Conspicuously absent from Thursday's final report of the Sept. 11 commission was any judgment on the most pressing policy debate of the Bush presidency: Was the invasion of Iraq a crucial part of -- or a distraction from -- the fight against terrorism?
This was no oversight. Commissioners quickly concluded in their deliberations that any judgment on the wisdom of the Iraq war would scuttle their hope to present unanimous judgments. "Iraq was a third rail," said Democratic commission member Richard Ben-Veniste. The war couldn't be discussed "without dissolving into divisions" -- so the commission dropped the question, reasoning that it was not part of its mandate.
But that left a gaping hole in the commission's report. By the report's own logic, the United States must do a better job of defining the enemy. The "enemy is not just 'terrorism,' some generic evil," the commissioners wrote. "This vagueness blurs the strategy." The report complains about "an amorphous picture of the enemy" and says Americans are "given the picture of an omnipotent, unslayable hydra of destruction. This image lowers expectations for government effectiveness."
Yet, on the biggest real-world question of defining the terrorist enemy, the commissioners punted. On the practical question of whether fighting in Iraq is making Americans safer, the commissioners hew to the banal. "America's policy choices have consequences," they write. "Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world. That does not mean U.S. choices have been wrong."
Former White House counterterrorism director Richard A. Clarke, who had criticized the Iraq war as a distraction from the fight against al Qaeda, complained that the commission said little "about who it is that we're fighting" and did a "workmanlike" report that avoided controversy. "We're not fighting organizational diagrams," he told ABC News.
While the Iraq war was relegated to being the proverbial elephant-in-the-room throughout the commission's 567-page narrative, references to Iraq are made throughout the report, about Iraq's ties to al Qaeda, about the religious philosophy of its leadership, about the Bush administration's powerful and long-standing interest in toppling Saddam Hussein, and about the inflamed passions in the Arab and Muslim world about the invasion. The references leave readers to draw their own conclusions -- which, of course, they did, based on their original views.
Supporters of the Iraq war said the commission's report provided more evidence that Iraq was tied to al Qaeda -- one of Bush's major justifications for the war. The neoconservative organization Project for the New American Century wrote that the final report "significantly modified" an earlier finding by the commission staff of no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda. The group said the commission found "the connection between Iraq and al Qaeda to be more extensive than many critics of the administration have been willing to admit."
Among those findings: Osama bin Laden may have met with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in 1994 or 1995 and asked for space for training camps and help procuring weapons; al Qaeda members reportedly met with Iraqi intelligence in 1998, and Iraqis met with the Taliban and bin Laden in Afghanistan; Iraq and al Qaeda officials also may have met in 1999, and Iraqi officials reportedly offered bin Laden safe haven in Iraq.
But the commission also notes that bin Laden reportedly declined Iraq's offer in 1999, and that Iraq declined bin Laden's request in the mid 1990s. And, the commission concluded: "The reports describe friendly contacts and indicate some common themes in both sides' hatred of the United States. But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship."
The report appears to give some support to arguments by opponents of the war that invading Iraq was a diversion. These critics include Clarke, whose book said Bush "launched an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq that strengthened the fundamentalist, radical Islamic terrorist movement worldwide." This thinking was also contained in a December 2003 report published by the Army War College calling the war on terrorism "frustratingly unclear." The report protested the "conflation of al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a single, undifferentiated terrorist threat" and said this thinking "may have set the United States on a course of open-ended and gratuitous conflict with states and nonstate entities that pose no serious threat to the United States."
The 9/11 commission sounded a similar theme when it criticized the viewing of terrorism as a "generic evil," adding: "The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism -- especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology." It described the enemy both as al Qaeda and as "a radical ideological movement in the Islamic world, inspired in part by al Qaeda." While al Qaeda itself is weakened, "the second enemy is gathering."
Those statements make no explicit mention of Iraq. But at many places in the report, the commission describes Hussein as a secular dictator. It also suggests that Bush's aides viewed Hussein in such terms. The report cites a 2001 memo written by Clarke and supported by then-National Security Council Afghanistan expert Zalmay Khalilzad: "Arguing that the case for links between Iraq and al Qaeda was weak, the memo pointed out that Bin Ladin resented the secularism of Saddam Hussein's regime."
The report also includes a partial confirmation by Bush of Clarke's assertion that Iraq was quickly on Bush's mind in the hours after the 9/11 attacks. Bush acknowledged he may have talked to Clarke, asking about Iraq, but that he did not do it in an "intimidating" way, as Clarke had asserted.
On the other hand, the report also appears to rebut earlier accounts that Bush coerced a reluctant Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, to pursue Iraq war plans while the general was busy with Afghanistan. According to the commission report, Franks wanted military planning against Iraq "because he personally felt that Iraq and al Qaeda might be engaged in some form of collusion and because he worried that Saddam might take advantage of the attacks to move against his internal enemies." Bush, Franks told the commission, turned down his request.
The commission dealt gently with the Bush administration's early interest in Iraq. The report describes that while Bush decided on September 16, 2001, to make his focus Afghanistan, "he still wanted plans for Iraq should the country take some action or the administration eventually determine that it had been involved in the 9/11 attacks."
At a Sept. 17 NSC meeting, where the next phase of the war on terrorism was discussed, "Bush ordered the Defense Department to be ready to deal with Iraq if Baghdad acted against U.S. interests, with plans to include possibly occupying Iraqi oil fields."
But the commission largely sidestepped administration interest in Iraq before the Sept. 11 attacks. For example, while the commission makes the point that the Bush National Security Council did not hold a high-level "principals" meeting on bin Laden until Sept. 4, 2001, it leaves to a footnote the Feb. 5, 2001, NSC meeting where covert actions against Hussein were discussed, as described in Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack." Similarly, the panel discussed a draft presidential directive in June 2001 that called for the Pentagon to devise contingency plans to attack bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan beginning in June 2001, but not those for Iraq.
At times, the commission report appears to suggest, by omission, that the Iraq war has not helped the fight against terrorism. "Because of offensive actions against al Qaeda since 9/11, and defensive actions to improve homeland security, we believe we are safer today," the report concludes, silent on Iraq. But commissioners said that was merely a reflection of their "mandate," which did not include the Iraq war. "The war in Iraq may have helped and may have hurt the war on terror," Republican commissioner Fred F. Fielding said on CNN.
While steadfast in avoiding a position on the Iraq war, the commissioners were at least unanimous in their view that the United States has no option but to continue its effort to transform the country. If "Iraq becomes a failed state, it will go to the top of the list of places that are breeding grounds for attacks against Americans at home," they concluded.
The Sept. 11 commission's report makes no assessment of the role of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the war on terrorism.