Iraq, Al Qaeda & 9/11: The Connection that Wasn’t

Robbyn Swan

In the early hours of March 19, 2003, a pair of F-117 fighters launched the first salvos of Operation Iraqi Freedom, their satellite guided missiles exploding into Dora Farm, one of Saddam Hussein’s private compounds. Over the coming days, much of the news-channel addicted world sat transfixed as waves of American Tomahawk missiles thundered into Baghdad. Polls suggested that, for many of the Americans viewing those events, Iraq’s role in the September 11 attacks made it an enemy deserving retribution.

Ten years on the events of 2003 have been marked by a flurry of articles justifiably revisiting the issue of whether or not the Bush administration lied – or was simply mistaken -   about Saddam’s WMD capability. These reports have missed the first falsehood that Bush and his people conjured up to justify war against Iraq – their attempt to link Saddam to the 9/11 attacks which they did from almost the night of September 11. In the context of those frightening days, that linkage was an emotive, powerful force in making war on Iraq acceptable to the American people and the U.S. Congress. The pursuit of that lie led to the forgery of incriminating evidence and became an element in the torture of U.S. detainees.

In the eighteen months before the war the Bush administration persistently seeded the notion that there was an Iraqi connection to 9/11. While never alleging a direct Iraqi role, President Bush repeatedly linked Hussein’s name to that of bin Laden.

In his address to the nation of October 7, 2002, for example, Bush said: “We know that Iraq and al Qaeda  have had high-level  contacts  that go back a decade. . . . After September 11, Saddam Hussein’s regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America.” The President mentioned 9/11 eight times at his press conference just before the invasion of Iraq.

“The White House played endless semantic games on the issue,” The New York Times’ Philip Shenon later wrote.  “When pressed, Bush was careful not to allege that Iraq had any role in the 9/11 attacks, at least no direct role. But he insisted that if Saddam Hussein had remained in power, he…would have been tempted  to hand over [weapons of mass destruction]  to his supposed ally Osama bin Laden. Vice President Cheney went further…suggesting repeatedly, almost obsessively, that Iraq may in fact have been involved in the September 11 plot.”

Polls from the time reveal how effective the PR campaign was. One found that 57 percent of Americans believed Hussein had helped the 9/11 terrorists, another that 44 percent thought that “most” or “some” of the hijackers had been Iraqi. (In fact, none were.) Another, six months into the war, revealed that 69 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein had been personally involved in 9/11.

In his first address to the nation after the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush had hinted at what was to come.  “Evil, despicable acts of terror,” the President  had said, “have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger.” In a line the he himself scripted, Bush emphasized that the U.S. would henceforth make “no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them.”

Afterward, Bush met with key officials, the group he was to call his “war council.” The words “al Qaeda” and “Osama bin Laden” had been on everyone’s lips for hours. Amid the talk of reprisals and push-back, CIA director George Tenet stressed the link between al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then, according to counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came out with the comment.  “You know,” he said, “we’ve got to do Iraq.”

“Everyone looked at him…like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ ” Clarke was to recall. “And I made the point certainly that night…that Iraq had nothing  to do with 9/11.

“That didn’t seem to faze Rumsfeld…It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It really didn’t, because from the first weeks of the administration they were talking about Iraq.”

On the evening of September 12th, Clarke recalled, Bush quietly took him aside to say, “Look . . . I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way…Just look. I want to know any shred.”

“Absolutely, we will look . . .” Clarke responded.  “But, you know, we have looked several times for state sponsorship of al Qaeda and not  found  any real linkages to Iraq.”

“Look into Iraq, Saddam,” the President reiterated, and walked away.

In the days following the attack, a report linking Mohammed Atta to Iraqi intelligence made headlines. An informant had reported to Czech intelligence that photographs of lead hijacker Atta resembled a man he had seen meeting with an Iraqi diplomat  and suspected  spy, Ahmad al-Ani,  in Prague on April 9, 2001. Investigation indicated that neither Atta nor al-Ani had been in Prague  at the time alleged. Atta was recorded  on closed-circuit  TV  footage in Florida on April 4, and his cell phone was used in the state on the 6th, 9th, 10th, and 11th. Atta and fellow hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi, moreover, apparently signed a lease on an apartment on the 11th. This information, while not certain proof, strongly suggests that Atta was in the United States on date in question. CIA analysts characterized the alleged Prague sighting as “highly unlikely.”

“Unlikely” or not, the report crept into pre-war intelligence briefings as having been a “known contact” between al Qaeda and Iraq.

A second allegation, propagated by Laurie  Mylroie,  a scholar associated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute,  proposed that Ramzi Yousef – the terrorist responsible for the 1993 WorldTradeCenter  bombing – had been an Iraqi agent using a stolen  identity.  Investigation by the FBI and others indicates that the theory is unsupported by hard evidence. Nevertheless, the claim proved durable.

None of the leads suggesting an Iraqi link to the attacks proved out.  “We went back ten years,” said former CIA bin Laden unit chief Michael Scheuer, who looked into the matter at the request of Director Tenet. “We examined about 20,000 documents, probably something along the  line of 75,000 pages of information, and there was no connection between [al Qaeda] and Saddam.”

A January 2003 report entitled “Iraqi Support for Terrorism,” was the last in-depth analysis the CIA produced prior to the beginning of hostilities.  “The intelligence community,” it concluded, “has no credible information that Baghdad had foreknowledge of the 11 September  attacks…”

Nevertheless, on the weekend before the U.S. launched its attack on Iraq, Vice President Cheney appeared on “Meet the Press” to make a final pitch about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. “We know,” Cheney said, “he has a long standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al Qaeda organization.”

*          *            *

After exhaustive trawls of the record, official probes concluded that senior Bush administration officials applied inordinate pressure to try to establish that there was an Iraqi connection to 9/11, and that American torture of al Qaeda prisoners was a result of such pressure.  CIA  analysts noted  that  “questions  regarding  al Qaeda’s ties to the Iraqi regime were among the first presented  to senior operational  planner  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed  following his capture.” KSM, whose case  is currently before a military tribunal at Guantanamo, was one of those most persistently subjected to torture.

The  CIA’s Charles  Duelfer,  who was in charge of interrogations of Iraqi officials after the invasion, recalled being “asked if enhanced measures, such as waterboarding, should be used” on a detainee who might have knowledge of links between the Hussein regime and al Qaeda.

The  notion  was turned  down.  Duelfer  noted,  however,  that  it had originated “in Washington at very senior levels (not in the CIA).”  Two U.S. intelligence  officers, meanwhile,  have said flatly that the suggestion came from Vice President  Cheney’s office.

“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent and why extreme methods  were used,” a former senior intelligence official said in 2009. “The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack [after 9/11]. But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney  and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between  al Qaeda  and Iraq….”

A former U.S. Army psychiatrist, Major Paul Burney, told military investigators  that  interrogators at Guantánamo were under “pressure to resort to measures that might produce” evidence of ties between al Qaeda  and Iraq.

In the absence of real evidence, according  to Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Suskind’s 2008 book, The Way of the World, it was in one instance  fabricated.  Suskind has reported  that in fall 2003 – when the U.S. administration was struggling to justify the invasion of Iraq – the White  House asked the CIA to collaborate  in the forgery of a document  stating that hijacker leader Atta had spent time training in Iraq.

The forgery took the form of a purported memo to Saddam Hussein from the former head of the Iraqi intelligence service, Tahir Habbusch al-Tikriti, dated  two months  before  9/11.  Signed by Habbusch, the memo stated  that  Atta had spent  time  in Iraq learning “to lead the team which will be responsible  for attacking  the targets that we have agreed to destroy.”

The  story of fakery provoked vigorous  denials from the CIA. Rebuttals  included  a carefully phrased  statement  from Suskind’s  primary  source,  a former  head of the  CIA’s  Near  East  Division named Rob Richer – to  which Suskind responded  by publishing a transcript  of one of his interviews with Richer.

In contrast to Suskind’s allegation, CIA analyst Nada Bakos wrote in the March edition of Wired magazine, the Agency itself vigorously examined the Habbusch letter and concluded that it was a forgery. “Our Branch Chief, Karen, walked into Cheney’s office with everything we’d uncovered…It seemed airtight. These were forgeries.” Bakos recalled. “I wasn’t there, but I heard the vice president was gracious and thanked her.”

Another former CIA officer, Philip Giraldi, meanwhile, placed responsibility  for  the  fabrication  on  the  Pentagon’s  Office  of Special Plans, and said it had been done at the instigation  of Vice President  Cheney.  According to Giraldi, the Pentagon, unlike the CIA, had “no restrictions on it regarding  the  production of false information to mislead the  public” and had “its own false documents  center.”

If it happened, the forgery was the most flagrant attempt to blame 9/11  on Iraq.

In 2008, the Senate Intelligence Committee produced its “Report on Whether Public Statements  Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence  Information.” “It’s my belief that the Bush administration was fixated on Iraq and used the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda as justification for overthrowing Saddam  Hussein,” said its chairman, John D. Rockefeller.  “To accomplish  this, top  administration officials made repeated statements  that falsely linked Iraq and al Qaeda as a single threat and insinuated that Iraq played a role in 9/11. Sadly, the Bush administration led the nation into war under false pretences.

In the ten years since the invasion of Iraq, reputable estimates indicate, almost 5,000 coalition servicemen and women have died. That number is dwarfed by the almost 150, 000 Iraqis – more than 80% of them civilians – who have also lost their lives. They died as the result of an attack on a nation that many Americans had been falsely led to believe bore some if not all of the responsibility for the attacks of September  11.

As former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in an article for the Daily Beast on March 18, “mobilizing Congress and the American people” to go to war against Iraq, “required a considerable messaging effort.” That messaging effort began with a spurious linkage to 9/11.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Iraq, Al Qaeda & 9/11: The Connection that Wasn’t

  1. Inconvenient fact is that Bush never used such a link to justify the invasion. Although there clearly was a minor link in Zarqawi, it was never expressed as the motive for the invasion in 2003.

    • Mark, the kind of linkage to which I refer can be found in comments like this, from Bush’s Jan. 28 2003 State of the Union message:

      “Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans — this time armed by Saddam Hussein.”

  2. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and
    I hope you write again soon!

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