Rumsfeld's Exaggerations: On the Saddam/Al-Qaeda Link

Ever since the September 11 attacks, and especially in recent months, advocates of overthrowing Saddam Hussein have sensed an opportunity to press their case.

Ever since the September 11 attacks, and especially in recent months, advocates of overthrowing Saddam Hussein have sensed an opportunity to press their case. Realizing that the country was anxious for action to improve its security, they thought that the terrorist attacks could produce a political climate more conducive to their longstanding goal of deposing the butcher of Baghdad. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of some such advocates has sometimes led them to deliberately mislead the American people about a possible tie between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. The most guilty party in recent weeks has been Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

 

To be sure, the world would be better off if Saddam were gone from power. In addition, there is a serious case for forcibly removing him, especially if he again thwarts the work of weapons inspectors and their effort to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.

But the Congress and the public deserve the best possible information about the threat posed by Saddam in order to reach a democratic decision about the desirability of war. As the country's chief custodians of the nation's intelligence information, top national security officials have an obligation not only to offer their own best advice about possible future action, but to share data as accurately and forthrightly with the American people as is possible. Security considerations will sometimes preclude full disclosure, of course. But under no circumstances should top officials cross the line of deliberately misleading the nation about the case for war.

 

Regrettably, Secretary Rumsfeld has come too close to that line, and even strayed across it once or twice.

Consider:

 

Up until 9/11/2001, the intelligence community stated that Saddam had not supported anti-Western terrorism since his attempt to have former President George Bush assassinated in 1993. Yet advocates of overthrowing Saddam quickly raised the possibility last fall that Saddam might have been linked to the 9/11 attacks without any new evidence to challenge this longstanding intelligence community view. Rumsfeld was not among the most vocal then, but a number of individuals on his quasi-official Defense Policy Board made the case publicly and frequently.

 

It turns out that the purported meeting between hijacker Muhammed Atta and a top Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in 2001, widely discussed after 9/11 as evidence of a possible Saddam-Al-Qaeda link, may never have taken place. Yet, according to some reports, Rumsfeld has tried to squelch any public airing of the intelligence community's uncertainties in regard to this possible link, preferring to leave people with the impression that the meeting did occur.

 

In August, Rumsfeld told Tom Brokaw on NBC News that "there are Al-Qaeda in Iraq." He later stated that, since Saddam is a dictator with presumed total control of his country, it was unlikely those terrorists were on Iraqi territory unbeknownst to the Iraqi leader. Later in the month, however, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and the intelligence community both quietly restated their convictions that any Al-Qaeda operatives inside Iraq were in the northern part of the country, beyond Saddam's control and not linked with him or his security apparatus.

 

In the last week, Rumsfeld, as well as National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, have alleged that some Al-Qaeda members may be in Baghdad, and that they may even have received training in chemical weapons technologies from Iraqi agents. Yet President Bush, speaking on the same subject at nearly the same time, avoided any such claims. Moreover, Rumsfeld later admitted that this claim was only a provisional intelligence finding based on a single source, and offered no further details about the nature of the alleged complicity.

 

The country has a right to greater honesty from its top officials. If Mr. Rumsfeld has solid evidence of a link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, he should, of course, say so. Indeed, such intelligence would provide a rock-solid case for overthrowing Saddam even if he lets inspectors into Iraq, especially if the link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda has become substantial or if there was any Iraqi hand in the events of 9/11.

 

But given Mr. Rumsfeld's previous misstatements, as well as internal administration disagreements on the subject, one senses a different dynamic at work. Appearances would suggest that Secretary Rumsfeld is so bent on overthrowing Saddam--and doing it quickly--that he is either misleading himself or deliberately misleading the country about the presence of a "smoking gun" link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda.

 

The country deserves better, especially when debating such an extremely momentous decision about going to war and risking the lives of its soldiers, the security of its homeland, and the fate of the Persian Gulf region.

 

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at The Brookings Institution