The Missing Link

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George W. Bush was on his way back to Washington from Macdill Air Force Base in Florida last Wednesday when aides told him the 9/11 commission had found no evidence that Iraq was involved in the fateful attacks on the U.S. But some media outlets were already portraying the commission as saying Iraq and al-Qaeda had never had ties of any kind — a position the White House disputes. "I hope you made our case," Bush told aides. The next morning the President was furious when he saw a New York Times headline saying NO QAEDA-IRAQ TIE. Immediately, White House staffers called officials at the CIA to see if the agency had updated its assessment of Saddam Hussein's relationship with al-Qaeda; according to a senior White House official, CIA officials told Bush aides they still believed there were links. That gave Bush the green light, and later that day he went before cameras to declare that "the reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qaeda" is "because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda." By the end of the week, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice had also stepped before microphones to declare that they had nothing to apologize for.

When it comes to describing purported connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam, the Bush Administration sometimes sounds like a teenager carefully delineating the different shades of romance from "seeing other people" to "hanging out" to "hooking up." The Administration claimed this week that there was "no link" between Iraq and 9/11 and insisted it had never said there was one. But back in 2002 Bush stated that "you can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam in the war on terror." And when Bush declared war on Iraq last year, he sent a letter to Congress citing Iraqi involvement in 9/11 as one of the reasons for war. Democrats, who have lambasted Bush's handling of the war, believe the holes in the Administration's claims provide an opportunity to exploit Bush's credibility gap. John Kerry jumped on the report, saying Bush misled the country in making the case for war. The Democratic National Committee last week put out ads questioning Bush's truthfulness.


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They might not work. White House officials were cheered when members of the commission seemed to back their side of the story. The chairman, Republican Thomas Kean, told TIME that "to say that sooner or later Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda would have found a common [interest] to fight a common enemy is not unreasonable." And Bush got unexpected help from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said his intelligence services have found evidence that Saddam had planned attacks on American targets in and outside the U.S.

In private, officials from both parties downplay the ultimate political fallout from the commission's findings. Instead, they say, it's the ongoing situation in Iraq that will govern how people vote. "We'll keep going after their credibility," says a top Democratic aide on Capitol Hill. "But it matters more how the war goes."