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Iraq-al Qaeda Link?
With Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Dec. 13, 2002; 2:45 p.m. ET
Washington Post staff writer Barton Gellman reported Thursday ("U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis," Post, Dec. 12) that the Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October, according to two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source. U.S. government analysts suspect the transaction involved the nerve agent VX and that a courier smuggled it overland through Turkey.
Gellman will be online Friday, Dec. 13 at 2:45 p.m. ET, to discuss the alleged transfer and the repercussions such an action might cause between the U.S.and Iraq and the war on terrorism.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Barton Gellman will be with us momentarily.
Golden Valley, Minn.: Mr. Gellman,
You have an enviable reputation as an honest, 'chips-fall-where-they-may' journalist, so I took your VX report seriously. (Had this come from Iraqi-threat drum beater Judith Miller, on the other hand) Your caveats surrounding this information were exemplary.
My two questions concern threat reduction and non-proliferation:
(1) Is there any sense that Iraq's command-and-control systems for possible cached WMDs are stressed by the war threat, and are at increased risk for possible leakage (as with the former Soviet Union)?
(2) Regarding the FSU, do you have any comment on our own stalled threat reduction efforts to decommission the 2-million chemical weapons at Shchuch'ye, Russia, near Kazakhstan... especially the assessed risk of these weapons, versus those that might remain in Iraq.
Barton Gellman: Many thanks. Very interesting questions.
1. Iraq's command and control historically has been very good, with loyal Tikritis led by son Qusay in charge of WMD. I know of no evidence that the stress of war has changed that. U.S. public and private signals are aimed, if anything, at making the key-holders more conservative -- that is, U.S. is saying we won't kill you unless you try to use these weapons.
2. The Russian efforts, on all special weapons, are slow and frustrating. The worst is probably in the past, the first few years after the collapse of the soviet Union, when a lot of dangerous stocks went unaccounted for. I don't have recent specific info on the sites you name.
Fairfax, Va.: How certain are you that this transfer may have actually occurred? If it did occur, are any sources discussing specific plots in which the nerve gas might be used?
Barton Gellman: Many levels of uncertainty. One, whether the information that the CIA obtained is true -- it comes mainly from a single, sensitive source that's seen as credible, but it's not corroborated by another source yet (that I know of) and errors of interpretation are always possible. Two, whether those who got the chemical agent are working for al Qaeda. three, whether they got it out of the country (though age old smuggling routes are efficient). Four, whether any such transaction had Saddam's consent. Five, whether I know as much as (no I don't) what the US government knows, and whether what I do know is accurate (I have good reason to think so). No simple answers here, I'm afraid.
New York, N.Y.: Hi Barton let me start by praising you as ajournalistt -- I really do think your reporting is top notch and I respectyouu for it. That said I found your story about the VX gas to be (1) completely alarming and yet (2)rather flimsy in terms of what you were basing your report on. The evidence behind your story for the Iraq-al Qaeda link seemed week. Could you give us your opinion in terms of a percentage of how likely you think there is a direct link between Iraq and al Qaeda based on what you know so far? Also, do you have any concerns that this story might be being overplayed for political reasons (i.e. trying to establish an Iraq-al Quaeda link). THANKS
Barton Gellman: I tried hard to address both these important questions in the story. You're focusing on two uncertainties -- I named others that I spent a lot of effort on resolving as well. On yours:
1. I said If it proves true, the reported transaction will be the most concrete evidence that al Qaeda is receiving material support "in Iraq," I didn't say from the Iraqi government. There's a pretty good ground for presumption there, but it would be presumption. I won't give a percentage probability -- I don't think there's enough data to do so. But we ran this story based on inconclusive evidence because we know for sure the U.S. government is quite concerned about the report.
2. The very first question I had to parse was whether the White House wished to plant, and spin, this story to make a case against Iraq. I told my readers that the information came from people who were very well qualified to have and read the evidence, and that they have nothing to do with policy on Iraq,and that they don't have strong views on whether to go to war. I also told, and showed, that the White House discouraged publication and used non-denial denial language to downplay its significance. I speculate -- speculate -- that the White House wants to pick and choose the time and manner of its public case against Saddam Hussein. Plainly they want to wait, and I doubt they will use this case because they are unlikely ever to be willing to disclose the evidence.
Accident, Md.: How long do you think it will be until the terrorists attack the USA with a weapon of mass destruction?
Barton Gellman: My crystal ball has never worked. That's why I'm in an empirical business. I hope not to have empirical experience with such a story. I fear I may.
Ocean City, Md.: It seems that just about every Arab/Islamic nation in the world is, to some degree, working against the U.S. war on terrorism. Even nations that claim to be our allies, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, attack the U.S. and our allies daily in their state run media. Do we have any true allies, other than Israel, in that part of the world?
Barton Gellman: Truism says states have permanent interests, not permanent allies. I'm a former Jerusalem correspondent -- I can assure you our two countries are not entirely aligned in interests, either. We're getting some help, and some hindrance, from what we call the moderate Arab states. Hard to put it in binary terms, but no one involved in the subject is satisfied.
Wheaton, Md.: Is it true that there are armed confrontations taking place against al Qaeda in Arab-occupied Kurdistan?
Barton Gellman: We've had reports of such confrontations the Kurdish enemies of Saddam Hussein and the al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni extremist group that has lately set up shop in the north. I don't know much about it.
Idaho: Is there publicly available the best current assessment of what toxic agents are possessed by the terrorists? For example, do the terrorists currently possess the smallpox virus?
Barton Gellman: Having spent a good deal of effort on this, I am confident that the U.S.government has no strong evidence that terrorists have any nuclear, radiological biological or chemical agent other than cyanide. There are tids and bits that point to some of those, though, and very strong evidence of serious efforts to obtain all these. A CIA report I wrote about earlier (perhaps the Live Online editor can post the link) said that al Qaeda has pursued biological weapons "to include smallpox," but there is no evidence it succeeded.
Washington, D.C.: The administration has shown an inclination to take dubious intelligence and insist that it demonstrates an al-Qaeda-Iraq connection -- I'm thinking of the case of the al-Qaeda member who was in Baghdad getting medical attention, but the Iraqis didn't seem to know about it, the meeting in Prague and the chem-bio training. Any idea why the White House is trying to discredit your story?
Barton Gellman: I started to answer this. They're downplaying and trying to give an impression of discrediting the story -- for reasons about which I speculated above -- but one has to watch the words carefully in this business. They do not deny that they have a report of such a chemical transfer -- they say it's uncorroborated, which is correct. What they don't say -- but don't deny -- is that they have thrown a lot of resources into pursuing this lead, a response that falls into about the top one percent of threat reports. They have a lot more confidence in the report than they are prepared to say publicly because if they did say it publicly they'd be asked to prove it.
Sandusky, Ohio: Are you familiar enough with the "Atta in Prague" story to give us an update on where that stands? William Safire continues to come on strong on this story. There are many unanswered questions about 9/11/01, and this one is on a short list of questions that are the most deserving of urgent and intense attention -- by both our intelligence and our journalists.
Barton Gellman: I just don't know enough to answer Atta in Prague. I think there is good evidence of meetings over the years between Iraqi intelligence and operatives affiliated with al Qaeda, and of Iraqi training of terrorist operatives of uncertain pedigree, but the Atta case is sexier because, if true, it ties Iraq in some way to the 9/11 leader. There's not much information on what might have happened in any of these meetings.
Falls Church, Va.: Eric Alterman noted that there's a difference between terrorists getting assistance "in" Iraq and getting assistance "from" Iraq. Specifically, if these agents are in Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq, what would be the link to Saddam Hussein? Aren't the Kurds our friends?
Barton Gellman: I agree about in-versus-from, and that's why I wrote it so carefully. But the fact that they're based in the north, and our friends sort of control the north, doesn't rebut a link to Saddam Hussein. The Kurds have no access to chemical weapons. Iraq's government made them by the ton, almost certainly retains some, and the only source for such a transaction would have to get the weapons ultimately from government stores.
Mt. Rainier, Md.: Doesn't it seem, on the face of it, unlikely that Iraq would aid a group that is as hostile to its government as it is to us? I mean, the 'enemy of my enemy is my friend' can only go so far. And this "friend" is right on Iraq's borders. Is the quality of evidence enough to overcome this doubt? Is Bush letting anyone see his evidence?
Barton Gellman: Hitler found mutual interest with Stalin. It happens. I am quite confident (just my own judgment, not with evidence) that Saddam Hussein would never give al Qaeda affiliates a weapon they could use to threaten him in a serious way. So I would be stunned if it ever happened with nuclear materials, or even the worst of the infectious biological agents. Nerve agents are weapons of terror but can't kill enough people to threaten Hussein in the worst case, so thatargumentt doesn't apply.
Cottage City, Md.: Somehow it would be easier to believe this business about Saddam giving al Qaeda nerve gas (because they're both evil, though vastly different in their evilness), if it didn't seem to promote President Bush's ardent desire to invade Iraq. It's a little too pat, perhaps, that our two favorite enemies are found in cahoots?
Barton Gellman: War advocates (see analysis by Bill Kristol put out yesterday) wish to take this report as conclusive and part of a pattern backing their argument for war. Opponents wish to take it as a cynical plant by the White House, with me playing the role of either collaborator or dupe. I knew perfectly well what a spectacle this story would become, but my job is to report the best version of reality I can find. Read the story very carefully and you'll see all the ambiguities displayed.
Chicago, Ill.: It seems once again that the Administration is in search of a pretext to invade Iraq with the new insistence on interviewing Iraq's scientists and weapons experts. How simple to coax 10 eager scientists out of theexistingg list of thousands living in that repressive, impoverished country to say anything we want once promised $$ and a new life and job out of Iraq. You helped uncover the UNMOVIC spy story -- don't you see a possibility for manipulation of this process, too? Thanks.
Barton Gellman: Well, I suppose bought informants always bring that risk. I frankly doubt that any scientists will be extracted from Iraq, because it's implausible the US government (or UNMOVIC) can evacuate their very extended families, and there's a strong history of terrible retribution for enemies of the state. But if they do come out, and they tell tales, they'll have to be taken as leads and verified. That's what happened with Hussein Kamel in 1995, and his stories led to proof that Iraq was lying about a huge biological program and the existence of 3.9 tons of Vx.
Farragut North, Washington, D.C.: A writing question: In two stories this week, you cited unnamed officials as "speaking without authority" or "without permission" from the White House. Can you explain the change from using phrases like "unnamed sources" or "speaking on the condition of anonymity?" Does this indicate some sort of change in how the White House is dealing with the press? Or does it reflect the White House's widely reported lips-sealed nature?
Barton Gellman: This is a personal preference when citing anonymous sources -- to give readers as much information as possible enabling assessment of credibility, without burning my sources. It's especially important when official government spokesmen insist on anonymity, which I deplore. Without telling you who's the party line and who's speaking out of school, you get a bunch of confusing contradictions between anonymous sources, and that's unenlightening.
Exeter, N.H.: If a transfer of WMD components between Iraq and al Qaeda actually took place, then that in itself is a legit causus belli for the U.S. to attack Iraq, without UN approval if necessary. However, given this White House's propensity to spin tall tales over everything from aluminum tubing to the phantom submarine the Iraqis were going to use as a launch platform, how can the American public possibly be convinced on the basis of a story with a few anonymous quotes, some deep background, and one "authorized" spokesperson?
Barton Gellman: The information I provide is information. Anyone interested can form a judgment of its credibility or its relevance to a policy choice. I certainly don't say its a cause for war, and so far the White House doesn't either.
Greenbelt, Md.: At one point in your story you indicated that a terrorist group might release VX gas on a metropolitan subway system in the U. S. or Europe. Isn't this just wild speculation that has the effect of frightening the reader? Also, given recent news that our own Washington Metro system is struggling financially it does not seem helpful or particularly responsible to suggest how, when, or where a terrorist attack could occur -- what's the average citizen to do? -- I certainly won't let it affect my daily comings and goings.
Barton Gellman: I take the subway every day in New York (where I'm based, between trips to D.C.). I urge everyone, on all these questions, to read me carefully. I said a European government gave the CIA a threat report saying it had reason to believe there might be a chemical attack on a U.S. subway if war begins with Iraq. I also said the white House says its credibility has not been assessed here. I know a little bit more about this than I can say, but what I just said, it seems to me, justifies publication.
New York, N.Y.: Mr. Gellman,
This seems to be part of a trend with thisadministrationn. They claim that Iraq is doing something, yet they provide no proof. Your thoughts.
Barton Gellman: Asked and answered, counselor.
Washington, D.C.: Hasn't the Administration said that the information you reported on is of questionable credibility? Do you believe that the Administration had the reports leaked and talked up regardless of the doubts about their credibility in order to stir up talk of possible links? What has some of your follow-up investigation turned up?
Barton Gellman: No they said it was uncorroborated, by which they mean to hint it is of questionable credibility without saying so. In fact it is assessed as credible, and I know that because very well qualified persons have told me so. They and I have relationships of trust sufficient to permit them to take great personal risk in talking to me, and I know enough about their motivations to be persuaded. I have very high confidence they have not been used as plants, but I can't say why in any detail.
Washington, D.C.: Your report appeared in the newspaper on the same day as a article on how the U.S. approved a sale of VX antidote to Iraq. Is it possible that the government, despite its words, doesn't really care who has VX and its cure. Since there's only funding to protect against the last terror attack, future budget increases depend directly on an active and effective enemy.
Barton Gellman: Anything's possible, but this appears implausible in the extreme. The VX antidote, which has dual use in other medical purposes, was not on a long-and-hard negotiated list of stuff Iraq can't import. It was a hard decision for the US govt to reopen that list, because it took a chance that Russia and France would never sign on to a new one. But there's a sense in the government that it was asleep at the switch on this issue because the quantity of atropine was so great.
washingtonpost.com: ("4 Nations Thought to Possess Smallpox," Nov. 5)
Washington, D.C.: The U.N. inspectors have been in Iraq for a month now and have found nothing. Also, the U.S. is yet to provide credible evidence that Iraq has ties to terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda. When do the American lies about Iraq's ties to terrorist organizations and WMD capabilities stop?
Barton Gellman: Ties to terrorists remain an open question. As someone who spent a great deal of time on Iraqi WMD questions, the existence of these programs and the evidence that they remain is really hard to question. Look at UNSCOM's final report in January 1999, which is a very careful compilation still on the site of un.org. Also consider that Iraq has tolerated the continued imposition of sanctions that have deprived it by now of nearly $200 billion in oil revenues (billion, not million) rather than open up to full inspections. Iraq was proved to have lied -- and admitted to have lied -- about the existence of a nuclear weapons program (three different enrichment programs were running, and two effective weapons designs completed), the existence of any biological weapons program, and the existence of any nerve agent program. On the latter, they were off by about 3,000 tons. A teaspoon of Vx could kill quite a few people.
Laurel, Md.: Hello Mr. Gellman. There were a number of news organizations, including ABC News last night, that either discredited or did not follow up on your front-page story yesterday. I realize that a journalist is only as good as his or her sources. Are you concerned that you may have received erroneous or misleading information from your sources, some of whom may be trying to advance a policy agenda, in an effort to bolster the case against Iraq? And do you plan to correct your story? Thank you.
Barton Gellman: The story was very carefully written and it is right in every detail save the one I corrected -- the U.S. army destroyed all its stocks on Johnston Atoll, but there are stocks elsewhere that await destruction.
This is a very very hard story to get. If another newspaper had broken it, I doubt I could have confirmed it. None of us have sources everywhere, or willing to discuss anything. If a reporter can't confirm, and if the White House uses misleading non-denial denial language, many reporters will pass that along. Consider, though, that the government is not always forthright. All day Wednesday the spokesmen denied there was any such DIA threat message against Incirlik, which I mentioned in the story. Then I read one of them the exact title, date and summary contents. He called back and said he checked again and the experts replied, "Oh, you mean that threat message."
Macon, Ga.: Since the CIA will be setting off nerve gas in Iraq after we attack to get rid of the costly civilians and blaming it (setting off the gas) on Saddam, obviously the White House isn't going to admit that maybe he got rid of his nerve gas by giving it to someone else -- because then people might wonder where the gas came from that our guys will be setting off.
Barton Gellman: Wow.
Leesburg, Va.: Is this report going to be able to be solidly verified? If so, will the Bush Administration even go to the U.N. for approval or just claim self-defense and attack Iraq alone?
Barton Gellman: I doubt Bush administration will bring Iraq-terror links to the U.N. Those are not part of the Security Council resolution, which demands proof of disarmament on pain of consequences that are diplomatic code for war. So the Bush indictment will be on possession of WMD, not on its transferelsewheree.
Peach Bottom, Pa.: Have you any information on if the U.S. military is now as a result of this information given direction to installations in Europe to havesoldieredd have protective equipment at arms reach?
Barton Gellman: They did not change chem/bio alert status because of this report, because it was already high. Can't get much higher without wearing the protective gear all the time. That's impossible. Only an imminent and highly probable threat would prompt that response.
Glenmont, Md.: Are the various Palestinian factions supporting bin Laden? If so, why would the president want to give Arafat a state in Israel?
Barton Gellman: There's sympathy for bin Laden among Palestinians and many other Arabs and Muslims, though the fractions are very very hard to measure. Thepresidentt supports a Palestinian state, under the right conditions, because an Arab Israeli peace deal is a vital strategic interest of the United States (in his view, and Clinton's, and their predecessors).
Let's Get Real: Anyone who has worked with the intelligence community would tell you that any "link" or "connection" can be found if you look hard enough and connect the right dots. And this administration, desperate to find even the most attenuated link between Iraq and the terrorists, has instructed the intelligence community to do just that. Do you feel you're being used as a propaganda tool of sorts? Or are you at least continuing to investigate whether this "connection" is indeed what Bush hopes it is?
Barton Gellman: I'm actively interested in any new evidence, for or against the report in yesterday's paper. I find the intel people to be hard to herd on facts. When Congress asked the CIA for an unclassified answer to the question, under what circumstances might Saddam Hussein use WMD, the CIA's answer was that it is improbable unless Iraq is attacked and he thinks he'll lose power. that was not exactly helpful to the White House.
Bozeman, Mont.: Why should we believe this story? "Credible sources" keep leaking this kind of report and you keep reporting it. Then, no one digs deeper to learn (and report) if this is true. Is this responsible journalism?
Barton Gellman: A little intel primer. One credible source, uncorroborated, is useful to intelligence officers and to you in your daily life.
Here's an example. Suppose you get one, but not more than one, of the following:
1. You hear a sound out your window that sounds like screech of brakes, crash of metal and breaking glass.
2. You look out your window and see two cars at angles on the side of the road, badly dented.
3. someone runs to your door and says there's been a car crash.
All these are credible, uncorroborated reports, but you'd probably think there was a good chance there was a car crash. All three have direct analogs in U.S. spy technology and human agents.then youu want to ask, how good a look did you get out your window? How clearly did you hear? How well do you know this person who told you about the crash? What experience do you have with his credibility, desire for attention, propensity to exaggerate? What alternate explanations are there for what you or your informant perceived? Can you now go on to find additional corroboration? (Do you hear sirens? Can you go downstairs and look? Do you find a driver in the hospital?)
I have this same problem, once removed, because I don't get the initial evidence but descriptions of it from people whose motives and expertise I have to consider.
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