Rumsfeld: Iraq/al-Qaida remarks ‘misunderstood’
by Simon Jeffery
The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, today attempted to distance himself from his earlier comments that there were no links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
In a statement issued several hours after he had told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that “to my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two”, Mr Rumsfeld claimed he had been “misunderstood”.
“I have acknowledged since September 2002 that there were ties between al-Qaida and Iraq,” the statement said. “This assessment was based upon points provided to me by [the] then CIA director George Tenet to describe the CIA’s understanding of the al-Qaida Iraq relationship.”
Mr Rumsfeld’s comments in New York, however, were a reversal of the position adopted by many senior Bush administration figures.
Links between the war in Iraq and the fight against Osama bin Laden’s terror network following the September 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington have become one of the key battlegrounds of the US presidential race.
The Democratic challenger, John Kerry, has accused Mr Bush of allowing himself to be diverted from the “war on terror” by his pre-emptive war in the Middle East.
Dick Cheney, the US vice president, has been the main proponent of the idea of a relationship, last month telling a meeting in the swing state of Ohio that Saddam had “provided safe harbour and sanctuary … for al-Qaida”.
Mr Kerry last week forced Mr Bush to say: “Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us” during their televised debate when he accused the president of being vague about which “enemy” had been responsible for September 11.
The alleged link between Saddam and al-Qaida was one of the justifications used by Mr Bush for the US-led invasion of Iraq, but there has been little to substantiate it. The bipartisan 9/11 commission report acknowledged contacts between the two, but found no evidence of a “collaborative” relationship.
Mr Rumsfeld told his audience in New York that he had seen intelligence on the Saddam-al-Qaida question “migrate in amazing ways” during the past year, adding that there were “many differences of opinion in the intelligence community”.
Rumsfeld on Saddam and al-Qaida
August 2002: Mr Rumsfeld claims “there are al-Qaida in Iraq”, and accuses Saddam of “harbouring al-Qaida operatives who fled the US military dragnet in Afghanistan.”
September 2002: “We do have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaida members, including some that have been in Baghdad,” Mr Rumsfeld says. “We have what we consider to be very reliable reporting of senior-level contacts going back a decade, and of possible chemical and biological agent training.”
October 2002: He tells a Pentagon briefing he had already been informed there is “solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaida members.”
March 2003: Mr Rumsfeld says the US-led coalition has solid evidence that senior al-Qaida operatives had visited Baghdad in the past, and that Saddam had an “evolving” relationship with the terror network.
September 2004: The defence secretary confuses the jailed Saddam and the fugitive Bin Laden in a speech to the US National Press Club: “Saddam Hussein, if he’s alive, is spending a whale of a lot of time trying to not get caught. And we’ve not seen him on a video since 2001.” He corrects himself when asked for clarification.