Independent investigators said Wednesday they have found no evidence that Saddam Hussein cooperated with al-Qaida terrorists to target the United States. The conclusion came in a report released by the independent commission probing the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The bipartisan, independent commission investigating the 9/11 attacks said Osama bin Laden met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Sudan in 1994.
But the commission report released Wednesday cast fresh doubt on the alleged links between al-Qaida and Iraq prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Douglas MacEachin is a former deputy director of intelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency and a staff member of the 9/11 commission.
"There have been reports of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida [that] also occurred after bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," he noted. "And two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied any ties existed between al-Qaida and Iraq and so far we have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States."
The commission's conclusion is in sharp contrast to the Bush administration's long held view that there were links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney repeated his assertion that the Iraqi dictator had "long established ties" with al-Qaida.
President Bush defended Mr. Cheney's comments during a news conference on Tuesday at the White House in which he mentioned the threat posed by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, whom U.S. officials contend is operating an al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist cell inside Iraq.
"Zarqawi is the best evidence of a connection [between] al-Qaida affiliates and al-Qaida," he said. "He is the person who is still killing. Remember the e-mail exchange between al-Qaida leadership and he, himself, about how to disrupt the progress toward freedom. Saddam Hussein also had ties to terrorist organizations as well. He was affiliated with terrorism, Abu Nidal."
The 9/11 commission report said al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan were quite effective in helping terrorists to, in its words, "think creatively about ways to commit mass murder."
The report also said al-Qaida has changed drastically and become more decentralized since the 2001 attacks and the resulting U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but commission staff director Philip Zelikow told the panel that Osama bin Laden's group remains committed to launching another major attack against the United States.
"The intelligence community expects that the trend toward attacks intended to cause higher casualties will continue," he said. "Al-Qaida and other extremist groups will likely continue to exploit leaks of national security information in the media, open source information on techniques such as mixing explosives and advances in electronics. Regardless of the tactic, al-Qaida is actively striving to attack the United States and inflict mass casualties."
In another report issued Wednesday, the 9/11 commission says the planners for the 2001 attacks initially proposed hijacking a total of 10 airplanes to crash into additional targets including the CIA and FBI headquarters, unidentified nuclear plants and tall buildings in California and Washington State. But the report said that Osama bin Laden himself rejected that plan in favor of a more modest attack involving four planes.
The 9/11 commission concludes the public hearing phase of its investigation on Thursday and will issue a final report by the end of July.