October 07, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column also appears today in The Hill newspaper.
Before this debating season is over, would someone please, please utter the words "boogie to Baghdad?"
You remember the phrase. It was written by Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief who in 1999 was so worried about the chumminess of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein that he believed bin Laden, if attacked by the United States at his lair in Afghanistan, would "boogie" on over to the Iraqi capital for protection.
We learned of Clarke's concerns in perhaps the most-ignored passages of the September 11 Commission report those dealing with the very Saddam/al Qaeda connection that is being so vigorously denied by John Kerry and John Edwards.
"In fact, Saddam Hussein has little or no connection with al Qaeda," Edwards said Tuesday night during his debate with Vice President Dick Cheney. "What the vice president is telling people is inconsistent with everything that we see every single day. It's a continuation of 'Well, there's a strong connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.' It's not true."
In the first presidential debate, Kerry said flatly there was "no connection" between al Qaeda and Hussein.
But if that is true, please explain the friendly relationship between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein outlined in the September 11 Commission report.
The report says bin Laden, who had arrived in Afghanistan after leaving Sudan in 1996, worried that he might not get along with his new Taliban hosts.
And indeed, by 1997, the report says, the two were at odds.
The tension became so great that bin Laden began looking for a place to go in case he had to leave Afghanistan.
And the place to go was...Iraq.
"There is...evidence that around this time bin Laden sent out a number of feelers to the Iraqi regime, offering some cooperation," the report says.
But Saddam wasn't interested. He was trying to get along better with the Saudis and thus chose to stay away from bin Laden.
By the next year, however, things had changed.
In 1998, Saddam was under mounting pressure from the United States. He forgot about the Saudis and opened up to bin Laden.
According to the report, "In March, 1998, after bin Laden's public fatwa against the United States, two al Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence. In July, an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan to meet first with the Taliban and then with bin Laden."
The report cited intelligence that "one, or perhaps both, of these meetings was apparently arranged through bin Laden's Egyptian deputy, [Ayman al] Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis."
As a result of those meetings, and more in 1999, the report says Saddam "offered bin Laden a safe haven in Iraq."
But Bin Laden decided to stay in Afghanistan, where he was getting along better with the Taliban.
And that's where "boogie to Baghdad" came in.
In February 1999, according to the report, the CIA wanted to conduct U-2 surveillance missions over bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan.
But Clarke worried that doing so might scare bin Laden into leaving the country and going to Iraq.
If that happened, the report says, Clarke feared that bin Laden's "entire network would be at Saddam Hussein's service," and the U.S. would never be able to find him.
So Clarke wrote an e-mail to then-national-security adviser Sandy Berger, saying that if bin Laden learned about the U-2 missions, then, "armed with that knowledge, old wily Usama will likely boogie to Baghdad."
The report says another Clinton National Security Council aide also warned that "Saddam Hussein wanted bin Laden in Baghdad."
Now, do you still believe there was "no connection" between Saddam and bin Laden?
It should be said that the report says September 11 Commission investigators found no evidence that the contacts "ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship" emphasis on the word operational and no evidence "indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."
Saddam was not responsible for September 11.
But where do Kerry and Edwards get the idea that there was no connection between Saddam and al Qaeda?
Perhaps from the press, which months ago, based on early, incomplete drafts of portions of the September 11 Commission report, confidently proclaimed that "Al Qaeda-Hussein Link is Dismissed" (Washington Post) and "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie" (New York Times).
Most accounts specifically attacked Cheney's statements on the Iraq-al Qaeda connection.
The anti-Cheney slant puzzled even some Democrats on the commission. "The vice president is saying, I think, that there were connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's government," Democratic vice-chairman Lee Hamilton told reporters. "We don't disagree with that."
So in the next debate, when John Kerry starts his "no connection" riff, just remember: Boogie to Baghdad.