“We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States,” reports the staff of the bipartisan 9/11 commission in demolishing one of the Bush administration’s main arguments for invading Iraq. Now the administration and its spinmeisters are reduced to playing cheap semantic tricks to justify one of history’s great bait-and-switch operations, arguing that they never said explicitly that Iraq was collaborating with Al Qaeda to harm the U.S.
The administration was perfectly happy when more than four out of five Americans polled, as we went to war, said that they believed Saddam Hussein had something to do with the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. We are now to believe that the dozens of prominent references by President Bush and his top officials to “linkages” between Al Qaeda and Iraq were all taken out of context by a confused public.
For example, the administration is now saying that when Bush announced on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln that the defeated Hussein was “an ally of Al Qaeda,” he didn’t mean they actually helped each other. When Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations that Al Qaeda was operating inside Iraq, he apparently assumed people knew that he was referring to an affiliate called Ansar al Islam that was operating in the northern “no-fly” zone patrolled by the United States and outside Hussein’s control.
And when Vice President Dick Cheney said on “Meet the Press” that by attacking Iraq “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,” he was only helpfully pointing out that Iraq is in the Middle East too.
Yeah, right. The reality is that Bush and company have turned the language of lying into a fine art, always leaving themselves a shred of deniability in case the truth catches up. For example, Cheney has repeatedly cited as a smoking gun an always shaky report about 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta possibly meeting with an Iraqi official in Prague only months before the attacks, telling the nation that this sole claim to direct evidence linking Iraq with 9/11 had “been pretty well confirmed.”
The 9/11 commission staff, however, begs to differ, saying Atta was in Florida: “We have examined the allegation that Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague on April 9. Based on the evidence available -- including investigations by Czech and U.S. authorities, plus detainee reporting -- we do not believe that such a meeting occurred.”
The fact is that while the administration has been doing its utmost since 9/11 to convince us that Iraq is “the central front” in the war on terror, our security goals have been terribly compromised by expending our political, military and moral capital on the wrong enemy. As the 9/11 commission interim report makes clear, Osama bin Laden’s allies before 9/11 were Afghanistan and the only two countries that recognized its Taliban regime: our “allies” Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In no meaningful sense were the religious fanatics in Afghanistan and the secular dictator of Iraq allies.
Indeed, what the staff report says is, “Bin Ladin had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan.” Later, in 1994, Bin Laden made overtures to an Iraqi intelligence officer requesting “space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded.”
“Never responded” does not a relationship make. Yet Bush, not one to let the facts get in the way, said last week, “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.”
It’s the Big Lie technique -- never flinch in the face of truth. That’s why Bush will never admit that he got it wrong when he told the nation on the eve of going to war: “Iraq has sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with Al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.”
There’s a saying that “a lie can get halfway around the world before truth gets its pants on.” Well, thanks to the many brave Americans who pushed so strenuously, against the wishes of this administration, for a legitimate investigation of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the truth has its pants on now and maybe can finally enlighten the 40% of Americans who still believe that Iraq played a role in the attacks.
Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for The Times and is coauthor of “The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq” (Seven Stories Press/Akashic Books, 2003).