Though public opinion in the U.S. has shifted against the 4-year old war in Iraq, a dogged minority persists under the false impression that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was somehow responsible for 9/11 and harbored al-Qaida terrorists inside Iraq in 2001–2003. This may be difficult to believe following the cascade of revelations regarding intelligence failures, the discovery that Iraq had no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) or nuclear weapons programs, and other embarrassments that have surfaced since the war started. After all, even President George W. Bush himself finally admitted that Saddam had no ties to al-Qaida. The continued public misperception about Saddam and terrorism shows how devastatingly effective war propaganda can be, and highlights the need for vigilance against premature government allegations against Iran or other foreign countries.
A friend of mine in the Army reserves who participated in the U.S. invasion of Iraq steadfastly clings to the belief that Saddam was harboring terrorists before the war. During the invasion of Iraq, this soldier was shown "intelligence" that supposedly proved Saddam had financed a radical Islamist and al-Qaida-linked group in northern Iraq called Ansar al-Islam. Unfortunately, the soldier was never informed by his superiors that subsequent investigations proved this assertion to be spurious. It is thus possible that many American soldiers fighting in Iraq have similarly been exposed to inaccurate or misleading intelligence material that manipulated them into thinking the Iraq war was started to protect America from terrorism.
In truth, we know today that Saddam did not support the radical group Ansar al Islam. The group also had dubious connections to al-Qaida, though it did share a similar religious outlook. Its primary reason for being was to make trouble for Kurdish political parties, which were also historically persecuted by Saddam. Saddam's Baathist Party would have eliminated Ansar al Islam, as it did other Islamist groups, had Baghdad been able to militarily control the northeastern Kurdish region of Iraq. As it turns out, Ansar al Islam was operating in a region protected by the United States in a so-called "no fly zone." If anyone was providing safe haven to Ansar al Islam, it was the U.S.
I have found that die-hard supporters of the war inside the military will not accept media reports on the subject of Iraq's links to terrorism because of the media's liberal bias. Yet the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence conducted an inquiry into the subject when it was chaired by Republican Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS). The Committee's report thoroughly debunked claims that Saddam was linked al-Qaida. The Committee's Postwar Findings about Iraq’s WMD Programs and Links to Terrorism and How they Compare with Prewar Assessments explains:
"According to debriefs of multiple detainees – including Saddam Hussein and former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz – and captured documents, Saddam did not trust al-Qaida or any other radical Islamist group and did not want to cooperate with them… Aziz underscored Saddam's distrust of Islamic extremists like bin Ladin, stating that when the Iraqi regime started to see evidence that Wahabists had come to Iraq, u2018the Iraqi regime issued a decree aggressively outlawing Wahabism in Iraq and threatening offenders with execution.'" [p. 67]
Given Saddam's decree outlawing radical Islamist groups, it is not hard to see why Ansar al-Islam considered Saddam a sworn enemy, not a collaborator in a struggle against the United States. Yet somehow the Neoconservatives and elements of the U.S. military maintained that Baghdad was providing training and a safe haven to Ansar al Islam. The Select Committee on Intelligence report's Conclusion 6 makes clear that not only did Saddam consider Ansar al Islam a hostile force, he was worried that U.S. Neoconservatives would use the group's existence in U.S.-protected areas as evidence against him:
"Postwar information indicates that the Intelligence Community accurately assessed that al-Qaida affiliate group Ansar al-Islam operated in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Iraq, an area that Baghdad had not controlled since 1991. Prewar assessments reported on Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) infiltrations of the group, but noted uncertainty regarding the purpose of the infiltrations. Postwar information reveals that Baghdad viewed Ansar al-Islam as a threat to the regime and that the IIS attempted to collect intelligence on the group… Postwar information indicates that Iraqi intelligence activities were not cooperative; rather they were directed at collecting intelligence activities against Ansar Al-Islam, which operated in northeastern Iraq, an area outside regime control. A May 2002 IIS document indicates that the regime was concerned that the United States would use the presence of Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq to support claims of links between the regime and al-Qaida." [p. 109]
The Select Committee on Intelligence's postwar report also makes clear that the intelligence agencies' conclusions about the radical Islamist group were diametrically opposed to the Neoconservatives' suspicions. Ansar al Islam was implacably opposed to Saddam's regime on religious grounds:
“According to the CIA, u2018detainees that originally reported on AI–IIS links have recanted, and another detainee, in September 2003, was deemed to have insufficient access and level of detail to substantiate his claims.'” According to the DIA, detainee information and captured document exploitation indicate that the regime was aware of Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaida presence in northeastern Iraq, but the groups’ presence was considered a threat to the regime and the Iraqi government attempted intelligence collection operations against them. The DIA stated that information from senior Ansar al-Islam detainees revealed that the group viewed Saddam’s regime as apostate, and denied any relationship with it." [p.92]
The CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) concluded that Saddam was not supporting or collaborating with Ansar al Islam. The intelligence purportedly shown to U.S. military forces during the invasion that asserted Iraqi financial sponsorship of Ansar al Islam was not based on fact. It must have been either fabricated or overly speculative. Whatever monies Baghdad spent on Ansar al Islam were for the purpose of infiltration and intelligence gathering on a hostile group, not financial support of an ally. Was intelligence deliberately misconstrued to make American soldiers believe they were attacking a sponsor of al-Qaida and 9/11?
Much of the false intelligence that formed the Bush administration's justification for invading Iraq was manufactured by then–Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith. Within Bush's administration, he was a leading Neoconservative agitator for war with Iraq. After September 11, Feith grew frustrated with the intelligence community's failure to find a link between Saddam and al-Qaida. He set up an amateur intelligence analysis shop called the Office of Special Plans (OSP). It cherry-picked raw material from Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency files, highlighting the bits and pieces that confirmed the office's predetermined conclusions about Saddam, while ignoring evidence that refuted or disproved those conclusions. It made heavy use of sketchy claims by Iraqi exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi, who was hoping to profit from Saddam's overthrow. Feith's operation also utilized information gleaned through torture of War on Terror detainees — information which later proved to be false.
A recent report of the Defense Department's Office of Inspector General rebuked as "inappropriate" Feith's actions to create his own intelligence assessments of the Iraqi regime in a drive to justify war. "The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy," notes the Inspector General, "developed, produced, and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al-Qaida relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision makers." Moreover, Feith's office drew "conclusions that were not fully supported by the available intelligence."
In short, a policy office in the Defense Department was producing what it called "intelligence products" and then presented them to higher ups in the White House and Congress as a basis for attacking Iraq. The subterfuge occurred, in the words of the Inspector General, "because a policy office was producing intelligence products and was not clearly conveying to senior decision-makers the variance with the consensus of the intelligence Community." Feith and his cohorts in the Pentagon, in order to justify their preferred policy of war, furnished the White House with suspicions and opinionated accusations masquerading as intelligence analysis. Somehow their opinion that Saddam Hussein was supporting al-Qaida played a role in marching the country off to an ill-advised war with a country that did not in actuality support al-Qaida.
USAF Lt Col. Karen Kwiatkowski served in the Secretary of Defense's office with Feith, and witnessed much of the sleight of hand taking place with respect to disseminating manipulated intelligence to decision makers in the U.S. government. She wrote that “If one is seeking the answers to why peculiar bits of ‘intelligence’ found sanctity in a presidential speech, or why the post-Saddam occupation has been distinguished by confusion and false steps, one need look no further than the process inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense [OSD].” Kwiatkowski charged that what she saw inside the Defense Department constituted “a subversion of constitutional limits on executive power and a co-option through deceit of a large segment of the Congress.”
The deception continues to this day. Many Americans, in the military and in society at large, still falsely believe that Saddam was fomenting terrorist attacks against the U.S. They are continuing victims of the government's war propaganda. Apparently, some war supporters in the military ranks consider the mounting public opposition to the war to be a product of liberal media bias that obscures Saddam's ties to al-Qaida. They apparently resent what they consider to be the public's lack of gratitude for their efforts to protect America from terrorism. What they may not be considering is that the government they work for has sold them a bill of goods.
Michael Sheehan [send him mail] is a freelance writer in New York.