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Choosing Ignorance

The New York Times finally acknowledges the Saddam documents--if only to dismiss them.
By Stephen F. Hayes
Weekly Standard
03/28/2006 2:30:00 PM

THE NEW YORK TIMES today joined the debate about Iraqi documents with a front-page news article and an op-ed by Peter Bergen. It's been nearly two weeks since the first documents were released, but a belated acknowledgement of the news is better than nothing. One might have expected such a longtime champion of open government as the Times to have aggressively led the effort to have these once-secret documents released. Not this time.

The front-page story seeks to dismiss the importance of the documents while the op-ed by Bergen seems to find them only significant enough to warrant an attempted deconstruction. Both of these efforts fail badly. Reading the two pieces together, one gets the unmistakable impression that the Times doesn't want to know more about the documents, their contents and what they tell us about prewar Iraq. The Times, it seems, has chosen ignorance.

The news piece deserves little in the way of a response. Reporter Scott Shane casts the story as a battle between diehard supporters of the Bush administration and the truth, noting most helpfully that in other Internet projects "volunteers have tested software, scanned chemical compounds for useful drugs and even searched radiotelescope data for signals from extraterrestrial life."

Shane ignores the mostly-thoughtful commentary and analysis of the documents and chooses to quote an exuberant conservative blogger proclaiming that one document shows that Iraq had WMD and connections to terrorism, only to knock that claim down later. "The anthrax document . . . does not seem to prove much," Shane writes. And he liberally sprinkles his piece with quotes from anonymous intelligence officials who downplay the significance of the document release. (In one case, Shane names the intelligence official, Michael Scheuer, but neglects to include any mention of Scheuer's self-contradictory analysis of Iraq and terrorism or any reminder that Scheuer might not be a disinterested party.)

Lost on Shane, it seems, is that these documents were released in large part so that we would no longer have to rely on the opinions of anonymous intelligence officials who, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee's bipartisan report, knew very little about Iraq before the war. It should hardly be surprising that the U.S. intelligence community would seek to downplay the significance of these documents after paying them little attention for three years. In any case, the release of the documents allows the debate to move from speculation to fact. It is a development one would expect the Times to welcome.

MORE BIZARRE than the Times's news piece is Bergen's op-ed on Iraq and terrorism. Bergen has long argued that religious and ideological differences between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein would preclude their cooperation. Despite new evidence that renders this view, at best, anachronistic, Bergen is not persuaded. The pull-quote accompanying his op-ed asks this quaint question: "Why would Saddam help al Qaeda?"

An internal Iraqi Intelligence memo that Bergen describes as "one of the most credible documents," and was first reported by the Times in 2004, suggests that a better question is: "Why did Saddam help al Qaeda?" According to the document, Saddam Hussein personally approved bin Laden's request--made in a face-to-face meeting with Iraqi intelligence--to rebroadcast al Qaeda's anti-Saudi propaganda on Iraqi airwaves. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether this is significant cooperation. What is indisputable from this document, though, is that bin Laden sought cooperation from the Iraqis and the Iraqis, at least in a limited way, agreed to provide it.

The Iraqis left open their response to bin Laden's second request, to carry out "joint operations against foreign forces" in Saudi Arabia. According to a U.S. government translation, the Iraqi memo said: "We were left to develop the relationship and the cooperation between the two sides to see what other doors of cooperation and agreement open up."

DID OTHER DOORS of cooperation open up? Bergen thinks he knows. "The results of this meeting were . . . nothing." Really? Even if one accepts Bergen's claim that Iraq had nothing to do with two subsequent attacks on U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, does that show that nothing came of the meeting? Hardly.

Bergen tells us that the second of those attacks, the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, was carried out "by the Saudi branch of Hezbollah, a Shiite group aided by Iranian government officials." Once again, the implication is that ideological and religious differences make cooperation unthinkable.

But the very document that includes bin Laden's requests also shows that Saudi Hezbollah was one of four Saudi opposition groups from which the Iraqi regime sought cooperation. Indeed, the regime did not foreclose the possibility of working with Saudi Hezbollah. The memo notes that the Iraqi representative was told to "proceed cautiously" with those discussions for fear of having the Iraqi regime's "intentions" compromised.

4. The Saudi Hezbollah
A. Various meetings took place between the representative of the Honorable Directorate of Intelligence Services Office, our Ambassador in Yemen in 1993, and with the leader of the Yemeni Hezbollah (Abdallah Ajinah). [Abdallah Ajinah] expressed willingness to obtain a secret meeting in Yemen between the representative [of IIS] and some of the members of the leadership of the Saudi Hezbollah.

B. Due to the doubt and indications that Ajinah has a relationship with the Iranian intelligence, the representative was directed to proceed cautiously in dealing with the above mentioned. To listen to what he presents only, in anticipation of the above mentioned being pressured by the Iranian intelligence to reveal our intentions of the Saudi opposition and then passing the information on to the Saudi side.

What, exactly, did the Iraqis mean by "our intentions of the Saudi opposition?" We don't know, but one might think that the Times would be interested.

Bergen continues: "Another striking feature about the supposed Qaeda-Iraq connection is that since the fall of the Taliban, not one of the thousands of documents found in Afghanistan substantiate such an alliance, even though al Qaeda was a highly bureaucratized organization that required potential recruits to fill out application forms."

Leaving aside the relevance of al Qaeda application forms, there are two points to make. First, hard as it might be to believe, the U.S. intelligence community has only recently begun to exploit many of the documents captured in Afghanistan. In a report that aired on National Public Radio on March 14, 2006, reporter Jackie Northam interviewed Major General Jay Hood, the commanding officer of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Here is the relevant part of that exchange:

Major General HOOD: Jackie, we're going to go in and look here in a minute at what's called our evidence locker. It's a . . . NORTHAM: This evidence locker is a long, low building that overlooks the blue waters of the Caribbean. For the first time, a journalist is allowed to go inside. Metal shelves crammed with dark green boxes fill the cavernous room. In them are more than 120,000 documents.

Major General HOOD: Captured telephone records, captured notebooks with all sorts of engineering data in them, both real and forged money.

NORTHAM: General Hood says when the detainees were captured about four years ago, the evidence was gathered up and stuffed into garbage bags and boxes.

Major General HOOD: It was hastily inventoried, stacked up, sealed and was transported here to Guantanamo. Frankly, it's just in the last year that we've been able to take a closer look at exactly what we've got here.

One document captured in postwar Afghanistan and released with 27 others in February, is filed as AFGP-2002-601693, and called "Status of Jihad." The letter between two al Qaeda terrorists (of apparently high rank) makes several references to connections between the Islamists and Iraq. One passage notes that bin Laden's chief deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, "went to Iraq and Iran" seeking support. Even the 9/11 Commission, which as Bergen points out was skeptical of any "collaborative operational relationship," allowed that Zawahiri had "contacts of his own" to the Iraqis.

It is worth noting that two 9/11 Commissioners also see value in the Iraqi Intelligence documents. The day after the 9/11 report was released, Commissioner John Lehman offered this prophetic warning in an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD: "There may well be--and probably will be--additional intelligence coming in from interrogations and from analysis of captured records and so forth which will fill out the intelligence picture. This is not phrased as, nor meant to be, the definitive word on Iraqi Intelligence activities."

Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator who also served as a 9/11 Commissioner, recently told Eli Lake of the New York Sun that the Iraqi Intelligence documents offer "a very significant set of facts." While cautioning that the documents don't tie Saddam to 9/11, Kerrey added that they do tie Saddam to "a circle that meant to damage the United States."

As U.S. News & World Report first reported, one high-ranking Iraqi military official told U.S. interrogators that the Iraqi regime provided Zawahiri with $300,000 in 1998. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi claimed to have seen documents showing that Zawahiri had been in Iraq for a gathering of Islamists in 1999. Allawi was recently back on the front pages of U.S. newspapers with his claim that Iraq was in the midst of a civil war, but the American media has showed far less interest in his oft-repeated claims that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda.

Bergen ends his piece by reminding us that bin Laden offered to fight against Saddam Hussein's Iraq before the first Gulf War, noting that "months before the Kuwait invasion in 1990 [bin Laden] angrily warned colleagues that Iraq had designs on Persian Gulf states." This is true, and suggests that the on-again, off-again relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda was based on mutual exploitation rather than mutual admiration. But Bergen fails to acknowledge that another captured Iraqi document, this one from 1992 and authenticated by the Defense Intelligence Agency, reveals that the Iraqis considered Osama bin Laden an Iraqi Intelligence asset who had good relations with the Iraqi intelligence station in Damascus, Syria.

Why leave this out?

Many questions remain. What came of Iraq's outreach to Saudi opposition groups? Are Allawi's documents authentic? What of Zawahiri's "contacts of his own" with the Iraqis? Did Iraq pass money to Zawahiri or other al Qaeda associates? Who were the "non-Iraqi Arabs" the regime trained in Iraq beginning in 1998?

It would be nice to know more. Unless, of course, you're The New York Times.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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