Semantics Skirmish on 9/11 Report

Times Staff Writer

President Bush has sharply defended the administration’s position. Vice President Cheney has angrily accused newspapers of failing to do their homework, and some of being “malicious” in their coverage. And news organizations across the country have been hit with telephone calls, e-mails and letters charging bias.

The subject of the protest is the staff report of the 9/11 commission that concluded that Saddam Hussein apparently had no “collaborative relationship” with Al Qaeda.

The controversy was intensified when Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, said President Bush had “misled” the country and “owes the American people a fundamental explanation about why he rushed to war for a purpose that it now turns out is not supported by the facts.”

Why did the staff report -- released June 16 -- that offered preliminary findings, and news reports of what that report said, generate such heated response?


Part of it is a difference of opinion over the significance of certain evidence and partly a matter of semantics and people talking past each other in the midst of a close presidential race.

The administration has highlighted reports of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda, whereas the commission staff said those contacts “do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship” -- points that are not mutually exclusive.

Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor appointed by Bush to head the commission, suggested that semantics also played a role.

“All of us understand that when you begin to use words like ‘relationship’ and ‘ties’ and ‘connections’ and ‘contacts,’ everybody has a little different view of what those words mean,” Kean said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”

Because voters’ feelings about the Iraq war and Bush’s handling of it could decide the outcome of the neck-and-neck presidential election, each point and rebuttal in the debate over Iraq’s links to terrorist groups has taken on additional urgency.

Commissioner John F. Lehman, who served as secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, noted the political sensitivity of the subject on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”

“We’re under tremendous political pressures,” he said. “Everything we’ve come out with, one side or the other seizes on in this election year to try to make a political point on.”

Created by Congress, the Sept. 11 commission is an independent, bipartisan panel charged with investigating the chain of events that led to the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and the government’s response.

The report that touched off the furor was an effort by the commission’s staff to describe the history and operations of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Though the staff focused on Al Qaeda, Iraqi links to the group are important because of the rationale the Bush administration laid out for forcing Saddam Hussein from power.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, for example, Bush said that Hussein “aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda.”

“Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own,” Bush continued.

Referring to the Al Qaeda agents who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, he said: “Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans -- this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.”

The report said that Bin Laden, when he was based in Sudan in the early 1990s, “explored possible cooperation with Iraq,” and that the Sudanese government reportedly helped arrange contacts.

“A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Ladin in 1994,” the commission staff wrote, using an alternative spelling for the terrorist leader. “Bin Ladin is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded.

“There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after Bin Ladin had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.

“Two senior Bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”

The report thus supported the Bush administration’s assertion that Hussein’s regime had a history of contacts with Al Qaeda. As Bush said one day after the report was released: “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.”

At the same time, by saying the contacts did not appear to have produced a collaboration, the report raised the politically sensitive possibility that the contacts might have been less significant than administration officials had often suggested prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Cheney, for instance, said in September that Hussein’s Iraq was “the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.”

The commission staff and Bush officials displayed a more clear-cut difference on another piece of intelligence: the report of an April 2001 meeting in Prague between an Iraqi intelligence officer and Mohamed Atta, leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Cheney and others have often cited this report, first raised by the Czech intelligence service, as evidence of a substantial relationship between Baghdad and Al Qaeda.

But the commission staff said it believed the meeting never took place.

“Based on the evidence available -- including investigation by Czech and U.S. authorities plus detainee reporting -- we do not believe that such a meeting occurred,” the staff wrote.

A bank surveillance camera placed Atta in Virginia on April 4, five days before the alleged Prague meeting on April 9, the commission report said, citing an FBI investigation.

“Atta was back in Florida by April 11, if not before. Indeed, investigation has established that, on April 6, 9, 10, and 11, Atta’s cellular telephone was used numerous times to call Florida phone numbers from cell sites within Florida. We have seen no evidence that Atta ventured overseas again or re-entered the United States” during the relevant time frame, it said.

Cheney read the evidence differently, saying it neither proved nor disproved the meeting took place. “We just don’t know,” he said on CNBC after the report was released.

With the report viewed so differently by various political forces, a debate also arose over how the media portrayed it.

Major U.S. news organizations gave the report front-page attention, and their stories drew some of the administration’s most pointed criticism.

The New York Times said that the commission staff had “sharply contradicted one of President Bush’s central justifications for the Iraq war.” The Los Angeles Times said, “The findings appeared to be the most complete and authoritative dismissal of a key Bush administration rationale for invading Iraq: that Hussein’s regime had worked in collusion with Al Qaeda.”

The White House and its allies said the news media had fundamentally misrepresented their arguments and the commission staff’s findings. Cheney said reporters had made an unjustified leap from what the commission staff said to the conclusion that it contradicted administration arguments on the Iraq war.

Cheney singled out the New York Times front-page headline -- “Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie” -- for particular criticism.

“What the New York Times did today was outrageous.... The press wants to run out and say there’s a fundamental split here now between what the president said and what the commission said,” Cheney said on CNBC’s “Capital Report.”

Cheney said: “They’ll take a statement that’s geared specifically to say there’s no connection in relation to the 9/11 attack and then say, ‘Well, obviously, there’s no case here,’ and then jump over to challenge the president’s credibility or my credibility when we say there is a connection.”

The report illustrated how drawing firm conclusions from intelligence is an uncertain business. Even after the report was issued, debate ensued over other pieces of potential evidence on Iraqi links to Al Qaeda.

Lehman, the commissioner and former Navy secretary, said that captured Iraqi documents suggested a senior officer in Hussein’s fedayeen was also a top Al Qaeda official -- a possibly significant link, but one the CIA said it had previously concluded was a case of mistaken identity.

“One of the very good things about this commission is that we’re open to evidence, and we’ve said that all along,” Lee H. Hamilton, the commission vice chairman, said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”