On the August 16 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, conservative radio talk show host Melanie Morgan claimed that the top-ranking Iraqi military leader, Gen. Abdul Qader Mohammed Jassim, told her that "4,000 terrorists who were related to Al Qaeda" were working in Iraq under the direction of Saddam Hussein prior to the March 2003 U.S. invasion. Jassim reportedly disclosed this information to a delegation of conservative radio hosts who recently traveled to Iraq as part of the " 'Voices of Soldiers' Truth Tour." But, despite the explosive nature of this allegation, the claim has not appeared in any news reports, nor has any additional evidence been provided to substantiate it.
Shortly after asserting that "we're still going to find weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, Morgan responded to a question from host Chris Matthews regarding the alleged connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda:
MORGAN: Oh, yes. Absolutely, there's a connection there. The reason why we are in Iraq is because those planes went flying into the World Trade towers, and Al Qaeda was definitely connected to a bunch of terrorists who are operating out of Iraq under the direction of Saddam Hussein and his general at the time, General Jassim, who confirmed to me that 4,000 terrorists who were related to Al Qaeda, involved in Al Qaeda, were working within the Iraqi country. The country of Iraq.
Indeed, Move America Forward, the group co-founded by Morgan that organized the "Truth Tour," issued a July 13, press release under the headline "Iraqi General: Saddam Harbored 4,000 Terrorists on War's Eve." The release touted an "exclusive briefing" with Jassim:
The "Voices of Soldiers" Truth Tour organized by Move America Forward and RighTalk Radio Network has learned in an exclusive briefing that Saddam Hussein harbored approximately 4,000 terrorists in Iraq in the six months leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Iraqi Lt. General Abdul Qader Jassim told the "Voices of Soldiers" Truth Tour delegation that these Iraqi-trained terrorists were designed to undermine Iraq's enemies, most specifically Israel and Iran. Jassim also said that many of these same individuals are believed to be involved with or assisting the terrorist insurgents seeking to undermine the current Iraq regime.
The Move America Forward press release did not specifically state -- as Morgan did -- that the terrorists who allegedly trained in Iraq under Saddam were connected to Al Qaeda.
Given the significance of the issue of whether Saddam was coordinating with terrorists before the war, one might expect the disclosure that his government trained and harbored thousands of terrorists in 2002 and 2003 to attract some attention from the administration, Capitol Hill, and the media. But a Media Matters for America survey* of news articles mentioning Jassim yielded no additional reporting on his explosive allegation beyond the Move America Forward press release and Morgan's statement.
Jassim's reported description of the training as "designed to undermine Iraq's enemies" suggested he might have been referring to the Salman Pak facility. This training camp, located near Baghdad, has been repeatedly referenced by conservative commentators to justify the Bush administration's claims of an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection. In fact, though some U.S. intelligence officials -- before the U.S. invasion -- believed Saddam was training terrorists at Salman Pak, the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 report on pre-war intelligence assessments said the facility was used by the Iraqi Intelligence Service to "train its officers for counterterrorism operations against regime opponents." The committee further stated that it did not receive any evidence that Iraq trained "Arabs of various nationalities at the Salman Pak facility for potential surrogate terror operations" and that CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency analysts confirmed that Al Qaeda "sources" had not reported any knowledge of such training. Investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh reported in the May 12, 2003, edition of The New Yorker that the facility "was overrun by American troops on April 6th . Apparently, neither the camp nor the former biological facility has yielded evidence to substantiate the claims made before the war."
The Senate Intelligence Committee also noted a CIA report estimating that "100 to 200" Al Qaeda operatives relocated to the Kurdish region of Iraq during the late 1990s. While the committee concluded that this assessment was "reasonable," it came to no conclusions about Iraq's complicity in providing safe haven to the terrorists. Beyond the doubts about Iraqi knowledge of the Al Qaeda presence in Kurdistan, it is unclear if Jassim was referring to these operatives, as he reportedly stated that Iraq was harboring 4,000 terrorists prior to the war.
Morgan went on to tackle the issue of the Bush administration's assurances that the costs of the conflict would be financed by Iraqi oil. Responding to a question by Matthews on the topic, Morgan said, "I never remember hearing that." But prominent figures in the Bush administration publicly stated in February and March 2003 that Iraq's abundant natural resources would cover much of the reconstruction cost:
- Then-deputy defense secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz (House Appropriations Committee hearing, 3/27/03): "There's a lot of money to pay for this that doesn't have to be U.S. taxpayer money, and it starts with the assets of the Iraqi people. ... On a rough recollection, the oil revenues of that country could bring between $50 billion and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years."
- Then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (White House press briefing, 2/18/03): "Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, is a rather wealthy country. ... Iraq has tremendous resources that belong to the Iraqi people . ... Iraq has to be able to shoulder much of the burden for their own reconstruction."
- Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, 3/27/03): "When it comes to reconstruction, before we turn to the American taxpayer, we will turn first to the resources of the Iraqi government and the international community."
From the August 16 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:
MATTHEWS: You're a news analyst as well as an advocate and a commentator. Do you think that since the time this war began -- back in 2002, when, during the run-up of the actual fighting since 2003 -- do you believe we've gotten the straight story from this administration as to the cause of the war, the reason for the war and the goals and how well we're doing?
MORGAN: Yes, I absolutely do. I think that the president from the very beginning, in the run-up to the war, articulated why we were there. Because we were battling a fanatical network of terrorists. He has never made weapons of mass destruction the only criteria. That's only what the left has redefined and revised the war as. And, by the way, we're still going to find weapons of mass destruction.
MATTHEWS: Do you think that he made the case that adequately, do you think it was a fair case, a truthful case that the Iraqi people would greet with us celebration? That they would be happy to have us there? Is that a fair statement -- a full statement of the truth?
MORGAN: Do you not remember the video? Does America not remember the video of the statue of Saddam Hussein coming down and the cheering and the flowers? And when I was in Iraq, three weeks ago, we continued to see children greeting us and waving hello to us. This is a country that still appreciates the sacrifice that we have made for them. And I'm sorry if the left finds that difficult to believe. But it is the truth.
MATTHEWS: OK, you're saying the president is ultimately going to be proven correct on the issue of WMD as a part of the reason for the war. He's been proven already correct, you're saying, as to the fact that they have received us as a welcoming country. They want us there. What about the argument that was made that there was a connection to 9-11? At least some connection? Do you think that's been made? That case? Between Iraq and 9-11. Or between Iraq and Al Qaeda, I should say.
MORGAN: Oh, yes. Absolutely, there's been a connection made there. The reason why we are in Iraq is because those planes went flying into the World Trade towers, and Al Qaeda was definitely connected to a bunch of terrorists who are operating out of Iraq under the direction of Saddam Hussein and his general at the time, General Jassim, who confirmed to me that 4,000 terrorists who were related to Al Qaeda, involved in Al Qaeda, were working within the Iraqi country. The country of Iraq.
MATTHEWS: Also, I think this will be a hard one to make. We were also told at the beginning of the war that it would be financed by Iraqi oil.
MORGAN: You know, I don't remember hearing that.
MATTHEWS: Check the Google on that. I heard that a lot by people like, the people in the administration. Like the vice president said this would be paid for. A lot of the advocates of the war said the Iraqi oil was so abundant, it's second only to Saudi oil. That the war would actually pay for itself because Iraqi oil would finance it ultimately.
MORGAN: I never remember hearing that. And besides, the -- what the government has said as far as I'm concerned is that the Iraqi oil belongs to the people of Iraq. They need that money from the oil to govern their own country. I think that's the most important and most effective use of that oil.
* Search terms used in Nexis search of "U.S. newspapers and wires" from 3/1/03 to 8/17/05: "abdul w/3 jassim"