The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said yesterday that it has had access to the same information on alleged ties between al Qaeda and Iraq as Vice President Cheney, who suggested last month that the panel may not have been privy to all available intelligence when it found limited links between the two.
The one-sentence statement, issued by Chairman Thomas H. Kean (R) and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D), continues the debate over the findings on Iraq by the Sept. 11 commission, which issued a report last month concluding that Iraq and al Qaeda had limited contacts but had not developed a "collaborative relationship."
A day later, in a June 17 television interview, Cheney said he believed there was a "general relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda and said he "probably" had information that the commission had not seen. Commission officials asked the administration to give the panel any additional evidence, but they have said since that none has been provided.
"After examining available transcripts of the Vice President's public remarks, the 9-11 Commission believes it has access to the same information the Vice President has seen regarding contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq prior to the 9-11 attacks," Kean and Hamilton said in their statement yesterday.
Cheney spokesman Kevin Kellems said the vice president welcomed the commission's statement because it "puts to rest a non-story."
"As we've said all along, the administration provided the commission with unprecedented access to sensitive information so they could perform their mission," Kellems said. "The vice president critiqued some press coverage of the staff report. He did not criticize the commission's work."
Several commission officials did not return calls for comment yesterday.
Although the commission did not provide more details, the statement suggests that it will stand by its assessment of the relationship between Hussein's government and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in its final report, which is due to be completed by July 26. The findings initially prompted some squabbling between Democratic and Republican commissioners, but one panel official said recently that "everyone is on the same page" after a detailed briefing by commission staff two weeks ago.
In two interim reports issued last month, the commission's investigators said that they found "no credible evidence" that Iraq and al Qaeda had cooperated in attacks on the United States and that a purported April 9, 2001, meeting between an Iraqi intelligence officer and Mohamed Atta, leader of the terrorist hijackers, never occurred.
The panel said that the FBI placed Atta in Virginia on April 4 through a bank surveillance video and that records show calls were made from the hijacker's cell phone in Florida on April 6, 9, 10 and 11. There is also "no evidence that Atta ventured overseas again or re-entered the United States before July, when he traveled to Spain and back under his true name," one of the reports said.
Cheney, who previously had said that the alleged meeting was "pretty well confirmed," said during the June 17 interview on CNBC that "we just don't know" whether it happened.
"We have never been able to confirm that, nor have we been able to knock it down," Cheney said.