President Bush yesterday defended his assertions that there was a relationship between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, putting him at odds with this week's finding of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission.
"The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda: because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," Bush said after a Cabinet meeting. As evidence, he cited Iraqi intelligence officers' meeting with bin Laden in Sudan. "There's numerous contacts between the two," Bush said.
The finding of the commission's staff led Bush's Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), to escalate his accusations that Bush deceived both the Senate and the American public about the rationale for war in Iraq. "The president owes the American people a fundamental explanation about why he rushed to war for a purpose that it now turns out is not supported by the facts," Kerry told reporters at the Detroit airport. "That is the finding of this commission."
The panel's staff reported on Wednesday that there were contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda, "but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship."
In challenging the commission's finding, Bush and his aides argued that their previous assertions about the ties between Iraq and the terrorist organization were justified by the contacts that occurred.
"This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al Qaeda," Bush said. "We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda."
Officials with the Sept. 11 commission yesterday tried to soften the impact of the staff's finding, noting that the panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, agrees with the administration on key points. "Were there contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq? Yes," Thomas H. Kean (R), the panel's chairman, said at a news conference. "What our staff statement found is there is no credible evidence that we can discover, after a long investigation, that Iraq and Saddam Hussein in any way were part of the attack on the United States."
The panel's executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, said the finding referred to a lack of evidence of "operational" ties between Iraq and al Qaeda.
Vice President Cheney, in an interview yesterday with CNBC's "Capital Report," said "the press has been irresponsible" in reporting on the commission's findings, sometimes for "malicious" reasons. Referring to a New York Times front-page headline, "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie," he said: "What the New York Times did today was outrageous." Cheney added: "The fact of the matter is, the evidence is overwhelming. The press is, with all due respect, and there are exceptions, oftentimes lazy, oftentimes simply reports what somebody else in the press said without doing their homework."
The Times said it had no comment on Cheney's charges.
While not explicitly declaring Iraqi culpability in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, administration officials did, at various times, imply a link. In late 2001, Cheney said it was "pretty well confirmed" that attack mastermind Mohamed Atta had met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official. Later, Cheney called Iraq the "geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."
Bush, in 2003, said "the battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001."
Beyond the Sept. 11 attacks, administration officials have also suggested that there had been cooperation between Iraq and al Qaeda that went beyond contacts. Bush last year called Hussein "an ally of al Qaeda." Just this Monday, Cheney said Hussein "had long-established ties with al Qaeda."
In January, Cheney said the "best source" of information on the subject was an article in the Weekly Standard, which reported: "Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al Qaeda -- perhaps even for Mohamed Atta -- according to a top secret U.S. government memorandum."
Bush, in a February 2003 radio address, said: "Iraq has sent bombmaking and document forgery experts to work with al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training. And an al Qaeda operative was sent to Iraq several times in the late 1990s for help in acquiring poisons and gases. We also know that Iraq is harboring a terrorist network headed by a senior al Qaeda terrorist planner. This network runs a poison and explosive training camp in northeast Iraq, and many of its leaders are known to be in Baghdad."
Kerry had previously said he would not comment on the commission -- appointed by Bush with the approval of Congress -- because its work was not finished. But, yesterday, he told reporters that, because the commission has released interim findings, he felt it appropriate to comment. "This administration took its eye off of the real war on terror, which is in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan, and transferred it for reasons of its own to Iraq," he said. "And the American people are paying millions of dollars because of that decision, and most importantly, American families and American soldiers are paying the highest prices of all."
The senator said he personally felt betrayed by the administration. "I'm a citizen of the nation and a senator, and in both respects, I believe we were misled by this administration about how we should go about building an international coalition, respecting the United Nations process," Kerry said.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said there is no inconsistency between the commission's finding of no "collaborative relationship" and the administration's past statements. Pressed for evidence of collaboration, he repeatedly cited the contacts mentioned by the panel.
"If you go back and look at what the September 11th commission said, they talked about how there had been high-level contacts between the regime in Iraq and al Qaeda," the spokesman said. Noting that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had told the United Nations about such contacts, McClellan added: "That is perfectly consistent with what the September 11th commission talked about in their report yesterday."
Staff writers Dan Eggen and Howard Kurtz in Washington and Lois Romano with Kerry contributed to this report.