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9/11 panel heads see no clash with White House

Leaders of the Sept. 11 panel say they don't consider the  differences with the Bush administration over the question of al-Qaida’s relationship with Iraq under Saddam Hussein as a major point of contention.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Leaders of the Sept. 11 commission said Sunday they do not regard differences with the Bush administration over the question of al-Qaida’s relationship with Iraq under Saddam Hussein as a major point of contention.

Saddam’s alleged link with terrorists was a central justification of the Bush administration for toppling the former Iraqi government.

A commission staff report says that while there were contacts between Osama bin Laden’s network and the Iraqi government, they did not appear to have produced a collaborative relationship.

Al-Qaida had “a lot more active contacts” with Iran and Pakistan than it did with Iraq, but “we don’t see serious conflicts” with the White House over the issue, said the commission chairman, former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey.

“There's really very little difference between what our staff found, what the administration is saying today and what the Clinton administration said,” said commissioner John Lehman, speaking Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press.” “The Clinton administration portrayed the relationship between al-Qaida and Saddam's intelligence services as one of cooperating in weapons development. There's abundant evidence of that.”

“The Bush administration has never said that [Iraq] participated in the 9/11 attack,” Lehman said. “They've said, and our staff has confirmed, there have been numerous contacts between Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaida over a period of 10 years, at least.”

More proof from Cheney?
Vice President Dick Cheney has said Iraq responded to some of bin Laden’s overtures for assistance. That led the commission’s vice chairman, former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, to again ask that the vice president provide evidence.

“We asked the vice president if he had information we did not have,” said Hamilton, who appeared with Kean on ABC’s “This Week.”

Kean said, “Obviously, if there is some information, we need it.”

“The vice president was right when he said that he may have things that we don't yet have,” Lehman told "Meet the Press” host Tim Russert.  “And we are now in the process of getting this latest intelligence.”

Lehman said the new intelligence that “we are now in the process of getting” indicates one of Saddam’s Fedayeen fighters, a lieutenant colonel, was a prominent al-Qaida member.

Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, also on “Meet the Press,” reinforced Lehman's assessment. “And if there is additional information that the vice president has or others have, we think
we should have gotten that information by now.  But if there is more information, then we are happy to look at it. ..."

“But this was not an effort to discredit or modify someone else's statements,” Ben-Veniste said. “This is a fact-finding, objective effort by a bipartisan commission to get the facts.  And that's what we've done.”

Report due July 26
Hamilton said the White House and the commission agree on the central point: There is no evidence of a collaborative relationship between al-Qaida and Iraq in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Hamilton said the commission’s mandate does not extend to the Iraq war and Kean said the staff report containing the finding is an interim document the commission will consider in compiling its final report.

The commission’s report is due July 26. The actual release will depend on when the White House declassifies its contents.

Commissioners are reviewing that initial draft of the report, which is several hundred pages long, and say they hope to reach agreement by mid-July.