On Fox News' Journal Editorial Report, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Robert Pollock falsely claimed that former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith “was more right than the CIA” about “Saddam's links to Al Qaeda.” In fact, Feith's assertions that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship have been downplayed by the Department of Defense, discredited by the 9-11 Commission, and contradicted by various other sources as documented in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Newsweek.
On the May 20 edition of Fox News' The Journal Editorial Report, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Robert Pollock falsely claimed that former undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas J. Feith “was more right than the CIA” about “Saddam's links to Al Qaeda.” In fact, while reports suggest that the CIA doubted and remained skeptical of Saddam Hussein's links to Al Qaeda after the 9-11 terror attacks and throughout the run-up to the Iraq war, Feith's assertions that Al Qaeda and Saddam had an operational relationship have been downplayed by the Department of Defense, discredited by the 9-11 Commission, and contradicted by various other sources as documented in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Newsweek.
During the May 18 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on the nomination of former National Security Agency director Gen. Michael V. Hayden to be director of the CIA, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) asked Hayden about Feith's assertion regarding Saddam's links to Al Qaeda:
LEVIN: Now, prior to the war, the undersecretary of defense for policy, Mr. Feith, established an intelligence analysis cell within his policy office at the Defense Department. While the intelligence community was consistently dubious about links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, Mr. Feith produced an alternative analysis, asserting that there was a strong connection. Were you comfortable with Mr. Feith's office's approach to intelligence analysis?
HAYDEN: No, sir, I wasn't. I wasn't aware of a lot of the activity going on, you know, when it was contemporaneous with running up to the war. No, sir, I wasn't comfortable.
Discussing the hearing on The Journal Editorial Report with host and Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot and deputy editors Melanie Kirkpatrick and Daniel Henninger, Pollock asserted that he “was prepared to give him [Hayden] the benefit of the doubt going into these hearings” until he heard Hayden “disavow Doug Feith in trying, like the agency has, to shift blame onto the Pentagon” for intelligence failures. Pollock added: "[L]ook, it turns out that Feith was more right than the CIA about a lot of things. About Saddam's links to Al Qaeda, about the shape of post-war politics in Iraq. And here comes Hayden saying, well, I'm uncomfortable with what Feith was doing. What does that mean? Come on, that's silly." But according to reports, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the Department of Defense have either expressed doubt or discredited Feith's assertions regarding Saddam's ties to Al Qaeda.
At the request of then deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, Feith created the Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group within the Pentagon soon after 9-11 in order to search for links between terrorist groups and their state sponsors. According to an April 27, 2004, New York Times article, by November 2001, Feith's group concluded that terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah were forging ties with each other and with secular Arab governments in order to wage war against the West. While the Times noted that the findings of Feith's group found favorable responses within Vice President Dick Cheney's office, they also “were at odds with years of CIA analysis.” The Times also noted that, in a September 2002 CIA briefing, "[then-CIA director George] Tenet and other agency officials were skeptical of the Feith team's conclusions."
In October 2003, Feith presented a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the basis for claims that Saddam was linked to Al Qaeda. A classified annex of that memo was subsequently leaked, and its contents appeared in a November 2003 Weekly Standard article by Stephen F. Hayes titled "Case Closed." Hayes wrote that Feith had found that “Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990's to 2003,” and concluded, “There can no longer be any serious argument about whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq worked with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to plot against Americans.”
The Department of Defense immediately issued a press release downplaying the memo's significance and undermining the conclusion reached by Hayes:
News reports that the Defense Department recently confirmed new information with respect to contacts between al Qaida and Iraq in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee are inaccurate. ... The classified annex was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaida, and it drew no conclusions.
Further downplaying the significance of Feith's memo, The Washington Post quoted a former DIA Middle East section director saying that Hayes's 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?” Similarly, in November 2003, Newsweek pointed out that Feith's 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 Feith asked to find evidence of an Iraqi-Al Qaeda 'connection' in order to better justify a U.S. invasion.”
Moreover, in June 2004, the 9-11 Commission found “no evidence” that Saddam and Al Qaeda “ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship.”
In June 2003, Levin launched an investigation into “alternative analysis” of the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection. The final report, released in October 2004, noted that the CIA did not clear the release of Feith's top-secret annex to the letter he provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee a year earlier that highlighted Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda. Reporting on Levin's findings, the Times noted that up until the beginning of 2003, Feith continued to claim that 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in April 2001 despite the fact that as early as June 2002, the CIA doubted those assertions.
Feith's memo also noted that a “close al Qaeda associate” and now self-proclaimed Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “has had an operational alliance with Iraqi officials.” But as the Times noted, Levin's report concluded that Feith's analysis of the Zarqawi-Saddam link was dubious:
In his Oct. 27 letter [to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee], Mr. Feith told Congress that the Iraqi intelligence service knew of Mr. Zarqawi's entry into Iraq. In recommending a correction, the C.I.A. said that claim had not been supported by the intelligence report that Mr. Feith had cited, the Levin report says. Nevertheless, the report says, Mr. Feith reiterated the assertion in his addendum, attributing it to a different intelligence report -- one that likewise did not state that Iraq knew Mr. Zarqawi was in the country.
As Media Matters for America previously noted, National Journal contributor Murray Waas reported in November 2005 that a Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) from September 21, 2001, advised the president of “no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the [9-11] attacks and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda.” At the time, PDBs were prepared by the CIA. Waas reported that “according to highly placed government officials, little evidence has come to light [since the PDB given the president shortly after the attacks] to contradict the CIA's original conclusion that no collaborative relationship existed between Iraq and Al Qaeda.” Waas cited congressional sources as saying that the existence of the PDB was not disclosed to the Senate Intelligence Committee until the summer of 2004.
Further, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in its 2004 "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq" that:
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, as well as the administration's use of alternative sources of intelligence analysis such as Feith's Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group -- has not been completed.
From the May 20 edition of Fox News' Journal Editorial Report:
GIGOT: President Bush's pick to head the CIA faced a grilling on Capitol Hill this week, with Air Force General Michael Hayden lamenting that intelligence gathering in the post-September 11th world had become a political football. Nothing more political than a confirmation hearing, Dan, but two weeks ago, it looked like he might not be confirmed, or at least some people thought so, and yet, yesterday's hearing -- or this week's hearing were not so contentious.
POLLOCK: Paul, I think maybe it wasn't so contentious because the Democrats are realizing that maybe Hayden is their kind of guy. Look, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt going into these hearings, but hearing him, for example, disavow Doug Feith in trying, like the agency has, to shift blame onto the Pentagon --
GIGOT: This is the former undersecretary of defense who was working for Donald Rumsfeld in the pre-Iraq war era.
POLLOCK: That's right. And he set up his own office to analyze Iraq intelligence. And look, it turns out that Feith was more right than the CIA about a lot of things. About Saddam's links to Al Qaeda, about the shape of post-war politics in Iraq. And here comes Hayden saying, well, I'm uncomfortable with what Feith was doing. What does that mean? Come on, that's silly.