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SAME OLD SAME OLD! Cheney used Zarqawi to justify the war. And Russert gave Cheney a pass: // link // print // previous // next //

SAME OLD SAME OLD: Dick Cheney surrendered a lot of old ground in yesterday’s session with Tim Russert. In the following sequence, for example, Cheney largely walked away from two time-honored claims:
RUSSERT (9/10/06): All right. Now the president has been asked, "What did Iraq have to do with the attack on the World Trade Center?" and he said, “Nothing." Do you agree with that?

CHENEY: I do. So it's not—

RUSSERT: So it's case—case closed.

CHENEY: We've never been able to confirm any connection between Iraq and 9/11.

RUSSERT: And the meeting with Atta did not occur?

CHENEY: We don't know. I mean, we've never been able to, to, to link it, and the FBI and CIA have worked it aggressively. I would say, at this point, nobody has been able to confirm—
To the maximum extent—no, not completely—Cheney agreed: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. And the alleged meeting between Mohamed Atta and Iraqi officials in Prague really didn’t occur.

But Cheney kept making one potent claim—largely because Russert let him. As the conversation continued, Cheney argued that there had been an “historic relationship” between Iraq and al Qaeda—a relationship which justified the war:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): Then why, in the lead-up to the war, was there the constant linkage between Iraq and al-Qaeda?

CHENEY: That's a different issue. Now, there's a question of whether or not al-Qaeda, or whether or not Iraq was involved in 9/11. There's a separate—apart from—that's the issue of whether or not there was a historic relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The basis for that is probably best captured in George Tenet's testimony before the Senate Intel Commission, an open session, where he said specifically that there was a pattern of relationship that went back at least a decade between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

RUSSERT: But the president said they were working in concert, giving the strong suggestion to the American people that they were involved in September 11.

CHENEY: No. There are, there are two totally different propositions here, and people have consistently tried to confuse them.
From that point on, Cheney argued that this “historic relationship” between Iraq and al Qaeda justified the war in Iraq. Let’s make two points about this claim.

First, the claim is exceptionally amorphous. At the present time, for example, the United States and North Korea “have a relationship.” But that “relationship” is antagonistic—and so was the “relationship” between Iraq and al Qaeda, according to the high-profile Senate Intelligence Committee report which was released just this Friday. Here’s the start of Jonathan Weisman’s report in Saturday’s Post—a report which topped the paper’s front page:
WEISMAN (9/9/06): A declassified report released yesterday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that U.S. intelligence analysts were strongly disputing the alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda while senior Bush administration officials were publicly asserting those links to justify invading Iraq.

Far from aligning himself with al-Qaeda and Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Hussein repeatedly rebuffed al-Qaeda's overtures and tried to capture Zarqawi, the report said. Tariq Aziz, the detained former deputy prime minister, has told the FBI that Hussein "only expressed negative sentiments about [Osama] bin Laden."
Yes, you can call that a “relationship.” But according to the Senate report, it was a hostile relationship—the kind of the “relationship” which exists between potential captive and potential captor. As described in the Senate report, it wasn’t the kind of “relationship” that would have led to attacks on this country. It wasn’t the kind of relationship that would have justified war.

Saddam was trying to capture Zarqawi, the Senate report said. But look at what Cheney went on to argue, rather convincingly, without any specific challenge from Russert. More specifically, just look at whose name he kept citing:
CHENEY: You've got Iraq and al-Qaeda, testimony from the director of CIA that there was indeed a relationship, Zarqawi in Baghdad, etc. Then the third—

RUSSERT: The [Senate] committee said that there was no relationship. In fact—

CHENEY: Well, I haven't seen the report; I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but the fact is—

RUSSERT: But Mr. Vice President, the bottom line is—

CHENEY: We know, we know that Zarqawi, running a terrorist camp in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, after we went in to 9/11, then fled and went to Baghdad and set up operations in Baghdad in the spring of '02 and was there from then, basically, until basically the time we launched into Iraq.

RUSSERT: The bottom line is, the rationale given the American people was that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and he could give those weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda and we could have another September 11. And now we read that there is no evidence, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, of that relationship. You've said there's no involvement. The president says there's no involvement...

CHENEY: Tim, I guess—I don't—I'm not sure what part you don't understand here. In September—or in 1990, the State Department designated Iraq as a state sponsor of terror. Abu Nidal, famous terrorist, had sanctuary in, in Baghdad for years. Zarqawi was in Baghdad after we took Afghanistan and before we went into Iraq...This was a state sponsor of terror. He had a relationship with terror groups. No question about it. Nobody denies that. The evidence we also had at the time was that he had a relationship with al-Qaeda..
For the rest of the interview, Cheney was allowed to argue that Zarqawi’s presence in Baghdad still helps explain the need for the war. The previous day, that claim had been batted aside in the Post—in paragraphs 1 and 2, at the top of page one. But Russert never challenged Cheney about Zarqawi. What would Cheney have said if challenged? Who knows? Five years from now, Russert will get around to asking about this matter, and we’ll find out what Cheney says then.

In his modest book, Big Russ & Me, Russert admitted that he’s always exceptionally well prepared for his interviews. According to Russert, it’s just one part of the superior values instilled in him by his superior, working-class Buffalo background. (These days, he jets to Nantucket to write about it.) Yesterday, with Cheney’s numbers in the tank, Russert challenged the veep on many past statements. But here was a new apparent howler, contradicting a new, high-profile report. If you read page one of Saturday’s Post, you saw the apparent problem with Cheney’s remarks. But in a bit of that same old same old, Russert gave Cheney a pass on this point—and let Cheney make a strong argument.

THIS TIME WE MEAN IT: Did Virginia clear up all those bogus test scores? Our series on “educational experts” continues tomorrow. For Parts 1 and 2, just click here. And don’t forget—click here as well.