Knight Ridder Team Pursues ‘Most Important’ Story

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By: Greg Mitchell

An award-winning Knight Ridder investigative team is hardly resting on its laurels. In an article distributed Wednesday, Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott produced an uncompromising look at Bush administration claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaida — one of the administration’s central arguments for a pre-emptive war.

Their surprisingly frank conclusion: the Bush claim “appears to have been based on even less solid intelligence than the administration’s claims that Iraq had hidden stocks of chemical and biological weapons.”

Further, their review for the KR news service “found that administration advocates of a pre-emptive invasion frequently hyped sketchy and sometimes false information to help make their case. On two occasions, they neglected to report information that painted a less sinister picture.”

The three reporters work out of the news service’s Washington bureau. Landay and Strobel recently won the Raymond Clapper Memorial Award for Outstanding Washington Reporting, for Iraq-related coverage. Last year they were among the few mainstream journalists who repeatedly raised questions about the administration’s claims of solid evidence for the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

In a recent memo to KR editors, Washington Editor Clark Hoyt praised his team for its coverage of the past two years, and observed that “we are pleased that other news organizations are now engaging the vital story of how intelligence information was used and disseminated before and during the war in Iraq. As they do, we will continue to pursue the story because we believe it is the most important one of our time … It is a line of inquiry that is at the heart of the most important decision a democratic society can face — whether to go to war.”

Yesterday, in unusually sharp language, the three KR reporters declared that “no evidence has turned up to verify allegations of Saddam’s links with al-Qaida, and several key parts of the administration’s case have either proved false or seem increasingly doubtful. Senior U.S. officials now say there never was any evidence that Saddam’s secular police state and Osama bin Laden’s Islamic terrorism network were in league. At most, there were occasional meetings.”

But before the war and since, “Bush and his aides made rhetorical links that now appear to have been leaps,” they assert. Three of several bogus links singled out by the KR team:

* Vice President Dick Cheney told National Public Radio in January that there was “overwhelming evidence” of a relationship between Saddam and al-Qaida. Among the evidence he cited was Iraq’s harboring of Abdul Rahman Yasin, a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Cheney did not mention that Iraq had offered to turn over Yasin to the FBI in 1998. The Clinton administration refused the offer, because it was unwilling to reward Iraq for returning a fugitive.

* Iraqi defectors alleged that Hussein’s regime was helping to train Arab terrorists at a site called Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. The allegation made it into a September 2002 white paper that the White House issued. The U.S. military has found no evidence of such a facility.

* The widely-published allegation that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer now is contradicted by FBI evidence: Atta was taking flight training in Florida at the time. The Iraqi, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al Ani, is now in U.S. custody and has told interrogators he never met Atta.

Yet the charges that Saddam was in league with bin Laden, and carefully worded hints that he might even have played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, the KR reporters observe, “may have done more to marshal public and political support for a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq than the claims that Iraq still had chemical and biological weapons and was working to get nuclear ones.”

On Feb. 21, the three reporters revealed that the Pentagon is still paying millions of dollars to an Iraqi exile group that was the source of some of the fabricated and exaggerated intelligence Bush used to make the case for war.

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