Hayes, Limbaugh falsely cited 1998 bin Laden indictment as proof that Clinton administration had "connected" Iraq, Al Qaeda

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Stephen Hayes and Rush Limbaugh cited the 1998 indictment of Osama bin Laden as proof of a connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda despite a later, superseding indictment that specifically removed the reference to an Iraq-Al Qaeda link after prosecutors failed to substantiate that such a relationship existed.

On the December 9 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Weekly Standard staff writer Stephen F. Hayes cited the Department of Justice's 1998 indictment of Osama bin Laden on charges of conspiring to attack the United States as evidence that the Clinton administration had "connected Saddam [Hussein] and Al Qaeda." And on the December 9 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh also claimed that the indictment proved it was "Bill Clinton and his administration who first talked about firm evidence linking Saddam Hussein's regime to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network." But Hayes's assertions were misleading at best, and Limbaugh's were false. While the original indictment did refer to an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection, several months after it was handed down, then-assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Patrick J. Fitzgerald specifically removed from a subsequent indictment of bin Laden -- which superseded the original indictment -- the reference to an Iraq-Al Qaeda link after failing to substantiate that such a relationship existed. This indictment charged bin Laden and numerous other Al Qaeda operatives with planning and carrying out the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

Further, Hayes defended Vice President Dick Cheney's claim of an April 2001 meeting between September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer by citing a November 2001 New York Times article. Yet, by December of that year, the Times and other news outlets raised serious doubts about whether the meeting took place, a fact that Hayes did not mention.

Hayes and Limbaugh's claim that the Clinton administration had "connected Saddam and Al Qaeda" stems from the fact that, in early 1998, Mary Jo White, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, handed down a sealed indictment of bin Laden and several other Al Qaeda operatives on charges of conspiring to attack the United States. This indictment included a sentence stating that the terrorist group and Iraq had agreed not to work against each other and agreed to cooperate on acquiring arms:

Al Qaeda also forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group Hezballah for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States. In addition, al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq.

On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. A subsequent investigation by Fitzgerald into these attacks led to a new indictment, issued on November 4, that superseded the sealed indictment issued by White. But in the section characterizing Al Qaeda's various "alliances," the new indictment omitted the reference to Iraq:

USAMA BIN LADEN, the defendant, and al Qaeda also forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with representatives of the government of Iran, and its associated terrorist group Hizballah for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.

On his December 9 broadcast, Limbaugh falsely stated that the November 4 indictment charging bin Laden with the African embassy bombings "disclosed a close relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam's regime." But only the original indictment, issued before the bombings took place and unsealed when the subsequent indictment was handed down, alleged an Iraq-Al Qaeda link. As noted above, the November 4 indictment on the embassy bombing charges made no allegations of such a connection.

When Fitzgerald appeared before the 9-11 Commission on June 16, 2004, commission member Fred F. Fielding asked him about the evidence that led to the inclusion of the Iraq-Al Qaeda reference in the original indictment. Fitzgerald responded that this claim was the result of testimony provided by former Al Qaeda operative Jamal al-Fadl and noted that it had been removed from the superseding indictment. He testified that while he was able to corroborate al-Fadl's allegations regarding Al Qaeda's connections to Iran and Sudan, he could not similarly substantiate the claim regarding the group's relationship with Iraq, as a June 16, 2004, Washington Post article reported:

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, now a U.S. attorney in Illinois, who oversaw the African bombing case, told the commission that reference was dropped in a superseding indictment because investigators could not confirm al Qaeda's relationship with Iraq as they had done with its ties to Iran, Sudan and Hezbollah. The original material came from an al Qaeda defector who told prosecutors that what he had heard was secondhand.

Despite Fitzgerald's public statement that he had determined the Iraq-Al Qaeda claim too weak to be included in the November indictment, Hayes, in his writings and media appearances, has repeatedly cited the reference in the original indictment as proof that the Clinton administration believed that such a connection existed (see here, here, and here).

In his Hardball appearance, Hayes similarly defended Cheney's now-discredited claim that Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, Czech Republic, in April 2001. When host Chris Matthews pressed Hayes on this point, Hayes countered, "If you look at the front page of The New York Times in the days surrounding the vice president's claim, The New York Times was reporting the same thing." But Hayes ignored the fact that Cheney continued to make the claim even after the Times and numerous other major news outlets had determined that no evidence existed to substantiate it.

In citing the "front page," Hayes was apparently referring to a November 10, 2001, Times article that reported:

Mr. Atta, an Egyptian who is suspected of piloting one of the hijacked planes that struck the trade center, met an Iraqi intelligence officer, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, when he visited Prague in April [2001].

On November 14, 2001, Cheney noted the alleged meeting in an interview on CBS' 60 Minutes II. On December 9, 2001, he appeared on NBC's Meet the Press and claimed that the meeting was "pretty well-confirmed."

But by mid-December of that year, the Times had backtracked considerably on the Atta story. A December 16, 2001, article reported:

There are even questions about whether the reports of the meeting took place. An associate said the Iraqi diplomat had a business selling cars and met frequently with a used car dealer from Germany who bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Atta. Just this week, there were even reports from Prague that the Mohamed Atta who visited Prague last April was a different man with the same name.

[...]

As if the waters were not muddied enough, some in Prague who knew the diplomat say he met with a used car salesman named Saleh from Nuremberg, Germany, who looked like Mr. Atta. "He is a perfect double for Atta," said a Syrian businessman who has lived in Prague for 35 years and says he knew the diplomat and the car salesman. "I saw him several times with Mister Consul."

On Friday, a major Czech newspaper, quoting Czech intelligence officials, offered still another theory: the Mohamed Atta who came to Prague last April was not the hijacker but a Pakistani of the same name.

"He didn't have the same identity card number," an unidentified Interior Ministry official told the newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes. "There was a great difference in their ages, their nationalities didn't match, basically nothing -- it was someone else." The details of the meeting, as reported by the Czech authorities, remain vague. The Czech intelligence service has not said how it knows the meeting took place, or what was said.

On December 18, 2001, the British newspaper the Telegraph reported that Czech government officials had said "they had no evidence" that the meeting had taken place. The following spring, then-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller admitted, "We ran down literally hundreds of thousands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on, from flight reservations to car rentals to bank accounts," but found no evidence to substantiate the alleged meeting. An article in the May 6, 2002, issue of Newsweek reported that "U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials now believe that Atta wasn't even in Prague at the time the Czechs claimed." A May 1, 2002, Washington Post article and a May 2, 2002, Times article similarly reported that there existed "no evidence" to substantiate the claim and that "F.B.I. and C.I.A. analysts had firmly concluded that no meeting had occurred."

Nonetheless, on the September 14, 2003, broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, Cheney again referenced the alleged Prague meeting:

CHENEY: Now, is there a connection between the Iraqi government and the original World Trade Center bombing in '93? We know, as I say, that one of the perpetrators of that act did, in fact, receive support from the Iraqi government after the fact. With respect to 9-11, of course, we've had the story that's been public out there. The Czechs alleged that Mohamed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack, but we've never been able to develop anymore of that yet either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don't know.

Hayes has a conspicuous record of misinformation regarding Iraq war intelligence. His book, The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America (HarperCollins, 2004), purported to demonstrate numerous links between Al Qaeda and Iraq. But as Media Matters for America noted, the leaked Defense Department memo upon which much of Hayes's book is based has been discredited, and the Defense Department distanced itself from the memo in November 2003, describing its contents as "inaccurate."

From a discussion with Matthews, Hayes, and Chuck Todd, editor of the National Journal's political weblog, The Hotline, on the December 9 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: The vice president made a point aggressively, Stephen, to point to this meeting between Mohamed Atta and the Iraqi intelligence. So it was a very aggressive campaign to connect 9-11 with Iraq.

HAYES: And he said that when? He said in December of 2001, which is, I think, the quote you're referring to, where he said it was confirmed. At the time, if you look at the front page of The New York Times in the days surrounding the vice president's claim, The New York Times was actually reporting the same thing.

MATTHEWS: Did he ever correct it?

HAYES: They were raising questions about --

MATTHEWS: Did he ever correct that?

TODD: Who was the byline? I'm trying to remember who was the byline on that New York Times piece.

HAYES: I think what he said was "credible but not confirmed."

MATTHEWS: We now know -- did he ever correct that, Stephen?

HAYES: I don't know. I don't know that he did.

TODD: Look, Chris, even if we look -- let's assume the best possible light here -- they were looking from the time -- you know, I was just doing some old reading of Karen Hughes's book, Ten Minutes from Normal [Viking Adult, 2004]. And it was immediately -- even in the hours and days -- they were looking for evidence that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. It was never looking at it the other way, which is sometimes -- when you're prosecuting a case, you're defending a case, you're trying to disprove a theory and make sure all the evidence is overwhelming so that your theory is correct, rather than they other way around, which is you're sort of, you're hoping that your theory is correct, so you find any bit of evidence that makes your theory more correct.

HAYES: No, but there was a reason they were looking for evidence that connected Saddam and Al Qaeda. And one of the reasons was that this was evidence that the Clinton administration had talked about and talked about repeatedly throughout the late 1990s. In the unsealed indictment of Osama bin Laden, in the spring of 1998, the Clinton administration actually made an affirmative case that Osama bin Laden and the government of Iraq had worked cooperatively on quote "weapons development." That stuff matters.

From the December 9 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show:

LIMBAUGH: There's only one problem. It's the same thing with saying Bush lied. The Democrats said all this first. The Clinton administration -- I have The Washington Times here from June 25th of 2004. Right there. "The Clinton administration talked about firm evidence linking Saddam Hussein's regime to Osama's Al Qaeda network years before President Bush made the same statements. In fact, during President Clinton's eight years in office, there were at least two official pronouncements of an alarming alliance between Baghdad and Al Qaeda."

[...]

LIMBAUGH: The other pronouncement is contained in a Justice Department indictment on November 4th of 1998 charging bin Laden with murder in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa The indictment disclosed a close relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam's regime, which included specialists on chemical weapons and all types of bombs, including truck bombs, a favorite weapon of terrorists, as you know.

The 1998 indictment said, "Al Qaeda also forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group, Hezbollah, for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West."

Now, it's history repeating itself. Here's the Clinton administration which did diddly-squat about any of this -- other than to file indictments -- mentioning all of these things that Bush supposedly is torturing out of people, renditioning out of people, lying about. It was false, phony evidence, but except all of this ignored, again, just like all the '98 statements of Clinton and all the Democrats back then talking about Saddam's desperate and dire threat, his weapons of mass destruction is never remembered.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Terrorism, War in Iraq
Stories/Interests
Prewar Intelligence/WMD
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