Selling an Iraq-al Qaeda connection
Some critics blame TV news for making Baghdad new enemy
From Bruce Morton
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Does Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein provide assistance to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda? It's a case the Bush administration has tried hard to make.
"These al Qaeda affiliates, based in Baghdad, now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they've been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months," said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in his presentation last month to the U.N. Security Council.
During testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in mid-February, CIA Director George Tenet added, "Iraq has, in the past, provided training in document forgery and bomb-making to al Qaeda. It has also provided training in poisons and gases to two al Qaeda associates."
These assertions, however, might be as good as the case gets for U.S. officials linking the terror network to Iraq. While some members of al Qaeda could be operating out of Iraq, intelligence and investigative sources said there is evidence the group also operates out of Iran and Pakistan. And while there is evidence Iraqi officials might have helped al Qaeda years ago, the same case could be made for Pakistani, Yemeni and Saudi officials.
The Iraqi president repeatedly has denied any connection between his government and bin Laden's terrorist network. "If we had a relationship with al Qaeda and if we believed in this relationship, we wouldn't be ashamed to admit it," Saddam said in a recent interview on British television. "The answer is no. We do not have any relationship with al Qaeda."
Bin Laden recently declared solidarity with the Iraqi people, but he lashed out at Saddam's government. In the latest audiotaped message purported to be recorded by the al Qaeda leader, bin Laden denounced Saddam's socialist Baath party as "infidels."
Bottom line: U.S. officials claim there is evidence of an al Qaeda-Iraq connection -- but there is no "smoking gun."
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said he thinks the TV networks' news coverage has helped sell the Saddam-al Qaeda connection. "Suddenly, it was Osama, Osama, Osama ... Saddam, Saddam, Saddam ... and the networks -- the broadcast media -- simply picked that up [and] transferred our feelings of alarm and anger from one villain to another."
In a February CNN-Time poll, 76 percent of those surveyed felt Saddam provides assistance to al Qaeda. Another poll released in February asked, "Was Saddam Hussein personally involved in the September 11 attacks?" Although it is a claim the Bush administration has never made and for which there is no evidence, 72 percent said it was either very or somewhat likely.
"I think the administration has used the media very successfully to make the case against Saddam as the chief evildoer of the moment, but I still think there's an awful lot of uneasiness in America over this war," said Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media critic and co-host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."
Some critics blame the cable news networks for helping make Iraq the new enemy. "They use essentially the kind of logos, martial music, and so on that we saw after Gulf War One had started," Krugman said. "So, from the point of view of the American public, Iraq is already the enemy; we're already at war."
Many Americans who watch U.S. news coverage have accepted Saddam as the new enemy. Europeans have a different outlook.
"The European media, by contrast, have been very skeptical of the war, very aggressive of covering the anti-war movement," explained Kurtz, "and some people think they have a strain of anti-Americanism -- or at least anti-George Bush."