Nearing the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, seven in 10 Americans continue to believe that Iraq's Saddam Hussein had a role in the attacks, even though the Bush administration and congressional investigators say they have no evidence of this.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans said they thought it at least likely that Hussein was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to the latest Washington Post poll. That impression, which exists despite the fact that the hijackers were mostly Saudi nationals acting for al Qaeda, is broadly shared by Democrats, Republicans and independents.
The main reason for the endurance of the apparently groundless belief, experts in public opinion say, is a deep and enduring distrust of Hussein that makes him a likely suspect in anything related to Middle East violence. "It's very easy to picture Saddam as a demon," said John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University and an expert on public opinion and war. "You get a general fuzz going around: People know they don't like al Qaeda, they are horrified by September 11th, they know this guy is a bad guy, and it's not hard to put those things together."
Although that belief came without prompting from Washington, Democrats and some independent experts say Bush exploited the apparent misconception by implying a link between Hussein and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the months before the war with Iraq. "The notion was reinforced by these hints, the discussions that they had about possible links with al Qaeda terrorists," said Andrew Kohut, a pollster who leads the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
The poll's findings are significant because they help to explain why the public continues to support operations in Iraq despite the setbacks and bloodshed there. Americans have more tolerance for war when it is provoked by an attack, particularly one by an all-purpose villain such as Hussein. "That's why attitudes about the decision to go to war are holding up," Kohut said.
Bush's opponents say he encouraged this misconception by linking al Qaeda to Hussein in almost every speech on Iraq. Indeed, administration officials began to hint about a Sept. 11-Hussein link soon after the attacks. In late 2001, Vice President Cheney said it was "pretty well confirmed" that attack mastermind Mohamed Atta met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official.
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Cheney was referring to a meeting that Czech officials said took place in Prague in April 2000. That allegation was the most direct connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks. But this summer's congressional report on the attacks states, "The CIA has been unable to establish that [Atta] left the United States or entered Europe in April under his true name or any known alias."
Bush, in his speeches, did not say directly that Hussein was culpable in the Sept. 11 attacks. But he frequently juxtaposed Iraq and al Qaeda in ways that hinted at a link. In a March speech about Iraq's "weapons of terror," Bush said: "If the world fails to confront the threat posed by the Iraqi regime, refusing to use force, even as a last resort, free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risks. The attacks of September the 11th, 2001, showed what the enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction."
Then, in declaring the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1, Bush linked Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11, 2001 -- and still goes on. That terrible morning, 19 evil men -- the shock troops of a hateful ideology -- gave America and the civilized world a glimpse of their ambitions."
Moments later, Bush added: "The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We've removed an ally of al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more. In these 19 months that changed the world, our actions have been focused and deliberate and proportionate to the offense. We have not forgotten the victims of September the 11th -- the last phone calls, the cold murder of children, the searches in the rubble. With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got."
A number of nongovernment officials close to the Bush administration have made the link more directly. Richard N. Perle, who until recently was chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, long argued that there was Iraqi involvement, calling the evidence "overwhelming."
Some Democrats said that although Bush did not make the direct link to the 2001 attacks, his implications helped to turn the public fury over Sept. 11 into support for war against Iraq. "You couldn't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein," said Democratic tactician Donna Brazile. "Every member of the administration did the drumbeat. My mother said if you repeat a lie long enough, it becomes a gospel truth. This one became a gospel hit."
In a speech Aug. 7, former vice president Al Gore cited Hussein's culpability in the attacks as one of the "false impressions" given by a Bush administration making a "systematic effort to manipulate facts in service to a totalistic ideology."
Bush's defenders say the administration's rhetoric was not responsible for the public perception of Hussein's involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. While Hussein and al Qaeda come from different strains of Islam and Hussein's secularism is incompatible with al Qaeda fundamentalism, Americans instinctively lump both foes together as Middle Eastern enemies. "The intellectual argument is there is a war in Iraq and a war on terrorism and you have to separate them, but the public doesn't do that," said Matthew Dowd, a Bush campaign strategist. "They see Middle Eastern terrorism, bad people in the Middle East, all as one big problem."
A number of public-opinion experts agreed that the public automatically blamed Iraq, just as they would have blamed Libya if a similar attack had occurred in the 1980s. There is good evidence for this: On Sept. 13, 2001, a Time/CNN poll found that 78 percent suspected Hussein's involvement -- even though the administration had not made a connection. The belief remained consistent even as evidence to the contrary emerged.
"You can say Bush should be faulted for not correcting every single misapprehension, but that's something different than saying they set out deliberately to deceive," said Duke University political scientist Peter D. Feaver. "Since the facts are all over the place, Americans revert to a judgment: Hussein is a bad guy who would do stuff to us if he could."
Key administration figures have largely abandoned any claim that Iraq was involved in the 2001 attacks. "I'm not sure even now that I would say Iraq had something to do with it," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a leading hawk on Iraq, said on the Laura Ingraham radio show on Aug. 1.
A top White House official told The Washington Post on July 31: "I don't believe that the evidence was there to suggest that Iraq had played a direct role in 9/11." The official added: "Anything is possible, but we hadn't ruled it in or ruled it out. There wasn't evidence to substantiate that claim."
But the public continues to embrace the connection.
In follow-up interviews, poll respondents were generally unsure why they believed Hussein was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, often describing it as an instinct that came from news reports and their long-standing views of Hussein. For example, Peter Bankers, 59, a New York film publicist, figures his belief that Hussein was behind the attacks "has probably been fed to me in some PR way," but he doesn't know how. "I think that the whole group of people, those with anti-American feelings, they all kind of cooperated with each other," he said.
Similarly, Kim Morrison, 32, a teacher from Plymouth, Ind., described her belief in Hussein's guilt as a "gut feeling" shaped by television. "From what we've heard from the media, it seems like what they feel is that Saddam and the whole al Qaeda thing are connected," she said.
Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University professor of linguistics who has studied Bush's rhetoric, said it is impossible to know but "plausible" that Bush's words furthered such public impressions. "Clearly, he's using language to imply a connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11th," she said.
"There is a specific manipulation of language here to imply a connection." Bush, she said, seems to imply that in Iraq "we have gone to war with the terrorists who attacked us."
Tannen said even a gentle implication would be enough to reinforce Americans' feelings about Hussein. "If we like the conclusion, we're much less critical of the logic," she said.
The Post poll, conducted Aug. 7-11, found that 62 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of independents suspected a link between Hussein and 9/11. In addition, eight in 10 Americans said it was likely that Hussein had provided assistance to al Qaeda, and a similar proportion suspected he had developed weapons of mass destruction.