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Iraq-Qaeda: The New "Evidence"

Now we can all play the at-home version of the Dick Cheney game and pick out the bits that best fit our case.
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So how about the new evidence that Saddam and Osama bin Laden were in cahoots?

While interesting, it's not compelling.

When I wrote on Sunday about the flaw in Condoleezza Rice's arguments about the entire Middle East being tainted by the same "ideology of hatred " -- the flaw being that secularist Hussein and religious wing-nut bin Laden did not, you know, share an ideology -- several respondents asserted that I was wrong because newly-released documents prove that Iraq and al Qaeda were working together. (Note: Even if such an "enemy of my enemy" alliance existed, they still did not share the same ideology, so Rice's point would still be off-base.)

In a fascinating but not necessarily enlightening exercise, the Pentagon has started posting online the hundreds of thousands of documents that the U.S. seized in Iraq. It's fascinating because such a raw document dump is unprecedented if for none other than technological reasons.

It's not necessarily edifying for the same reason that we have, you know, intelligence analysts -- not all raw intelligence is of equal credibility and value.

But now we can all play the at-home version of the Dick Cheney game and pick out the bits that best fit our case. Or as the Times notes:

"There's no quality control," said Michael Scheuer, a former Central Intelligence Agency specialist on terrorism. "You'll have guys out there with a smattering of Arabic drawing all kinds of crazy conclusions. Rush Limbaugh will cherry-pick from the right, and Al Franken will cherry-pick from the left."

The same article also logically points out that if there was a true smoking gun in this document dump, the administration would not wait for its allies online to ferret it out.

Another administration official described the political logic: "If anyone in the intelligence community thought there was valid information in those documents that supported either of those questions -- W.M.D. or Al Qaeda -- they would have shouted them from the rooftops."

But what of the new documents that have been released that have gotten attention for allegedly showing an Iraq-al Qaeeda relationship?

Happily someone who is a certified expert on al Qaeda -- reporter Peter Bergen, who has written books on Osama bin Laden -- dissects the new case for collaboration on today's Times op-ed page.

He finds it wanting.

For those of you who cannot get behind thte TImes' green wall, allow me to excerpt:

What do the new documents establish? According to ABC News's translation of one of the most credible documents, in early 1995 Mr. bin Laden -- then living in Sudan -- met with an Iraqi government representative and discussed "carrying out joint operations against foreign forces" in Saudi Arabia. The document also noted that the "development of the relationship and cooperation between the two parties" was "to be left according to what's open [in the future] based on dialogue and agreement on other ways of cooperation."

OK, a strong start for the Bush set, though it does not go beyond the flirting that we already knew about.

The results of this meeting were ... nothing. Two subsequent attacks against American forces in Saudi Arabia -- a car bombing that year and the Khobar Towers attack in 1996 -- were carried out, respectively, by locals who said they were influenced by Mr. bin Laden and by the Saudi branch of Hezbollah, a Shiite group aided by Iranian government officials.

Doh.

As for the other new documents, there is one dated Sept. 15, 2001, that outlines contacts between Mr. bin Laden and Iraq, but it is based on an Afghan informant discussing a conversation with another Afghan. It is third-hand hearsay.

And, strangely, another document, dated Aug. 17, 2002, from Iraq's intelligence service explains there is "information from a reliable source" that two Al Qaeda figures were in Iraq and that agents should "search the tourist sites (hotels, residential apartments and rented houses)" for them. If Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda had a relationship, why was it necessary for Iraqi intelligence to be scouring the country looking for members of the terrorist organization?

Well there is that.

All this goes to the central problem faced by proponents of the Qaeda-Iraq connection. It's long been known that Iraqi officials were playing footsie with Al Qaeda in the mid-1990's, but these desultory contacts never yielded any cooperation. And why should they have? Al Qaeda was able to carry out the embassy attacks in Africa in 1998, the bombing of the destroyer Cole in 2000 and 9/11 with no help from Iraq. The Iraqi intelligence services, for their part, could handle by themselves low-level jobs like bumping off Iraqi dissidents abroad. And after the botched attempt to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush in Kuwait in 1993, Saddam Hussein never attempted terrorism against an American target again.

Indeed.

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