Buried at the end

Buried at the end of a Saturday New York Times piece is a blind quote that carries a lot of explanatory heft when it comes to the Bush administration’s attempts to keep the Iraq-al Qaeda link alive:

One outside adviser to the White House said the administration expected the debate over Iraq’s ties to Al Qaeda to be “a regular feature” of the presidential campaign.

“They feel it’s important to their long-term credibility on the issue of the decision to go to war,” the adviser said. “It’s important because it’s part of the overall view that Iraq is part of the war on terror. If you discount the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, then you discount the proposition that it’s part of the war on terror. If it’s not part of the war on terror, then what is it–some cockeyed adventure on the part of George W. Bush?”

Now, the absence of a Saddam-bin Laden link doesn’t make Iraq ipso facto irrelevant to the war on terrorism. In fact, as Josh among others has documented, the Bush administration has argued that the establishment of a democratic Iraq will have a transformative effect throughout the Middle East, where radical Islam presently stands as the most compelling and accessible alternative to the region’s ossified tyrannies. This is what Bush means when he says,”A free Iraq will stand as an example to reformers across the Middle East.” Of course, with Iraq lapsing more and more into Hobbesian chaos, Bush’s talk about establishing stable democracy there makes me want to ask him for a urine sample. And it’s much more concrete to talk about “contacts” between al-Qaeda and Saddam to frame the Iraq war in the context of the war on terrorism. But, as the 9/11 Commission’s fifteenth staff statement reported, Iraq’s furtive contacts with al-Qaeda do not appear “to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.” So for the Bush administration to cling to “contacts” that don’t appear to have gone anywhere as its reason for placing Iraq in the context of the war on terrorism, it will be deemphasizing its strategic rationale for launching the invasion in favor of an easier to understand but more tenuous argument.

But that seems to be the war the administration is going. Which brings us to the case of Ahmed Hikmat Shakir.

If you haven’t heard of Shakir, that’s because the administration has never brought him up publicly. The most prominent attention given to Shakir has come from Stephen F. Hayes of The Weekly Standard. Shakir, an Iraqi, was a greeter for Malaysian Airlines, a job that, according to Hayes, he boasted of landing thanks to a contact at the Iraqi embassy. In early January 2000, the four al-Qaeda operatives originally intended by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to carry out what would become the attacks met in Kuala Lumpur with jihadist colleagues Hambali and Yazid Sufaat. According to Hayes, Shakir escorted Khalid al-Mihdhar into a car at the airport, then accompanied al-Mihdhar–one of the 9/11 pilots–to the terrorist meeting. Shakir was picked up by Qatari authorities in October 2001, reportedly with contact information for al-Qaeda operatives and associates in his possession, but he was released. Later that month, en route to Iraq, Jordanian intelligence detained him. According to Hayes, the Jordanians and the CIA tried to get Shakir to spy on Baghdad for them, but Shakir never reported back when he was allowed to return to Iraq. Hayes goes on to report that in February of this year, Christopher Carney, one of Douglas Feith’s deputies in the Pentagon’s policy shop, discovered Shakir’s name on a recovered list of officers in the Fedayeen Saddam, identified as a Lieutenant Colonel.

On Sunday, 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman told Tim Russert that since the 9/11 staff statement asserting no operative link between Iraq and al-Qaeda was written, “new intelligence [has been] coming in steadily from the interrogations in Guantanamo and in Iraq and from captured documents. And some of these documents indicate that there is at least one officer of Saddam’s Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of al-Qaeda. That still has to be confirmed.” Why this intelligence should just be coming to the 9/11 Commission now is unclear. According to Hayes, Carney found Shakir on the Fedayeen officers list in February, and it would stand to reason that Carney would find that information pertinent enough to deliver to the 9/11 Commission, which is mandated by law to review all documents in the possession of the bureaucracy relating to the 9/11 conspiracy. It could be that new information suggesting Shakir “was a very prominent member of al-Qaeda” has recently been found. I don’t pretend to know. But Lehman’s disclosure on Meet The Press was the first public, on-the-record reference to Shakir as a possible link from Baghdad to al-Qaeda.

There were, however, off-the-record references floated by the Bush administration. Newsweek‘s Mike Isikoff and Mark Hosenball reported the tale of Shakir’s imprisonment and release (though not that the Jordanians and CIA tried to flip him) in an October 7, 2002 story. They obtained an intelligence document putting Shakir at the Kuala Lumpur meeting. The story carried a quote from an administration official: “Shakir connects to both Iraq and 9-11.” But the reporters cautioned, “It’s a startling claim–though far from proven.” As best as I can tell, the administration didn’t return to Shakir as a prospective link between Iraq and al-Qaeda until Feith sent his famous memo to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in October 2003. Leaked to Hayes shortly thereafter, the memo said Shakir “facilitated the arrival of one of the Sept 11 hijackers for an operational meeting in Kuala Lumpur (Jan 2000). Sensitive reporting indicates Shakir’s travel and contacts link him to a worldwide network of terrorists, including al Qaeda. Shakir worked at the Kuala Lumpur airport–a job he claimed to have obtained through an Iraqi embassy employee.”

Again, I don’t know what intelligence the 9/11 Commission has obtained about Shakir. Nor do I know why the Commission is still receiving new intelligence about him now–specifically, whether it’s just getting all the information about Shakir now, or whether it’s now getting new information indicating Shakir is, as Lehman said, “a very prominent member of al-Qaeda.” Now, there would have to be some additional information on Shakir to indicate that he’s an al-Qaeda member, as nothing public to date indicates that he is. It’s possible. But, even assuming that Saddam authorized Shakir to attend the Malaysia meeting, which we don’t yet know, it’s also possible that Saddam was trying to gather intelligence on terrorist operations.

But even without Shakir in custody, it should at least be theoretically possible to advance our understanding of his connection to the plot, to Saddam, and to Saddam’s heretofore-elusive connections to al-Qaeda: While three of the attendees of the meeting are dead (al-Midhar, fellow hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi and Hambali), and Shakir’s whereabouts are unknown, two other attendees, Sufaat and Khallad bin Attash are in custody. If Shakir was acting as Saddam’s delegate to the meeting, theoretically Sufaat and Attash would know, though I freely concede that this might not necessarily be the case. Perhaps if they were kept in the dark, the al-Qaeda operative who arranged the meeting would know: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. KSM, as he’s known, was captured in Pakistan in 2003. The 9/11 Commission, staff director Philip Zelikow told me in January, has had full access to debriefings of his interrogations, and clearly they’ve informed the staff reports. (KSM has told interrogators that Iraq was not in any significant way tied to al-Qaeda.) It would stand to reason that at least one of these three detained terrorists involved with the Kuala Lumpur meetings would know if Shakir attended on behalf of Saddam Hussein–after all, is it really plausible that Saddam was involved with the meeting if the terrorists involved were unaware who, if anyone, Shakir was working for? I suppose it’s possible, but it would seem a stretch.

Lehman told Russert that Shakir’s link to al-Qaeda “still has to be confirmed.” It may be possible to get an answer to this question based on detainees to whom the 9/11 Commission supposedly has access. The quote from the informal Bush adviser suggests that the White House isn’t going to let the Iraq-al Qaeda connection go quietly into that good night, and Shakir appears to be at the heart of the newest White House push to demonstrate ties of any significance. An answer, or at least more of an answer, to the question of Shakir should be possible by the Commission’s final report next month.

(One last thing: As I write this, Steve Hayes is on The Daily Show. Congratulations, dude! You’re famous! You have an important advantage over me in the Iraq-al Qaeda debate: My girlfriend just pointedly asked me, “So why don’t you get to go on The Daily Show ?”)