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WASHINGTON - Sen. Orrin Hatch backpedaled Tuesday from a recent claim he made asserting that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was supporting al-Qaida, and that "Nobody with brains" would deny the connec- tion.
The assertion was striking not so much for its audacious tone, but because it contradicted the findings of multiple intelligence reviews, including the 9-11 Commission's report and a review by the Senate Intelligence Committee, on which Hatch sits.
Appearing before a group of Iron County, Utah, business leaders Saturday, Hatch said: "And, more importantly, we've stopped a mass murderer in Saddam Hussein. Nobody denies that he was supporting al-Qaida," he said, according to The Spectrum newspaper in St. George. "Well, I shouldn't say nobody. Nobody with brains."
Said John Pike, director of the national security think tank GlobalSecurity.org: "I guess I don't have a brain, then.
"There's no doubt that [Iraq] had contact with [al-Qaida]. OK. But I think that it would be something of a stretch to suggest they provided material assistance to them."
Michael O'Hanlon, a terrorism expert at The Brookings Institution, said there were indeed meetings, but, "I think Senator Hatch went way too far and indeed the body of evidence was that there was no substantiated link."
On Tuesday, Hatch said he may have misspoken at the event, and he was speaking of conditions in post-Hussein Iraq and the terrorist network led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"Saddam clearly had a long history of supporting terrorists, but I was not talking about any formal link between Saddam and al-Qaida before the war," Hatch said in a statement. "Instead, I pointed out that the current insurgency in Iraq includes al-Qaida, under the leadership of al-Zarqawi, along with former elements of Saddam's regime."
Pike said that a case has been made that Saddam aided Zarqawi before combat operations started, "but at that time, I don't think that he and [Osama] bin Laden were co-conspirators." Zarqawi pledged loyalty to bin Laden after Saddam's ouster.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said the Republican Hatch can't credibly claim to have misspoken.
"Senator Hatch, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, no less, stood in front of a crowd of people and made a statement, a statement that is just not true, in what seems to be an attempt to mislead and misinform the people of Utah," Holland said in a statement. "This is not leadership. This is not honesty. This seems nothing more than dirty politics and negative messaging. This is insulting to the people of Utah."
The question of whether Saddam had a relationship with al-Qaida was one of the most hotly debated issues surrounding the pre-war intelligence.
In 2003, for example, President Bush called Saddam an "ally of al-Qaida," and in 2004, Vice President Cheney said that "I think there's overwhelming evidence that there was a connection between al-Qaida and the Iraqi government." More recently, the White House has referred more generally to Iraq's ties to other terrorist groups and meetings with al-Qaida operatives.
Paul Pillar, the national intelligence officer for the region from 2000 to 2005, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that the suggested relationship reflected "the greatest discrepancy between the administration's public statements and the intelligence community's judgments."
"The intelligence community never offered any analysis that supported the notion of an alliance between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. Yet it was drawn into an effort to support that notion."
In an interview this week on the MSNBC program "Hardball," Pillar called the Saddam/al-Qaida link "a manufactured issue."
The Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 report - which was joined by Hatch as a member of the committee - noted that the CIA "reasonably assessed" that Iraq had been associated with several Palestinian terrorist groups, and there "were likely several instances of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida throughout the 1990s, but that these contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship."
"The Central Intelligence Agency's assessment that to date there was no evidence proving Iraqi complicity or assistance in an al-Qaida attack was reasonable and objective. No additional information has emerged to suggest otherwise," the Senate committee wrote.
Likewise, the 9-11 Commission noted the meetings between Iraqi intelligence officials and al-Qaida operatives, but "to date we have seen no evidence that these or earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al-Qaida in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."
Hatch said he has referred repeatedly to meetings between Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaida throughout the 1990s.
"This was association and not collaboration, as the Senate Intelligence Committee's July 2004 report makes clear. But after 9/11, this association with the No. 1 terror group was a major concern for responsible policymakers," Hatch said.