President George W. Bush and FOX News Channel host Bill O'Reilly have repeatedly cited Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the "smoking gun" link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Yet amid mounting evidence that Zarqawi is neither a member of Al Qaeda nor a close associate of Hussein, O'Reilly held fast to the Zarqawi argument to justify his support for Bush and for the Iraq war.
On his October 5 radio show, O'Reilly was mystified at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recent comment that he had seen "no strong, hard evidence" linking Hussein to Al Qaeda and suggested that Rumsfeld (whose Pentagon controls 80 percent of the $40 billion U.S. intelligence budget) watch The O'Reilly Factor to learn about Zarqawi.
From the October 5 nationally syndicated broadcast of The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly:
O'REILLY: Donald Rumsfeld, you know he changes his mind every two minutes, the secretary of defense. He says there's no link to Al Qaeda, then there is a link to Al Qaeda -- I mean, come on. Secretary, watch [FOX News Channel's] The [O'Reilly] Factor. We provided you the link to Al Qaeda 86 different ways. His name is Zarqawi.
In fact, on September 24, Media Matters for America cited six separate news articles undermining Zarqawi's alleged links to both Hussein and Al Qaeda. Since then, Knight Ridder has reported that a recent Central Intelligence Agency assessment requested by Vice President Dick Cheney similarly questioned the links between Zarqawi and Hussein:
A new CIA assessment undercuts the White House's claim that Saddam Hussein maintained ties to al-Qaida, saying there's no conclusive evidence that the regime harbored Osama bin Laden associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The report didn't conclude that Saddam's regime had provided "aid, comfort and succor" to al-Zarqawi, a senior administration official said. He added that there are now questions about earlier administration assertions that al-Zarqawi received treatment at a Baghdad hospital in May 2002.
"The evidence is that Saddam never gave Zarqawi anything," another U.S. official said.
On the October 5 edition of FOX News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly dismissed the ABC News report on the CIA assessment as "a bunch of nonsense," even as FOX News Channel political analyst Dick Morris, a frequent Bush defender, appeared ready to abandon alleged Hussein-Al Qaeda links as a justification for the war:
MORRIS: Listen, I just want to say about the Al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein link, there was no link between Hitler and Pearl Harbor either, and FDR knew that we had to get rid of all fascist regimes -- German, Italian and Japanese. Now Hitler made it easy by declaring war on us, but if he didn't ...
O'REILLY: Yes, but there was a link. Even -- ABC News reported tonight -- Brian Ross in an investigation reported -- "Oh, the Zarqawi link to Al Qaeda isn't strong," and all that. What a bunch of nonsense. I mean, we investigated this Zarqawi guy up and down. There's no question he was in deep with Al Qaeda.
O'Reilly's statements are only the most recent in a pattern of misleading statements he has made about Zarqawi:
- May 25 on The O'Reilly Factor: "He [Zarqawi] has direct ties to Al Qaeda."
- May 25 on The Radio Factor: "He [Brian Lehrer, host of NPR's The Brian Lehrer Show] had no idea that ... Zarqawi after he was wounded in Afghanistan went to Baghdad. This is the second Al Qaeda big shot."
- June 3 on The O'Reilly Factor: "Zarqawi is what, second or third in command of Al Qaeda."
- June 3 on The Radio Factor: "And he [Saddam Hussein] had a relationship, we don't know how much of one, with Al Qaeda because we know Zarqawi, who's the number-three Al Qaeda guy, got his leg amputated after he was wounded in Afghanistan and is there now."
- June 4 on The Factor Radio: "They've [Europeans who opposed the Iraq war] never heard about Zarqawi, the third in command in Al Qaeda getting his leg amputated in Baghdad."
- September 16 in O'Reilly's nationally syndicated column, as MMFA previously noted: "I mean, this guy [Zarqawi] is one of the most vicious Al Qaeda thugs in the world. ... In early 2000, Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan to assume a leadership position in an al Qaeda training camp."
These assertions echo Bush's own. In June, Bush described Zarqawi as "the best evidence of [an Iraqi] connection to Al Qaeda affiliates and Al Qaeda."
Later on the October 5 The Radio Factor, O'Reilly expanded on his suggestion that Rumsfeld's comments were based on his ignorance of evidence presented on The O'Reilly Factor. O'Reilly played an audio clip of Rumsfeld's comments and then dismissed them, insisting, "The Factor did its own independent investigation and the smoking gun is this guy, al-Zarqawi." O'Reilly's assertion conflicts with Secretary of State Colin Powell's admission that he had no "smoking gun" evidence of a prewar link between Hussein and Al Qaeda. Still, O'Reilly couldn't understand Rumsfeld's remarks and concluded that Rumsfeld had simply failed to talk to O'Reilly's own U.S. intelligence sources:
O'REILLY: Now if I know it [i.e., that "strong, hard evidence" of a Hussein-Al Qaeda connection does exist], and The Factor researchers know it 'cause they got it right from our government, intelligence agency -- I know who the source was -- why doesn't Rumsfeld know it? And just tell you that? That is the smoking gun.
You don't get your leg operated on in Baghdad unless you're connected. So anyway -- Rumsfeld ... if I were President Bush, I'd flat-out retire him. He's not helping the Bush people. He's helping the Kerry people, I think.
Though O'Reilly appeared to stand firmly behind his earlier false statements -- indeed, he repeated the whole series of false and misleading claims about Zarqawi's supposed connections to Iraq and Al Qaeda that MMFA has previously debunked -- he also seemed to sense that the Zarqawi justification for his frequent claim that links between Hussein and Al Qaeda constituted a grave threat was crumbling. Groping for new rationalizations for Bush's decision, O'Reilly resorted to vague generalizations and reassurances:
O'REILLY: You know there aren't a lot of terrorists in the world. There aren't a lot of killers in the world. They all know each other -- Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda -- you know they know each other. And they operate in a shadowy world where assistance is given. Abu Adel, Abu Abbas, all these guys retired to Iraq. So I'm thinking -- what it is gonna take to tell you that, yeah, maybe we shouldn't have rushed into Iraq, not working out so great now. I'm praying they turn it around.
But to say that Saddam wasn't a threat is insane. Of course he's a threat. Of course he's a threat.