President Bush insisted Thursday that Saddam Hussein had "terrorist connections" to Al Qaeda -- despite a finding by the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that there was no credible evidence of cooperation between the ousted Iraqi dictator and the global terrorist network.
In a television interview later in the day, Vice President Dick Cheney challenged the commission's finding more strongly, arguing that the evidence of Hussein's ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorists "is overwhelming." Cheney criticized what he called "outrageous" and "irresponsible" media reports for distorting the issue.
The comments marked the latest in a series of disputes between the White House and the bipartisan panel. The Bush administration has repeatedly sparred with commission members over their requests for documents and interviews with key officials and an extension of the panel's deadline for completing its report, now scheduled for release July 26.
The White House made Hussein's alleged terrorist ties a key part of its argument that deposing the Iraqi leader was necessary to protect the United States from future attacks.
Speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting Thursday, Bush argued that "numerous contacts" over the years between members of the former Baghdad regime and followers of Al Qaeda proved that a "relationship" existed between Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
"The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda [is] because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda," Bush said.
"Now, he was a threat because he had terrorist connections, not only Al Qaeda connections, but other connections to terrorist organizations," Bush added.
Bush and his aides cited a 1996 meeting in Sudan between Iraqi intelligence officers and Bin Laden. They also cited Baghdad's offer of safe haven to Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal and members of the anti-Israeli Islamic Jihad, as well as Hussein's reported $25,000 payments to the families of Arab suicide bombers in Israel.
They also cited Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Palestinian born in Jordan who runs the Al Tawhid terror network and has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks in Iraq and elsewhere. Zarqawi was based in a Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq before the war. But his organization is said now to be based in Baghdad and appears to have grown substantially in size and lethal capability since the invasion.
Zarqawi's ties to Bin Laden remain murky. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters Thursday that Zarqawi "may very well not have sworn allegiance" to Bin Laden -- "maybe because he disagrees with him on something, maybe because he wants to be 'the Man' himself, and maybe for a reason that's not known to me."
Commission staff investigating the Sept. 11 attacks announced Wednesday that they had found "no credible evidence" of cooperation between Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda in targeting America or its allies. A senior CIA analyst and a senior FBI official, both of whom appeared at the hearing, said they concurred with the finding.
Thomas H. Kean, the commission chairman, told reporters Thursday that the panel did not dispute that Hussein's government and Al Qaeda had been in contact. But Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said investigators determined "that there is no credible evidence that we can discover, after a long investigation, that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were in any way part of the attack on the United States."
In his comments Thursday, Bush said his administration "never said" that the Sept. 11 attacks "were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda." Bush had first denied that linkage last September, six months after the invasion. His comments then were in response to Cheney's assertion that U.S. success in Iraq would strike at "the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11."
Cheney appeared reluctant to abandon that position Thursday. Asked if Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attack during an interview on CNBC's "Capital Report," he replied, "We don't know. You know, what the commission said is they can't find any evidence of that."
Cheney said "the one thing we have" indicating Iraqi support for the attacks is a Czech intelligence service report saying that lead hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague on April 9, 2001.
"That's never been proven," he said. "It's never been refuted."
The commission report said it had reviewed FBI evidence, Czech and U.S. intelligence data and interrogation reports from the Iraqi official Atta supposedly met, among other evidence. "We do not believe that such a meeting occurred," the commission staff concluded.
Many counterterrorism and intelligence officials had questioned administration claims about Iraq's ties to terrorism before the war.
Polls show that a plurality of Americans still believe that evidence clearly shows Iraq had supported Al Qaeda attacks. But critics insisted that the administration had misrepresented the threat.
"Every time I asked, I was told there was no collaborative relationship," said Greg Thielmann, a former director at the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research. "If anything, it was a hostile relationship, because Saddam understood that Bin Laden wanted to do away with his kind of secular regime."
"At this point, the White House position is just frankly bizarre," said Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism expert who served in the Clinton White House. "You've had a bipartisan committee sift through all this intelligence. There is no indication that they have anything different at their disposal than the White House has.... They're just repeating themselves, rather than admit they were wrong."
White House officials gave no ground.
Scott McClellan, the president's spokesman, repeatedly insisted Thursday that the commission report was "perfectly consistent" with the administration's public statements about Iraq over the last two years.
"If you look back at what we said, we said all along that Saddam Hussein's regime supported and harbored terrorists and there were ties to terrorism, including Al Qaeda," McClellan said.
The administration's other prime rationale for war -- that Hussein's regime had secretly produced and stockpiled hundreds of tons of chemical and biological weapons and was actively trying to build a nuclear bomb -- has largely evaporated. U.S. weapons hunters who have scoured Iraq over the last 15 months have found no evidence to support those claims.
Late Thursday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted unanimously to approve a report that officials said was highly critical of prewar assessments by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies of Iraq's illicit weapons, its ties to terrorists and other issues.
The committee chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), said members were "extremely disappointed" that the CIA was seeking to keep much of the report classified.
"Our goal is to release as much of the report's findings and conclusions as soon as possible," Roberts said.