TCS Daily

Critics are Still Confusing Proof and Evidence

By John Tabin - June 22, 2004 12:00 AM

"PANEL FINDS NO QAEDA-IRAQ TIE," shouted the front page of the New York Times last Thursday. This wasn't supported by the facts of the story -- the 9/11 panel had found no solid evidence of Iraqi cooperation with al Qaeda "in attacks against the United States" -- not that there was no "tie" at all between the two. But the headline reflected what seems to be the consensus in the press, that former terrorism czar Richard Clark had it right: as Clarke put it on March 21, "there's absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda, ever."

Clark didn't say that evidence of an Iraq-al Qaeda link was unpersuasive, or conflicted with other evidence; he said there was no evidence at all. This has become the conventional wisdom. It is wrong.

Stephen Hayes demonstrates as much in his new book, The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America. Building on his reporting on the topic for the Weekly Standard, this volume examines the evidence surrounding the longstanding relationship between radical Islamist terror and the Iraqi regime. In the 80s, Saddam was already hosting and training terrorist from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, enemies of his rival Baathist dictator Hafez al Assad (and breeding ground for a number of future al Qaeda cell leaders). By the 90s, the "secular" Baathist regime frequently spoke in the Islamist vocabulary of jihad and infidels. The newly cordial relations between those who'd seemed ideologically incompatible was more than rhetorical. Quoting Hayes at length:

"Iraqi intelligence documents from 1992 list Osama bin Laden as an Iraqi intelligence asset. Numerous sources have reported a 1993 nonaggression pact between Iraq and al Qaeda. The former deputy director of Iraqi intelligence now in U.S. custody says that bin Laden asked the Iraqi regime for arms and training in a face-to-face meeting in 1994. Senior al Qaeda leader Abu Hajer al Iraqi met with Iraqi intelligence officials in 1995. The National Security Agency intercepted telephone conversations between al Qaeda-supported Sudanese military officials and the head of Iraq's chemical weapons program in 1996. Al Qaeda sent Abu Abdallah al Iraqi to Iraq for help with weapons of mass destruction in 1997. An indictment from the Clinton-era Justice Department cited Iraqi assistance on al Qaeda "weapons development" in 1998. A senior Clinton administration counterterrorism official told the Washington Post that the U.S. government was "sure" Iraq had supported al Qaeda chemical weapons programs in 1999. An Iraqi working closely with the Iraqi embassy in Kuala Lumpur was photographed with September 11 hijacker Khalind a Mihdhar en route to a planning meeting for the bombing of the USS Cole and the September 11 attacks in 2000. Satellite photographs showed al Qaeda members in 2001 traveling en masse to a compound in northern Iraq financed, in part, by the Iraqi regime. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, senior al Qaeda associate, operated openly in Baghdad and received medical attention at a regime-supported hospital in 2002. Documents discovered in postwar Iraq in 2003 reveal that Saddam's regime harbored and supported Abdul Rahman Yasin, an Iraqi who mixed the chemicals for the 1993 World Trade Center attack-- the first al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil."

The book examines each of these pieces and many more in detail. Hayes has a bevy of sources, some of them secret or based on classified reporting -- including the Feith memo that he reported on last year, which many TCS readers will remember. But he relies mostly on "open sources" -- unclassified government reports, court documents, news media, and anything else that anyone with an internet connection can find.

It's the nature of intelligence that much of what he reports is uncertain. Hayes is for the most part careful not to oversell his case -- he never claims a sponsorship or command-and-control relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, for example, only that the relationship between the two was more extensive and more dangerous than many are willing to acknowledge.

But the uncertainty of the intelligence remains a favored line of attack for Hayes's critics. At a roundtable on the book at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this month, former CIA analyst Judith Yaphe emphasized that intelligence reports are not always true or complete, and that in some cases other reporting says the opposite of what Hayes concludes. To underscore the point, David Corn of The Nation asked from the audience how, if we discount one piece of intelligence, can we believe another?

But this, Hayes responds, confuses proof and evidence. Hayes notes in his book the uproar over the failure to "connect the dots" to stop the 9/11 attacks, where the evidence amounted to "a high level of intelligence 'chatter,' ... an internal FBI memo about suspicious activities at flight schools in Phoenix, a report out of Minnesota about a Middle Eastern man with a bizarre interest in airplanes, and unspecific CIA reporting about forthcoming al Qaeda attacks." All of this was much thinner than the evidence surrounding the Iraq-al Qaeda connection. And that makes the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime that much harder to regret.

John Tabin is a Baltimore-based writer whose website is


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