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No Proof Connects Iraq to 9/11, Bush Says

Times Staff Writer

President Bush said Wednesday that there was no proof tying Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks, amid mounting criticism that senior administration officials have helped lead Americans to believe that Iraq was behind the plot.

Bush’s statement was the latest in a flurry of remarks this week by top administration officials after Vice President Dick Cheney resurrected a number of contentious allegations about Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

“We’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11th,” Bush said in an impromptu session with reporters. He contended, however, that “there’s no question that Saddam Hussein had Al Qaeda ties.”

Bush’s comments were his most direct on the issue to date. He drew a clear distinction between alleged Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda and the lack of evidence of Iraqi involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. That is a distinction administration officials did not emphasize in the months before the war.

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The issue has come to a head amid recent polls showing that most Americans believe -- despite the lack of evidence -- that Hussein was somehow involved in the attacks.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan stressed Wednesday that Bush administration officials never claimed any Iraq-Sept. 11 link.

McClellan’s assertion appears to be factually correct, but many administration critics, including some in the intelligence community, said it was also somewhat misleading.

A reading of the record shows that while senior administration officials stopped short of accusing Hussein of complicity in the attacks, they frequently alluded to the possibility of such a connection, and consistently cast the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda in stronger terms than many in the intelligence community seemed to endorse.

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Even Bush’s remarks Wednesday were challenged by lawmakers and other officials who have reviewed the White House’s prewar claims and have access to the underlying U.S. intelligence.

Responding to Bush’s statement, Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said any alleged ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda “are tenuous at best and not compelling.”

And while he agreed that administration officials never made an explicit connection between Iraq and Sept. 11, Rockefeller said the White House “led the American public into believing there was a connection in order to build support for the war in Iraq.”

The issue, which had been dormant for several months, has been revived in recent days by a number of factors, including a fresh effort by the White House to shore up support for the increasingly costly military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq by casting the operation as a part of the response to Sept. 11.

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In a speech last week, Bush described Iraq as the “central front” in the war on terrorism, even though few in the counter-terrorism community described it as such before the U.S. invasion.

In his appearance Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Cheney vigorously defended every aspect of the war, saying the administration’s prewar claims about banned weapons held by Iraq would be proved true. He argued that Iraq was the “heart of the base” of the terrorist threat that culminated on Sept. 11.

“If we’re successful in Iraq ... then we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11,” Cheney said.

The White House has been on the defensive for months over the failure so far to find banned weapons in Iraq, which has fueled criticism that the administration hyped the threat posed by Hussein.

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Perhaps fearing that Cheney’s comments might trigger a new public relations problem, the White House has moved quickly in recent days to clarify its position on Iraq and Sept. 11.

Bush’s remarks Wednesday followed nearly identical comments by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday that the administration had no evidence tying Hussein to Sept. 11. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice also spoke on the issue Tuesday, saying on ABC’s “Nightline,” “We have never claimed that Saddam Hussein ... had either direction or control of 9/11.”

Recent administration statements, however, have prompted new questions about whether the White House contributed to and capitalized on public perception that Iraq was involved in the attacks.

Polls over the past year have shown that a persistent, perhaps even growing, majority of Americans believes Hussein was somehow involved.

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The latest, an August survey by the Washington Post, found that 69% of Americans believed Iraq was “likely” behind the attacks.

Polling experts say the numbers reflect the strong animosity many Americans have felt toward Hussein since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

“The American public has always been prepared to think the worst of Saddam Hussein,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “They think he’s a dangerous guy, and he comes from the Mideast, where the people who are dedicated to hurting us come from, and [their belief that he was behind Sept. 11] is less conviction than, ‘Yeah, probably.’ ”

Asked whether he believed the administration contributed to that perception, Kohut replied: “Well, they didn’t have to hint very much to have Americans draw that inference. I don’t know if people were already there [in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11], but they were prepared to go there really quickly.”

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Though Bush and his top aides did not say directly that Hussein took part in the Sept. 11 attacks, they often combined the two subjects in speeches and interviews leading up to the war.

In a key speech in Cincinnati in October, the president said: “We know that Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy -- the United States of America. We know that Iraq and Al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade.”

After Hussein’s regime was toppled, Bush reinforced the perception of a link between the two in his May 1 speech aboard an aircraft carrier off San Diego, saying, “We’ve removed an ally of Al Qaeda.”

Critics argue that such juxtapositions encouraged people to tie Hussein to Sept. 11.

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“It was the close association in the same thought, the same sentence, that led to that incorrect conclusion,” said Greg Thielmann, a former senior intelligence official at the State Department who retired last year. “And I think it was done with great skill and deliberation.”

The administration also seized on shards of evidence that seemed to suggest Iraqi complicity in the attacks, evidence that has since come into serious question.

In perhaps the most important example, Cheney has repeatedly cited the allegation that the ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague several months before the attacks.

“It’s been pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April,” Cheney said in an appearance on “Meet the Press” three months after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

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The CIA says it can find no evidence that such a meeting took place. The FBI says that financial and other records indicate that Atta was in Florida when the meeting allegedly took place.

Nor has the account been supported by information from the Iraqi agent, who has been in U.S. custody for several months.

“If we had gotten confirmation that there was such a meeting, I think you would know,” a U.S. official said Wednesday.

Cheney raised the issue of the meeting again Sunday, saying: “We’ve never been able to develop any more of that yet, either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don’t know.”

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To be sure, there is evidence of some contact between Hussein’s government and Al Qaeda. An Al Qaeda affiliate, Abu Musab Zarqawi, operated from Baghdad, where a cell he controlled orchestrated the killing of a U.S. diplomat last year, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

Al Qaeda detainees in U.S. custody have told interrogators “that there was some training of Al Qaeda types offered by Iraq, and perhaps received,” a U.S. official said. There are also reports of contacts between Iraqi agents and Al Qaeda operatives in Sudan dating back a decade or more.

But none of the senior Al Qaeda operatives in custody, including Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, nor any of the senior Iraqi officials being detained, have described significant cooperation between the two, according to intelligence officials.

“Nobody has alleged that Al Qaeda was working hand in glove with Iraq,” the U.S. official said.

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Times staff writers Maura Reynolds and Paul Richter contributed to this report.

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(Begin Text of Infobox)

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White House quotes past and present

President Bush

Oct. 14, 2002: “After September the 11th, we’ve entered into a new era and a new war. This is a man [Hussein] that we know has had connections with Al Qaeda. This is a man who, in my judgment, would like to use Al Qaeda as a forward army.”

Sept. 17, 2003: “There’s no question that Saddam Hussein had Al Qaeda ties. We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11" attacks.

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Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld

Sept. 26, 2002: “Yes, there is a linkage between Al Qaeda and Iraq.”

Sept. 16, 2003: “I’ve not seen any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that” Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice

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Sept. 25, 2002: There “have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of Al Qaeda going back for actually quite a long time.”

Sept. 16, 2003: “And we have never claimed that Saddam Hussein had either ... direction or control of 9/11. What we have said is that this was someone who supported terrorists, helped train them.”

Compiled by Times researchers Cary Schneider and Joan Wolff

Sources: Facts on File, news reports

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