One week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, White House counterterrorism director Paul Kurtz wrote in a memo to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice that no "compelling case" existed for Iraq's involvement in the attacks and that links between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's government were weak.
Not only did Osama bin Laden resent the Iraqi government's secularism, Kurtz's classified memo stated, but there was no confirmed information about collaboration between them on weapons of mass destruction.
Yesterday, after a lengthy investigation, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States laid out a detailed body of evidence supporting Kurtz's view. Although recent polls have shown that more than 40 percent of the American public is still convinced that Iraq collaborated with al Qaeda and had a role in the terrorist attacks, the commission reported finding no evidence of a "collaborative operational relationship" between the two or an Iraqi role in attacking the United States.
It stated that representatives of the two may have been in contact in 1994 or 1995, 1998 and possibly 1999, largely because of what the commission described as a shared hatred of the United States. But the commission found that their interests were largely out of sync, and nothing came of the contacts.
After probing the depth of ties between al Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah, a closely linked terrorist group, the commission found no evidence of Iranian or Hezbollah awareness of al Qaeda's plan for Sept. 11, 2001.
But its judgment regarding Iran was not as strong. Pointing to travel by the future Sept. 11 hijackers through Iran, in one instance on the same plane as an unnamed Hezbollah "associate," as well as unusual attentiveness by Hezbollah "operatives" to other movements by the hijackers, the commission called for "further investigation" of the question of cooperation.
The issue of Iraq's relationship with al Qaeda has figured prominently in debate over the wisdom of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Senior administration officials have repeatedly linked the two and said the war eliminated a sanctuary for terrorists. Administration supporters may now interpret the commission's evidence of meetings between the two as a problem that could have become a significant threat.
The commission staff previously cast doubt on such claims regarding Iraq. Yesterday's report -- issued in the name of the commission members, not just its staff -- affirms that skepticism and makes the case in greater detail.
Kurtz's memo, prepared in response to a request from President Bush, had little bearing on what the commission report depicts as the determination of a handful of senior policy officials -- centered mostly at the Pentagon -- to take military action against Iraq as well as bin Laden.
Providing a rich account of high-level deliberations after the attacks, the report states that advocates of this view wasted no time in pressing their case. Even at 2:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, the report states -- citing notes taken by witnesses -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard B. Myers that his instinct was to hit Hussein at the same time as bin Laden.
Rumsfeld told the commission that he then thought Iraq or bin Laden might have been responsible for the attack.
Four days later, when Bush convened a seminal meeting of his senior advisers at Camp David to decide retaliatory steps, the Defense Department submitted a paper that depicted Iraq, the Taliban and al Qaeda as priority targets in the first stage of action, the commission states. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith argued in three memos for Rumsfeld in subsequent days why Iraq should be hit, the report discloses.
The memos -- including one dated Sept. 18 and titled "Were We Asleep?" -- listed alleged ties between al Qaeda and Iraq that the commission report debunks, such as a theory that Ramzi Yousef, an al Qaeda-affiliated bomber convicted of masterminding the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, was an Iraqi agent.
The commission quotes Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in his interview with the panel in January 2004, saying Wolfowitz "was always of the view that Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with. And he saw this as one way of using this event." Powell also told the panel he felt Wolfowitz's claims were unjustified, and that Bush did not then give them much weight.
Bush did, however, order the Pentagon on Sept. 17 to be ready to occupy the Iraqi oil fields if the country acted against U.S. interests, the commission states. Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who eventually directed the war in Iraq, is depicted by the commission as lobbying immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks for authority to plan for military action there. In his commission interview last April, Franks said he personally believed that Iraq and al Qaeda might be colluding.
Still, the commission found no evidence of significant dealings between Iraq and al Qaeda.
It says, for example, that bin Laden met with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in Khartoum in 1994 or 1995, at the encouragement of Hassan Turabi, then a radical Islamic party leader in Sudan; Turabi was arrested and accused of plotting a coup in 2001. Bin Laden "is said to have asked for space to establish training camps" and help in procuring weapons, but no evidence exists that Iraq responded.
This information was in any event not learned until late May 2003, according to the report, weeks after Bush declared major combat in Iraq successfully finished.
In 1997, after bin Laden moved from Sudan to Afghanistan, he "sent out a number of feelers to the Iraqi regime, offering some cooperation," the report states. But Iraq was trying then to improve ties with Saudi Arabia, which officially disapproved of bin Laden. Iraq made no significant reply.
A year later, Iraq's position reversed. Impressed by bin Laden's declaration of holy war against the United States, Iraqi intelligence officials reportedly hosted a visit by two al Qaeda members; follow-up meetings took place in 1998 and possibly in 1999, the report states. But bin Laden declined an Iraqi offer of haven.
The commission repeated intelligence claims that "there are indications" of Iraqi tolerance of and potential assistance in the late 1990s to an extremist Islamic group in northeastern Iraq known as Ansar al-Islam, which was an al Qaeda ally and fighting Kurdish groups opposed to Hussein. But recent U.S. military intelligence from Iraq, not cited in the commission's report, has suggested that Ansar's membership is distinct from al Qaeda's.
The commission also says "the available evidence does not support" a claim by many top administration officials, including at one point Vice President Cheney, that Mohamed Atta, who flew one of the jetliners into the World Trade Center, met an Iraqi agent in Prague in April 2001.
Czech authorities discount the report, which was based on a single source, and say the Iraqi intelligence agent, who is in jail, was not in Prague at the time. The FBI meanwhile has found evidence that Atta was in the United States at the time, and al Qaeda officials in U.S. custody have denied the meeting occurred.
A Defense Intelligence Agency report dated July 2002 was titled "Special Analysis: Iraq's Inconclusive Ties to Al-Qaida," the commission's report says.
Al Qaeda ties to Iran appear to have been much more substantial, according to information disclosed by the commission. An agreement brokered by Sudan in 1991 or 1992 led to Iranian training of senior al Qaeda operatives in explosives, for example. Iran also repeatedly assisted the transit of al Qaeda figures into and out of Iran by agreeing not to stamp their passports. No similar evidence of cooperation between al Qaeda and Iraq was cited by the panel.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.