WASHINGTON — The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks reported Wednesday that Osama bin Laden met with a top Iraqi official in 1994 but found “no credible evidence” of a link between Iraq and al-Qaida in attacks against the United States.
In a report based on research and interviews by the commission staff, the panel said that bin Laden made overtures to toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for assistance, as he did with leaders in Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere as he sought to build an Islamic army.
The report said that bin Laden explored possible cooperation with Saddam at the urging of allies in Sudan eager to protect their own ties to Iraq, even though the al-Qaida leader had previously provided support for “anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Bin Laden ceased that support in the early 1990s, opening the way for a meeting between the al-Qaida leader and a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in 1994 in Sudan, the report said. At the meeting, bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps in Iraq as well as Iraqi assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded, the staff report said.
No ‘collaborative relationship’ seen
It said that reports of subsequent contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan “do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship,” and added that two unidentified senior bin Laden associates "have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al-Qaida and Iraq."
The report, the 15th released by the commission staff, concluded, “We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States.”
Fred Fielding, a Republican member of the commission, prodded witnesses about their conclusion, citing a 1998 indictment of bin Laden that alleged links with the then-Iraqi leader.
But U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Illinois said that while such claims were contained in the original indictment, they were dropped when later charges were filed.
The panel's findings were released two days after Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that Saddam had "long-established ties" with al-Qaida.
Bush says al-Zarqawi ‘best evidence’
President Bush defended the statement in a news conference Tuesday, saying the presence in Iraq of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is accused of trying to disrupt the transfer of sovereignty as well as last month's decapitation of American Nicholas Berg, provides "the best evidence of connection to al-Qaida affiliates and al-Qaida."
In making the case for war in Iraq, Bush administration officials frequently cited what they said were Saddam's decade-long contacts with al-Qaida operatives. They stopped short of claiming that Iraq was directly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, but critics say Bush officials left that impression with the American public.
The White House had no immediate comment on the report's conclusion, but it drew a fresh attack on Bush from Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate.
"The administration misled America and the administration reached too far," the Massachusetts Democrat told Michigan NPR in an interview.
Meeting between hijacker, Iraqi agent discounted
In a second staff report released Wednesday, the commission staff said that Mohamed Atta, the pilot of one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center and leader of the 19 hijackers, never met with Iraqi agents in Prague, Czech Republic. That purported meeting also has been cited as evidence of a possible al-Qaida connection to Iraq.
“We do not believe that such a meeting occurred,” the report said.
The release of the reports came as the 10-member commission opened its final public hearing on the attacks. The hearing, being held Wednesday and Thursday, will cover the Sept. 11 plot and the emergency response by the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. air defenses. Commissioners say they will delve into the actions of the nation’s top leaders during critical moments of the attacks.
The panel intends to issue a final report in July on the hijackings on Sept. 11, 2001 that killed nearly 3,000, destroyed the World Trade Centers in New York and damaged the Pentagon outside Washington. A fourth plane commandeered by terrorists crashed in the countryside in Pennsylvania.
At the final public hearing, the commission was planning to focus on the nation’s air defense, details of the plot and confusion and miscommunication among agencies during the attacks, hindering a response.
How al-Qaida became ‘fast-acting, poisonous’
“We’re going to talk about the evolution of al-Qaida and how they moved from one type of organization in the late 1980s to a more fast-acting, poisonous organization in the 1990s, more spread out and dispersed,” said Timothy Roemer, a Democratic commissioner and former representative from Indiana.
“We’ll be looking at the timeline as to whether or not we had an opportunity to deflect any of the airliners, and how decisions were made by the highest people in government,” he said.
In its report, the commission staff pieced together information on the development of bin Laden’s network, from the far-flung training camps in Afghanistan and elsewhere, to funding from “well-placed financial facilitators and diversions of funds from Islamic charities.”
Reports that bin Laden had a huge personal fortune to finance acts of terror are overstated, the report said.
The description of the training camp operations contained elements of faint, grudging praise.
“A worldwide jihad needed terrorists who could bomb embassies or hijack airliners, but it also needed foot soldiers for the Taliban in its war against the Northern Alliance, and guerrillas who could shoot down Russian helicopters in Chechnya or ambush Indian units in Kashmir,” it said.
According to one unnamed senior al-Qaida associate, various ideas were floated by mujahedeen in Afghanistan, the commission said. The options included taking over a launcher and forcing Russian scientists to fire a nuclear missile at the United States, mounting mustard gas or cyanide attacks against Jewish areas in Iraq or releasing poison gas into the air conditioning system of a targeted building.
“Last but not least, hijacking an aircraft and crashing it into an airport or nearby city,” it said.
The commission also reiterated an oft-repeated warning by the Bush administration, saying al-Qaida remains poised to attack the United States in a devastating chemical, biological or "dirty bomb" attack.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the terror group has become much more dispersed, with less funding following the arrests or deaths of key financiers. But the group has learned to operate on much smaller sums than the estimated $30 million spent annually prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the report said.
Al-Qaida still ‘actively striving to attack’ U.S.
"Al-Qaida is actively striving to attack the United States and inflict mass casualties," the report said. The report noted in particular the group's "ambitious" biological weapons program and efforts in 1994 to purchase uranium.
“Al-Qaida and other extremist groups will likely continue to exploit leaks of national security information in the media, open-source information on techniques such as mixing explosives, and advances in electronics," it said.
In the report, the commission points to a series of attacks on the United States or its allies as early as 1992 that U.S. intelligence would determine by the late 1990s were linked to bin Laden or his terrorist group.
They included a December 1992 explosion outside two hotels in Aden, Yemen; the October 1993 killing of 18 U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia; a November 1995 car bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and the June 1995 explosion at the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden's ties to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a failed plot to blow up commercial aircraft in 1994 in Manila, Philippines, are unclear, but they offered significant warning signs that Islamic terrorists were intent on demolishing American symbols and inflicting mass casualties, the panel said.
"What is clear is that these plots were major benchmarks in the evolving Islamist threat to the United States and foreshadowed later attacks that were indisputably carried out by al Qaida under bin Laden's direction," the report stated.
Among those called testify Wednesday were field agents from the FBI and CIA, as well as Patrick Fitzgerald, a former attorney in New York who prosecuted alleged terrorists in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
German prosecutor cancels at last minute
Missing from Wednesday’s schedule is German prosecutor Matthias Krauss, who canceled at the last minute. Krauss, who investigated the al-Qaida cell in Hamburg, Germany, had been expected to highlight problems with U.S. intelligence-sharing. The reason for his cancellation was not immediately clear.
On Thursday, the panel will hear from Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as officials from the FAA and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. They will discuss whether a military response could have limited the Sept. 11 destruction by shooting down the airliners.
Officials have acknowledged the fighters did not get airborne as quickly as possible. NORAD and FAA officials say that since Sept. 11 they have established new chains of communication and increased the number of warplanes on alert.
The commission, facing a July 26 deadline for a final report, is winding down its 1½-year investigation after interviewing more than 1,000 witnesses, including President Bush, and reviewing more than 2 million documents.
Communication gaps, missteps detailed
Several commissioners have told the Associated Press that drafts of the final report detail the many communication gaps and missteps by FBI and intelligence officials in detecting the plot. But they said the drafts refrain from placing blame on individuals in the Bush and Clinton administrations to avoid charges of partisanship.
That troubles some relatives of Sept. 11 victims, still seeking closure nearly three years after the attacks. They sent a letter to commissioners this week asking for tough questioning and accountability in the final hearing, saying the truth should come before politics.
“We’re going in with our hearts in our mouths,” said Mindy Kleinberg, whose husband, Alan, was killed in the World Trade Center collapse. “You pray. You know it’s going to be emotional. We just hope on top of the emotion, we don’t leave frustrated again.”
MSNBC.com's Mike Brunker and the Associated Press contributed to this report.