O'Reilly, Wall Street Journal made bogus claims about Zarqawi to bolster Bush's case for Iraq war

As the situation in Iraq worsens, President George W. Bush's supporters in the media have renewed their efforts to justify the war by echoing a dubious Bush administration claim about a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In recent days, FOX News Channel host Bill O'Reilly and The Wall Street Journal have written articles focusing on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist now active in Iraq whom the Bush administration cited before and after the war as evidence of a dangerous Iraq-Al Qaeda connection. In fact, though he is a terrorist, Zarqawi's prewar connections to both Hussein and Al Qaeda were tenuous.

Zarqawi was a crucial element in the Bush administration's case for war against Iraq. When Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003, he discussed Zarqawi at length, claiming that the terrorist had helped establish Al Qaeda “affiliates” in Baghdad. On June 15, 2003, one month after Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq, he described Zarqawi as “the best evidence of [an Iraqi] connection to Al Qaeda affiliates and Al Qaeda.”

In his September 16 nationally syndicated column, O'Reilly echoed the Bush administration's claim, emphasizing Zarqawi's supposed connection with both Iraq and Al Qaeda and blasting The New York Times for not acknowledging it. But O'Reilly's column distorted or omitted crucial facts:

What are we to make of the New York Times describing terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a “Jordanian militant”? [NYT article here] I mean, this guy is one of the most vicious al Qaeda thugs in the world. ... On June 17th of this year, a U.S. intelligence official provided my researcher Nate Fredman with the following information: In early 2000, Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan to assume a leadership position in an al Qaeda training camp.

But Zarqawi's training camp in Afghanistan was apparently not an Al Qaeda camp at all. In a June 26 New York Times op-ed, Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, wrote:

So is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi really the missing link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein? Actually, the evidence of his relationship with either is far from clear cut. ... One indication of his independence is that when he founded his training camp in Afghanistan in 2000, he did so near the western city of Herat, on the Iranian border, hundreds of miles away from Al Qaeda's camps.

Roger Cressey, who was a counterterrorism official on the National Security Council staff at that time, told me that Mr. Zarqawi's camp was set up “as much in competition as it was in cooperation” with Al Qaeda.

A June 25, 2003, Newsweek article supports Bergen's and Cressey's assessment:

During his [Zarqawi's] stay in Baghdad, Powell claimed [in his U.N. speech] that “nearly two dozen ... al Qaeda affiliates” converged on the Iraqi capital and “established a base of operations there.”

But the German interrogations of [Zarqawi associate] Shadi Abdallah present a more complex and somewhat different picture of Zarqawi's role in international terrorism. According to Abdullah, Zarqawi's Al Tawhid group focuses on installing an Islamic regime in Jordan and killing Jews. And although Al Tawhid maintained its own training camp near Herat, Afghanistan, Zarqawi competed with bin Laden for trainees and members, Abdallah claimed.

O'Reilly has a long history of bogus claims about Zarqawi. On the June 3 edition of FOX News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, for example, O'Reilly called Zarqawi “second or third in command of Al Qaeda.”

O'Reilly continued his distortions by suggesting that Zarqawi's treatment in a Baghdad hospital proves his cooperation with Saddam: “Zarqawi stayed in the Al Qaeda area until war broke out after 9/11/01. He actively fought against U.S. forces and was wounded. After the collapse of the Taliban, he fled to Iran and then traveled to Iraq where his wounded leg was treated in a hospital run by Uday Hussein.”

But Newsweek reported in a March 3, 2003, article that U.S. officials don't regard Zarqawi's treatment as definitive evidence of complicity with Hussein:

American officials know only a few basic facts about Zarqawi's two-month stay in Baghdad last summer. A hospital treated him for injuries sustained in Afghanistan. His leg was amputated, and he was fitted with a prosthesis. The Iraqi government's role in arranging for the treatment is “unknown,” U.S. officials confess, and the hospitalization does not prove any Iraqi government “complicity.”

More recently, on March 22, Newsweek suggested that even the basic intelligence about Zarqawi's medical care is faulty:

Before the Iraq war, one article of indictment against Saddam was that he had supplied Zarqawi with medical treatment in Baghdad -- including a prosthetic leg -- after the latter was badly wounded in Afghanistan. But that appears to have been based on more bad intel. Senior U.S. military officials in Baghdad tell Newsweek they are now convinced Zarqawi has two fully functioning legs.

In his column, O'Reilly also referenced Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group based in northern Iraq with which Zarqawi worked. But he failed to mention either that Ansar al-Islam's ties to Al Qaeda are tenuous or that the region in northeastern Iraq where Ansar al-Islam was based was outside of Hussein's control. O'Reilly wrote: “In the summer of 2002, Zarqawi went to Northern Iraq to train terrorists with the group Ansar al Islam, which is affiliated with al Qaeda.”

But as The Washington Post reported on June 22, 2003, Ansar al-Islam was “unaffiliated” with Al Qaeda:

The president said some al Qaeda leaders had fled Afghanistan to Iraq and referred to one “very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year.” It was a reference to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian. U.S. intelligence already had concluded that Zarqawi was not an al Qaeda member but the leader of an unaffiliated terrorist group who occasionally associated with al Qaeda adherents.

And according to a January 23 Associated Press article, “Ansar al-Islam operated in a region of northern Iraq that was outside of Saddam's control before the war.”

O'Reilly also failed to note that, according to NBC News, the Bush administration considered mounting an attack specifically targeting Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam, “but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.” Ironically, O'Reilly concluded his column by noting, “The reason the Times and some other liberal media operations continue to downplay Zarqawi and, indeed, the entire worldwide terror threat is ... the liberal press does not want another pre-emptive strike against terrorists like the one the USA launched against Iraq.”

In its September 23 editorial (WSJ.com subscription required), The Wall Street Journal also emphasized Zarqawi's allegedly close connection to Al Qaeda. “It's worth remembering,” the Journal wrote, “that Zarqawi had fewer qualms about the secular Saddam, with whom he worked visibly enough to be cited in Colin Powell's February 2003 U.N. presentation.” But this observation proves little given that Powell's U.N. speech has been largely discredited by subsequent findings (or lack of findings) in Iraq.

The Journal concluded: “Of course, opponents of deposing Saddam keep telling us the old regime had no connections to terrorism. But we certainly feel safer knowing that one half of the Saddam-Zarqawi alliance now resides in an Iraqi jail.” But as noted above, what the Journal calls an “alliance” has amounted to little, so far as U.S. intelligence can tell, beyond treatment in a hospital followed by travel to a region of Iraq outside Hussein's control.

For more articles assessing Zarqawi's ties to Al Qaeda, see The Christian Science Monitor (October 16, 2003), The New York Times (February 22), and Knight Ridder Newspapers (March 3, 2003).