by William Douglas and Jonathan S. Landay
WASHINGTON – President Bush continued to insist Monday that there was an operational link between former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida despite reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the commission that’s investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that there was no evidence that Saddam and Islamic terrorists collaborated to kill Americans.
Specifically addressing national security issues for the first time since the Senate report was released Friday, Bush acknowledged there were “shortcomings” in the intelligence on Iraq’s banned-weapons programs that was used to justify the war. But good intelligence or faulty, the president said war with Iraq was necessary.
His comments, made at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, came as the White House is making his handling of the war on terrorism the centerpiece of his re-election campaign and as recent polls show that more Americans think the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism, not lowered it.
“Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq,” the president said. “We removed a declared enemy of America, who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder, and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them.”
He added: “In the world after September 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take.”
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Bush was speaking broadly about “the nexus between terrorists and outlaw regimes.” Asked if the president was speaking about a Saddam-al-Qaida connection, McClellan said, “We know there were ties between Iraq and terrorists, including al-Qaida.”
McClellan noted that Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Palestinian from Jordan held responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Iraq and who ran an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan, was a “senior al-Qaida” member who was in Iraq.
But U.S. intelligence officials consider Zarqawi an associate of the terrorist network, not a member sworn to obey Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi, they think, is an independent operator who has an agenda similar to bin Laden’s and cooperates with al-Qaida when it’s convenient. He and some followers found sanctuary in an enclave in northern Iraq run by armed Kurdish Islamic extremists that was outside Saddam’s control.
In 2002, Zarqawi reportedly received medical treatment in Baghdad and set up cells in the city, leading Bush administration officials to view his presence there as proof that Saddam was collaborating with al-Qaida.
U.S. intelligence officials think it just as likely that Iraqi officials, who were hostile to Islamic extremists, gave him medical care and refuge because it was easier to monitor his activities in Baghdad than in northern Iraq.
In its report, the Senate Intelligence Committee affirmed CIA analyses that found that while there had been contacts between al-Qaida and Iraqi intelligence officials during the 1990s, “these contacts did not add up to an established relationship.”
The bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks reached a similar conclusion in a staff report in June.
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials contended repeatedly in the run-up to last year’s invasion that Saddam was supporting bin Laden’s terrorist network. They argued that Saddam had to be ousted before he could turn over biological or chemical weapons to Islamic terrorists. The administration also strongly implied that Saddam was complicit in the Sept. 11 attacks.
But the Senate report showed that the CIA told Bush and his senior officials in two reports immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks that it could find no evidence that Saddam and al-Qaida were in league.
The CIA produced assessments in June and September 2002 and in January 2003 that came to the same conclusion. Moreover, the September 2002 and January 2003 assessments and an October 2002 analysis indicated that the CIA was highly dubious that Saddam might arm al-Qaida with biological or chemical weapons.
The Bush administration has continued to insist that Saddam and al-Qaida were working together.
“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 on NBC last September.
Bush declared Monday that America is safer because of the war.
In a National Annenberg Election Survey released June 23, 63 percent of those surveyed said they thought the war in Iraq had increased the risk of terrorism against the United States. A poll released June 17 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that 43 percent of Americans said the Iraq war had helped the war on terrorism, down from 59 percent last December.
(The Pew poll, conducted June 3-13, was a nationwide survey of 1,806 adults with a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The Annenberg poll was based on interviews of 1,431 people May 17-31. Its sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.)