News Intelligence Analysis
From the New York Times
June 19, 2004
Leaders of 9/11 Panel Ask Cheney for Reports
By PHILIP SHENON and RICHARD W. STEVENSON
WASHINGTON, June 18 The leaders of the Sept. 11 commission called on Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday to turn over any intelligence reports that would support the White House's insistence that there was a close relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.
The commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, and its vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, said they wanted to see any additional information in the administration's possession after Mr. Cheney, in a television interview on Thursday, was asked whether he knew things about Iraq's links to terrorists that the commission did not know.
"Probably," Mr. Cheney replied.
Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton said that, in particular, they wanted any information available to back Mr. Cheney's suggestion that one of the hijackers might have met in Prague in April 2001 with an Iraqi intelligence agent, a meeting that the panel's staff believes did not take place. Mr. Cheney said in an interview with CNBC on Thursday that the administration had never been able to prove the meeting took place but was not able to disprove it either.
"We just don't know," Mr. Cheney said.
Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton made the requests in separate interviews with The New York Times as the White House continued to question the findings of a staff report the commission released on Wednesday and to take exception to the way the report was characterized in news accounts. The report found that there did not appear to have been a "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and the terrorist network.
That finding appeared to undermine one of the main justifications cited by Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney for invading Iraq and toppling Mr. Hussein.
Mr. Cheney has also continued to cite a disputed report that Mohamed Atta, a ringleader of the hijacking plot, met in April, 2001, in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer, raising the possibility of a direct tie between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks, a tie that the commission's staff report found no evidence to support.
Mr. Cheney also said in the television interview that after Osama bin Laden had requested "terror training from Iraq, the Iraqi intelligence service responded; it deployed a bomb-making expert, a brigadier general." The commission's report concluded that Mr. bin Laden's requests went unanswered.
"It sounds like the White House has evidence that we didn't have," Mr. Hamilton said in an phone interview. "I would like to see the evidence that Mr. Cheney is talking about."
Mr. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said in a phone interview that he was surprised by Mr. Cheney's comments and would be "very disappointed" if the White House had not shared intelligence information about Al Qaeda with the commission, especially about the purported meeting in Prague.
Mr. Cheney's spokesman, Kevin Kellems, declined to comment on the request by Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton. Trent D. Duffy, a spokesman for the White House, said, "This White House and this administration have cooperated fully with the commission and have provided unprecedented access to some of the most classified information, including the Presidential Daily Brief. The president wants the commission to have the information it needs to do its job."
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin of Russia said Friday that his country gave intelligence reports to the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks suggesting that Saddam Hussein's government was preparing terrorist attacks in the United States or against American targets overseas. It is not clear whether Mr. Cheney was referring to those reports in citing intelligence that the commission was not aware of.
Mr. Hamilton, a former Democratic House member from Indiana and former chairman of the House intelligence committee, said the commission has found evidence of repeated contacts between Iraqi officials and the Qaeda terrorists and may describe those contacts in greater detail in its final report next month. But he said the panel had been unable to document any "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and the terror network against the United States or any other target.
While characterizing any differences between the commission and the White House on the issue as largely semantic, he said that the committee had no credible evidence "of any collaborative relationship period."
Other commission officials disclosed on Friday that the White House had sent a letter to the commission stamped "secret" on the eve of this week's hearings that demanded a variety of changes in its staff reports this week. But the officials said the White House letter did not seek any changes in the portions of the report that dispute any relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
That portion of the report said there was "no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States" and that Iraq had rebuffed or ignored Qaeda's requests for help from Baghdad in the 1990's.
"There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda also occurred after Bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," it said.
Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said the administration's early review of the commission report did not set off any alarm bells "because it was not inconsistent with what we've been saying" about the ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The White House has repeatedly said the commission's findings back its assertions that Iraq had regular contacts with and provided support or refuge to Al Qaeda.
Commission members said Friday that as result of the furor created by that portion of the report, they may rewrite it significantly in preparation of the panel's final report, which is expected to be released next month.
Mr. Kean suggested that the commission may want to limit the scope of the conclusion about ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq to only what is known about any possible collaboration between them on terrorist attacks against the United States, not against other targets.
"That's our mandate," he said. "This was a staff statement, and we've had commissioners who have disagreed occasionally with the staff statements, and this may be one of those occasions," he said.
Mr. Bush continued to press his case on Friday that there were substantial links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's government, although less directly than he did earlier in the week.
During a speech at Fort Lewis, Wash., he called Iraq under Mr. Hussein "a regime that sheltered terrorist groups," and he pointed to the capture by Iraqi authorities of suspected terrorists, including one with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant said by the White House to be an "associate" of Al Qaeda who has lived in Iraq.
Advisers to the White House said Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney would continue to be aggressive in countering the commission's conclusions or in the White House's official view, the misinterpretation by the news media of the commission's conclusions because failing to do so would undermine their credibility and their rationale for taking the country to war.
The Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee sent e-mail messages to supporters highlighting comments by Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton on Thursday suggesting that they saw no big gulf between the White House's position and the commission. Mr. Bartlett said Mr. Bush had no specific plans at the moment to revisit the issue in a speech, but that he would raise it when he had the opportunity in coming weeks.
"We'll continue to talk about how Saddam Hussein was a threat, and his ties to terrorism, and we will not give an inch on what we've said in the past," Mr. Bartlett said.
One outside adviser to the White House said the administration expected the debate over Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda to be "a regular feature" of the presidential campaign.
"They feel it's important to their long-term credibility on the issue of the decision to go to war," the adviser said. "It's important because it's part of the overall view that Iraq is part of the war on terror. If you discount the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, then you discount the proposition that it's part of the war on terror. If it's not part of the war on terror, then what is it some cockeyed adventure on the part of George W. Bush?"
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