By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006
The CIA learned in late September 2002 from a high-level member of Saddam Hussein's inner circle that Iraq had no past or present contact with Osama bin Laden and that the Iraqi leader considered bin Laden an enemy of the Baghdad regime, according to a recent Senate Intelligence Committee report.
Although President Bush and other senior administration officials were at that time regularly linking Hussein to al-Qaeda, the CIA's highly sensitive intelligence supporting the contrary view was apparently not passed on to the White House or senior Bush policymakers.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and two GOP colleagues on the committee disclosed this information for the first time in the panel's report on Iraq released last week. They wrote in the "additional views" section of the report that the Cabinet-level Iraqi official "said that Iraq has no past, current, or anticipated future contact with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda" and that the official "added that bin Laden was in fact a longtime enemy of Iraq."
On Sept. 25, 2002, just days after the CIA received the source's information, President Bush told reporters: "Al-Qaeda hides. Saddam doesn't, but the danger is, is that they work in concert. The danger is, is that al-Qaeda becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world. . . . [Y]ou can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror."
According to the three Republicans, the CIA said it did not disseminate the intelligence about the lack of a Hussein-bin Laden connection because "it did not provide anything new."
But other information obtained at the same time from the same source that paralleled what administration officials were saying was immediately passed on to "alert" the president and other senior policymakers, the three Republicans said. A "highly restricted intelligence report" conveyed the source's claim that although Iraq had no nuclear weapon, Hussein was covertly developing one and had stockpiled chemical weapons, according to the committee members.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said he could not provide additional information about the situation beyond what is in the Senate report, but he added that "the agency's decisions to disseminate intelligence are not guided by political considerations."
Committee staff members would not expand on the report's language other than to say the Hussein-bin Laden material was maintained within the CIA at a high level with limited access.
Former senior CIA officials said it was unclear what happened to the Hussein-bin Laden information, although two former aides to then-CIA Director George J. Tenet said they could not remember if they received the original information. "Nothing was withheld from the White House," one former aide said, although there was "a lot of debate inside the agency about the Saddam-al-Qaeda relationship" because it was the focus of repeated questions from administration officials, including Vice President Cheney and his then-chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
The high-level Iraqi official, who was not identified in the Senate report, was Naji Sabri, then foreign minister. A senior CIA officer, after months of trying, was able to question him through a trusted agency intermediary when Sabri was in New York City around Sept. 19, 2002.
According to former intelligence officials, the CIA case officer filed two separate reports describing his questioning of Sabri. One, involving the Iraq weapons program, would go to analysts interested in that subject, the officer believed; the second, about Hussein and bin Laden, would go to the CIA counterterrorism center. The officer, however, passed his material on to senior agency officials in New York and was not aware of how it was eventually distributed.
Sabri's role as an intelligence source for the CIA has already been publicly reported. New details, including a payment of $200,000 to the intermediary and a secret signal system to assure the CIA officer that Sabri was cooperating, are contained in the recently released book "Hubris," by Michael Isikoff of Newsweek and David Corn, Washington correspondent for the magazine the Nation.