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Fast and Loose With the Facts

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Originally posted in the Washington Independent.

"The danger," said President George W. Bush on Sept. 25, 2002, "is that Al Qaeda becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world." He proceeded to build on a lie that finally died last week -- but only after nearly 4,000 U.S. troops and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis did as well. "The war on terror," Bush said, "you can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror."

Only if you're a liar. For the CIA knew that Saddam Hussein had no ties of any significance to Al Qaeda. Richard Clarke, the long-time counterterrorism director at the National Security Council, knew that Saddam Hussein had no ties of any significance to Al Qaeda. Michael Scheuer, the CIA's original bin Laden analyst, knew that Saddam Hussein had no ties of any significance to Al Qaeda. Eventually, the 9/11 Commission would know that Saddam Hussein had no ties of any significance to Al Qaeda.

But by the time the U.S. invaded Iraq, five years ago yesterday, much of the public thought that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were tightly allied to strike the United States. And the public believed this because the Bush administration constantly intimated it in order to launch its long-desired war.

Donald H. Rumsfeld called the evidence linking Saddam and Al Qaeda "bulletproof." (He would later say, "To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two" -- and then walk that statement back.) CIA Director George Tenet, carrying the administration's water by misrepresenting what his CIA knew, said there were ties going back a decade. (He meant that they were a decade old.) Vice President Dick Cheney went on Meet The Press again and again to say that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an agent of Iraqi intelligence. (In early 2002, the FBI and the CIA debunked this claim.)

But the public also believed it because the press amplified the lie. The major networks and papers uncritically recycled what these administration officials said. The elite media was no exception -- and played a major role in convincing less-expert journalists that the administration was on to something. Two writers in particular, though very different, stand out: Jeffrey Goldberg, then of The New Yorker and now of The Atlantic, and Stephen F. Hayes, of the neoconservative Weekly Standard.

Goldberg, in The New Yorker, wrote two pieces -- one in March 2002 and the other on the eve of the invasion -- backing the Saddam/Al Qaeda claim. Bush praised his work publicly, if inelegantly: "Evidently, there's a new article in the New York magazine or New Yorker magazine -- some East Coast magazine -- and it details about [Saddam's] barbaric behavior toward his own people." Asked about Goldberg by Tim Russert, Cheney called Goldberg's 2002 piece, which breathlessly recycled the second-hand claims of prisoners of the Kurds that Saddam and bin Laden were allied, "devastating."

Hayes, in the Standard, has made a career out of pretending Saddam and Al Qaeda were in league to attack the United States. He published a book -- tellingly wafer-thin and with large type in its hardcover edition -- called "The Connection." One infamous piece even suggested that Saddam might have aided the 9/11 attack. Hayes can be relied on to provide a farrago of speciousness every time new information emerges refuting his deceptive thesis. Unsurprisingly, Cheney has repeatedly praised Hayes's work, telling Fox News, "I think Steve Hayes has done an effective job in his article of laying out a lot of those connections."

The Bush administration will leave office with the legacy of a disastrous and unnecessary war, which threatens to undermine the Republican Party for a second straight election. Bush and Cheney will probably leave office distrusted and loathed by a large majority of the electorate, and if they ever travel to Europe they might even face indictment as war criminals.

By contrast, Goldberg and Hayes have seen their careers flourish. Goldberg traded his New Yorker post for a lucrative spot at The Atlantic. Hayes wrote a lengthy hagiography of Cheney for major New York publisher, HarperCollins. Publicity for the book got him a special spot on Meet The Press, befitting his status as a high-profile television pundit who is never treated as the conspiracy theorist he is.

Every single inquiry into the Saddam/Al Qaeda link has revealed it to be untrue. First, in 2004, the 9/11 Commission's definitive study found "no collaborative operational ties" between the two. (Hayes' response was first to attack the commission, and then to claim that this was a legalistic way of saying that Saddam and Al Qaeda were actually in league.) Then, in 2006, the Senate intelligence committee rejected it. Then, in 2007, the Pentagon inspector general -- albeit in a more circuitous way -- rejected it. Now, in a report released last week, the U.S. military's Joint Forces Command rejects it.

The Joint Forces Command study combed through 600,000 pages of captured documents about Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism throughout the years. It documents, in great detail, precisely that. But the label "terrorism" is a misleading category. The study refutes the idea that there was any "direct connection" between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Saddam's support for terrorism was largely limited to Palestinian, anti-Kurdish and anti-Gulf state terrorist groups. (See the JFC's Executive Summary here, another excerpt here and conclusions.)

About as close as anything could come to linking Saddam to Al Qaeda was a memo from one Saddam's intelligence services "written a decade before Operation Iraqi Freedom." It says: "In a meeting in the Sudan we agreed to renew our relations with the Islamic Jihad Organization in Egypt." That organization would eventually merge with Al Qaeda in the late 1990s, long after the apparent meeting in Sudan. It also says that for a time in the mid-1990s, Saddam and Al Qaeda had "indirect cooperation" by offering "training and motivation" to some of the same terror organizations in that country.

Out of this thin gruel, Hayes attempted to make a meal in the Standard's pages this week. He lifted as many bullet points from the report as he could that, out of context, seemed to bolster his theory. He then went about attacking reporters who accurately wrote that the study found no direct connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Hayes tacitly promised his readers that history will ultimately vindicate him, writing that "as much as we have learned from this impressive collection of documents, it is only a fraction of what we will know in 10, 20 or 50 years." And he expressed puzzlement that an administration with an obvious credibility problem had not "done anything to promote the study."

Hayes's boss, New York Times columnist Bill Kristol, criticized the administration's silence in an editorial, lamenting that "most Americans will assume there was no real Saddam-terror connection." The phraseology is telling. Not even Kristol, a supreme propagandist, could bring himself to write of a "real Saddam-Al Qaeda connection," preferring the sleight-of-hand approach to discussing Saddam's ties to undifferentiated "terror" groups.

At the risk of belaboring the point, it should be obvious that if Saddam Hussein was as important to Al Qaeda as Hayes has erroneously and deliberately written for years, then Al Qaeda should be reeling years after the destruction of his regime. Instead, according to a mid-2007 warning from the National Counterterrorism Center, Al Qaeda is "Better Positioned to Strike the West." Never once has Hayes, in all the thousands of words he has written on the "connection," reckoned with this basic strategic problem. In essence, he asks every U.S. soldier and Marine in Iraq to be the last man to die for a debater's point.

Goldberg's approach has been rather different. He has simply kept quiet about what he did. In his March 2002 piece, he credulously recycled the claims of "Kurdish intelligence officials" that a Kurdish terror group called Ansar al-Islam was "shielding Al Qaeda members, and... doing so with the approval of Saddam's agents." (In a parody of a concession to reality, he caveated the claim by saying "they have no proof that Ansar al-Islam was ever involved in international terrorism or that Saddam's agents were involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.") Never once did he indicate to his readers -- The New Yorker has a circulation of more than a million -- that the Kurds, sworn enemies of Saddam Hussein, had an obvious motive to peddle lies to American reporters.

A subsequent piece baselessly asserted that "the relationship between bin Laden and Saddam's regime was brokered in the early nineteen-nineties by the then de-facto leader of Sudan, the pan-Islamist radical Hassan al-Tourabi." Needless to say, not a single investigation into Iraq or Al Qaeda has ever substantiated what Goldberg wrote.

Goldberg further pimped the assertions of "senior officials" that "an Al Qaeda operative -- a native-born Iraqi who goes by the name Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi--was dispatched by bin Laden to ask the Iraqis for help in poison-gas training." (It's possible that this piece of information came from Abu Sheikh al-Libi, who was tortured into telling the Bush administration about Saddam giving Al Qaeda chemical and biological weapons training, before subsequently recanting.) And he again wrote of "another possible connection early last year," gleaned -- once again -- from "Kurdish intelligence officials."

Goldberg, perhaps chastened, largely stopped writing about the war after the occupation proved to be a disaster. Unlike Hayes, if he still believes that Saddam and Al Qaeda were indeed in league, he has not publicly said so. His beat at The New Yorker changed from the Iraq war to domestic politics. Yet even then, he could not resist the urge to lionize the architects of the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection. In 2005, he authored a puffy profile of former Pentagon official Douglas Feith. ("His glasses magnify his eyes, making him appear owlish, and his mouth is set in an expression of bemusement that can slip into impatient condescension when he hears something that he thinks is foolish, which is often.")

All the while, he has neglected to correct the record. The closest Goldberg has come to acknowledging what he did in 2002 and 2003 was in an interview with New York magazine to promote a book he published in 2006. When the reporter, Boris Kachka, gently asked about his earlier reporting, Goldberg snapped, "Is that part of the interview? Okay, fine, if you really want to go into it, the specific allegations I raised have never been definitively addressed by the 9/11 Commission."

Yet Goldberg enjoys a sterling reputation. The Atlantic's wealthy owner, David Bradley, reportedly sent Goldberg's children ponies in order to convince the reporter to leave The New Yorker for the prestigious magazine. "He's incredibly persistent and makes you feel like you're God's gift to journalism," Goldberg said of Bradley. The Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz approvingly referred to Bradley's pursuit of "top talent."

But it seems as though, despite Goldberg's ability to escape accountability for his journalistic malpractice, he can't help smirking to attentive readers. The cover story of the January/February edition of The Atlantic featured Goldberg's meditations on the post-Iraq Middle East. It featured, of all things, a discursion into "a decrepit prison in Iraqi Kurdistan" where "a senior interrogator with the Kurdish intelligence service" tortured an Arab prisoner. Goldberg mentioned not a word of what his last dalliance with Kurdish intelligence yielded. To anyone who read his 2002 and 2003 pieces, it appeared that The Atlantic writer was returning to the scene of the crime.

Nearly 4,000 Americans and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and counting, will not have the same opportunity.

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