Terror Watch: Case Decidedly Not Closed

A leaked Defense Department memo claiming new evidence of an "operational relationship" between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein's former regime is mostly based on unverified claims that were first advanced by some top Bush administration officials more than a year ago--and were largely discounted at the time by the U.S. intelligence community, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials.

CASE CLOSED blared the headline in a Weekly Standard cover story last Saturday that purported to have unearthed the U.S. government's "secret evidence of cooperation" between Saddam and bin Laden. Fred Barnes, the magazine's executive editor, touted the magazine's scoop the next day in a roundtable chat on "Fox News Sunday." (Both the Standard and Fox News Channel are owned by the conservative media baron Rupert Murdoch.) "These are hard facts, and I'd like to see you refute any one of them," he told a skeptical Juan Williams of National Public Radio.

In fact, the tangled tale of the memo suggests that the case of whether there has been Iraqi-Al Qaeda complicity is far from closed. The Oct. 27, 2003, memo, prepared by Deputy Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith's office, was written in response to detailed questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee about the basis for intelligence pushed by Feith and other senior Pentagon officials during the run-up to the Iraq war.

With a few, inconclusive exceptions, the memo doesn't actually contain much "new" intelligence at all. Instead, it mostly recycles shards of old, raw data that were first assembled last year by a tiny team of floating Pentagon analysts (led by a Pennsylvania State University professor and U.S. Navy analyst Christopher Carney) whom Feith asked to find evidence of an Iraqi-Al Qaeda "connection" in order to better justify a U.S. invasion.

Within the U.S. intelligence establishment, the predominant view--then as now--is that the Feith-Carney case was murky at best. Culling through intelligence files, 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.) Moreover, other reports--some of which came foreign intelligence services and Iraqi defectors--were selectively presented by the Feith team and are, as one U.S. official told NEWSWEEK, "contradicted by other things."

Consider one of the seemingly more compelling reports cited in the memo: that Farouk Hijazi, the former chief of Iraqi intelligence and then ambassador to Turkey, flew to Afghanistan in late 1998 to meet with bin Laden. As Stephen Hayes, author of The Weekly Standard piece dutifully notes, accounts of this purported Saddam overture to Osama made its way into the mainstream press at the time--including NEWSWEEK. A Feb. 6, 1999, story in the British newspaper The Guardian contended the purpose of Hijazi's visit was to offer a presumably besieged bin Laden asylum in Iraq.

But, 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.

There is, moreover, compelling reason to believe bin Laden clung to this view as late as this year when Bush administration officials were making no secret of their plans to invade Iraq and topple Saddam. In a Feb. 11, 2003, audiotape released by Al-Jazeera, a voice believed to be bin Laden called on Arabs to rise up and strike at the U.S. invaders--a declaration that contributed to a Bush administration decision to ratchet up the country's threat level at the time. But, less well publicized, bin Laden emphasized in the same tape his interest was in defending the Iraqi people, not an "infidel" like Saddam.

"The socialists and their rulers [had] lost their legitimacy a long time ago and the socialists are infidels regardless of where they are, whether in Baghdad or in Aden," the bin Laden tape proclaimed. (The CIA later concluded the voice on the tape was "almost certainly" Osama.) Overlooked in The Weekly Standard hype, the Pentagon memo itself concedes that much of the more recent reporting about Iraqi-Al Qaeda ties is "conflicting." It quotes one Iraq intelligence officer in U.S. custody, Khalil Ibrahim Abdallah, as saying that "the last contact" between Iraqi intelligence and Al Qaeda was in July 1999 and that it was actually Saddam, not bin Laden, who cut off the contacts. While Hayes's story insists "the bulk of the reporting ... contradicts this claim," the actual examples cited in the memo to buttress this point are less than persuasive.

The memo invokes the by-now hoary claim--first reported by Czech intelligence-that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in April 2001. But it concedes that the FBI and CIA "cannot confirm" that such a meeting actually took place. In fact, the Iraqi agent in question, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, has been in U.S. custody for months and, according to U.S. intelligence sources, denies ever meeting Atta--a denial that officials tend to believe given that they have not unearthed a scintilla of evidence that Atta was even in Prague at the time of the alleged rendezvous.

The memo also cites the claims of one senior Al Qaeda operative in U.S. custody, Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi, who reported to his interrogators that he was "told by an Al Qaeda associate" (who is unidentified) that two Al Qaeda operatives were sent to Iraq in December 2000 for training in the use of chemical and biological weapons. (Both national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld later relied on al-Libi's claims to make the same allegation.) But U.S. intelligence officials note that al-Libi's claims are hearsay (he professed no firsthand knowledge) and that his credibility, like that of many captured Al Qaeda detainees, is sometimes spotty.

In any event, the Pentagon memo pointedly omits any reference to the interrogations of a host of other high-level Al Qaeda and Iraqi detainees--including such notables as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Abu Zubaydah, and Hijazi himself. All of them have reportedly dismissed the idea that Al Qaeda and Saddam had any working relationship. Can there be any doubt that if any of these captives had confirmed such a relationship that Bush administration officials would have found a way to get the word out?

None of this means, of course, that all accounts of Iraqi-Al Qaeda connections should be completely dismissed. The memo, for example, makes brief reference to the intriguing case of Ahmad Hikmat Shakir, a Malaysia-based Iraqi national who, purportedly through the aid of an Iraq embassy employee, landed a job at the Kuala Lumpur airport and then served as greeter and driver for two of the September 11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. The two men flew to the city for a crucial Al Qaeda planning session in January 2000. FBI documents obtained by NEWSWEEK more than a year ago show that U.S. law enforcement had a great deal of interest in interrogating Shakir in the months following September 11. After being picked up, first by Qatari intelligence and later by Jordanians, he was twice released--without the FBI ever getting a crack at him. He then flew off to Iraq, where he has never been seen since. U.S. military and intelligence officials are still looking for him to this day, sources say, and for good reason.

But all this is a far cry from solid evidence of ongoing cooperation between Saddam and Osama. The outing of the memo (a still classified document, as it happens) is likely now to become the subject of yet another Justice Department leak investigation. The CIA is expected to begin preparing a "crimes report" identifying the potential damage to national security (most likely pretty minimal). But there can be little doubt about the motive of the leaker: to shore up the Bush administration's prewar claims and defuse the intelligence committee investigation into allegations of the misuse of intelligence. Unfortunately, for the Pentagon and the Standard, the claims detailed in the memo will do little, if anything, to advance the case.