Why have the Bush administration and some of the staunchest supporters of the Iraq war gone nuts over the Sept. 11 commission's staff report debunking the idea that there were close ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda?
Simple: The battle over the al Qaeda-Hussein connection is ground zero in the fight over the administration's credibility.
On the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the administration has alibis. It may have ignored contrary evidence on the existence of those weapons and it may have pressured intelligence agencies to reach conclusions that would justify war. But the administration can point to many Democrats, and even Europeans, who thought those weapons existed.
The Saddam Hussein link to Sept. 11, on the other hand, was controversial from the start and hung on very thin threads. Yet it was critical to winning support for the war from the American people.
Most Americans, including this one, supported the war in Afghanistan because the ties between the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden were obvious. If Hussein was connected to Sept. 11, then the war against him could be defended as a logical response to the terrorist attacks.
Boy, did the hawks try hard to show Hussein was somehow involved in Sept. 11. One conservative writer after another focused on reports of a meeting in Prague in April 2001 between Mohamed Atta and a senior Iraqi intelligence official. Because Atta was the leader of the Sept. 11 plot and the pilot of one of the hijacked planes, that report looked like a smoking gun.
No wonder New York Times columnist William Safire -- an early supporter of the Prague-Hussein-Sept. 11 theory -- was so upset about the commission staff's work. Its report concluded that the gun was not smoking and that there was probably no gun at all. "[W]e do not believe that such a meeting occurred," the staff report said.
More broadly, the commission staff concluded: "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." Iraq, the report concluded, "apparently never responded" to bin Laden's requests for "space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons."
What's embarrassing about these findings for the administration and its backers on Iraq? Most who pushed for a war against Iraq after Sept. 11, 2001, had favored such a war long before Sept. 11. They believed that knocking Hussein out of power could open the way for democracy in the Middle East and for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But there was little support among Americans for such a war. So, rather than rest their case for war against Hussein on their real, perfectly defensible reasons, they argued that it was a proper reaction to the terrorist attacks. That's why they scrounged up every allegation of a Hussein-al Qaeda link they could find.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney did their part, before and after the war, to link Hussein to al Qaeda. They insist now that they never actually connected the Iraqi regime to Sept. 11. But those claims look like the sort of careful parsing of words that Bill Clinton is trying to explain in his new book.
"Iraq has sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with al Qaeda," Bush said on Feb. 6, 2003, on the eve of war. "Iraq has also provided al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training."
"If we're successful in Iraq," Cheney said on Sept. 14, 2003, "we will have struck a blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."
Was the purpose of these statements to make a link between Hussein and Sept. 11? You decide.
If the administration has told us the truth, it should be willing to make public all it knows about the links between Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda and Sept. 11, and not just tantalize us with selective leaks. Tom Kean, the Republican chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, made that request over the weekend, saying he and his colleagues needed any new information "pretty fast."
The Bush administration should give us the proof or stop making claims it can't support. Put up or shut up.