A reader -- a right-winger, I think* -- has e-mailed me to ask what I think of this excerpt from The Connection, the new book by The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes.
Hayes is a man on a mission. He wrote a Standard article last fall called "Case Closed," in which he stated flatly that
Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003.
The article was based on a leaked memo by Deputy Defense Secretary Douglas Feith, based on research by Christopher Carney, a Pentagon analyst; the book expands on that article.
The best debunking of Hayes's argument is Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball's "Case Definitely Not Closed." Isikoff and Hosenball's conclusion:
...the Feith team indeed found multiple "reports" of alleged meetings between Iraqi officials and Al Qaeda operatives dating back to the early 1990s when Osama first set up shop in Sudan. But many of these reports were old, uncorroborated and came from sources of unknown if not dubious credibility, U.S. intelligence officials say. (Not unlike, as it has turned out, much of the “reporting” on Iraq’s ever-elusive weapons of mass destruction.)
In addition, there's this curious Department of Defense statement, which appeared in response to "Case Closed" and says this about the leaked memo:
The items listed in the classified annex were either raw reports or products of the CIA, the National Security Agency or, in one case, the Defense Intelligence Agency.... The classified annex was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions.
(Another rebuttal is this from Bryan Keefer at Spinsanity.)
As a non-expert, I've poked at a couple of the allegations, and they don't seem very solid. For instance, in the book excerpt Hayes cites old ABC and NPR news reports about a hospitality offer allegedly made to bin Laden by Iraq. This is from NPR:
Iraq's contacts with bin Laden go back some years, to at least 1994, when, according to one U.S. government source, [Farouk] Hijazi [the former chief of Iraqi intelligence and then ambassador to Turkey] met him when bin Laden lived in Sudan. According to Cannistraro, Iraq invited bin Laden to live in Baghdad to be nearer to potential targets of terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait....
But Isikoff and Hosenball point out a small omission by Hayes:
...as Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism official, says, the Feith-Carney memo omits the rest of the story: that bin Laden actually rejected the Hijazi overture, concluding he did not want to be "exploited" by a regime that he has consistently viewed as "secular" and fundamentally antithetical to his vision of a strict Islamic state.
Hijazi could probably tell us more, right? Too bad we can't we can't ask him the truth.
Well, actually, we can. U.S. forces apparently captured Hijazi in April '03; here's a government news release from October stating that Hijazi was in U.S. custody. And here's Seymour Hersh reporting in December that Hijazi had started providing intelligence to the U.S. on Baathists fighting American troops. So shouldn't the guy be telling us fascinating new information about the deep, profound links between Saddam and al-Qaeda? Shouldn't the administration have long since begun doling out the information and cooking up the crow for us liberal war critics?
And guess how we learned about the Hijazi-bin Laden meeting? This is from a 2002 USA Today article:
The meeting was first made public by the Iraqi National Congress, an exiled opposition group that contends that Saddam's regime has helped train, equip and plan Al-Qaeda attacks.
Well, that's certainly a solid source, no?
There's my problem with Hayes -- can we trust anything he's got? Did any of it not come from people almost universally recognized now as liars, crooks, double-crossers, and fabricators? Hayes wants to know why so many people Bush critics believed in a Saddam-Osama connection back in the '90s. Isn't the reason simply that they were being fed lies by these liars?
Why hasn't interrogation of captured Iraqis confirmed the Saddam-Osama connection? And don't tell me that it has, but everything's still classified -- this administration wouldn't allow its credibility to crumble if it had such tasty crow to serve up.
Right-wingers want us to believe that bin Laden would do nothing while his best friend, Saddam, was being overthrown and captured. The Crusader Infidel was in bin Laden's backyard. Did he make a bizarre, Bush-like decision that Madrid, not Baghdad, was really "the central front" in the war on the War on Terror? That makes no sense whatsoever.
*He has since assure'd me he's not.