Weekly Standard's Hayes wrongly suggested that passage in CIA report rebutted NY Times article on Iraq-Al Qaeda intelligence

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

In an article in The Weekly Standard, senior writer Stephen F. Hayes attacked a 2003 article by New York Times staff writer James A. Risen that, according to Hayes, falsely claimed the Bush administration had selectively used intelligence to suggest a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. To refute the Times article, Hayes quoted a line allegedly from a CIA report referenced by Risen, but the line does not address the administration's alleged selective use of intelligence, or even provide support for the claim of a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

In an article for the May 8 edition of The Weekly Standard, senior writer Stephen F. Hayes attacked a 2003 article by New York Times staff writer James A. Risen that, according to Hayes, cited portions of a classified intelligence report to falsely suggest that the "Bush administration selectively used intelligence to make its case" connecting Iraq to Al Qaeda as a justification for invasion and that "nonpolitical intelligence professionals were simply setting the record straight." As a rebuttal to this suggestion, Hayes quoted a line allegedly from the same intelligence report -- not included in Risen's article -- that read: "[Captured terrorist] Abu Zubaydah explained that [Osama bin Laden's] personal goal of destroying the U.S. is so strong that to achieve this end he would work with whomever could help him, so long as al Qaeda's independence was not threatened." According to Hayes, "[w]hoever leaked the debriefing to Risen apparently gave him only part of it" and this one line "contradicted the whole thrust of Risen's article."

The line Hayes cited, however, in no way contradicts the suggestion that the Bush administration selectively cited intelligence in linking Iraq to Al Qaeda as a justification for war, nor does it indicate that the CIA leaked -- or Risen cited -- only selected portions of the report.

Moreover, the line does not even lend support to the idea of an operational relationship between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. While the line, as Hayes quoted it, indicates that bin Laden was willing to "work with whomever ... so long as al Qaeda's independence was not threatened," it does not -- notwithstanding Hayes' suggestion -- indicate that there was a relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq aimed at destroying the United States. Notably, in quoting Risen's article, Hayes omitted the following (instead inserting an ellipsis): "In his debriefing, Mr. Zubaydah said Mr. bin Laden had vetoed the idea [of working with Saddam Hussein] because he did not want to be beholden to Mr. Hussein, the official said." [emphasis added] Therefore, the line Hayes quoted (indicating that bin Laden would not work with anyone threatening the independence of Al Qaeda) and the portions of the report Risen cited (indicating that bin Laden rejected a partnership "because he did not want to be beholden to" Saddam Hussein) are mutually consistent.

Even if the line Hayes cited did indicate a relationship existed, it would still not rebut the argument that Bush selectively cited intelligence: Pointing to intelligence that suggested a relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq does not speak to accusations that the administration downplayed intelligence contrary to that notion.

From Hayes' article in the May 8 Weekly Standard:

Not that some of these officials needed any encouragement. On June 9, 2003, New York Times reporter James Risen wrote under the headline: "Captives Deny Qaeda Worked with Baghdad." His article focused on two al Qaeda leaders, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and Abu Zubaydah:

Abu Zubaydah, a Qaeda planner and recruiter until his capture in March 2002, told his questioners last year that the idea of working with Mr. Hussein's government had been discussed among Qaeda leaders, but that Osama bin Laden had rejected such proposals, according to an official who has read the Central Intelligence Agency's classified report on the interrogation. . . . The Bush administration has not made these statements public, though it frequently highlighted intelligence reports that supported its assertions of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda as it made its case for war against Iraq.

A source described as "one official" made the accusation directly: "I remember reading the Abu Zubaydah debriefing last year, while the administration was talking about all of these other reports, and thinking that they were only putting out what they wanted."

You get the picture. The Bush administration selectively used intelligence to make its case, and nonpolitical intelligence professionals were simply setting the record straight. Only that's not what happened.

Whoever leaked the debriefing to Risen apparently gave him only part of it. Zubaydah did tell interrogators of bin Laden's reservations about being beholden to Saddam. (Newly released Iraqi documents demonstrate that despite these reservations, which date to at least 1992, bin Laden requested operational support from Saddam.) But the report also included this line, which contradicted the whole thrust of Risen's article: "Abu Zubaydah explained that [bin Laden's] personal goal of destroying the U.S. is so strong that to achieve this end he would work with whomever could help him, so long as al Qaeda's independence was not threatened." One other nugget from Zubaydah's March 2002 debriefing was omitted. He named a senior al Qaeda associate who did have good relations with the Iraqi regime: Abu Musab al Zarqawi, with whom Zubaydah had plotted attacks in Jordan.

From Risen's June 9, 2003 Times article:

Abu Zubaydah, a Qaeda planner and recruiter until his capture in March 2002, told his questioners last year that the idea of working with Mr. Hussein's government had been discussed among Qaeda leaders, but that Osama bin Laden had rejected such proposals, according to an official who has read the Central Intelligence Agency's classified report on the interrogation.

In his debriefing, Mr. Zubaydah said Mr. bin Laden had vetoed the idea because he did not want to be beholden to Mr. Hussein, the official said.

Separately, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Qaeda chief of operations until his capture on March 1 in Pakistan, has also told interrogators that the group did not work with Mr. Hussein, officials said.

The Bush administration has not made these statements public, though it frequently highlighted intelligence reports that supported its assertions of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda as it made its case for war against Iraq.

Additionally, the suggestion of an operational relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq has been debunked both by the 9-11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee. According to Staff Statement 15 of the 9-11 Commission, "contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda ... do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship." The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in its 2004 "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq":

Conclusion 93: The Central Intelligence Agency reasonably assessed that there were likely several instances of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida throughout the 1990s, but that these contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship.

The second phase of the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation -- aimed at examining allegations that the Bush administration manipulated pre-Iraq war intelligence -- has not been completed because of continued delays initiated by Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS).

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
The Weekly Standard
Person
Stephen F. Hayes
Stories/Interests
Prewar Intelligence/WMD
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