If at first you don't succeed: Fox News again attempted to link Saddam and Al Qaeda

››› ››› ROB DIETZ

In a report aired on Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson and Special Report with Brit Hume, Reena Ninan advanced the discredited claim that "45,000 boxes of Arabic-language Iraqi documents captured by American troops" have revealed a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. According to a New York Times report, senior intelligence officials have dismissed the suggestion that the documents provide evidence of a Saddam-Al Qaeda link.

In a report aired on the July 6 editions of Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson and Special Report with Brit Hume, Fox News correspondent Reena Ninan advanced the discredited claim that "45,000 boxes of Arabic-language Iraqi documents captured by American troops" have revealed the purported connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda that the Bush administration repeatedly suggested in the run-up to the Iraq war. After reporting that "a Fox News team" led by blogger and former Army officer Ray Robison had studied some of the documents and found that they support the purported Saddam-Al Qaeda link, Ninan reported that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) stated that "[t]he U.S. government has made no determination regarding the authenticity of the documents, validity, or factual accuracy of the information contained therein." In fact, senior intelligence officials have dismissed any suggestion that the documents provide evidence of a Saddam-Al Qaeda link, according to a March 28 New York Times report.

On The Big Story, guest host Julie Banderas introduced the segment by declaring that "documents captured in Iraq may link Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda after all," adding that Ninan's report was "for all those naysayers who said, 'Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, no way, they didn't know each other before 9-11.' " Ninan reported on a document flagged by Robison -- "apparently written before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks" -- that purportedly instructed Arab soldiers in Afghanistan on how to "avoid being detected." Later in her report, Ninan included a statement by former CIA analyst Mike Baker that the documents suggest "Saddam viewed the Taliban, perhaps not as an ally but as an element that he didn't want to -- he didn't want to miss an opportunity." Ninan concluded the report by noting DNI's disclaimer that it could not vouch for the authenticity of the documents, and then informing viewers that "Robison's translation [of the documents] and their interpretation are available in their entirety as part of our exclusive Saddam dossier series on foxnews.com."

As Media Matters for America has documented, Big Story host John Gibson touted the documents on March 24, stating: "This is the Bush-lied story. No WMDs, no connection with bin Laden, no connection with 9-11, no connection with any attacks on the United States. Now these documents are saying, yes, all that's true." Right-wing weblogs such as Captain's Quarters, Flopping Aces, The QandO Blog, and Hot Air also touted Robison's purported findings on June 26. Robison has also cited several of the documents to allege that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the war.

And while Media Matters could not find a specific example of an intelligence official addressing the claim in the document Ninan cited that Iraqi soldiers were in Afghanistan, there's no evidence that the documents released by the DNI proved a significant connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. As The New York Times reported on March 28, senior intelligence and Bush administration officials dismissed the significance of the documents when they were first posted on the Internet, and expressed from the outset "serious concerns about turning loose an army of amateurs on a warehouse full of raw documents that include hearsay, disinformation and forgery":

Under pressure from Congressional Republicans, the director of national intelligence has begun a yearlong process of posting on the Web 48,000 boxes of Arabic-language Iraqi documents captured by American troops.

Less than two weeks into the project, and with only 600 out of possibly a million documents and video and audio files posted, some conservative bloggers are already asserting that the material undermines the official view.

On his blog last week, Ray Robison, a former Army officer from Alabama, quoted a document reporting a supposed scheme to put anthrax into American leaflets dropped in Iraq and declared: "Saddam's W.M.D. and terrorist connections all proven in one document!!!"

Not so, American intelligence officials say. "Our view is there's nothing in here that changes what we know today," said a senior intelligence official, who would discuss the program only on condition of anonymity because the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, directed his staff to avoid public debates over the documents. "There is no smoking gun on W.M.D., Al Qaeda, those kinds of issues."

All the documents, which are available on fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/products-docex.htm, have received at least a quick review by Arabic linguists and do not alter the government's official stance, officials say. On some tapes already released, in fact, Mr. Hussein expressed frustration that he did not have unconventional weapons.

Intelligence officials had serious concerns about turning loose an army of amateurs on a warehouse full of raw documents that include hearsay, disinformation and forgery. Mr. Negroponte's office attached a disclaimer to the documents, only a few of which have been translated into English, saying the government did not vouch for their authenticity.

Another administration official described the political logic: "If anyone in the intelligence community thought there was valid information in those documents that supported either of those questions -- W.M.D. or Al Qaeda -- they would have shouted them from the rooftops."

In a May 28 op-ed in the Times, New America Foundation senior fellow Peter Bergen wrote about the released documents and concluded: "It's long been known that Iraqi officials were playing footsie with Al Qaeda in the mid-1990's, but these desultory contacts never yielded any cooperation." Robison himself noted the possibility that the document was not from Iraq. On the Fox News website, Robison wrote that the "document does not identify the country of origin of these Arab men" but that "it's a logical omission since it wouldn't make sense to name the country in a memo whose purpose is to instruct how to hide one's nationality."

From the July 6 edition of Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson:

BANDERAS: Well, documents captured in Iraq may link Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda after all, and the Taliban. Fox's Reena Ninan has the story, and for all those naysayers who said, "Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, no way, they didn't know each other before 9-11."

NINAN: Well, the big question, Julie, is, you know, did Saddam Hussein secretly send military operatives to work with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan before September 11th? Well, declassified documents suggest that it's emerged from an exclusive Fox News investigation that thousands of documents -- which come from thousands of documents captured in Iraq.

Among the documents a manual, a how-to manual for undercover Arabic-speaking operatives and families living in Afghan city of Kandahar. These and other documents now being translated and studied by a Fox News team led by Roy [sic] Robison, a former U.S. military analyst and former member of the CIA's Iraq's Survey Group.

ROBISON [video clip]: This document appears to be a manual written by somebody to a group of Arab military, Arab soldiers. These soldiers are en route to join other soldiers who are apparently already in Afghanistan. It's a secret facility that they are going to.

NINAN: The document, according to Robison, appears to be written before 2001 and instructs Arab operatives inside Afghanistan how to avoid being detected. The operatives were warned to avoid speaking Arabic where ordinary Afghans might overhear them. The document also advises the operatives to avoid being tracked by, quote, "the enemy," saying to "behave as if enemies would strike at any moment."

Fox News and Orbison [sic] last month revealed and analyzed the contents of a 1999 notebook kept by an Iraqi intelligence agent. It documents meetings between top Saddam officials and the Taliban and tentative agreements on cooperation. One former CIA analyst says that's not surprising.

MIKE BAKER (former CIA analyst) [video clip]: Certainly you would read the documents that are out now, it does seem as if Saddam viewed the Taliban, perhaps not as an ally but as an element that he didn't want to -- he didn't want to miss an opportunity.

NINAN: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence had this to say about the documents: "The U.S. government has made no determination regarding the authenticity of the documents, validity, or factual accuracy of the information contained therein."

More than 45,000 boxes of Arabic-language Iraqi documents captured by American troops were declassified earlier this year and posted on the Internet. Robison's translation and their interpretation are available in their entirety as part of our exclusive Saddam dossier series on foxnews.com. Julie.

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