Tuesday, June 22, 2004

SADDAM AND OSAMA REDUX. Did Saddam Hussein have ties to Al Qaeda? No one has been dropping off any secret dossiers here at Media Log Central, so all I know is what I read in the press. But the current uproar, over the 9/11 Commission report, strikes me as weird on several levels.

For one thing, it would seem to me that if anyone was stacking the deck against the White House, it would be fairly simple to identify the culprit. Not so. Some conservatives - including Vice-President Dick Cheney - are blaming the media, claiming that they mischaracterized the findings of the report. "The press, with all due respect, [is] often times lazy, often times simply reports what somebody else in the press said without doing their homework," Cheney said on CNBC last week.

Yet New York Times columnist William Safire, who believes in the Saddam-Al Qaeda link just as fervently as Cheney, says the media are blameless, and that in fact it was the staff of the 9/11 Commission that played down the relationship. In his column yesterday, Safire reported that the commission's findings were written up by its staff chief, Philip Zelikow, who ignored evidence that contradicted the anti-Bush conclusion he wanted to reach, and who did this behind the backs of both the Republican chairman, Tom Kean, and the Democratic vice-chairman, Lee Hamilton. Wrote Safire:

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.

Now it's true that Safire's column had the added advantage of exonerating his employer, which had come under particularly heavy criticism for its news reports dismissing the Iraq-Al Qaeda link. But Safire's evidence is pretty hard to contradict.

The Weekly Standard, the leading neocon magazine, decides not to decide this week, running a cover line that reads: "There They Go Again: Why the 9/11 Commission and the Media Refuse to See the Ties Between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda." (Yes, I know the subhead is too small to read; I've got the print version.) Hmmm ... if the media accurately reported what was in the commission's report, how is it their fault?

Inside, editor William Kristol and staff writer Stephen Hayes recycle some of the evidence regarding Saddam's alleged ongoing relationship with Iraq. Both Kristol and Hayes have been known to truck in some Chalabi-by-way-of-Feith fantasies, but they are serious people, and I don't take their findings lightly. I was particularly struck by the charge that the 9/11 Commission ruled out the possibility that terrorist mastermind Mohamed Atta met with a top Iraqi intelligence official in Prague, several months before 9/11, partly on the basis of Atta's cell-phone records. Hayes writes: "It is entirely possible that Atta would leave his cell phone behind if he left the country. In any case, the hijackers are known to have shared cell phones." No kidding.

But I'm always suspicious when the White House's supporters are willing to make a better case than the White House itself. Take, for instance, the matter of Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, who reportedly attended a January 2000 Al Qaeda planning meeting in Malaysia, who is known to have possessed contact information for top Al Qaeda officials, and who may have been a high-ranking officer in the Fedayeen Saddam. Now that's a pretty definitive tie, I think we would all agree.

Both Hayes and Kristol concede that they might be writing about two people with the same name. And, in fact, today's Washington Post reports that is apparently the case. After 9/11 Commission member John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy, repeated the Shakir allegations over the weekend, a "senior administration official" was quoted as saying the apparent tie was the result of confusion over two similar names. Read Spencer Ackerman on this, too.

In any case, such evidence does not explain the Bushies' obsession with Iraq, especially given the finding that Al Qaeda had much closer ties with Iran and Pakistan. Of course, Pakistan is now our "friend," and Iran is too big and scary to invade. Iraq remains what it has been from the beginning - a war of convenience, fought because the White House thought it would be easy. Getting out the electron microscope to find evidence that Saddam and Osama bin Laden worked together doesn't change that.

CLINTON'S PSYCHE, TOO MUCH WITH US. Here's the thing, President Clinton: if you're going to write about your affair with Monica Lewinsky, and you're going to submit willingly to questions about it - as you did with Dan Rather on Sunday - then you've got to expect that not every interviewer is going to be as polite and understanding as Rather or, say, Oprah.

You could have set different ground rules. You could have made it clear that you weren't going to run around psychobabbling about your inner child. You could have talked about health care, or global debt relief, even though that would have cost you a few sales.

So don't throw a nutty when someone like David Dimbleby lets you have it on the BBC.

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