Revisiting the Saddam Hussein/Al-Qaeda Relationship

Assertions relating to the Saddam Hussein/al-Qaeda controversy have filled countless news articles and books and cannot be completely recapped and answered in a few articles. But despite all of the ink and bandwidth spent on the topic, there are additional questions yet to be fully explored in the eyes of many.

When one attempts to dig on questions, such as what meetings actually took place between Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qaeda members -- where they took place and when, and what was discussed -- the CIA emerges as one of, if not the major, intelligence players involved in public discussion of the topic.

Two former CIA members with relevant experience go on record below with their analysis of the Saddam Hussein/al-Qaeda question and the CIA's role.

Before reengaging this topic it is important to be aware that different interpretations of events, affiliations, and terminology greatly affect the analysis, and are the reason opinions can appear to be so far apart. Some issues:

-- Are reports relating to Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda being put through a filter of comparisons with what Bush administration officials and others said?

-- Are reports being compared with what analysts deemed to be enough to warrant a costly, deadly war?

-- Who determines if someone is a member of al-Qaeda and what is the criteria for membership?

-- What constitutes "support" from a state?

-- What constitutes a "relationship" between a terrorist group and a state?

-- What constitutes an "operational relationship" between a terrorist group and a state? Is something less than an "operational relationship" still worthy of concern? A war?

-- Are relations between the former Iraqi regime and terrorist groups compared with other state and non-state actor relationships, such as Iran and Hezbollah or al-Qaeda and other states?

-- Did the CIA have access to all the reports on Saddam Hussein's Iraq and terrorism, or were reports scattered throughout many Department of Defense branches, intelligence agencies, and non-government entities?

Because of how conflicting the evidence is and how difficult it is to explain those conflicts, it is understandable why much of the press condenses the topic down to "no links" stories or simply provides anecdotal examples of something more without providing the proper context. It is also understandable why many media accounts only skim the surface of this topic because there are real intelligence sources that refuse to discuss it -- or simply say there was "no operational relationship" but might not have been pressed on what exactly that term means.

With approximately 50 years of combined CIA analyst experience, former CIA officers Paul Pillar and Bruce Tefft provide a window into what the public, press, and elected officials have heard on this topic from the CIA and why multiple interpretations persist.

Paul Pillar has 28 years of experience with analysis at the CIA, and has often been cited on this topic:

Mark Eichenlaub: Mr. Pillar, how much did the CIA know about what went on at these reported Iraq, al-Qaeda meetings (by many accounts, more than a few meetings) and how much was unknown?

Paul Pillar: I think what has come out publicly is pretty much the extent of what was known. Nobody had a fly on the wall.

M.E.: Do you think it is possible that Saddam Hussein's Iraq could have been converted, like Pervez Musharaf in Pakistan, to become an ally against al-Qaeda and other Islamic terror groups? Why or why not?

P.P.: Saddam’s regime had its own reasons for being opposed to such groups. Even adversaries -- and the United States and Iraq under Saddam still would be regarded mainly as adversaries -- can have common enemies, and parallel interests in opposing those enemies. That doesn’t mean a U.S.-Iraqi relationship would develop into anything that could be considered an “alliance.” Iraq was not as dependent on the U.S. as Pakistan has been in several respects.

M.E.: Recently released FBI files show that Saddam Hussein reportedly admitted only one or two meetings between his regime and al-Qaeda and that it was al-Qaeda who reached out to him and he rebuffed them (as opposed to reports of al-Qaeda rebuffing Iraq and there being more than just a "few" meetings). Is it your understanding that it was al-Qaeda pursuing the relationship and Iraq denied them or is there more to the story?

P.P.: That’s pretty much my sense. I don’t think there’s anything more to the story.

M.E.: What do you make of allegations of al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad affiliates being in Baghdad during Saddam Hussein's rule? Were they only allowed to be there because of the impending U.S. invasion as you were quoted as stating for the New Yorker? Is it possible that Ayman al Zawahiri had cultivated ties with the Iraqis? Who were the other groups that the intelligence community was aware of Iraq supporting before the invasion and what other regional terror plots against Western interests?

P.P.: It is well established that the only Islamist groups with a presence on Iraqi territory before the invasion were in the part of Iraq not under Saddam’s control, in the largely Kurdish north. Zarqawi spent some time in central Iraq, but there is no indication he ever had any contact with the regime. There are indications that they did not even know where he was located.

Saddam’s regime supported some largely moribund Palestinian terrorist groups: The Palestinian Liberation Front, the Arab Liberation Front, and the Abu Nidal group.

M.E.: What do you make of allegations of Iraq training al-Qaeda in CBW or permitting them to experiment with CBW in Iraq?

P.P.: That all stems from embellishments of statements from the detainee al-Libi, who later admitted that his statements about this were a fabrication.

M.E.: Did you get a chance to read the Institute for Defense Analysis report, based on Iraq document exploitation and detainee interviews, which reported that Saddam Hussein's regime used a number of regional Islamic groups throughout the 90s, as you told PBS Frontline, to undermine Western allied governments? The study found links to al-Qaeda affiliates but no "smoking gun" linking Iraq's government to al-Qaeda in major attacks.

P.P.: I have not read that report. (Note: Newsweek's Michael Isikoff cited Pillar for comment in his story on the report.)