WASHINGTON, (AP) -Saddam Hussein rejected overtures from al-Qaeda and believed Islamic extremists were a threat to his regime, a reverse portrait of an Iraq allied with Osama bin Laden painted by the Bush White House, a Senate panel has found.
The administration’s version was based in part on intelligence that White House officials knew was flawed, according to Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, citing newly declassified documents released by the panel.
The report, released Friday, discloses for the first time an October 2005 CIA assessment that prior to the war Saddam’s government “did not have a relationship, harbor or turn a blind eye toward” al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or his associates.
As recently as an Aug. 21 news conference, President Bush said people should “imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein” with the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction and “who had relations with Zarqawi.”
Democrats singled out CIA Director George Tenet, saying that during a private meeting in July Tenet told the panel that the White House pressured him and that he agreed to back up the administration’s case for war despite his own agents’ doubts about the intelligence it was based on.
“Tenet admitted to the Intelligence Committee that the policymakers wanted him to ‘say something about not being inconsistent with what the president had said,'” Intelligence Committee member Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Friday.
Tenet also told the committee that complying had been “the wrong thing to do,” according to Levin.
“Well, it was much more than that,” Levin said. “It was a shocking abdication of a CIA director’s duty not to act as a shill for any administration or its policy.”
Leaders of both parties accused each other of seeking political gain on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Republicans said the document contained little new information about prewar intelligence or postwar findings on Iraq’s weapons and connection to terrorist groups.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., accused Democrats of trying to “use the committee … insisting that they were deliberately duped into supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
“That is simply not true,” Roberts added, “and I believe the American people are smart enough to recognize election-year politicking when they see it.”
The report speaks for itself, Democrats said.
The administration “exploited the deep sense of insecurity among Americans in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, leading a large majority of Americans to believe — contrary to the intelligence assessments at the time — that Iraq had a role in the 9/11 attacks,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.
Still, Democrats were reluctant to say how the administration officials involved should be called to account.
Asked whether the wrongdoing amounted to criminal conduct, Levin and Rockefeller declined to answer. Rockefeller said later he did not believe Bush should be impeached over the matter.
According to the report, postwar findings indicate that Saddam “was distrustful of al-Qaeda and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime.” It quotes an FBI report from June 2004 in which former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said in an interview that “Saddam only expressed negative sentiments about bin Laden.”
Saddam himself is quoted in an FBI summary as acknowledging that the Iraqi government had met with bin Laden but denying that he had colluded with the al-Qaeda leader. Claiming that Iraq opposed only U.S. policies, Saddam said that “if he wanted to cooperate with the enemies of the U.S., he would have allied with North Korea or China,” the report quotes the FBI document.
The Democrats said that on Oct. 7, 2002, the day Bush gave a speech speaking of that link, the CIA had sent a declassified letter to the committee saying it would be an “extreme step” for Saddam to assist Islamist terrorists in attacking the United States.
Levin and Rockefeller said Tenet in July acknowledged to the committee that subsequently issuing a statement that there was no inconsistency between the president’s speech and the CIA viewpoint had been a mistake.
They also charged Bush with continuing to cite faulty intelligence in his argument for war as recently as last month.
The report said that al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader killed by a U.S. airstrike last June, was in Baghdad from May 2002 until late November 2002. But “postwar information indicates that Saddam Hussein attempted, unsuccessfully, to locate and capture al-Zarqawi and that the regime did not have a relationship with, harbor or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi.”
In June 2004, Bush also defended Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion that Saddam had “long-established ties” with al-Qaeda. “Zarqawi is the best evidence of connection to al-Qaeda affiliates and al-Qaeda,” the president said.
The report concludes that postwar findings do not support a 2002 intelligence community report that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, possessed biological weapons or ever developed mobile facilities for producing biological warfare agents.
A second part of the report finds that false information from the Iraqi National Congress, an anti-Saddam group led by then-exile Ahmed Chalabi, was used to support key intelligence community assessments on Iraq.