Weekly Standard 's Hayes downplayed al-Libi's role in Bush administration's flawed Iraq-Al Qaeda connection

On the November 11 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Weekly Standard senior writer Stephen F. Hayes ignored evidence demonstrating the extent to which Bush administration officials relied on statements from Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi to assert a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda as justification for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Hayes was responding to a recently declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document from 2002 that questioned the reliability of claims made by al-Libi -- an Al Qaeda operative captured in November 2001 -- that Al Qaeda had received chemical and biological weapons training from Iraq. News reports indicate the document was sent to the White House and National Security Council. Hayes attempted to deflect Democratic criticism of the administration for relying on al-Libi's spurious accounts by claiming Democrats are “cherry-picking,” and that “there were actually more than a dozen reports about Iraq having trained Al Qaeda.” Al-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.

Hayes also accused the Democrats of not taking the opportunity to request “more intelligence” and “better briefings” prior to the war. According to Hayes: “The requests simply didn't come in.” This is untrue; Senate Democrats repeatedly requested that the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (a document intended to summarize all available intelligence assessments on the Iraqi threat) be declassified so they might publicly challenge discrepancies between what the document said and what the administration was claiming.

The DIA document, released by the office of Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), reported that al-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.” The Washington Post reported on November 6 that DIA conveyed its doubts regarding al-Libi to the White House and the National Security Council in its February 2002 “Defense Intelligence Terrorist Summary.”

From the November 11 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

JIM ANGLE (guest host and Fox News chief Washington correspondent): Well, let's look at one example. Senator Levin got the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, to declassify a document a few days ago, a document that showed the DIA had some doubts about a captive they had, who had at first told them that Iraqis were training Al Qaeda members in poison gases and chemical weapons and so forth but didn't seem to know very many details. And they quickly came to doubt his account. Talk about that and whether or not that is an example of the broader body of evidence or whether that's cherry-picking in and of itself.

HAYES: Well, I think it is cherry-picking in and of itself. I mean, if you look at the kind of things that we were seeing publicly, for instance, about this particular detainee, his name is al-Libi. You had [then-director of central intelligence] George Tenet, a year after the February 2002 DIA report, which raised some questions about his credibility. A year later, you had George Tenet in public session talking about Iraq having provided this training, relying heavily on al-Libi's testimony. The other problem I have with what Senator Levin did in this particular instance is that there were actually more than a dozen reports about Iraq having trained Al Qaeda. Some of the reports were from good sources, some of the reports from less reliable sources. But to choose one and to say that the entire case was built on this one particular person and this one particular interrogation, to me, makes Senator Levin guilty of precisely what he's accusing the administration of doing.

In a November 10 “Web Exclusive” Newsweek article, investigative correspondents Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball reported that al-Libi's claims were “the principal basis for a series of alarming Bush administration assertions about training that Saddam's regime purportedly provided to Al Qaeda terrorists in the use of chemical and biological weapons.” They pointed to Colin Powell's February 5, 2003, speech to the U.N. Security Council in which Powell referred specifically to al-Libi, saying: “I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al-Qaida.” According to Isikoff and Hosenball:

Powell then continued, citing the unidentified operative's story (from al-Libi) that Iraq offered chemical or biological weapons training to two Al Qaeda associates starting in December 2000. A militant identified as Abu Adula al-Iraqi had also been sent to Iraq several times between 1997 and 2000 for help in acquiring poisons and gases and that the relationship forged with Iraq officials was characterized by al-Iraqi as “successful,” according to Powell's remarks. (Although it is not entirely clear from Powell's speech, two U.S. counter-terrorism officials told NEWSWEEK they believe the information about al-Iraqi came exclusively from al-Libi.)

Isikoff and Hosenball also highlighted two instances in which Bush allegedly referenced al-Libi's claims: an October 7, 2002, speech Bush gave in Cincinnati during which he said, “We've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases;” and a February 6, 2003, statement in which Bush said, “Iraq has also provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.”

Hayes further attacked Democrats, claiming that it is unfair for Democratic senators to claim they did not have access to the same intelligence as the administration. According to Hayes: “Had they wanted more intelligence or wanted to get better briefings, they could have gone and gotten these briefings any time. They can make these requests, they ask to see more. The requests simply didn't come in.” Hayes' attack is unfounded, however, as Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, both fought to have the October 2002 NIE declassified in order to publicly challenge the administration's claims about Iraq. As Media Matters for America noted, the CIA answered requests by Sen. Durbin and other Intelligence Committee Democrats by releasing a declassified version of the NIE that laid out the original document's key judgments but omitted important dissents and crucial caveats that undercut the administration's claims. The declassified report, known as “the white paper,” provoked outrage from Graham, who demanded further declassification. The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in 2004 that the white paper had “misrepresented” the findings of the intelligence community.

From the November 11 Special Report:

ANGLE: Less than a minute left. Some Democrats say they did not have access to the same intelligence that the administration did. About 30 seconds. Is that a fair complaint?

HAYES: No, I don't think it is. Had they wanted more intelligence or wanted to get better briefings, they could have gone and gotten these briefings at any time. They can make these requests, they can ask to see more. The requests simply didn't come in, in part because everybody believed that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. There was -- I think the Democrats, based on a decade of their own intelligence reporting, thought that that was true as well.

Hayes has a conspicuous record of misinformation regarding Iraq War intelligence. His book, The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America (HarperCollins, 2004), purported to demonstrate numerous links between Al Qaeda and Iraq. But as Media Matters noted, the leaked Defense Department memo upon which much of Hayes's book is based has been discredited, and the Defense Department distanced itself from the memo in November 2003, describing its contents as “inaccurate.” In two recent Weekly Standard articles, Hayes offered a litany of falsehoods and distortions regarding the alleged leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.