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Knowledge Is Preemption

June 17, 2004

On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney declared that Saddam Hussein "had long-established ties with Al Qaeda." A day later, President Bush pointed to Islamic militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, who may be hiding in Fallouja. "Zarqawi's the best evidence of a connection to Al Qaeda affiliates and Al Qaeda" in Iraq, he declared.

It's hard to imagine that either Bush or Cheney had an inkling of what an interim staff report of the independent 9/11 commission would say Wednesday. There is "no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States," the new report states. In fact, prewar Iraq spurned Al Qaeda's overtures. Though Zarqawi may be directing attacks against Americans in Iraq, and Baghdad may now be Terror Central, it is a consequence of the war itself.

On the other hand, the staff said, Al Qaeda probably forged ties early on with Hezbollah, the global terror group blamed for many of the attacks inside Israel. Those ties were not uncovered before 9/11. On the luckier side, a plan by the 9/11 terrorists for a much wider attack, involving 10 planes and other cities including Los Angeles, was scrapped by internal dissent and leadership doubts. Given that the Pentagon's air defenses were almost nonexistent on Sept. 11, according to the staff, any number of planes might have reached their targets.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the North American Aerospace Defense Command are predictably trying to play down their ineffectiveness, and the commission had to issue subpoenas to officers of the FAA and the command to appear before the panel today. Fortunately, the commission shows no signs of being cowed. Similarly, the CIA is trying to shield itself from blame. The agency has decided that about one-third of the commission's prospective final report should remain secret. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who heads the committee, should bluntly remind the CIA that it can edit out vital secrets but not embarrassment.

There are plenty of signs that Al Qaeda and its offshoots plan more violence against the U.S. The commission cites evidence that the terrorists are seeking nuclear, chemical and biological materials, a sort of gruesome twist on the shoddy prewar accusations that Iraq possessed such weapons and intended to use them against the U.S or furnish them to terrorists. As Bush himself declared in his State of the Union speech before the war: "It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."

Despite the administration's continued attempts to justify the war, it's become increasingly obvious that Iraq was not intent on creating that day. Al Qaeda is. A full accounting from the commission and the Senate can't single-handedly prevent such a disaster, but it can help avoid a repetition of dangerous errors.

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