A recent article in the Weekly Standard by former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Liz Cheney, noted that there was sufficient evidence prior to the 2003 liberation of Iraq that Saddam Hussein might coordinate terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its interests.
"It is undisputed," they wrote, "and has been confirmed repeatedly in Iraqi government documents captured after the invasion, that Saddam had deep, longstanding, far-reaching relationships with terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and its affiliates. It is undisputed that Saddam's Iraq was a state based on terror, overseeing a coordinated program to support global jihadist terrorist organizations. Ansar al Islam, an al Qaeda-linked organization, operated training camps in northern Iraq before the invasion. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the future leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, funneled weapons and fighters into these camps, before the invasion... We also know, again confirmed in documents captured after the war, that Saddam provided funding, training, and other support to many terrorist organizations and individuals over decades, including to Ayman al Zawahiri, the man who leads al Qaeda today."
Dick and Liz Cheney, appearing last month on Fox News to discuss Iraq. (Image source: Fox News video screenshot)
Glenn Kessler, the fact-checker at the Washington Post, awards one to four "Pinocchios" to various news stories he finds less than truthful. Kessler is also generally the keeper of "liberal" conventional wisdom – although on January 16, 2014 he even gave himself three Pinocchio's for getting Medicaid numbers screwed up.
On July 17, 2014, he awarded the Cheneys "Three Pinocchios," indicating that, in their Weekly Standard essay on Iraq, they had been playing fast and loose with the facts.
To conclude as he did, Kessler had subtly to change the terms of the argument, while relying upon material provided by Warren Bass, a current Wall Street Journal writer and former 9-11 Commission staff member. Bass was referred to apparently to give the "Fact Check" a semblance of authority.
Here is the way Kessler changed the terms of the debate:
The Cheneys write that:
- Saddam led a state based on terror and that Iraq was long officially designated by the U.S. as a sponsor of terror.
- Ansar al Islam -- a terror group -- was based in northern Iraq.
- Saddam gave weapons and support to terror groups including a group involving the current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
- The Iraqi relationship -- direct and indirect -- was with terror groups that included affiliates of Al Qaeda [AQ].
- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- eventually an Al Qaeda leader -- was located in Iraq and funneled weapons to Ansar al-Islam before the 2003 invasion.
Does Kessler dispute any of these facts? No. (He inexplicably claims that Saddam's secret police were so incompetent that a terrorist such as Zarqawi was operating in Iraq unknown to the government.)
He writes, however, that there was no "long standing" "operational relationship" between Iraq and Al Qaeda. He references, presumably to support his position, a 9-11 Commission conclusion that there was no "collaborative operational relationship" between Saddam and AQ.
The Cheneys, however, had never made any claim about an "operational" relationship.
Parenthetically, what exactly is a "collaborative operational relationship" with AQ? The 9-11 Commission never defined the term. No one since has defined the term, including Mr. Kessler.
But the use of the term served its purpose: to be a distraction from the facts. It also enabled the narrative to remain that "facts were cooked" to justify the war in Iraq as "a war of choice."
The third concern of Kessler is, as the 9-11 Commission put it: "Did Iraq cooperate with AQ in attacks against the United States"?
Again, the Cheneys' article never makes such a claim.
Left unclear, of course, is whether "the United States" means just the continental United States, or includes U.S. interests, embassies or military bases overseas.
While Saddam may not have been working to attack the continental United States, there is evidence that he did attack U.S. interests, especially, for example, with his 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
What Kessler does, is to use "undefined" 9-11 Commission statements and then repeatedly criticize the Cheneys for making claims they never made.
Kessler not only invents points the Cheneys did not make, he then casually dismisses "uncomfortable" points they did make. How many Pinocchios is that worth?
Why, for example, did Kessler dismiss a statement -- not from the Cheneys, but from the 9-11 Commission chairman himself, former Governor Tom Kean -- that indeed there was a relationship between Saddam and Al Qaeda that had to do with "chemicals"?
Perhaps Kessler is unaware that the contents of a 1998 U.S. indictment of Al Qaeda -- the very first indictment of it by the U.S. Justice Department -- concluded that Al Qaeda in Sudan had indeed both sought and received assistance from Iraq (probably from a top regime chemical weapons expert, Ali Hassan al-Majiid, and known as "Chemical Ali").
An additional indictment dropped the reference to cooperation between Iraq and Al Qaeda because the prosecutors could not confirm the testimony of an Al Qaeda defector upon which the earlier indictment was based. But lack of confirmation does not invalidate the claim -- it just means the U.S. could not determine the facts one way or the other.
In response to Kessler's award of three Pinocchios, the Cheneys replied with a series of references to an extensive terrorism study by the Institute of Defense Analysis, which examined the connections between terrorism and Iraq.
The Cheneys note, for instance, from the IDA report: "Captured documents reveal that the [Iraqi] regime was willing to co-opt or support organizations it knew to be part of al Qaeda."
That would appear to qualify as supporting an "affiliate" of Al Qaeda -- an organization we have been repeatedly told is a serious threat to the U.S.
The IDA report suggests the "indirect cooperation" was "somewhat analogous" to the Cali and Medellin drug cartels, in that the two organizations competed for a share of the illegal drug market. Fair enough.
Kessler in turn responds with more tricks. He somehow arbitrarily decides that supporting an organization that is "a part of" Al Qaeda does not constitute a "relationship" with Al Qaeda. What then does it connote?
Kessler admits that Saddam tolerated the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam in Iraq's territory.
To most people, this would spell "sanctuary" and would indicate "support" -- as the 9-11 Commission concluded. Did not the Taliban similarly give sanctuary -- and thus support -- to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan?
Kessler, however, says that, yes, the 9-11 Commission report did conclude that Saddam tolerated, and may have assisted, Ansar al-Islam's presence, but only because it served Saddam's purpose. But is that not precisely the point -- that Saddam used terror groups for his own purposes?
Kessler then tries another trick. He goes on to say that the 9-11 Commission evidence used by the Cheneys was "out of date" because the intelligence community later concluded that the leadership of Ansar al-Islam was different from the leadership of AQ, so cooperating with Ansar al-Islam did not constitute cooperating with Al Qaeda.
But the Cheneys claimed only that Iraq cooperated with Ansar al-Islam.
An additional question remains about Kessler's critique: Why cannot two organizations be affiliated but with a different and "distinct leadership?" Isn't that usually what an "affiliation" is?
IDA, the Cheneys tell us, determined that, "Saddam supported groups... associated directly with al Qaeda (such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led at one time by bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri)."
Kessler dismisses this reference because, he says, the objective of the terror group Islamic Jihad was the overthrow of the U.S. allied government in Egypt. Well, was that not a sufficient threat?
Overthrowing the government in Cairo is no mean feat. What was one of the main goals of Sheik Abdul Rahman, now in jail for his advocacy of terror attacks against the U.S. and as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Precisely the overthrow of the Egyptian government. What did the Muslim Brotherhood government under Mohamed Morsi in Egypt seek? The return of Sheik Rahman to Egypt. Certainly trying to bring down the Mubarak regime in Egypt at that time might seriously have harmed U.S. interests. Does this not constitute a "threat to the U.S.?"
So it is that Kessler struggles mightily to dismiss or minimize any and all references to a relationship of any kind between Saddam and terrorist entities, especially Al Qaeda or its affiliates.
Contradictory evidence, or lack of 100% clarity about terrorism, does not, however mean one side or the other is engaging in telling falsehoods. Contradictory material, as well as lack of clarity or consistency, is often in the nature of available intelligence.
Kessler evidently assumes that whenever intelligence assessments differ, the correct version is only that which contradicts the points being made by the Cheneys but not by their critics.
In addition, perhaps Kessler's concentration on what types of "direct" connections there were between Saddam and Al Qaeda is the wrong approach in trying to understand exactly what is the nature of the terrorist threats we faced.
After all, if Saddam were using terrorists to attack his enemies, as he did, does it matter if he never used Al Qaeda for such attacks but did use its "affiliates"?
And what about other terrorist groups, such as the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, Ansar al-Islam, Islamic Jihad, the Taliban or the warlords of Somalia? For example, according to the IDA study Saddam funded jihadi fighters in Afghanistan who were eventually directed to Somalia in 1993.
It is not as if terrorism against the U.S. was, and is, tied only to Al Qaeda. The U.S. was the victim of many terror attacks before the 1998 Embassy bombings in Africa -- the first officially recognized Al Qaeda attack against the U.S.
What is this seeming obsession by opponents of the Iraq war -- still today -- artificially to equate terrorist threats to the U.S. as solely a matter of "Al Qaeda and its affiliates"? In the view of this author, it is to keep alive and well the narrative or conventional wisdom that Iraq was a "war of choice" and unnecessary to protect America's security.
It is not as if there is a scarcity of evidence pointing to state sponsors of terror assisting Al Qaeda. It is official U.S. policy according to the U.S. Department of State, for example, that Iran is the world's "prime sponsor of terrorism." Iran's sponsorship of terror included ties to the 9/11 attacks.
According to the New York Times, "The 9-11 Commission report, for example, said there was strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of Al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9-11 and that some of these were future 9-11 hijackers."
There is no doubt that the evidence available to U.S. policy makers prior to the decision to take down Saddam Hussein was contradictory.
Kessler, however, ignores the most credible explanation for why America decided to liberate Iraq. The U.S. took down Saddam Hussein's regime because on balance the threat-intelligence could not be ignored.
The intelligence about terrorism and Iraq was neither as clear nor as readily available as one might have wished, but most senior Democratic members of the Senate at the time voted for giving the President the authority to take down Saddam.
Similarly, over 90 U.S. Senators voted in favor of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which called for the same thing.
These two overwhelmingly favorable votes from both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate in 1998 and 2003 to take down Saddam demonstrated that the available evidence spoke loud and clear -- Saddam had to go.
But how else can Democrats say they made a mistake voting for the war if they cannot now make the case that they were fooled?
In the end, even while Kessler concedes that most of the facts presented by the former Vice President and Assistant Secretary are correct, Kessler has to try to demonstrate that the Cheneys' argument is wrong in order to keep alive the long-held narrative that Iraq was a war of choice and therefore unnecessary.
To do so he rests his only real, and supposedly clinching, argument on a difference of opinion over the definition of the Cheney's description of Iraq's relationship with Al Qaeda and its affiliates as "long lasting." Kessler apparently believes the relationship was more sporadic or occasional.
Does this distinction even matter -- especially when the other points made by the Cheneys' essay and rebuttal stand up to Kessler's scrutiny?
It is not as if Saddam wrote down every item on paper for all to see as a contract after terror groups responded to an Iraqi "Request for Proposal" from the central government in Baghdad.
By their nature, terror ties are most often kept "in the shadows." When they begin and conclude is often not clear. Even after decades of the Cold War, for instance, many in the U.S. intelligence community apparently could not find any ties between the Kremlin and terrorism.
It was not until 1981, that CIA Director William Casey, in response to charges from the Washington Post that the Reagan administration was exaggerating Soviet sponsorship of terrorism, asked the then-leading CIA Russia expert and analyst, Robert Gates (later Deputy Director), to explore the evidence of Soviet ties to terrorism.
In its subsequent report to Casey, the CIA that claimed Moscow had no such ties or that the information was "murky." Casey told them to look again. The preliminary report that followed said that ties were extensive. Unfortunately, political opposition to releasing the report hindered its completion.
CIA technocrats were apparently opposed to detailing Moscow's sponsorship of terrorism because, in their view, as one Washington Post article said at the time, if such ties were revealed, "détente would suffer."
As Robert Gates would detail in his 1996 book, From the Shadows, the charge -- which President Reagan made along with his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig -- that Moscow was "up to its eyeballs," in supporting terrorism, was true. Gates concluded that, in fact, the extent of Soviet sponsorship of terrorism had actually been "understated" by President Reagan and Secretary Haig, and was worse than they had thought.
This revelation, however, did not stop one widely used university author, Raymond Garthoff, from concluding in 1994, in The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War, that the Soviets did not support terrorism at all.
As Russia's archival evidence, discovered after the end of the Cold War, revealed, however, throughout the entire Cold War, Moscow was indeed the world's chief sponsor of terrorism. Unfortunately, a further search of the Russian archives has since become impossible: the current Russian government has made most of those contents off-limits.
If, after 70 years of analyzing the Soviet Union, top scholars can get wrong such widespread evidence of state sponsorship of terrorism -- the CIA did not even see that the Soviet Union was about to collapse -- it is not implausible that with Iraq and its connections to terrorism, there can be disparate conclusions based on what is accurately described as incomplete and contradictory evidence.
Terrorism, a fact of life in the world today, is not the result of one terror group or one terror sponsor. Rather, as the head of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud said of Afghanistan, the U.S. was faced with what he described as a "poisonous coalition" of "armed Islamic radicalism which included Pakistani and Arab intelligence agencies, recruits from religious schools, and wealthy sheiks with money and supplies" of which "Al Qaeda was but one part (and a part Afghans apparently found 'abhorrent')".
This "poisonous coalition" exists today. One can see it in Hamas's rocket fire into Israel; Qatar funding its Muslim Brotherhood ally, Hamas; Iran, and possibly now North Korea, supplying weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah; massive military assistance from Russia to both Iran and Syria; Syrian President Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people; Russia abrogating trade and anti-ballistic missile treaties for years, this year the Budapest Treaty, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear capability in exchange for Russian assurances not to invade, and this month, Russia's 1987 Treaty not to test nuclear missiles; Iran's death squads operating in Iraq and its terrorist attacks against Iraq and Afghanistan; jihadis and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, blowing up airports and hotels; and the bloody handiwork of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, to name but a few.
The terrorism we face today goes far beyond one terrorist group. It is the "poisonous coalition" of our age of armed Islamic jihadis and their state allies.
To miss this point not only reveals a failure to tell the truth, it reveals a failure to understand what the truth even is.
Iraq was indeed part of murderous coalition of terror groups and terror-sponsoring states. The Cheneys said so and made their case.
In that light, it looks as if Glenn Kessler should generously be awarded four Pinocchios.
 Benjamin Weiser and Scott Shane, "Court Filings Assert Iran Had Link to 9/11 Attacks", New York Times, May 19, 2011; see also Adam Zagorin and Joe Klein, "9-11 Commission Finds Ties Between Al Qaeda and Iran", Time, July 16, 2004.
 Steve Coll, "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the Cold War," 2005.