As criticism over the Bush administration's use of prewar
intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction continues, a
new wave of accusations seems ready to break—this time, over
complaints that in its efforts to sell the war, the White House
also hyped claims about the links between al Qaeda and Saddam
Three former Bush administration officials who worked on
intelligence and national security issues have told National
Journal that the prewar evidence tying al Qaeda to Iraq was
tenuous, exaggerated, and often at odds with the conclusions of
key intelligence agencies. The Bush alumni, as well as other
intelligence veterans and some members of Congress, say they see
parallels between how the administration painted the Qaeda
connection to Iraq and the way that the White House often
portrayed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction as being
definitive or rock solid.
"Our conclusion was that Saddam would certainly not provide
weapons of mass destruction or WMD knowledge to al Qaeda because
they were mortal enemies," said Greg Thielmann, who worked at the
State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research on weapons
intelligence until last fall. "Saddam would have seen al Qaeda as
a threat, and al Qaeda would have opposed Saddam as the kind of
secular government they hated."
Other Bush veterans concur that the evidence linking Al Qaeda
to Iraq was overblown.
"Anyone who followed al Qaeda for a living would not have
considered Iraq to be in the top tier of countries to be worried
about," said Roger Cressey, who left the administration last fall
after working on counterterrorism issues at the National Security
Council and as a top aide to cyberterrorism czar Richard Clarke.
"I'd argue that Iraq would be in the third tier." By contrast,
Cressey said, Iran would rate in "the top tier."
And Flynt Leverett, who worked on Middle East issues at the
National Security Council until earlier this year and is now with
the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy,
said that some administration officials pushed the intelligence
envelope on the Qaeda connection. "After September 11, there was a
concrete effort by policy makers, particularly in the Pentagon and
the vice president's office, to come up with links between al
Qaeda and Iraq."
Generally, these and other former intelligence officials who
talked to National Journal felt that the United States
needed to confront Saddam Hussein. But the analysts questioned the
war's timing and wondered whether the attack should have come
before the battle against al Qaeda was sufficiently far along.
In the reviews that the Senate and the House Intelligence
panels are conducting into the accuracy of prewar intelligence,
the claims on Iraq and al Qaeda are also a topic of inquiry.
Republican leaders of those committees have generally defended the
administration's prewar assessment of Qaeda-Iraq links. Democrats,
however, have been skeptical.
"I have never believed that the prewar links between al Qaeda
and Iraq were very strong," declared Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.,
the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on
Intelligence, who voted in favor of the war last fall. "The
evidence on the al Qaeda links was sketchy."
Her counterpart on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
also sounded dubious about the administration's effort to link al
Qaeda and Iraq. "I think the ties were always tenuous at best,"
said Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., who also voted for the war.
"The evidence about the ties was not compelling." Rockefeller said
that his panel has a staff group focusing on the question and that
the panel may hold a hearing just on this issue in the fall.
In two periods during the run-up to the war against Iraq— in
late September and early October of 2002, just before the vote in
Congress, and then this year in the weeks before the
war—administration heavyweights highlighted what they portrayed as
significant ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. President Bush,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin
Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice all weighed
in on this point, sometimes in a broad-brush way, sometimes with
hints of tantalizing specifics.
Powell, in his major speech to the United Nations on February
5, cited the presence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian
terrorist who was in Baghdad in May 2002 receiving medical
treatment for wounds he received in Afghanistan. Powell referred
to al-Zarqawi as "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden
and his al Qaeda lieutenants."
But several intelligence experts say that Powell overstated
these ties. Al-Zarqawi "is at best seen as having linkages to al
Qaeda, instead of being a card-carrying member," Cressey said.
"There's no question that Zarqawi is a terrorist, but there are
real questions about whether he's a member of al Qaeda," said
Vince Cannistraro, a former head of counterterrorism operations at
In his State of the Union address in January, Bush made the
Qaeda-Iraq connection. "Evidence from intelligence sources, secret
communications and statements by people now in custody," the
president said, "reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects
terrorists, including members of al Qaeda." Bush darkly added,
"Secretly and without fingerprints, [Saddam] could provide one of
his hidden weapons to terrorists or help them develop their own."
In perhaps the boldest assertion before the war, Defense
Secretary Rumsfeld on September 27 stated that the administration
had several "bullet-proof" sentences in intelligence reports about
ties between Iraq under Saddam and al Qaeda. "We have what we
consider to be very reliable reporting of senior-level contacts
going back a decade," Rumsfeld said.
Bush echoed Rumsfeld's remarks in his major address in
Cincinnati on October 7, asserting as well that al Qaeda and Iraq
had "high-level contacts that go back a decade." He also stated
that "we've learned" that Iraqis trained Qaeda members in "bomb
making and poisons and deadly gases." And Bush posited that Iraq
"could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical
weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists."
But even as the president made these comments, the key
classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq making the
rounds in the Bush administration presented a more nuanced and
less alarmist view. For instance, according to a recent
Washington Post account, Bush didn't mention a key
conclusion of the intelligence report: that although high-level
contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq had taken place in the early
1990s when bin Laden was based in Sudan, these contacts had not
been followed by any significant ties between Al Qaeda and the
Iraqi government. Similarly, intelligence sources have said that
the claim that Bush made about Iraq training Qaeda members in bomb
making or poison gas use had not been fully verified.
"There wasn't the kind of link between Iraq and al Qaeda that
people wanted," said one Bush administration alum. The CIA, he
added, had "some measure of intellectual responsibility and didn't
come up with a case."
Moreover, the president failed to mention the report's
conclusion that the prevailing view in the intelligence community
was much more guarded about the prospect of Saddam's transferring
weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. In fact, CIA Director
George J. Tenet wrote to Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who was then the
chairman of the Senate Intelligence panel, that only if a U.S.
attack against Iraq seemed imminent or inevitable might Saddam
"decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in
conducting a WMD attack against the U.S. would be his last chance
to exact vengeance.... "
Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and Iraq expert who is now
director of research at the Saban Center at Brookings, said he
also believed before the war that it was "extremely unlikely" that
Saddam would have turned over weapons of mass destruction to al
Qaeda. Furthermore, Pollack has since concluded that there's a
"much stronger" argument to be made that "the administration
exaggerated its case for war in terms of the al Qaeda issue than
on the WMD issue."
Bush particularly irked intelligence analysts when he landed on
an aircraft carrier right after Baghdad fell and proclaimed that
the U.S. had just "removed an ally of al Qaeda." Thielmann, the
former State Department analyst, calls the statement "an
outrageous distortion" and a "shameless falsehood."
Bush, when specifically asked at his news conference on July 30
whether the links between Iraq and al Qaeda were exaggerated and
whether he now had more definitive evidence pointing to them, gave
a long answer justifying the war on other grounds. But on the
links between al Qaeda and Iraq, he said only that David Kay, the
former U.N. weapons inspector now in Iraq looking for evidence of
weapons of mass destruction, was also going through piles of
documents to look for such links. "It's going to take time for us
to gather the evidence and analyze the mounds of evidence,
literally the miles of documents that we have uncovered," Bush
Some critics argue that by linking al Qaeda and Iraq, the
administration has not only misled the public about Iraq but about
the real and continuing danger from al Qaeda.
The Bush administration "created a powerful impression for the
American public that al Qaeda and Iraq were joined," said Dan
Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies and the co-author of "The Age of Sacred
Terror." Benjamin added, "People don't understand that al Qaeda is
a global insurgency distinct from states, and is eager to topple
Other former intelligence officials are also dismayed by Deputy
Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's recent statement that the fight
against Iraq is the "central battle" in the Bush administration's
war on terrorism. "The idea that the battle in Iraq is the central
battle in the war on terrorism flies in the face of reality and
all that we know about al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other globally
active terrorists," Leverett said.
Looking ahead, some critics worry that the Iraq war could
ultimately help al Qaeda more than hurt it. "A lot of people who
could have been very helpful working on al Qaeda were working on
Iraq," Graham, a presidential candidate, said. "We shifted
intelligence assets as well as military and intelligence people to
Other Democrats concur. "The war enormously deepened the pool
of eager recruits for al Qaeda," Rockefeller said. "I think that
al Qaeda was, is, and always will be a greater threat than Iraq."