The Case of the Misunderstood Memo

The Feith “annex” highlights the Bush administration’s misuse of intelligence material.

When they published their “Case Closed” cover story three weeks ago on the relationship between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaida, the editors of the Weekly Standard aimed to set off a bomb. The article was centered on a sizable leak—a gusher, really—of classified intelligence, 50 raw reports that had been strung together in the Pentagon to demonstrate the “operational relationship” between Osama Bin Laden’s organization and Iraq. The target was the consensus among journalists and experts that there were no substantive ties between Baghdad and al-Qaida. If the article achieved its goal, it would help shore up the rickety argument that Baathist Iraq had posed a real national security threat to the United States.

Despite Jack Shafer’s cri de coeur for some real reporting on the matter, the bomb sputtered. Some big publications took a passing look at material from the leaked annex to a letter from Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—the document in which the 50 reports are summarized—but mostly for the sake of knocking it down, either explicitly or backhandedly. The piece has elicited one genuinely interesting column from the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who revealed that the United States and Britain had a highly placed informant in Iraqi intelligence “who told them before the war that in the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein had indeed considered such an operational relationship with bin Laden—and then decided against it.”

For the most part, though, it seems the few beat reporters who cover the intelligence community called their sources and were told there was nothing new here—that the article was not, as author Stephen F. Hayes claimed, the fatal reproof to “critics of the Bush Administration [who] have complained that Iraq-al Qaeda connections are a fantasy, trumped up by the warmongers at the White House to fit their preconceived notions about international terror.”

As subsequent editorials show, this has clearly infuriated the Weekly Standard crowd, who were also hoping to flush administration foxes from the hedges and force them finally to back up the allegations they have made about Saddam and Bin Laden. As someone who co-wrote a book, The Age of Sacred Terror, that argued there was no substantive relationship between al-Qaida and Iraq—a conclusion based on a review of relevant intelligence from when I worked on counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the late 1990s—as well as a series of op-eds in the New York Times and elsewhere saying the same thing, I guess I should be happy that the Hayes piece stirred the pot so little.

Instead, I’m as frustrated as the Standard-bearers.

Why? First, the Feith memo does not prove what it sets out to, and a fuller airing of the issues would bring clarity to a topic that desperately needs it. Second, and more important, the document lends substance to the frequently voiced criticism that some in the Bush administration have misused intelligence to advance their policy goals.

Hayes contends that Feith’s document demonstrates that the relationship between al-Qaida and Iraq “involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al Qaeda—perhaps even for Mohamed Atta.” Yet in any serious intelligence review, much of the material presented would quickly be discarded. For example, one report claims Bin Laden visited Baghdad to meet with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz in 1998, but this is extremely unlikely to be true given how many intelligence services were tracking both individuals’ movements. Countless intelligence and press accounts of Bin Laden’s travels have appeared over the years while the man himself remained only where he was safe: Afghanistan. Hence, another report that has him traveling to Qatar in 1996 is almost as unlikely.

There are also glaring mistakes in the analytic material, though whether the errors were originally Feith’s or Hayes’ is not clear. What is referred to as Bin Laden’s “fatwa on the plight of Iraq” was in fact the famous “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” which spoke of the suffering of Iraqis but only as proof of a U.S.-led global campaign to destroy Islam. If anything, the sense of grievance over events, including the U.S. troop presence, on the Arabian peninsula is far greater. Moreover, some of the material presented in the article insinuates that Iraq staged the Khobar Towers bombing, when two administrations have laid the blame at Iran’s door.

The Feith document does not recount many details of an operational relationship, nor does it illustrate a tie that was ongoing, cooperative, and operational. At best, it records expressions of various individuals’ wish for a better relationship between the two sides—a desire that does not appear to have been consummated. Meetings between Iraqi officials and al-Qaida members began in the early 1990s, and there are reports that Iraq wanted to “establish links to al Qaeda.” In 1993, “bin Laden wanted to expand his organization’s capabilities through ties with Iraq.” But in 1998, the Iraqis still “seek closer ties,” and the sides are still “looking for a way to maintain contacts.”

There was a lot of seeking and wanting going on, and perhaps there were even meetings. But the fact that meetings occurred has never been the issue—at least not among serious critics—nor has it been disputed that some jihadists lived in or traveled through Iraq. (There were more meetings with Iranian authorities, as well as more terrorists living in or transiting Iran, but that seems to interest neither Feith nor Hayes.) What is disputed is that the meetings went anywhere. It would not be surprising to find out that the two sides had a de facto cease-fire, as has been alleged. But we’re still waiting to see real cooperation in the form of transfers of weapons and other materiel, know-how, or funds; the provision of safe haven on a significant scale; or the use of Iraqi diplomatic facilities by al-Qaida terrorists. The Feith memo mentions a few instances of possible Iraqi assistance to al-Qaida on bomb-building and weapons supply to affiliated groups, but nothing like the kind of evidence that, in Hayes’ words, “is detailed, conclusive, and corroborated by multiple sources.”

What does all this say about how Feith and his underlings use intelligence? Hayes says, correctly, that the Feith memo “just skims the surface of the reporting on Iraq-al Qaeda connections.” The large sampling provided in his article, he believes, destroys critics’ arguments “that links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden have been routinely ‘exaggerated’ for political purposes; that hawks ‘cherry-picked’ bits of intelligence and tendentiously presented these to the American public.”

What Hayes does not seem to recognize is that many of the treasures he imagines hidden in the existing CIA files may be dross or worse and, if presented, they would undermine the ” ‘Cliff’s notes’ version of the relationship” that he says is provided by the Feith memo. Of course there are more reports. When your intelligence service relays, as it should, everything short of sightings of Bin Laden on the moon, 50 reports of varying quality do not amount to much. The remaining material, many who are familiar with it believe, does not confirm the Hayes-Feith version but points in the other direction.

Not surprisingly, none of the reports in the Feith memo mention the aversion that the Baathist and jihadists felt for one another. Similarly, there is no evidence of the contradictory nature of the intelligence. I would bet, for example, that there are plenty of reports putting Bin Laden in Afghanistan and perhaps a half a dozen other places in January 1998, at exactly the time he was supposed to be in Baghdad—and that would be only the most blatant kind of inconsistency. Attributing a report to a “contact with good access” does not mean the contact’s account is true. Proving a report correct, or sufficiently corroborated to be considered plausible, requires a lot more work. Putting all the disparate pieces together and trying to construct a coherent picture—yes, connecting the dots—is harder still, requiring a mastery of all the material. Of course, raw intelligence has its value, especially if you are worried about an imminent attack, but there is a reason why the intelligence community spends so much time and energy putting out “finished product,” the reports that evaluate a significant body of information to get the whole picture right. Those are the reports that policy-makers are supposed to rely on in crafting a strategy.

One thing intelligence analysts do as they evaluate a body of information is keep in mind the context. This is worth attempting in the case of the Feith memo, too, because while much of the material may be new to the public, most of it has been bouncing around the government since well before the invasion of Iraq. That means it has been scrubbed numerous times by analysts and senior officials eager to use it as they made the case for invading Iraq.

After these reviews, it is clear, very little has been found that was solid enough to present in public. Compare the Feith memo with Colin Powell’s U.N. speech, which was preceded by the most thorough evaluation of the intelligence ever conducted by the Bush administration. Remarkably little on the ties between al-Qaida and Iraq made it into that speech. Or compare the memo with the recent remarks of Vice President Dick Cheney, who has all but stopped listing possible al-Qaida-Iraq connections and has given up suggesting that Mohammed Atta met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official since saying it on Meet the Press in September. (After that appearance, the Washington Post noted that he was arguing a point the FBI and CIA didn’t believe was true.) If top officials had any confidence in these wares, they would still be out hawking them. Why the Feith memo is being sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee is also therefore baffling.

It should be clear now why the Feith document needs a lot more attention: The memo is,Hayes’ declarations to the contrary,cherry-picking—the selective use of intelligence. It lends credence to Seymour Hersh’s reporting in The New Yorker about political appointees ignoring career analysts and dredging out whatever suits them. This is perilous business. Making a judgment about Iraq-al-Qaida ties on the basis of the sections presented by Hayes would be like accepting a high-school biology student’s reading of a CAT scan.

The administration’s use of intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction became a hot issue primarily because of the failure to find any such weapons in Iraq and Joe Wilson’s revelations about the non-export of uranium from Niger to Iraq. Strangely, however, there has been little inquiry into the Iraq-al-Qaida relationship. The press has had a difficult time taking this issue any further since so few reporters have good sources in the intelligence community. In Congress, an effort to push further into the issue in the Senate Intelligence Committee has been stymied by the Republican majority’s refusal to discuss how the political leadership used the intelligence it was provided with. That is a recipe for putting the blame for any Iraq-related blunders on the intelligence community, not those in the Pentagon or White House who may have misread or ignored the intelligence they were given.

Americans were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was significantly more dangerous than any of the other two dozen or so countries that currently possess them because Saddam might on any given day give such weapons to terrorists. The danger was urgent, we were told, because the Baghdad regime had a relationship with al-Qaida. Given the costs the nation has incurred in Iraq, a conscientious review of the issue would seem to be a good investment in democratic accountability. Since neoconservatives are certain they are right about the Saddam-Bin Laden relationship, maybe they’ll join Senate Democrats in demanding a fuller airing.