Supposed al-Qaeda links with Saddam
People have asked me what I thought about the memo of Undersecretary of Defense for Planning Douglas Feith detailing 50 instances of contacts between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi Baath, published last weekend in the Weekly Standard to a huge yawn in most US media (Fox Cable News was peeing its pants over it all Saturday, though). Former CIA director James Woolsey said that only an “illiterate” would now question the Saddam-al-Qaeda link. Uh, Mr. Woolsey, I read fairly well, and in more languages than you do.
It is impossible for a historian to evaluate such a memo. We would need to know from whom exactly the information came, when, under what circumstances, and for what possible rewards. We would also have to weigh these reports against all the other available information, some of which might contradict the allegations in the memo. These instances of contacts are merely allegations. We don’t know who is making them. It might well be Ahmad Chalabi, the greatest liar of the 21st century. This stuff has been cherry-picked from mountains of classified intelligence. We haven’t seen the mountains. We do know that the CIA, the DIA and other intelligence professionals declined to accept Douglas Feith’s findings, and they are the ones who saw the whole record.
The leak of the memo proves nothing. The memo is merely the details of the allegations Feith has been making for some time. It does not bolster the allegations. It simply fleshes them out. None of the details are themselves dispositive.
Many of the alleged contacts themselves prove nothing even if they occurred. Secret police conduct secret meetings with all sorts of groups. We know that Saddam reached out to Israel for a new relationship after the Iran-Iraq war, in the late 1980s. How do you think that happened? Surely the Iraqi intelligence agents met with Mossad. The US almost certainly had intelligence contacts with Bin Laden and his Bureau of Services in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Such contacts in and of themselves mean nothing. The question is, what do they mean in any time and place? To what practical results do they lead? I am not aware that the Feith memo shows any particular thing Saddam and al-Qaeda are supposed to have done together.
In this regard, I think the memo is irrelevant even if any of its substance is correct (which we cannot know). The only real questions are these:
1) Did Saddam have anything to do with September 11? The answer is no. There is no evidence for it, as President Bush has admitted. The money trail leads to the UAE and Pakistan, not to Baghdad, and the money trail is decisive. All the extensive investigations of al-Qaeda’s finances have never turned up a single dime that came from Iraq. (Saddam may have tactically supported the tiny Kurdish Ansar al-Islam, of 150 fighters, but they were in the US no-fly zone, not harbored by Saddam; there may have been shadowy links between Ansar and al-Qaeda, but only a simpleton could say this sort of thing amounts to Saddam supporting al-Qaeda).
Moreover, Khalid Shaikh Muhammad and Abu Zubaida said in their interrogations by the US that Usamah Bin Laden had forbidden al-Qaeda officers to cooperate with Saddam, because he is an infidel. These statements directly contradict allegations in the Feith memo.
The Czech report that Muhammad Atta may have met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague is false. The FBI can document Atta’s presence in Florida at the time the meeting is alleged to have taken place. The Iraqis were meeting with someone else, not Atta. The FBI has been vocal in knocking this urban legend down, but it continues to be promulgated by Dick Cheney for his own mysterious reasons.
2) Would Saddam have given weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda?
No. That is ridiculous. Al-Qaeda wanted to overthrow Saddam. Saddam persecuted radical Muslims. As late as last spring Bin Laden was denouncing Saddam as an infidel. Saddam is a control freak. He is not going to give weapons to friends, much less to enemies.
Moreover, terrorism of the 9/11 sort is never engaged in by states, because they have a return address. Only an asymmetrical organization, which could hope to disperse and survive a riposte, would carry out such a thing. The only time a state attacks another state that way is when it thinks it can win the subsequent war. Saddam had no illusions about his ability to fight the US.
I don’t know what WMD could be effectively given to a terrorist organization for such purposes, anyway. Chemical weapons are battlefield weapons, and almost impossible to deliver for terrorism, as Aum Shinrikyo found out when it released Sarin into the Tokyo subway in 1995. They wanted to kill thousands, but only killed 12. Biological weapons like small pox carry the danger that the epidemic will blow back on the country that released it. Iraqis weren’t vaccinated against small pox, and therefore the Iraqi government couldn’t risk releasing it, even if it had it, which it did not. The only plausible scenario here is a dirty bomb, i.e. a conventional explosive laced with enriched uranium or with plutonium. But that would get you into the problem of the return address. A state could never be sure the bomb was not traceable back to its labs, and such a trace would spell certain doom for the government that gave the terrorists the dirty bomb. No one would risk it. Plus, Saddam would not give al-Qaeda a dirty bomb for the simple reason that Saddam did not and could not trust al-Qaeda.
Finally, Iraq had no deliverable weapons of mass destruction to give anyone. He didn’t even have active programs. The whole thing was a fevered nightmare of Washington paranoia.