Knight Ridder Gets It Wrong

Stephen F. Hayes | The Weekly Standard | Thursday, July 15, 2004

Knight Ridder Gets It Wrong

President Bush continued to insist Monday that there was an operational link between former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida despite reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the commission that's investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that there was no evidence that Saddam and Islamic terrorists collaborated to kill Americans.

(Jonathan Landay and William Douglas, Knight Ridder Newspapers, July 12, 2004) [Emphasis added]

THAT SENTENCE IS FALSE. It was the lead passage in a story about President Bush's speech Monday at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee. Bush did not claim an "operational link" between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. He could not have "continued to insist" on such an "operational link" because he has never done so before. And, finally, neither the September 11 Commission nor the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that there was "no evidence that Saddam and Islamic terrorists collaborated to kill Americans."

Other than that, the sentence was accurate. The complete text of Bush's speech is here.

By Wednesday, Knight Ridder had posted a correction. "President Bush's comments about terrorism were incorrectly reported in that saying the president insisted there was an operational link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The president suggested that such a link existed, but didn't explicitly make that connection."

The correction is incorrect. The president never even "suggested that such a link"--the referent is an "operational link"--existed.

The sentence was hardly the only problem with the story, which ran under the headline "Bush Again Tries to Link Saddam, al Qaeda." Knight Ridder is the second largest newspaper chain in the United States. Its stories run in major metropolitan daily newspapers such as the Miami Herald, the Charlotte Observer and the Philadelphia Inquirer. According to a company press release from May 5, 2004, Knight Ridder "publishes 31 daily newspapers in 28 U.S. markets, with a readership of 8.7 million daily and 12.6 million Sunday."

The authors continue:

In its report, the Senate Intelligence Committee affirmed CIA analyses that found that while there had been contacts between al-Qaida and Iraqi intelligence officials during the 1990s, "these contacts did not add up to an established relationship."

Again, not true. The report is misquoted. According to Conclusion 93 of the Senate Intelligence Committee report the "contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship." [emphasis added] How many terrorist groups have "established formal relationships" with their state sponsors? State sponsors often--but not always--prefer to keep their terrorist connections loose and informal so that they might avoid detection, deniability being a major goal of states that use terrorists to do their dirty work.

The Senate Intelligence Committee language is important for another reason: Documents from the Iraqi Intelligence service do suggest an "established relationship," just not "an established formal relationship." A report in the June 25, 2004, New York Times, was based on an internal Iraqi Intelligence document: When bin Laden left the Sudan in 1996, according to the Iraqi Intelligence document, Iraqi Intelligence began "seeking other channels through which to handle the relationship, in light of [bin Laden's] current location." The report also indicates that bin Laden "had some reservations about being labeled an Iraqi operative" and that "cooperation between the two organizations should be allowed to develop freely through discussion and agreement."

The Iraqis themselves, then, talked about the connection with al Qaeda in terms of the "relationship" and "cooperation." At the same time, bin Laden was reluctant to formalize the relationship.

Does the lack of an "established formal relationship" preclude cooperation? Not according to bin Laden. The same internal Iraqi Intelligence document reports that bin Laden "requested joint operations against foreign forces" based in Saudi Arabia.

THE KNIGHT RIDDER STORY also questions Bush administration claims on Abu Musab al Zarqawi. But rather than refer to the report prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss Zarqawi's activities, the authors turn to anonymous "U.S. intelligence officials":

U.S. intelligence officials consider Zarqawi an associate of the terrorist network, not a member sworn to obey Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi, they think, is an independent operator who has an agenda similar to bin Laden's and cooperates with al Qaeda when it's convenient. He and some followers found sanctuary in an enclave in northern Iraq run by armed Kurdish Islamic extremists that was outside Saddam's control.

In 2002, Zarqawi reportedly received medical treatment in Baghdad and set up cells in the city, leading Bush administration officials to view his presence there are proof that Saddam was collaborating with al Qaeda.

U.S. Intelligence officials think it just as likely that Iraqi officials, who were hostile to Islamic extremists, gave him medical care and refuge because it was easier to monitor his activities in Baghdad than in northern Iraq.

There are no doubt U.S. intelligence officials who have provided this assessment. Their views, however, were not included in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report. That report quotes a finished CIA report from January 2003 called Iraqi Support for Terrorism on the question of Zarqawi:

A variety of reporting indicates that senior al Qaeda terrorist planner al Zarqawi was in Baghdad [redacted]. A foreign government service asserted that the IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] knew where al Zarqawi was located despite Baghdad's claims that it could not find him.

The CIA calls Zarqawi a "senior al Qaeda terrorist planner" and adds the detail that the Iraqi regime claimed it could not find him. The Senate report concludes:

Al Zarqawi and his network were operating both in Baghdad and in the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq. The HUMINT reporting indicated that the Iraqi regime certainly knew that al Zarqawi was in Baghdad because a foreign government service gave that information to Iraq.[emphasis added]

So the Senate Intelligence Committee report, based on CIA findings, concludes not only that the Iraqi regime "certainly" knew of Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad, but also that Zarqawi and his network were "operating" in the Iraqi capital and in northern Iraq.These facts were left out of the Knight Ridder story, too.

There is much we all have to learn about Iraq's relationship with al Qaeda. As the Senate report makes clear, what knowledge we currently possess is based on inadequate intelligence collection from the U.S. intelligence community. What we are learning now--whether from detainees or captured Iraqi documents--reinforces one central fact: Iraq and al Qaeda had a relationship.

And as the CIA's Counterterrorism Center--and this, too, was included in the Senate Intelligence Committee report--said in describing its aggressive analysis of the Iraq-al Qaeda connection: "Any indication of a relationship between these two hostile elements could carry great dangers to the United States."

Any indication. That wasn't in the Knight Ridder story, either.

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard. Parts of this article are drawn from his new book, The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America (HarperCollins).

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