WASHINGTON — Blaming what he called "lazy" reporters for blurring the distinction, Vice President Dick Cheney said that while "overwhelming" evidence shows a past relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, the Bush administration never accused Saddam of helping with the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We have never been able to prove that there was a connection there on 9/11," he said in the CNBC interview that aired on NBC's "Today" show Friday.
Cheney was echoing comments by President Bush on Thursday, and they followed a report by the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission that found no "collaborative relationship" between the former Iraqi leader and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
Cheney, however, insisted the case was not closed into whether there was an Iraq connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. "We don't know."
The vice president noted a disputed report about an alleged meeting between an Iraqi intelligence official and lead hijacker Mohamed Atta in the Czech Republic in April 2001. "We've never been able to confirm or to knock it down," Cheney said.
The 9/11 commission, however, said in one of three reports issued this week that "based on the evidence available — including investigation by Czech and U.S. authorities plus detainee reporting — we do not believe that such a meeting occurred."
Cheney responded that, for his part, the findings remained inconclusive. "It doesn't add anything from my perspective. I mean, I still am a skeptic."
Overall, the vice president defended the administration's view of Iraq's links to al-Qaida, saying the "the evidence is overwhelming" and citing the commission report's evidence of a meeting between bin Laden and an Iraqi official in 1994 in Sudan, as well as the presence of terror suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.
He said he disagreed with the commission's conclusion on whether there was a "general relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaida.
"I don't know what they know," Cheney said of the commission, adding however that he "probably" knows more about Saddam and al-Qaida than the panel.
But Cheney declined to disagree outright with the report's conclusion that no evidence exists to connect Saddam to Sept. 11 — saying instead that, "I disagree with the way their findings have been portrayed. There has been enormous confusion."
Reiterating the distinction between contacts and actual collaboration on the Sept. 11 attacks, Cheney said some news media had blurred that distinction and reported the administration was directly tying the attacks to Saddam.
"The press is, with all due respect there are exceptions, often times lazy, often simply reports what someone else in the press says without doing their homework," Cheney said.
Natural or man-made impression?
Critics say Bush administration officials at times created the impression that Saddam was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks in order to justify his ouster.
“It’s not surprising people make that connection,” Cheney said at one point as polls showed most Americans believed Iraq was involved. Bush also argued that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, which have not been found, and that he ruled his country with an iron fist and tortured political opponents.Video:
The president on Thursday said that "this administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaida."
"We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida; for example, Iraqi intelligence agents met with (Osama) bin Laden, the head of al-Qaida, in the Sudan."
To support the administration's view, Cheney's office is providing reporters with a list of officials and lawmakers who have made similar claims over the years.
The list includes outgoing CIA Director George Tenet, who was appointed by President Clinton, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York Democrat and former first lady, who was quoted by Cheney's office as saying on Oct. 10, 2002: Saddam "has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaida members.”
Panel's staff report
According to the Sept. 11 commission’s staff report, bin Laden had met with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in 1994 and had explored the possibility of cooperation, but the plans apparently never came to fruition.
“We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States,” the report said. It was based on interviews with government intelligence and law enforcement officials.
"There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," the report said, adding that two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al-Qaida and Iraq.
“We’re very clear on that,” former Indiana Rep. Timothy Roemer, a Democratic member of the commission, said Friday on CNN. However, he said, given the scope of the panel’s report it’s inevitable “we’re going to have a disagreement or two with the administration.”
What’s important now is that the United States find ways to improve its response to terror groups, like al-Qaida, which are trying to get their hands on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, Roemer said.
Senior members of the commission seemed eager to minimize any disagreement with the White House.
“What we have found is, Were there contacts between al-Qaida and Iraq? Yes. Some of them were shadowy but they were there,” said Tom Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, who is chairman.
Like Bush, he said there was no evidence that Iraq aided in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, the Democratic vice chairman of the panel, said media reports of a conflict between the administration and the commission were “not that apparent to me.”
Kerry attacks, Bush defends
The administration statements on an Iraq-al-Qaida connection have been seized upon by Democrats, including the party's presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry.
"The administration misled America, and the administration reached too far," the Massachusetts Democrat told Michigan NPR in an interview.
But in his comments Thursday, Bush said Saddam was a threat because he had ties not only to al-Qaida, but to other terrorist networks as well.
"He was a threat because he provided safe haven for a terrorist like al-Zarqawi, who is still killing innocents inside Iraq," Bush said, referring to the al-Qaida-linked Jordanian native, who is considered the most dangerous foreign fighter in Iraq and one of the world's top terrorists.
Attention on al-Zarqawi has increased in recent months as he became a more vocal terror figure, due in part to three recordings released on the Internet, including the video showing the beheading of American Nicholas Berg.
The State Department and other agencies that handle counterterrorism are considering raising the reward for al-Zarqawi from $10 million to $25 million, putting him on par with al-Qaida leaders bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.