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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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Bush & Cheney: 9/11 Questions Still Unanswered

The next couple of weeks will be filled with 9/11 remembrances. Best to remind ourselves, though, that ten years after the fact they’re a poor substitute in evidential terms for the contemporary records of the day.  We’ve been giving this a lot of thought, wondering what, if anything, any of the talk will add to our understanding of the day’s events. Two of those notably doing the talking this past week were former President George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney – Bush in an “intimate” interview for National Geographic, Cheney in his just-released memoir, In My Time.

We blogged about this issue last week for The Daily Beast, before having heard Bush’s much-publicized 9/11 interview for National Geographic.  In our Beast piece we pointed out that neither Bush nor Cheney has ever submitted to questioning alone and under oath on the events of September 11.  Bush and Cheney instead granted a “private interview” to 9/11 Commission members but without recorders or stenographers present.

As a test, we’ve analysed their latest comments on one significant question about their own behaviour as the attacks unfolded – the matter of who authorized the shooting down of civilian airliners.

While the fire and smoke of the attacks was still in the air, top Bush administration officials hurried out statements on who issued that momentous order, and when. First there had been a flat statement  by Deputy  Defense  Secretary Wolfowitz that—had  United  93 not crashed—Air Force pilots had been poised to shoot it down. Next, on the Sunday after 9/11, had come Vice President Cheney’s account, in a Meet the Press interview, of how the shooting down of hijacked airliners had been authorized.  Cheney said the “horrendous decision” had been made—with his wholehearted agreement—by the President himself. There had been moments, he said, when he thought a shoot-down might be necessary

Bush took the decision during  one of their  phone  calls that day, Cheney told Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, “I recommended to the President that  we authorize . . . I said, ‘We’ve got to give the pilots rules of engagement, and I recommend we authorize  them  to shoot.’ We talked about it briefly, and he said, ‘OK, I’ll sign up to that.’ He made the decision.”

Bush himself, speaking with The Washington Post’s  Bob Woodward, said Cheney  had indeed suggested that he issue the order.  His response, as he remembered it in late 2001, had  been  monosyllabic.  Just, “You bet.” Later still, speaking with the 9/11 commissioners,  Bush recalled having discussed the matter in a call made to him by Cheney, and “emphasized”  that  it was he who authorized  the shootdown  of hijacked aircraft.

By the time the President wrote his 2010 memoir,  that call from the Vice President had become a call  he made to Cheney. Bush’s monosyllabic authorization, moreover, had transmogrified into a well thought-out plan.

“I called Dick Cheney as Air Force One climbed rapidly to forty-five thousand  feet . . . ,” the President  wrote. “He had been taken to the underground Presidential Emergency Operations Center—the PEOC—when the Secret Service thought a plane might be coming at the White  House. I told him that I would make decisions from the air and count on him to implement them on the ground.”

“Two big decisions came quickly. The military had dispatched Combat Air Patrols—teams of fighter  aircraft  assigned to intercept unresponsive  airplanes—over  Washington  and  New  York. . . .  We needed to clarify the rules of engagement. I told Dick that our pilots should contact suspicious planes and try to get them to land peace- fully. If that failed, they had my authority to shoot them down.”

Have Bush and Cheney’s most recent utterances shed any new light? In his Nat Geo interview this past week, President Bush gave a truncated account of the event, echoing the notion that it was “a decision” he alone had made, but this time entirely leaving out any mention of Cheney. Cheney, for his part, reiterates in his memoir that the President had “approved my recommendation” that the military be authorized to “fire on a civilian airliner if it had been hijacked and would not divert.” No clarity there.

It would have been unthinkable  for the  U.S.  military to  down a civilian airliner without a clear order from the President,  as commander-in-chief. In his absence, the authority belonged to the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. “The operational chain of command,” relevant law decreed, ran “from the President  to the Secretary of Defense,” and on through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to individual commanders.  The Vice President  was not in the chain of command.

That was well understood by U.S. military on September 11. In an earlier exercise, one that postulated a suicide mission involving a jet aimed at Washington, they had said shooting it down would require an “executive” order. The defense secretary’s authority, General Arnold told the Commission, was necessary to shoot down even a “derelict balloon.” Only the President, he thought, had the authority  to shoot down a civilian airliner.

The 9/11 Commission  made no overt statement  as to whether  it be- lieved Cheney’s assertion—that he recommended and Bush decided. Shown the final draft of the Report’s passage on the shoot-down decision, however, Cheney was furious. For all its careful language, the Report  dropped a clear hint that its staff had found Cheney’s account—and Bush’s—less than convincing.

“We  just didn’t  believe it,” general  counsel  Daniel  Marcus  de- clared long afterward. “The official version,” John Farmer would say, “insisted  that  President  Bush had  issued an authorization to  shoot down hijacked commercial flights, and that that order had been pro- cessed through the chain of command and passed to the fighters. This was untrue.”

Why  might a phony  scenario have been created? “The administration version,” Farmer  noted,  “implied, where it did not state explicitly, that  the chain of command  had been functioning on 9/11, and that the critical decisions had been made by the appropriate top officials. . . . None of this captures how things actually unfolded on the day.”

As we said in the Beast, we believe we come close in The Eleventh Day to establishing that shoot-down authorization originated not with Bush but with the Vice President. Nothing that either man has revealed in the past week changes that.

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