From wire reports
Rebuffing Bush administration claims, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said Wednesday no evidence exists that al-Qaida had strong ties to Saddam Hussein. In hair-raising detail, the commission said the terror network had envisioned a much larger attack and is working hard to strike again.
Although Osama bin Laden asked for help from Iraq in the mid-1990s, Saddam's government never responded, according to a report by the commission staff based on interviews with government intelligence and law enforcement officials. The report asserted "no credible evidence" has emerged that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 strikes.
Al-Qaida is actively trying to replicate the destruction of that day, the report said, though the terrorist network has been weakened by losing its sanctuary in Afghanistan and many leaders to U.S. strikes and arrests. The terror organization also is trying to obtain a nuclear weapon and is "extremely interested" in chemical, radiological and biological attacks, including the use of anthrax, it said.
"The trend toward attacks intended to cause ever-higher casualties will continue," the report said.
The commission staff said that Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed initially outlined an attack involving 10 aircraft targeting both U.S. coasts. Mohammed proposed that he pilot one of the planes, kill all the male passengers, land the plane at a U.S. airport and make a "speech denouncing U.S. policies in the Middle East before releasing all the women and children," the report said.
Bin Laden rejected that plan as too complex, deciding instead on four aircraft piloted by handpicked suicide operatives. The report said the targets were chosen based on symbolism: the Pentagon, which represented the U.S. military; the World Trade Center, a symbol of American economic strength; the Capitol, the perceived source of U.S. support for Israel, and the White House. Training for the attacks began in 1999.
The attacks were planned for as early as May 2001, but they were pushed back to September, partly because al-Qaida sought to strike when Congress would be at the Capitol. A second wave of hijackings never materialized because Mohammed was too busy planning the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the report.
Under questioning, John Pistole, the FBI's top counterterrorism official, told the commission that the government "has probably prevented a few aviation attacks" in the United States since Sept. 11 but that some operatives in those plots are still at large.
The findings were released as the commission began its final two days of hearings on the terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. The second day will focus on the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. air defenses. The commission's final report is due July 26.
Commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, expressed exasperation that the government did not act with greater urgency against bin Laden, given what was known about al-Qaida before 2001.
"I believe that we missed a tremendous opportunity very early in this game to inform the Congress, inform the American people who bin Laden was, what he was doing, what he had done and as a consequence I think we simply didn't rally until it was too late," Kerrey said.
The conclusions that al-Qaida and Iraq had no cooperative relationship run counter to repeated assertions by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials. The claims that bin Laden and Saddam were in league were central to the administration's justification for going to war in Iraq.
The findings challenge a belief held by large numbers of Americans about al-Qaida's ties to Saddam. According to a Harris poll in late April, 2004, a plurality of Americans, 49 percent to 36 percent, believe there is "clear evidence that Iraq was supporting al-Qaida has been found." As recently as Monday, Cheney said in a speech that Saddam had "long-established ties with al-Qaida." Bush, asked on Tuesday to verify or qualify that claim, defended it by pointing to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has taken credit for a wave of attacks in Iraq.
Bush's Democratic challenger, John Kerry, sought to profit from the commission findings. "The administration misled America and the administration reached too far," Kerry told Michigan Public Radio. "I believe that the 9-11 report, the early evidence, is that they're going to indicate that we didn't have the kind of terrorists links that this administration was asserting. I think that's a very, very serious finding."
A Bush campaign spokesman countered that Kerry himself has said Saddam "supported and harbored terrorist groups." And Cheney's spokesman pointed to a 2002 letter written by CIA director George Tenet acknowledging credible reports of decade-old contacts between senior Iraqi and al-Qaida leaders, along with discussions between the two about safe-haven and non-agression agreements.
Meeting in Sudan
The commission report said that bin Laden, while in Sudan, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in 1994 to request space for al-Qaida training camps and assistance in obtaining weapons, "but Iraq apparently never responded." The meeting occurred even though bin Laden opposed Saddam's secular government and had sponsored anti-Saddam operatives in Iraq's Kurdish region.
The camps that were established in Afghanistan after bin Laden moved there in 1996 produced as many as 20,000 al-Qaida operatives and encouraged trainees to "think creatively about ways to commit mass murder," the report said.
Some of the ideas included taking over a missile launcher and forcing Russians to fire a nuclear device at the United States, mounting mustard gas or cyanide attacks against Jewish areas in Iran, releasing poison gas into a building ventilation system -- and "last, but not least, hijacking an aircraft and crashing it into an airport or nearby city."
The Sept. 11 plot gradually evolved from Mohammed's original vision but was hardly a seamless operation, the commission report said. Mohammed, who is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed overseas location, wanted up to 26 operatives for the four-plane plot, but at least 10 were prevented from entering the United States because of visa problems, family objections and other reasons.
There was disagreement between Mohammed, bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, a leader of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, about whether the Capitol or White House should be targeted, a question the report says apparently never was resolved. Bin Laden also had to overcome objections to attacking the United States from Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader who was under pressure from his Pakistani supporters to contain al-Qaida.
Omar, like bin Laden, has eluded U.S. capture since the attacks.