Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The (Other) Man That Got Away 

Via Cursor: In case you hadn't seen it, here's the Knight-Ridder scoop on the CIA report Gwen Ifill and Dick Cheney discussed at some length earlier tonight:
A new CIA assessment undercuts the White House's claim that Saddam Hussein maintained ties to al-Qaida, saying there's no conclusive evidence that the regime harbored Osama bin Laden associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The CIA review, which U.S. officials said Monday was requested some months ago by Vice President Dick Cheney, is the latest assessment that calls into question one of President Bush's key justifications for last year's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq . . . .

While intelligence officials cautioned that information about al-Zarqawi remains incomplete, Bush, Cheney and other top officials have publicly made al-Zarqawi the linchpin of their contention that Saddam's Iraq had ties to al-Qaida. Questions about whether the president and other officials overstated the intelligence about Iraq and omitted contradictory information and analysis are now at the center of the campaign debate over Iraq policy.

Since the Sept. 11 commission's judgment in June, Bush and Cheney have repeatedly said that al-Zarqawi was an associate of bin Laden and received safe haven from Saddam. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld backed away Monday from such claims, apparently as a result of the new CIA assessment.

Bush and Cheney have charged that Saddam's regime allowed al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian native, to travel to Baghdad and to set up cells of his Islamic terrorist network in the Iraqi capital. Al-Zarqawi is now a major figure who's directing part of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq. He has appeared in videos in which U.S. and other hostages are executed, often by beheading.

"Zarqawi's the best evidence of connection to al-Qaida affiliates and al-Qaida. He's the person who's still killing. He's the person, remember the e-mail exchange between al-Qaida leadership and he himself about how to disrupt the progress toward freedom," Bush said in the Rose Garden in June . . . .

The report didn't conclude that Saddam's regime had provided "aid, comfort and succor" to al-Zarqawi, a senior administration official said.

He added that there are now questions about earlier administration assertions that al-Zarqawi received treatment at a Baghdad hospital in May 2002.

"The evidence is that Saddam never gave Zarqawi anything," another U.S. official said.

A congressional official said members of Congress had received an intelligence report in late August containing similar findings.

The officials who described the new assessment spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is classified and because, as one put it, "I don't want to get caught in the crossfire" between the White House and the CIA.
Neither the CIA report nor Mr. Cheney himself addressed the reasons why the White House might have elected to refrain from attacking Zarqawi on at least three separate occasions when the opportunity presented itself. From NBC News in March of this year (lest we forget):
In June 2002, U.S. officials say intelligence had revealed that Zarqawi and members of al-Qaida had set up a weapons lab at Kirma, in [Kurd-controlled] northern Iraq, producing deadly ricin and cyanide.

The Pentagon quickly drafted plans to attack the camp with cruise missiles and airstrikes and sent it to the White House, where, according to U.S. government sources, the plan was debated to death in the National Security Council . . . .

Four months later, intelligence showed Zarqawi was planning to use ricin in terrorist attacks in Europe.

The Pentagon drew up a second strike plan, and the White House again killed it. By then the administration had set its course for war with Iraq.

“People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president’s policy of preemption against terrorists,” according to terrorism expert and former National Security Council member Roger Cressey.

In January 2003, the threat turned real. Police in London arrested six terror suspects and discovered a ricin lab connected to the camp in Iraq.

The Pentagon drew up still another attack plan, and for the third time, the National Security Council killed it.

Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.
In other words, the Bush administration let Zarqawi get away so they could use him as a specious casus belli. How many hundreds have died as a result of that egregious, self-serving blunder?

UPDATE: The answer to the above question may be "fewer than we thought." From the Telegraph, courtesy of our esteemed colleagues at Contrariwise:
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader believed to be responsible for the abduction of Kenneth Bigley, is 'more myth than man', according to American military intelligence agents in Iraq.

Several sources said the importance of Zarqawi, blamed for many of the most spectacular acts of violence in Iraq, has been exaggerated by flawed intelligence and the Bush administration's desire to find "a villain" for the post-invasion mayhem.

US military intelligence agents in Iraq have revealed a series of botched and often tawdry dealings with unreliable sources who, in the words of one source, "told us what we wanted to hear".

"We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq," the agent said.

"Back home this stuff was gratefully received and formed the basis of policy decisions. We needed a villain, someone identifiable for the public to latch on to, and we got one" . . . .

No concrete proof of the link between Zarqawi and bin Laden was offered until US officials this year trumpeted the discovery of a computer disk, allegedly intercepted by Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas. Among its files was an apparent draft of a letter from Zarqawi to bin Laden.

That seemed proof enough for the US government. "Zarqawi is the best evidence of the connection to al-Qa'eda affiliates and al-Qa'eda," Mr Bush said in June.

But senior diplomats in Baghdad claim that the letter was almost certainly a hoax. They say the two men may have met in Afghanistan but it appeared they never got on and there has been a rift for several years.

One diplomat claimed that there was evidence to suggest that Zarqawi's aides may have passed on information to the Americans that led to the arrest of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of the main planners of the September 11 attacks.

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