Talking to reporters after his Cabinet meeting this morning, President Bush disputed the 9/11 commission's conclusion that no "collaborative relationship" existed between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. "There was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda," Bush insisted. Then the president drew a distinction:
The administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaeda. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. For example, Iraqi intelligence agents met with bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda in Sudan.
Let's examine these words closely because President Bush clearly chose them carefully. The latest chapter of the 9/11 commission's report, which was released Wednesday, notes that there were—as Bush put it—"numerous contacts" between the two entities. It cites the same meetings with Iraqi intelligence agents that Bush cited. So Bush's "dispute" with the commission's findings isn't a dispute at all. He just meant to make it look like a dispute—to make some people think the commission might be wrong.
This stratagem is in keeping with the president's rhetoric on this issue all along. He has never precisely alleged that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He's just meant for his words to look like allegations.
The operative word in the commission's finding is "collaborative." Contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida, it reported, "do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship." Bush doesn't dispute this either. In fact, he agrees; he claims that he never said that Saddam and Bin Laden "orchestrated" the attacks.
But didn't he at one point? Wasn't the claim of collaboration a rationale for invading Iraq? On Sept. 25, 2002, Bush said, "You can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror." On May 1, 2003, aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, beneath the "Mission Accomplished" banner, he declared, "We have removed an ally of al-Qaeda and cut off a source of terrorist funding."
Again, look closely. He never said outright that Saddam had connections with 9/11. He suggested connections—and did so repeatedly until a majority of Americans believed Saddam was somehow involved in the attacks. But his comments were never more than calibrated suggestions—loose phrasings, words that seemed to be interchangeable but really weren't.
For instance, in his weekly radio address of Feb. 8, 2003, Bush said: "Saddam Hussein has longstanding, direct, and continuing ties to terrorist networks. Senior members of Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990s." At first glance, the second sentence seems to be an elaboration of the first sentence. And it might be—but it also might not be, and, in fact, it wasn't. Saddam did have strong ties to "terrorist networks," but those networks were not al-Qaida; they were Hamas and Palestinian suicide bombers.
In his May 1 address aboard the Lincoln, he came close to crossing the line but stopped just short. "The battle of Iraq," he said, "is one victory in a war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001. With that attack, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got."
This passage could be read as equating the toppled Iraqi regime with the terrorists of 9/11 or at least with their supporters. But that's not the only possible reading. Read the sentences, even the individual clauses, not as a logical stream but as separate thoughts. Iraq did support terrorists (not al-Qaida, but terrorists), so the war could be seen as part of a war against terrorism. The terrorists of 9/11 did declare war on the United States (though those were different terrorists from the ones Saddam supported). And war is what the 9/11 terrorists got (in Afghanistan).
See? The president didn't say that Saddam was tied to 9/11. He just made some observations in a way that people might interpret them to mean that Saddam was tied to 9/11.
It makes Bill Clinton's classic line—that the answer to a question "depends on what the meaning of 'is' is"—seem forthright, by comparison.
A final note: Bush has been careful in the way he's worded his charges and rationales. Dick Cheney has not. Last Sept. 14, on Meet the Press, Cheney said that a U.S. success in Iraq will mean "that we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."
There's no getting around this one. Cheney wasn't merely suggesting, he was stating that the 9/11 terrorists' base was in Saddam's Iraq. Even Bush had to backpedal, admitting, "No, we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with Sept. 11." The president is just sneaky. The vice president lies.