BY ROBERT L. BARTLEY
Monday, February 3, 2003 12:01 a.m. EST
Drawing on his “good cop” past, Secretary of State Colin Powell will try to persuade the United Nations this week not only that Iraq is thwarting U.N. weapons inspectors, but that it’s helping al Qaeda terrorists.
The first part will be easy, thanks to chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix. I hereby apologize to Mr. Blix for underestimating him last week; instead of stalling, he stepped up to say that Iraq has not accepted its obligation to disarm.
The second point is harder yet more intriguing. Until recent weeks, even the U.S. government has downplayed suggestions of ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. In the shadowy worlds of terrorism and intelligence final proof is always elusive, and the bureaucracy at the CIA, FBI and State Department has been downright hostile to the connections issue, apparently in defense of its own easy assumptions in the past.
Yet the case for pre-emptive attack rests squarely on the possibility of such a connection. A state such as Iraq has the capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction. And suicidal terrorists, as we learned on September 11, have the potential to deliver them against the U.S. homeland. We learned the same day that the U.S. is the target of choice in many of the world’s resentments. As the president proclaimed, we cannot tolerate weapons of mass destruction in a state with a record of hating the U.S., starting wars and trafficking with terrorists.
Any case that Saddam can still be “contained” has to assume away a terrorist delivery vehicle for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The best statement of this case, by two distinguished professors in Foreign Policy magazine, rates this possibility as “extremely small,” even if Saddam gets nuclear weapons. America would blame him for any nuclear attack, and “Saddam could never be sure the United States would not incinerate him anyway.”
Ultimately, it’s too late for containment. If the U.S. now backed down, after a war resolution passed the Senate by 77-23 and the House by 296-133, it would never contain anyone ever again. Also, Bush administration foreign policy thinking has advanced to the point of worrying about the dubious morality of trying to deter a tyrant by threatening to incinerate millions of the civilians he’s suppressed.
This aside, the posited likelihoods are dubiously optimistic. Under pressure from independent analysis at the Pentagon, the CIA has stopped assuming that a secular Saddam would never team with a fanatically religious al Qaeda. Director George Tenet warned against this assumption in March testimony, and in October released a letter to Congress that says we are accumulating evidence of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda, including reports from detainees, some of high rank. He says:
“We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al-Qa’ida going back a decade. . . . Credible information indicates and Iraq and al-Qa’ida have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression. . . . we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qa’ida members, including some who have been in Baghdad. . . . We have credible reporting that al-Qa’ida leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qa’ida members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs. . . . Iraq’s increased support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al-Qa’ida, suggest that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent US military action.”
Presumably Secretary Powell’s U.N. presentation will elaborate on these points. The October letter also says, “Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW against the United States.” It warns that Saddam might unleash such attacks in revenge in response to a U.S. invasion. In recent weeks, Saddam’s notorious son Uday threatened that if Americans come September 11 “will appear as a picnic for them.” A new book quotes the younger son Qusay as threatening to “make the American people sleepless and frightened to go out in the streets.” This may be mostly bravado, but front-line health-care workers shouldn’t be resisting smallpox inoculations.
The biggest question about the Powell presentation, though, will be whether it goes beyond the October CIA letter. Note the CIA caveat “for now”; contrary to the way the letter’s been spun by some in the press, the CIA does not predict that Saddam would never use such weapons so long as the U.S. doesn’t invade. Further, the CIA estimate downplays suggestive evidence that he’s had a hand in the terrorism we’ve already experienced.
Psychological babble from FBI profilers to the contrary, Iraqi laboratories remain the most likely source of the military-grade anthrax mailed around after the September 11 attacks. A Florida doctor has reported that he treated one of the hijackers for what he now believes was anthrax. Defectors report that Arabs were trained at Saddam’s Salman Pak complex to take over airplanes without weapons; satellite photos show the airline fuselage they reported.
And as Micah Morrison detailed in September, Laurie Mylroie alleges Iraqi connections to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; for starters, Iraq harbors Abdul Yasin, wanted for helping to make the bomb. And Jayna Davis, a former reporter who covered the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, documented repeated phone calls from conspirator Terry Nichols to a Philippine boarding house frequented by Islamic militants.
Possibly Secretary Powell will surprise me as Mr. Blix did, but I doubt that he’ll be bold enough to deal with these suggestions. Still, put them on the table for serious investigation when Iraqi documents are available under a new government in Baghdad.
Mr. Bartley is editor emeritus of The Wall Street Journal. His column appears Mondays in the Journal and on OpinionJournal.com.