Possible Saddam/Bin Laden Alliance Keeps Nation Gripped

By David Thibault | July 7, 2008 | 8:30pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - America's greatest ally in the war on terrorism - Great Britain - is the site Wednesday for President Bush's latest defense of the rationale for invading Iraq. Against this backdrop is the renewed speculation about whether former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and fugitive terror mastermind Osama bin Laden had a long-standing working relationship before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

A report this week in the conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard, cited a leaked memo dated Oct. 27 and written by U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith as evidence of a relationship between Hussein's regime and bin Laden's terror network between 1990 and this year. The memo was addressed to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Vice Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), according to the Weekly Standard.

On Tuesday, Roberts said the memo contained "highly classified material" and represented "an egregious leak." He said the committee staff was drafting a letter to be sent to the Justice Department, asking it to investigate whether the leak constituted a crime. Rockefeller reportedly also supports such an investigation.

Meanwhile, the Intelligence Committee continues to analyze the information that was collected and made available to the Bush administration in the weeks and months prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. There is no timeline for the completion of the committee's report, according to an aide to Roberts.

However, another controversial memo, this one written earlier this month by a Democratic committee staff member suggesting that Democrats use the pre-war intelligence-gathering process to try to damage Bush's re-election chances, is still causing hard feelings. Some briefings for Intelligence Committee Democrats have been canceled, according to an aide to Roberts who did not want to be identified.

The eventual report produced by the Intelligence Committee might bolster the allegations of a Hussein/bin Laden working relationship and add rationale for the administration going to war with Iraq, or it might downplay the Hussein/bin Laden link and weaken the reasoning for war among many Americans, especially since no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.

Last fall and early this year, members of the Bush administration commented several times on the alleged links between Iraq and al Qaeda. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, for example, in a September 2002 interview on PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, said the administration had learned that there were "some al Qaeda personnel who found refuge in Baghdad.

"There clearly are contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq that can be documented," Rice said at the time.

In January of this year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly asserted that evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda "has grown." Later, however, after a United Nations terrorism committee reportedly found no evidence of such links, several former Bush administration members came forward to say the claims of an Iraq/al Qaeda nexus were exaggerated.

While contending that "there's no question that Saddam Hussein had al Qaeda ties," even President Bush in September sought to downplay the connection, acknowledging that "we have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11" terrorist strikes.

James Phillips, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said even if the evidence of an Iraq/al Qaeda link exists, the Bush administration might be reluctant to publicize it.

"One possibility is that the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction didn't hold up as well as they might have liked, so they're being extra cautious on this in order to protect their credibility," Phillips said.

"From what I've seen, there's definitely a long history of contacts, but it's unclear exactly what those contacts amounted to...I think very few people think it amounts to Iraqi control. Perhaps the Iraqis were just trying to keep informed," Phillips added.

Phillips said Vice President Dick Cheney appears to be the most aggressive member of the administration in terms of voicing the Iraq/al Qaeda suspicions, but that the CIA seems more skeptical.

One of the reasons used to dismiss the links in the past was the fact that as the secular leader of Iraq, Hussein would have little chance of developing a relationship with bin Laden, whom many people consider a religious fanatic. But Phillips said that element alone would not have discouraged such a hookup.

"That's crazy. That's an assumption that is demonstrably wrong because Saddam has cooperated with Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad...and that was kind of a CIA presumption...I think that doesn't really stand up," Phillips said.

Anthony Cordesman, an expert on the Middle East and South Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the timing of the leaked memo, which served as the basis for the Weekly Standard article, "raises real questions about credibility."

"The quality of the leak and how much information is actually being leaked is unclear. You have a long chain of possibilities, uncertain evidence and invalidated claims that don't really describe the clear relationship," Cordesman said. "And it is the kind of intelligence analysis that looks like you took every indicator you could find and tried to prove a point rather than try to create an objective and balanced analysis."

Cordesman would not discount the possibility that the Feith memo had been planted, adding: "If this is an administration effort, it is a remarkably clumsy one."

The attacks currently being waged against U.S. forces in Iraq, Cordesman said, involve almost exclusively loyalists to Saddam Hussein's ousted regime.

"As of last week, people were talking about 95 percent of the force and attacks being related to former regime loyalists. Gen. [John] Abizaid [commander, CENTCOM] was very clear that out of the 20 suspects who might have al Qaeda ties, none could be confirmed," Cordesman said.

"There is no hard evidence" of an Iraq/al Qaeda nexus, Cordesman added. "There are indications of some kinds of contact, which of course, would occur in any case. Intelligence services never leave movements like this alone. And there are, shall we say, more conspiracy theories than well-reasoned analysis."

Bush White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Monday may have signaled another shift in the administration's willingness to talk about the links mentioned in the Weekly Standard report.

"The ties between, or the relationship between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda were well-documented," McClellan told White House reporters. "They were documented by Secretary [of State Colin] Powell before the United Nations, back in February, I believe. And we have previously talked about those ties that are there."

As the Senate Intelligence Committee continues to investigate any of those potential ties, the Democratic staff memo suggesting that Democrats use the panel to score political points is still making it impossible for members of the committee to conduct business as usual, according to the aide to Sen. Roberts.

"The regular give-and-take really has sort of stopped because there is a lack of trust on the chairman's part - that the minority doesn't just wish to pre-judge the whole inquiry. And no one's disavowed the memo, and no one's taken responsibility for it," the Roberts staff aide said.

There is currently no target date for the committee to complete its work.

"They don't have a time frame because just a week prior to this (Democratic staff) memo, both Roberts and Rockefeller asked for additional information from the DoD (Department of Defense), the State Department, the NSC (National Security Council) - and that information has been coming in. So there is new information they're now having to review, in addition to the things they've already looked at," the Roberts aide said.

Roberts, in a Nov. 13 op/ed in the Washington Post , said his panel's investigation "is probably the most comprehensive review of intelligence since the creation of the committee in 1976."

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