Less than two weeks after it was revealed that The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes had been chosen to write an official biography of Dick Cheney, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a postwar report on Iraq's weapons programs and its purported links to terrorism that thoroughly debunked the claim -- repeatedly advanced by Hayes -- that there existed a connection between the government of Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, and 9-11.
Less than two weeks after U.S. News & World Report revealed that Weekly Standard senior writer Stephen F. Hayes had been chosen to write an official biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, with the cooperation of Cheney and other administration officials, the Senate Intelligence Committee, on September 8, released a postwar report on Iraq's weapons programs and its purported links to terrorism that thoroughly debunked the claim -- repeatedly advanced by Hayes -- that there existed a connection between the government of Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In addition to broadly concluding that “Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al-Qa'ida and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al-Qa'ida to provide material or operational support," and that "[n]o postwar information indicates that Iraq intended to use al-Qa'ida or any other terrorist group to strike the United States homeland before or during Operation Iraqi Freedom," the Senate report also debunked a number of specific theories cited by Hayes in his Weekly Standard articles over the last three years in an effort to prove a connection between Saddam and the attacks of 9-11.
In an article for the September 5, 2005, edition of The Weekly Standard, Hayes attacked the report of the bipartisan 9-11 Commission for relegating to two footnotes a January 2000 meeting in Kuala Lumpur between two of the 9-11 hijackers and a man named Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, described in the report as an Iraqi national. Hayes asserted that the commission had failed to fully explore that meeting in its report given Azzawi's “mysterious contribution to the 9/11 plot.” Hayes further wrote that former 9-11 Commission member John F. Lehman “told me that Shakir's many connections to al Qaeda and Saddam's regime suggested something more than random chance.” However, the Senate Intelligence Committee's September 8 report concluded that “Shakir was not affiliated with al-Qa'ida and had no connections to the IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service].”
In an article for the October 20, 2003, issue of the Standard, Hayes pointed to the Malaysia meeting in defending an assertion by Cheney, during a September 14, 2003, interview on NBC's Meet the Press, that "[w]e don't know" whether Iraq had any involvement in the 9-11 attacks. In defending Cheney against “furious” critics who “charged that his response [to host Tim Russert's question about whether there was a connection between Iraq and 9-11] was deceptive, a subterfuge designed to trick dimwitted Americans into supporting a war built on deception,” Hayes wrote that “Cheney's answer was no 'lie' ” and that it was, “in reality the more accurate answer to questions about potential Iraqi involvement in September 11.”
Cheney noted during the interview that the details of the meeting had yet to be confirmed, but subsequent news reports cast doubt on the possibility that it proved a link between Saddam and 9-11. Newsday reported on June 22, 2004, that the CIA concluded that Azzawi was not a member of the Iraqi military, as some intelligence officials had suspected. A senior administration official was quoted in the report as saying that Azzawi had a name similar to an IIS officer, whose name appeared on documents seized after the U.S.-led invasion, and the confusion of the two men formed the basis for the theory of a connection between Iraq and the 9-11 hijackers. But Newsday reported that the “CIA concluded 'a long time ago' that an al-Qaida associate who met with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Malaysia was not an officer in Saddam Hussein's army.” The Washington Post similarly reported on June 22, 2004, that an administration official said that “most analysts” believed that the Azzawi in Malaysia was not in the Iraqi army.
Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad prior to the war
In an article for the June 19 edition of the Standard, Hayes criticized news reports about the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq at the time, for failing to state that Zarqawi, when he spent two months in Baghdad in 2002, was “operating openly in Baathist Iraq for months before the U.S. invasion in March 2003.” Citing the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 report on prewar intelligence, Hayes also asserted that, during that time, Al Qaeda operatives established operations that would continue after the invasion. However, the September 8 Senate report concluded that Zarqawi had not, in fact, operated openly in Iraq establishing operations for Al Qaeda before the war.
The report concluded that “Saddam Hussein attempted, unsuccessfully, to locate and capture al-Zarqawi and that the regime did not have a relationship with, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi.” The report further concluded that the IIS had attempted to locate and capture Zarqawi while he was in Baghdad, contradicting prewar intelligence suggesting that IIS was able to track Zarqawi but falsely claimed not to have that capability.
Further, as Media Matters has noted, numerous media reports refuted the assertion by conservative media figures that Zarqawi's presence in Iraq prior to the war proved a connection between the country and Al Qaeda. A June 25, 2003, Newsweek magazine article (updated June 9, 2006) concluded that “Zarqawi competed with [Osama] bin Laden for trainees and members, [Shadi] Abdallah [a captured Zarqawi associate on trial in Germany] claimed.” Further, The Washington Post reported on June 22, 2003, that U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, “Zarqawi was not an al Qaeda member but the leader of an unaffiliated terrorist group who occasionally associated with al Qaeda adherents.”
As recently as April 3, in a Standard article headlined “Camp Saddam,” Hayes cited U.S. intelligence reports based on interrogations of a detainee held at the Pentagon's detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to suggest that the training camp at Salman Pak in Iraq may have harbored members of Al Qaeda before the war. However, the September 8 Senate report concluded that "[p]ostwar findings support the April 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessment that there was no credible reporting on al-Qa'ida training at Salman Pak or anywhere else in Iraq."
Further, news reports published after the invasion noted that no evidence had been found to support that conclusion. The New Yorker's Seymour M. Hersh reported in an article for the May 12, 2003, issue of the magazine that, according to former intelligence officials, “Salman Pak had been built not for terrorism training but for counter-terrorism training” in the 1980s with U.S. support. On March 2, 2004, Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay, and John Walcott of Knight Ridder's Washington bureau reported that “Iraqi defectors alleged that Saddam's regime was helping to train Iraqi and non-Iraqi Arab terrorists at a site called Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. The allegation made it into a September 2002 white paper that the White House issued. The U.S. military has found no evidence of such a facility.”
In an article for the June 28, 2004, issue of the Standard, Hayes questioned whether the 9-11 Commission report, scheduled for release later that summer, would “credibly address” evidence of a purported April 2001 meeting between 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer. Hayes had previously acknowledged in an article for the November 24, 2003, edition of the Standard that "[e]ven some of the most hawkish Bush administration officials are privately skeptical that Atta met [Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al Ani, the Iraq intelligence chief in Prague] on that occasion." After the Commission released its report, concluding that the meeting had not taken place, Hayes observed in an article for the August 2, 2004, issue of the Standard, “The commission doesn't reveal how it knows this, and given its credulous reporting of al Ani's denial of the meeting, one hopes this account of al Ani's whereabouts did not come from the Iraqi intelligence officer himself. Still, the commission's decision to address the question of the Prague meeting directly is admirable.” Hayes did not mention the purported meeting in his subsequent Standard articles.
However, as Media Matters noted, on the December 9, 2005, edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Hayes defended Cheney's claim during a December 9, 2001, Meet the Press interview that Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague, by saying, “If you look at the front page of The New York Times in the days surrounding the vice president's claim, The New York Times was reporting the same thing.” But Hayes ignored the fact that Cheney continued to make that claim even after the Times and numerous other major news outlets had determined that no evidence existed to substantiate it.
Other Iraq-terrorism connection falsehoods
As Media Matters previously noted, in an article for the May 8 edition of the Standard, Hayes baselessly attacked a 2003 article by New York Times staff writer James A. Risen that, according to Hayes, falsely suggested that 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 cited by Risen that read: “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.” But this 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; it also does not refute Risen's reporting that an intelligence official who read the CIA report concluded that “Zubaydah said Mr. bin Laden had vetoed the idea [of working with Saddam] because he did not want to be beholden to Mr. Hussein.”
On the November 11, 2005, edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Hayes downplayed evidence of the extent to which Bush administration officials relied on statements from Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi to assert a connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda as justification for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The April 2002 DIA document reported that Libi was, in all likelihood, “intentionally misleading” his interrogators and may have been “describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest” when he claimed that Al Qaeda had received chemical and biological weapons training from Iraq. Hayes attempted to deflect Democratic criticism of the administration for relying on Libi's spurious accounts by claiming Democrats were “cherry-picking” and that “there were actually more than a dozen reports about Iraq having trained Al Qaeda.” Libi, however, was reportedly the principal source for the administration's claims of a connection, and his claims were specifically referenced in then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 2003 speech before the United Nations.
From Hayes's article, headlined “Their man in Baghdad,” in the June 19 issue of The Weekly Standard:
Reading the coverage of Zarqawi's death in the mainstream press one can understand why that myth persists. Many journalists either don't know or choose not to report the fact that Zarqawi was in Baghdad with two dozen al Qaeda associates nearly a year before the war.
It is a fact not seriously in dispute: Colin Powell cited it in his presentation at the United Nations before the war; the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed it in its bipartisan review of Iraq war intelligence; General Tommy Franks noted in his book about the Iraq war that Zarqawi “had received medical treatment in Baghdad” ; and the Jordanian government provided detailed information on Zarqawi's whereabouts to the Iraqi regime in June 2002, as Amman has since acknowledged.
Why, then, in its 35-point bulleted list of “Key Events in the Life of al-Zarqawi,” did the New York Times fail to include the terrorist leader's time in Baghdad? And why, in his reflections on Zarqawi in Newsweek, did reporter Christopher Dickey mention that the Jordanian terrorist linked up “with a group of radical Islamists in the rough mountains of the Kurdish north, outside Saddam's control” but say nothing about his time in Saddam's Baghdad?
A Times news account by its superb Baghdad bureau chief, John Burns, noted Caldwell's answer to Oppel. But many news stories simply left out the fact that Zarqawi and his associates were operating openly in Baathist Iraq for months before the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
Powell described Zarqawi's training in Afghanistan, his experience working with chemical weapons, and a chemical weapons facility Zarqawi set up in northern Iraq.
Zarqawi's activities are not confined to this small corner of northeast Iraq. He traveled to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment, staying in the capital of Iraq for two months while he recuperated to fight another day.
During this stay, nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there. These al Qaeda affiliates, based in Baghdad, now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they've now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months.
Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al Qaeda. These denials are simply not credible. Last year an al Qaeda associate bragged that the situation in Iraq was, quote, “good,” that Baghdad could be transited quickly.
From Hayes's article, headlined “Camp Saddam,” in the April 3 edition of The Weekly Standard:
One key element in shaping the conventional wisdom on Iraq and terrorism was the 9/11 Commission Report, which found that Iraq and al Qaeda had no “collaborative operational relationship.” But the day that report was released, Commissioner John Lehman offered this prophetic warning in an interview with The Weekly Standard: “There may well be--and probably will be--additional intelligence coming in from interrogations and from analysis of captured records and so forth which will fill out the intelligence picture. This is not phrased as, nor meant to be, the definitive word on Iraqi Intelligence activities.”
The “Iraqi Perspectives Project” has provided a look at Iraqi support for terrorism through its analysis of captured documents. The interrogation of the military commander of Salman Pak, a terrorist training camp outside of Baghdad, is said to add to this picture. And then there is the provocative “Summary of Evidence” on an Iraqi detainee at Guantanamo. Based in part on an interrogation of the detainee, it was produced by the U.S. government and released last year.
1. From 1987 to 1989, the detainee served as an infantryman in the Iraqi Army and received training on the mortar and rocket propelled grenades.
7. The detainee willingly associated with al Qaeda members.
8. The detainee was a member of al Qaeda.
11. From 1997 to 1998, the detainee acted as a trusted agent for Usama Bin Ladin, executing three separate reconnaissance missions for the al Qaeda leader in Oman, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
From Hayes's article, headlined “Dick Cheney Was Right,” in the October 20, 2003, edition of The Weekly Standard:
On September 14, 2003, Meet the Press host Tim Russert asked Vice President Dick Cheney whether Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks. Cheney's answer was characteristically straightforward: “We don't know.”
The reaction was furious, even by Washington standards. Despite the plain meaning of Cheney's words, critics charged that his response was deceptive, a subterfuge designed to trick dimwitted Americans into supporting a war built on deception.
“By any reasonable standard, that's a lie,” wrote columnist Josh Marshall, a frequent but usually thoughtful administration critic. “American intelligence and law enforcement have been investigating the Sept. 11 attacks for more than two years and we haven't found a single shred of evidence tying Saddam or his regime to the plot. Nothing.”
On that last point, Marshall is in good company. The president himself said, “We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11 attacks.” Maybe the president should have spoken of “proof” rather than “evidence.” Either way, Cheney's answer was no “lie.” To the contrary, “We don't know” is entirely consistent with the president's assessment and is in reality the more accurate answer to questions about potential Iraqi involvement in September 11. The story of Ahmad Hikmat Shakir is one reason why.
In August 1999, Shakir, an Iraqi in his mid-30s, was offered a job as a “greeter” or “facilitator” at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A “facilitator” works for an airline and helps travelers, often dignitaries, with the paperwork required to enter the country. Shakir got the job not because of his vast experience facilitating. He got it because someone in the Iraqi embassy in Malaysia wanted him to have it. He started that fall.
Although Shakir worked for Malaysian Airlines, the Iraqi embassy controlled his schedule -- told him when to report to work, when to take a day off. On January 5, 2000, Shakir received an assignment from his embassy contact. He was to escort two recent arrivals through immigration at the airport. Khalid al Midhar and Nawaz al Hamzi -- two of the chief September 11 hijackers -- had come to Malaysia for an important al Qaeda meeting that would last four days. That gathering would become the focus of the extensive investigation into the planning of the attack on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000, and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon nearly a year later.
According to U.S. intelligence reports, Shakir greeted these two future hijackers at the airport and walked them to a waiting car. But rather than see them off, he jumped in the car with al Midhar and al Hamzi and accompanied them to the Kuala Lumpur Hotel. Malaysian authorities had been tipped off about the al Qaeda summit before it happened and later provided American authorities with photographs and videotapes of the attendees. While U.S. officials can place Shakir at the Kuala Lumpur Hotel with the hijackers, they cannot say for certain whether Shakir participated in the meeting. Also present that day, according to U.S. intelligence reporting, were Ramzi bin al Shibh, the operational chief of the “Holy Tuesday” attacks, as 9/11 was known to the terrorists, and Tawfiz al Atash, a top-ranking bin Laden deputy, later identified as the mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole.
So was Saddam Hussein involved in September 11? Evidence, at this point, is scarce, but the proper answer is the one Cheney gave: We don't know.
The Bush administration does know, however, about Saddam Hussein's connections to al Qaeda. And it's learning more every day. This, despite the woeful lack of resources devoted to exploring those links.
From Hayes's article, headlined “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” in the September 5, 2005, edition of The Weekly Standard:
Two footnotes are the sum total of what the 9/11 Commission had to say about Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. Here is the more substantive, footnote 49 to Chapter 6, on page 502 of the 567-page report: “Mihdhar was met at the Kuala Lumpur airport by Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, an Iraqi national. Reports that he was a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi Fedayeen turned out to be incorrect. They were based on a confusion of Shakir's identity with that of an Iraqi Fedayeen colonel with a similar name, who was later (in September 2001) in Iraq at the same time Shakir was in police custody in Qatar.” The report is sourced to a briefing from the CIA's counterterrorism center and a story in the Washington Post. And that's it.
Readers of the 9/11 Commission report who bothered to study the footnotes might wonder who Shakir was, what he was doing with a 9/11 hijacker in Malaysia, and why he was ever “in police custody in Qatar.” They might also wonder why the report, while not addressing those questions, went out of its way to provide information about who he was not. Such readers are still wondering.
There is no doubt the 9/11 Commission had this information at its disposal. On the very day it released its final report, commissioner John Lehman told me that Shakir's many connections to al Qaeda and Saddam's regime suggested something more than random chance.
So how is it that the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report contains a substantive account of Shakir's mysterious contribution to the 9/11 plot, while the 9/11 Commission report--again, released two weeks later--simply ignores it?
From Hayes's article, headlined “Only Connect,” in the August 2, 2004, edition of The Weekly Standard:
Kean may end up being correct. But his categorical statement is premature.
The commission's final report offered the most detailed official account so far of Mohammed Atta's alleged meeting with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, first reported by Czech intelligence. According to the commission, the Iraqi in question was not in Prague at the time of the alleged meeting. The commission doesn't reveal how it knows this, and given its credulous reporting of al Ani's denial of the meeting, one hopes this account of al Ani's whereabouts did not come from the Iraqi intelligence officer himself. Still, the commission's decision to address the question of the Prague meeting directly is admirable.
From Hayes's article, headlined “There They Go Again,” in the June 28, 2004, edition of The Weekly Standard:
The 9/11 Commission will be releasing its report later this summer. Let's hope that that final product is more thorough and convincing than the latest staff statements. What it must do is credibly address the events that are plainly within the commission's purview -- including any evidence, from Prague or Kuala Lumpur or elsewhere, of potential Iraqi involvement in 9/11.
From Hayes's article, headlined “Case Closed,” in the November 24, 2003, edition of The Weekly Standard:
Even some of the most hawkish Bush administration officials are privately skeptical that Atta met al Ani on that occasion. They believe that reports of the alleged meeting, said to have taken place in public, outside the headquarters of the U.S.-financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, suggest a level of sloppiness that doesn't fit the pattern of previous high-level Iraq-al Qaeda contacts.