Terror Watch: Rewriting History

With virtually all of the administration's original case for war in Iraq in tatters, Vice President Dick Cheney provided shifting and sometimes misleading arguments in last night's debate with John Edwards about Saddam Hussein's ties to terrorists and his access to weapons of mass destruction.

Cheney, responding to moderator Gwen Ifill's first question, said that "concern" about Iraq before the war had "specifically focused" on the fact that Saddam's regime had been listed for years by the U.S. government as a "state sponsor of terror," that Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal operated out of Baghdad, that Saddam paid $25,000 to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers and that he had an "established relationship" with Al Qaeda.

But except for the allegation about Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda--a claim that is now more in question than ever--the other examples cited by Cheney in Tuesday night's debate never have been previously emphasized by Bush administration officials, and for good reasons.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the administration's case last year before the United Nations Security Council, for example, he said nothing about Iraq being cited by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism. The claim would have been especially unimpressive to a fellow member of the Security Council, the ambassador from Syria, whose country has been on the same list for years, as well as five other General Assembly members that are also on the list.

Powell also never brought up Abu Nidal living in Baghdad--most likely because Nidal, who hadn't been associated with any terrorist attacks in years, was already dead. (He was shot under mysterious circumstances in 2002.) And while Powell made a brief mention of Iraq funneling money to the families of suicide bombers, this was never a prominent part of the Bush administration's case for war--in large part because a number of other nations, most notably Saudi Arabia, have for years provided similar financial support to the families of Palestinian "martyrs."

Cheney's claims about an "established relationship" between Iraq and Al Qaeda were always a principal part of the administration's case for war, cited by Powell at the United Nations and, most forcefully, by Cheney in numerous speeches and TV interviews before and after the invasion. But it is also a contention that has been seriously undermined by a series of recent U.S. government reports, including the September 11 Commission report, which concluded there was no "collaborative operational relationship" between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Another is a recent CIA analysis, disclosed for the first time this week, raising questions about whether Jordanian terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, had been harbored by Saddam's regime before the war.

Cheney said last night that Zarqawi, who once ran a terror camp in Afghanistan with loose links to Al Qaeda, had "migrated to Baghdad" after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and "set up shop" there, overseeing a "poisons facility" at Kurmal, in northern Iraq.

In fact, U.S. intelligence officials tell NEWSWEEK, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Zarqawi went first to Iran--a country that many officials have long believed had far more consequential relationships with terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, than Saddam's regime. And while the new CIA report confirms that Zarqawi unquestionably did later move to Baghdad--and received medical treatment there before the war-- there is still no hard evidence on whether he was being supported or assisted by Saddam's regime. "The information on that is not clear," said one U.S. official familiar with the report. "It's still being worked." Cheney also left out the fact that the alleged poisons facility that Zarqawi allegedly supervised was in a part of northern Iraq not controlled by Saddam's government.

Cheney, challenged by Edwards, insisted last night that "I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11." But that claim is belied by an array of interviews and public comments in which Cheney has done precisely that--by repeatedly invoking claims that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. That allegation was also debunked by the 9/11 commission after the panel found abundant evidence that Atta was actually in the United States at the time the rendezvous supposedly took place. Cheney, for example, called the claim of an Atta meeting with an Iraqi official in Prague "pretty well confirmed" in a Dec. 9, 2001, "Meet the Press" interview. In a Sept. 8, 2002, "Meet the Press" appearance, just weeks before the congressional vote on authorizing President Bush to go to war, Cheney again returned to the issue: "We've seen in connection with the hijackers, of course, Mohammed Atta, who was the lead hijacker, did apparently travel to Prague on a number of occasions. And on at least one occasion, we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center." Even after CIA and FBI officials had already concluded the claims of the meeting were almost certainly false, Cheney was still referring to it in a Sept. 14, 2003 "Meet the Press" appearance. "The Czechs alleged that Mohammed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraq intelligence official five months before the attack, but we've never been able to develop anymore of that yet either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don't know."

Republicans last night were able to point to their own lengthy list of instances when Edwards misspoke or made "inaccurate" claims during the debate. Among them: that Edwards inflated the cost of the Iraq war (by saying it was $200 billion rather than $120 billion), by claiming that the United States has absorbed 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq (by leaving out uniformed Iraqi casualty deaths that would bring the figure down to 50 percent) and, perhaps most importantly, by saying that his running mate, John Kerry, had been "absolutely clear and consistent from the beginning about Iraq." (Edwards himself had claimed during the primary season that Kerry's explanations for his vote on authorizing the war in Iraq were "not clear to me ... I think he's said some different things at different points in time. So I think there there's been some inconsistency.")

But Cheney's miscues on Iraq are especially notable because he has been perhaps the single most vigorous advocate--both internally and in public--for the war. And the new questions about his previous statements come at a particularly awkward time for the administration. In a 1,000-page report released this afternoon, Charles A. Duelfer, the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, concludes once and for all that Iraq had no chemical or biological weapons at the time of the U.S. invasion. In fact, the report says, Iraq had destroyed the stockpiles it did have after the first Persian Gulf War under the pressure of U.N. sanctions.

As for administration claims that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program--claims that had been championed by Cheney more than any single high-level official--Duelfer found that Saddam had actually abandoned his nuclear efforts years earlier. "He was getting further away from nuclear weapons," a U.S. government official familiar with Duelfer's report told reporters yesterday. "He was further away from nuclear weapons in 2003 than he was in 1991." The nuclear program wasn't reconstituting, the official said. It was "decaying." In last night's debate, Cheney largely skirted the administration's prewar claims about Iraqi WMD, although he did at one point refer to a presumed nexus between terrorists and Iraqi unconventional weapons. "The point is that that's the place where you're most likely to see the terrorists come together with weapons of mass destruction, the deadly technologies that Saddam Hussein had developed and used over the years," he said. The claim that Saddam's agents had instructed Al Qaeda terrorists in making "poisons and gasses" had in fact been a prominent feature of the administration's prewar assertions, highlighted by Powell in his Security Council speech and Cheney repeatedly in his TV appearances and speeches. But the allegation was almost entirely based on the claims of one high-level Al Qaeda detainee--first identified by NEWSWEEK as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi--who, according to the 9/11 commission, has since recanted his story. Asked if Duelfer's team had found any evidence that Iraq had provided such training for terrorists, the U.S. official familiar with Duelfer's report shook his head and said simply: "No."