IN A PAIR of interim staff reports, the Sept. 11 commission yesterday gave the fullest and most detailed report on the planning of the attacks that the American public has received to date. Yet showing a peculiar instinct for the capillaries rather than the jugular, part of the public debate immediately focused on a single passing point that is no kind of revelation at all: "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." Administration foes seized on this sentence to claim that Vice President Cheney has been lying, as recently as this week, about a purported relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. The accusation is nearly as irresponsible as the Bush administration's rhetoric has been.
The importance of the two new reports lies not in the clarification of any supposed Iraq link but in the new details that fill in and correct the state of the public's knowledge of the attacks themselves. Osama bin Laden, we learn, has not actually financed al Qaeda himself and never received his famed $300 million inheritance; al Qaeda, rather, "relied primarily on a fundraising network developed over time." Sept. 11 was initially planned as an even more ambitious attack -- involving 10 planes and targets on both coasts. Osama bin Laden was directly involved in key aspects of planning and target selection. There was division within al Qaeda's leadership as to whether the plan should go forward. And internal disagreement among the conspirators at times threatened its success. The reports offer the first substantive look at what key al Qaeda detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh have been telling their interrogators, and it sheds light as well on the likely role of accused conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. The commission, in short, is adding a good deal of new information to the discussion and usefully reprocessing existing data.
All of which makes the flap over Mr. Cheney's statements a bit frustrating. The administration has not recently suggested that Iraq was behind Sept. 11. Nor, in fact, did the commission yesterday contradict what Mr. Cheney actually said -- and President Bush backed up -- earlier this week: that there were "long-established ties" between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Rather, the commission reported that a "senior Iraqi intelligence officer" met with Osama bin Laden in Sudan in 1994 and that contacts continued after he relocated to Afghanistan. Captured al Qaeda operatives, the report notes, have "adamantly denied" a connection with Iraq, and the famed meeting in Prague between Sept. 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence operative appears never to have happened. Indeed, there is no evidence of operational support for the group by Iraq, the commission staff argues; al Qaeda's requests apparently went unanswered. That said, the commission has not denied that there were contacts over a protracted period.
The trouble for the administration is that Mr. Cheney has not always been careful to distinguish between Iraqi ties to al Qaeda and supposed support for the attacks. Indeed, it was he who kept the Prague meeting story alive long after others in the government thought it discredited. His recent comments not only overstate what now appear to be rather tentative ties between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, but they probably help to keep alive in the minds of many Americans a link between Iraq and the attacks that not even Mr. Cheney still alleges. If the U.S. intelligence community now believes that the relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein consisted of no more than what the commission reports, Mr. Cheney ought not be implying more.