Blind to the truth
Friday June 18, 2004
The Bush administration's reaction to the report of the bipartisan US commission investigating September 11, which has found no evidence of a substantive relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida, is a classic case of none being so blind as those who will not see. "We stand by what was said publicly," said the White House spokesman, thus endorsing the stream of loose and contradictory claims made by the president and vice-president as they have thrashed around to justify the Iraq war. A year ago George Bush, in his prematurely triumphal aircraft-carrier speech, asserted that "we've removed an ally [Iraq] of al-Qaida". Last September Dick Cheney called Iraq "the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on September 11".
The commission's investigators have done a thorough job, helped by intelligence information as well as open sources, to provide a remarkably full picture of the changing plans, interconnections and movements of the September 11 plotters and the forces behind them. Against this detailed background, the failure to substantiate claims of a serious relationship, beyond some abortive early contacts, between Saddam's Iraq and al-Qaida - let alone a specific September 11 link - is all the more striking. No evidence is found for the flaky story of a meeting between the chief hijacker, Mohamed Atta, and an Iraqi operative in Prague. The only real contacts between Iraq and Osama bin Laden date back to 1994 - when Iraq failed to respond to requests for help from Bin Laden (who had at an earlier stage sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan).
On Monday Mr Cheney again insisted that Saddam had "long-established ties with al-Qaida", and neo-conservatives are already rallying to attack the commission's findings on the absence of a September 11 link. Yesterday Mr Bush continued to claim that there were "numerous contacts" between Saddam and al-Qaida, though the actual attack had not been "orchestrated". The administration's obstructive attitude to the fact-finding efforts of the commission, which it only set up reluctantly, under pressure from the families of September 11 victims, is hardly surprising. Mr Bush has a vested interest in keeping the American public confused. Most US soldiers in Iraq believe they are fighting the enemy which attacked the twin towers -and this belief may account for some of their abusive behaviour; a Harris poll in late April found that 49% of Americans at home believe there is "clear evidence" of Iraqi support for al-Qaida.
The ugly fact which Mr Bush cannot contemplate - far less let his public know - is that far from scotching the terrorist snake, the war has created new fertile ground for it, with almost daily bombings which can no longer be blamed on "Saddam remnants". In February, the US coalition head, Paul Bremer, warned defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld of a "real step up" of professional terrorism, although US intelligence confesses it still has little clue to the bombers' real identities. Much of it may be "homegrown" acts of suicide by young Iraqis who have been radicalised by the occupation; other operations are blamed on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the militant Jordanian whom Mr Bush this week called "the best evidence" for a connection with al-Qaida. Whatever the reality now, it is hardly logical to cite the terror backlash provoked by the war to justify having launched it.
Downing Street yesterday made its usual effort to avoid contradicting Mr Bush, claiming that Saddam had created "a permissive environment for terrorism". We must still hope that a British prime minister, unlike a US president, will one day admit that his reason for going to war - the mythical weapons of mass destruction - was wrong.