June 29, 2005

Iraq and 9/11... Again!

Not this again. The National Review's Andrew McCarthy is demanding that liberals answer his questions about the connections between Iraq and 9/11. Okay, fine, let's take a look at his first question:
Ahmed Hikmat Shakir — the Iraqi Intelligence operative who facilitated a 9/11 hijacker into Malaysia and was in attendance at the Kuala Lampur meeting with two of the hijackers, and other conspirators, at what is roundly acknowledged to be the initial 9/11 planning session in January 2000? Who was arrested after the 9/11 attacks in possession of contact information for several known terrorists? Who managed to make his way out of Jordanian custody over our objections after the 9/11 attacks because of special pleading by Saddam’s regime?
Oh yes, this was hot news last summer, and much-trumpeted by 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman. Initially, it was thought that Shakir was a colonel in Saddam's Fedayeen. Bam! Smoking gun! But no, as Walter Pincus reported in the Washington Post, that line of thinking seemed to be a case of conflated names. On the one hand, we had Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, an Iraqi national and known al-Qaeda greeter in Malaysia. Meanwhile, Iraqi military documents, unearthed in 2003, had revealed the existence of Lt. Col. Hikmat Shakir Ahmad, a member of Saddam's Fedayeen. The same person? It doesn't seem so, despite the similar names. Newsday also reported that the CIA had concluded "long ago" that the al-Qaeda greeter was not an officer in Iraq's army. This stuff was all in the 9/11 Commission report as well.

Okay, so far none of this contradicts what McCarthy's saying. He isn't claiming this Kuala Lumpur greeter was Fedayeen, but rather an "Iraqi intelligence operative." Well okay, a follow-up article by Knight-Ridder's Jonathan Landay reported that Shakir, the greeter in Kuala Lumpur, had been "employed with the aid of an Iraqi intelligence officer." Presumably that's what McCarthy means when he says "Iraqi Intelligence Operative." On the other hand, Landay also noted: "There's no evidence that Ahmad Hikmat Shakir attended the meeting [with two of the 9/11 hijackers, planner Ramzi Binalshibh, and mastermind Tawfiz al Atash]." And Newsweek had reported previously that this Kuala Lumpur greeter had been employed at too low a level—by the Iraqi embassy in Malaysia—to be involved with Saddam Hussein's Mukhabarat. So it's hard to say just what, exactly, this greeter's role was in the attacks, or how complicit Saddam Hussein was in all this.

Now McCarthy thinks that liberals should be "moving heaven and earth to find out the answer." Well, maybe we should. On the other hand, maybe the Bush administration could just tell us. As Spencer Ackerman pointed out at the time, the government has Tawfiz al-Atash, one of the guys at the Malaysia meeting, in custody. You would think for all the waterboarding at their disposal, they could've cleared this mystery up by now. And if it's the smoking gun McCarthy thinks it might be, then why hasn't the White House released anything? I can't imagine they'd keep this stuff secret if it was that spectacular. And keep in mind, that Stephen Hayes—the chief driver behind this story—has called Shakir "the strongest indication that Saddam and al Qaeda may have worked together on September 11." This is the Holy Grail for Iraq-9/11 buffs; so why won't the president offer them a swig? Because it's all a crock of shit maybe?

Meanwhile, McCarthy's claim that Jordan released Shakir from custody "because of special pleading by Saddam’s regime" is a little tendentious. Hayes originally reported that U.S. intelligence officials disagreed over whether Iraq's demands for Shakir's release were simply "pro forma" or something that "reflected an interest… at the highest levels of Saddam Hussein's regime." In the end, according to Hayes, the CIA agreed to let Shakir go, because the Jordanians were convinced he was a member of Iraqi intelligence and wanted to "flip" him. But the Jordanians' main evidence here seemed to be that Shakir was good at counterinterrogation techniques, which, as Dan Darling pointed out, Shakir could've picked up from any number of places besides Iraq. Again, murky, murky. So back to the main point: it seems that the White House could clear up quite a bit with regards to that Kuala Lumpur meeting, no? So why don't they?

update: Hey, maybe the Shakir story is what has Robin Hayes in a twist! By the way, my favorite Rep. Hayes story has to be this one, where the gentleman from North Carolina called his colleagues "hand-wringing bed-wetters" when they expressed a bit of, um, unease over the purchase of the C-130J, a transport airplane with "so many flaws that it cannot fly its intended combat missions." (That dud is also, I think, the plane featured proudly atop Hayes' hyper-patriotic homepage.) Say what you will, but this brave warrior would never leave a wounded defense contract behind.
-- Brad Plumer 10:57 PM || ||