An Iraqi's Likely Story

By David Ignatius

Friday, November 28, 2003; Page A41

PARIS -- Bush administration hard-liners have a dangerous habit of selectively using intelligence to support the policy conclusions they favor. The latest example of that tendentious approach comes in the leaked Pentagon memo on alleged operational links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda that was summarized last week by the Weekly Standard.

To understand why the memo sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith was misleading, a little background is necessary.

The claim that Hussein's intelligence service had contacts with al Qaeda isn't new, and by itself it doesn't prove much. In the murky world of espionage, operatives are constantly checking out potential friends and adversaries; it would be surprising, in fact, if the Iraqis and Osama bin Laden's men hadn't met. CIA Director George Tenet summarized these feelers in an October 2002 letter to the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He noted that contacts between Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda dated back to the early 1990s and had included discussions about giving al Qaeda operatives sanctuary in Iraq or helping them acquire chemical weapons.

Analysts working for Feith gathered those old intelligence reports and some new ones and argued that they showed significant links between the Iraqis and al Qaeda -- rejecting the CIA's skepticism on one of the most sensitive issues in the Iraq debate. The Senate Intelligence Committee then asked Feith to explain why his staff had reached this conclusion and he responded with 50 specific intelligence items, his spokesman explained. The Standard summarized the memo this way in the lead of its article: "Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003."

There's a reason why the CIA and British intelligence remained dubious about any serious Iraq-al Qaeda operational link, even though they knew about covert contacts between the two. That's because they had an unusually well-placed source in Iraq who told them before the war that in the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein had indeed considered such an operational relationship with bin Laden -- and then decided against it.

"The Iraqis did consider the possibility of links with al Qaeda to explore the possibility of cooperation, but they decided not to pursue that course of action," explained a senior intelligence official. "The Iraqis decided it wasn't in their best interest to be linked to an Islamic terrorist group."

The information was based on "high-level human source reporting," the official added, and it was the most important reason why "prior to the war, the CIA and Britain agreed that despite contact between Saddam and al Qaeda over the years, there had been no substantive, institutional cooperation. Nothing we have learned in recent months would cause us to change that view."

Now the interesting part: Confirmation of this version of events can be found in, of all places, the Weekly Standard article. And it's one of the few elements in the story that's genuinely new, for it's based on a recent interview with a captured Iraqi spy.

Here's how the Weekly Standard quotes from the new intelligence: "One senior Iraqi intelligence officer in U.S. custody, Khalil Ibrahim Abdallah, 'said that the last contact between the IIS [Iraqi intelligence service] and al Qaeda was in July 1999. Bin Laden wanted to meet with Saddam, he said. The guidance sent back from Saddam's office reportedly ordered Iraqi intelligence to refrain from any further contact with bin Laden and al Qaeda. The source opined that Saddam wanted to distance himself from al Qaeda.' " The Standard story dismisses the importance of this information, arguing that "the bulk of reporting on the relationship contradicts this claim."

But the contradictory "bulk" turns out to be pretty flimsy. For example, the Feith memo cites an intelligence report that al Qaeda "in late 1999" set up a training camp in northern Iraq. If the camp was in the north, then it was probably in an area under effective Kurdish or Iranian control.

Don't get me wrong. I respect the Weekly Standard's reporter, Stephen Hayes, and I think he had a good scoop (although I think he may have buried the lead). No, my complaint is with Feith, who produced an intelligence memo that to me had a clear political agenda, despite his claims to the contrary. The case that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were working together against America is not "closed," as the Weekly Standard would have it. The CIA, which collected most of the raw intelligence Feith cites, remains unconvinced, and for good reason. The case is thin, and contradicted by high-level Iraqi sources. Advocates for U.S. policy in Iraq should understand that it weakens their credibility, rather than strengthening it, when they seem to be cooking intelligence to serve President Bush's political interests.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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