The 9-11 Report: Overreaching to Blame Bush - June 17, 2004 -

Times Watch for June 17, 2004

The 9-11 Report: Overreaching to Blame Bush

Philip Shenon and Christopher Marquis take the front page for "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie; Describes A Wider Plot For 9/11," the first in a series of blame-Bush stories the Times files Thursday in the wake of the release of the 9-11 commission's report. Besides the flat-wrong headline (the panel did find Al Qaeda-Iraq ties), the story's very focus is cockeyed.

Although the commission issued two reports totaling 32 pages, the Times focuses almost all of its news gathering power to a few lines in the first report, on ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, to show how terribly wrong Bush was to link them.

The story overreaches from the opening: "The staff of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks sharply contradicted one of President Bush's central justifications for the Iraq war, reporting on Wednesday that there did not appear to have been a 'collaborative relationship' between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein."

Sharp contradiction? As Thursday's Washington Post editorial notes, the commission did not "contradict what Mr. Cheney actually said-and President Bush backed up-earlier this week: that there were 'long-established ties' between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Rather, the commission reported that a 'senior Iraqi intelligence officer' met with Osama bin Laden in Sudan in 1994 and that contacts continued after he relocated to Afghanistan."

Incidentally, Bush never claimed a "collaborative relationship." The phrase has apparently never been used by the White House to describe the relationship between Al Qaeda and Hussein, but one created by the commission itself.

They continue: "As for Iraq, the commission's staff said its investigation showed that the government of Mr. Hussein had rebuffed or ignored requests from Qaeda leaders for help in the 1990's, a conclusion that directly contradicts a series of public statements President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made before and after last year's invasion of Iraq in justifying the war."

Really now?

Here's the apparent evidence the reporters give for these direct contradictions, from the next paragraph: "'We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States,' one of the staff reports released on Wednesday said. 'Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded.' The report said that despite evidence of repeated contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the 90's, 'they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.'"

(Again, the White House has never claimed Saddam participated in 9-11.)

The Times notes: "The White House said on Wednesday that it did not see the commission's staff reports as a contradiction of past statements by Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney and that the administration had always been careful not to suggest that it had proof of a tie between Mr. Hussein and Sept. 11."

But Shenon and Marquis are unconvinced and return to those alleged "contradictions," which are now "striking": "The contradictions between the staff reports' findings and past White House statements on Iraq were all the more striking given that the commission's staff director, and the final editor of the reports, is Philip D. Zelikow, a University of Virginia historian who was a member of Mr. Bush's White House transition team and who served on his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board until last year."

As for those "contradictory" White House statements on Iraq, page A15 of the New York edition of the Times carries a box of quotes from Bush and Cheney on the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda. This is apparently the NYT's gotcha page, but the quotes they dig up are hardly damning.

Here's one, from Bush: "Saddam Hussein has long-standing, direct and continuing ties to terrorist networks." Bush goes on to point out Al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence met at least eight times since the early 1990's-a point the report does not dispute.

For the full report from Shenon and Marquis, click here.

" Al Qaeda | Iraq War | Christopher Marquis | Philip Shenon | Terrorism

Bush's "Dishonest" War Efforts

Thursday's editorial on the 9-11 interim report begins: "It's hard to imagine how the commission investigating the 2001 terrorist attacks could have put it more clearly yesterday: there was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11."

But that's conflating two separate links: The Bush administration has never tied Hussein to 9-11. It has, however, claimed a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, a link that the 9-11 commission report in fact confirms. It makes clear there were some links between Al Qaeda and Iraq, though how close they were is debatable. The paper's own front page story, while equally zealous on Bush's "contradictions," does say the report admits to "evidence of repeated contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the 90's."

That doesn't stop the editorial page from bluntly labeling Bush dishonest: "Now President Bush should apologize to the American people, who were led to believe something different. Of all the ways Mr. Bush persuaded Americans to back the invasion of Iraq last year, the most plainly dishonest was his effort to link his war of choice with the battle against terrorists worldwide."

For more dish on Bush's "dishonesty," click here.

" Al Qaeda | George W. Bush | Editorial | Iraq War | Terrorism

Hitting Bush's "Spotty Scorecard" on Iraq Invasion

Richard Stevenson's "News Analysis," "President's Political Thorn Grows Only More Stubborn," sees trouble for Bush right from the start: "The bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks further called into question on Wednesday one of President Bush's rationales for the war with Iraq, and again put him on the defensive over an issue the White House was once confident would be a political plus. In questioning the extent of any ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the commission weakened the already spotty scorecard on Mr. Bush's justifications for sending the military to topple Saddam Hussein."

Stevenson continues: "The commission's latest findings fueled fresh partisan attacks on his credibility and handling of the war, attacks that now seem unlikely to be silenced even if the return of sovereignty to the Iraqis comes off successfully in two weeks".Even some independent-minded members of Mr. Bush's own party said they sensed danger."

For the rest of Stevenson's analysis of the 9-11 report, click here.

" Al Qaeda | George W. Bush | Iraq War | Richard Stevenson | Terrorism

Doubting David Attacks Bush's Iraq Speech

David Sanger reports from a Bush speech at Macdill Air Force Base in Florida and manages to work in his own doubts about how things are going in Iraq: "On Wednesday, Mr. Bush focused on the best news he could find in the 14 days before the handover. He said that thousands of schools had reopened and that electricity had been restored, not mentioning that electricity was being generated far below the levels his own administration set as a goal. He described the country as a thriving start-up venture in democratic capitalism."

Was that really "the best news [Bush] could find?" After all, that's not all Bush said was improving in Iraq. Bush's list of success stories opened with the little matter of his unanimous victory at the U.N. Security Council vote two weeks ago endorsing Iraq's interim government. Bush also talked about the newspapers and political parties being established in Iraq. Those are arguably more impressive accomplishments than schools and electricity. But Sanger chose to cherry-pick Bush's remarks, mentioning only those two things, knowing he could take a jab at Bush's electricity claim.

Sanger also works in the report from the 9-11 commission: "Mr. Bush's speech came only an hour or so before the 9/11 commission declared that there had been no cooperation between Al Qaeda and the now-deposed government of Saddam Hussein. That alleged collaboration, and the prospect that the two could share weapons of mass destruction, was an argument the administration marshaled last year to lend a sense of urgency to confronting Mr. Hussein."

For the rest of Sanger's piece, click here.

" Al Qaeda | George W. Bush | Iraq War | David Sanger | Terrorism

Czech It Out: Times Tries to Squash Al Qaeda-Iraq Link

The NYT has worked overtime to discredit Czech intelligence reports of a meeting in Prague between 9-11 terrorist Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer. James Risen's Thursday story, "No Evidence Of Meeting With Iraqi," cites the new report from the 9-11 commission to justify dismissing the Czech intelligence claims as false: "A report of a clandestine meeting in Prague between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer first surfaced shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. And even though serious doubt was cast on the report, it was repeatedly cited by some Bush administration officials and others as evidence of a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. But on Wednesday, the Sept. 11 commission said its investigation had found that the meeting never took place."

But the report, as Risen's own story shows, does no such thing. Instead it presents evidence suggesting the meeting didn't take place (not proof): "In its report on the Sept. 11 plot, the commission staff disclosed for the first time F.B.I. evidence that strongly suggested that Mr. Atta was in the United States at the time of the supposed Prague meeting. The report cited a photograph taken by a bank surveillance camera in Virginia showing Mr. Atta withdrawing money on April 4, 2001, a few days before the supposed Prague meeting on April 9, and records showing his cellphone was used on April 6, 9, 10 and 11 in Florida. The supposed meeting in Prague by Mr. Atta, who flew one of the hijacked jets on Sept. 11, was a centerpiece of early efforts by the Bush administration and its conservative allies to link Iraq with the attacks as the administration sought to justify a war to topple Saddam Hussein."

Cell phones are of course transferable, and the fact that Atta was at a U.S. bank doesn't necessarily mean he wasn't in Prague five days later. The case for a meeting between Atta and Iraqi intelligence may indeed be shaky, but it's far from the closed case Risen's third sentence implies.

For Risen's full story on the Atta-9/11 findings, click here.

" Al Qaeda | Iraq War | James Risen | Terrorism