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No Proof Connects Iraq to 9/11, Bush Says

As criticism grows that the White House was misleading in its prewar claims, the president stands by allegations of a link with Al Qaeda.

September 18, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush said Wednesday that there was no proof tying Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks, amid mounting criticism that senior administration officials have helped lead Americans to believe that Iraq was behind the plot.

Bush's statement was the latest in a flurry of remarks this week by top administration officials after Vice President Dick Cheney resurrected a number of contentious allegations about Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

"We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11th," Bush said in an impromptu session with reporters. He contended, however, that "there's no question that Saddam Hussein had Al Qaeda ties."

Bush's comments were his most direct on the issue to date. He drew a clear distinction between alleged Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda and the lack of evidence of Iraqi involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. That is a distinction administration officials did not emphasize in the months before the war.

The issue has come to a head amid recent polls showing that most Americans believe -- despite the lack of evidence -- that Hussein was somehow involved in the attacks.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan stressed Wednesday that Bush administration officials never claimed any Iraq-Sept. 11 link.

McClellan's assertion appears to be factually correct, but many administration critics, including some in the intelligence community, said it was also somewhat misleading.

A reading of the record shows that while senior administration officials stopped short of accusing Hussein of complicity in the attacks, they frequently alluded to the possibility of such a connection, and consistently cast the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda in stronger terms than many in the intelligence community seemed to endorse.

Even Bush's remarks Wednesday were challenged by lawmakers and other officials who have reviewed the White House's prewar claims and have access to the underlying U.S. intelligence.

Responding to Bush's statement, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said any alleged ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda "are tenuous at best and not compelling."

And while he agreed that administration officials never made an explicit connection between Iraq and Sept. 11, Rockefeller said the White House "led the American public into believing there was a connection in order to build support for the war in Iraq."

The issue, which had been dormant for several months, has been revived in recent days by a number of factors, including a fresh effort by the White House to shore up support for the increasingly costly military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq by casting the operation as a part of the response to Sept. 11.

In a speech last week, Bush described Iraq as the "central front" in the war on terrorism, even though few in the counter-terrorism community described it as such before the U.S. invasion.

In his appearance Sunday on "Meet the Press," Cheney vigorously defended every aspect of the war, saying the administration's prewar claims about banned weapons held by Iraq would be proved true. He argued that Iraq was the "heart of the base" of the terrorist threat that culminated on Sept. 11.

"If we're successful in Iraq ... then we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11," Cheney said.

The White House has been on the defensive for months over the failure so far to find banned weapons in Iraq, which has fueled criticism that the administration hyped the threat posed by Hussein.

Perhaps fearing that Cheney's comments might trigger a new public relations problem, the White House has moved quickly in recent days to clarify its position on Iraq and Sept. 11.

Bush's remarks Wednesday followed nearly identical comments by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday that the administration had no evidence tying Hussein to Sept. 11. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice also spoke on the issue Tuesday, saying on ABC's "Nightline," "We have never claimed that Saddam Hussein ... had either direction or control of 9/11."

Recent administration statements, however, have prompted new questions about whether the White House contributed to and capitalized on public perception that Iraq was involved in the attacks.

Polls over the past year have shown that a persistent, perhaps even growing, majority of Americans believes Hussein was somehow involved.

The latest, an August survey by the Washington Post, found that 69% of Americans believed Iraq was "likely" behind the attacks.

Polling experts say the numbers reflect the strong animosity many Americans have felt toward Hussein since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

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