The Zelikow Report
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
Published: June 21, 2004
WASHINGTON "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie" went the Times headline. "Al Qaeda-Hussein Link Is Dismissed" front-paged The Washington Post. The A.P. led with the thrilling words "Bluntly contradicting the Bush Administration, the commission. . . ." This understandably caused my editorial-page colleagues to draw the conclusion that "there was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. . . ."
All wrong. The basis for the hoo-ha was not a judgment of the panel of commissioners appointed to investigate the 9/11 attacks. As reporters noted below the headlines, it was an interim report of the commission's runaway staff, headed by the ex-N.S.C. aide Philip Zelikow.
After Vice President Dick Cheney's outraged objection, the staff's sweeping conclusion was soon disavowed by both commission chairman Tom Kean and vice chairman Lee Hamilton.
"Were there contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq?" Kean asked himself. "Yes . . . no question." Hamilton joined in: "The vice president is saying, I think, that there were connections . . . we don't disagree with that" just "no credible evidence" of Iraqi cooperation in the 9/11 attack.
The Zelikow report was seized upon by John Kerry because it fuzzed up the distinction between evidence of decade-long dealings between agents of Saddam and bin Laden (which panel members know to be true) and evidence of Iraqi cooperation in the 9/11 attacks (which, as Hamilton said yesterday, modifying his earlier "no credible evidence" judgment, was "not proven one way or the other.")
But the staff had twisted the two strands together to cast doubt on both the Qaeda-Iraq ties and the specific attacks of 9/11: "There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship." Zelikow & Co. dismissed the reports, citing the denials of Qaeda agents and what they decided was "no credible evidence" of cooperation on 9/11.
That paragraph extending doubt on 9/11 to all previous contacts put the story on front pages. Here was a release on the official commission's letterhead not merely failing to find Saddam's hand in 9/11, which Bush does not claim. The news was in the apparent contradiction of what the president repeatedly asserted as a powerful reason for war: that Iraq had long been dangerously in cahoots with terrorists.
Cheney's ire was misdirected. Don't blame the media for jumping on the politically charged Zelikow report. Blame the commission's leaders for ducking responsibility for its interim findings. Kean and Hamilton have allowed themselves to be jerked around by a manipulative staff.
Yesterday, Governor Kean passed along this stunner about "no collaborative relationship" to ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "Members do not get involved in staff reports."
Not involved? Another commission member tells me he did not see the Zelikow bombshell until the night before its release. Moreover, the White House, vetting the report for secrets, failed to raise an objection to a Democratic bonanza in the tricky paragraph leading to the misleading "no Qaeda-Iraq tie."
What can the commission do now to regain its nonpartisan credibility?
1. Require every member to sign off on every word that the commission releases, or write and sign a minority report. No more "staff conclusions" without presenting supporting evidence, pro and con.
2. Set the record straight, in evidentiary detail, on every contact known between Iraq and terrorist groups, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's operations in Iraq. Include the basis for the Clinton-era "cooperating in weapons development" statement.
3. Despite the prejudgment announced yesterday by Kean and Democratic partisan Richard Ben-Veniste dismissing Mohammed Atta's reported meeting in Prague with an Iraqi spymaster, fairly spell out all the evidence that led to George Tenet's "not proven or disproven" testimony. (Start with www.edwardjayepstein.com.
4. Show how the failure to retaliate after the attack on the U.S.S. Cole affected 9/11, how removing the director of central intelligence from running the C.I.A. would work, and how Congress's intelligence oversight failed abysmally.
5. Stop wasting time posturing on television and get involved writing a defensible commission report. _