June 6, 2004

Book review: The Connection

By: Justin Logan

The debate that still rages around the Iraq War may never end. Readers of Stephen F. Hayes’ book, The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America (Harper Collins, $19.95), are likely to harden their own views, whatever they may be. It is unlikely that Hayes’ book will change any minds.

The book is a thoroughly researched compilation of “open source” reporting: that is, reporting that can be done by a freelance writer using the Internet and other public sources. Hayes first rose to fame (or infamy, depending on your disposition) with his publication of the article “Case Closed,” which relied heavily on the leaked “Feith memo,” which he also uses in the book. (The Pentagon, for its part, disavowed the memo after Hayes’ Weekly Standard article was published. Hayes counters that the Pentagon’s response was a “classic Washington nondenial denial.”)

Hayes opens the book strongly, breaking a new story regarding Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, an alleged Iraqi operative who met 9/11 bomber Khalid al Mihdhar in accordance with his duties (and beyond them?) as a greeter with Malaysian Airlines in Kuala Lumpur in early 2000. Hayes deftly marshals circumstantial evidence around the story, but one of the book’s failings is highlighted in this, its first story. He states that “[Shakir] had told associates he had been hired by a contact in the Iraqi embassy.” Then, the story reads on like a novel, which is to say interestingly, but without giving attribution to various claims. Frequently in the Shakir story, and throughout the book, we don’t know whose claims are being cited. Is it Hayes making an assertion? Is the claim CIA’s? An allegation of Malaysian “associates” of Shakir? When were these claims made? Before or after 9/11?

This is largely a structural complaint, though, and one I’m sure Hayes could handle if he were asked to. The substantive problems become evident after Hayes finishes sketching out the Shakir story, acknowledging that the story’s “evidence is far from conclusive, but it cannot be dismissed.”

After the Shakir story, Hayes whisks us back to the early 1990s. We then receive chapter after chapter of interesting anecdotes about Iraq’s flirtations with Islamic terrorists, vice versa, and the accusation that their agents were in the same place at the same time in Sudan after Omar Hassan al Bashir took power there in 1989. Hayes goes to great lengths to refute the claim that because Saddam was secular he could never have worked with religious extremists, but it’s hard to see how this data is otherwise relevant.

This brings us to the essential problem in the book. Hayes claims that al Qaeda’s “collaboration” with Saddam “endangered America.” And there can be no question that Hayes is writing the book in an effort to justify the invasion of Iraq on those grounds. But how does Saddam’s strategic philandering in the 1990s contribute to the case for preemptive war? Osama bin Laden himself didn’t issue his fatwa declaring “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” until February of 1998. Hayes is engaging in “case creep” from preemptive grounds (used at the time) to preventive grounds (embraced in the wake of no WMD and no proven connection to al Qaeda).

Hayes includes some caveats in the book, but the fact remains that he cherry-picks his evidence. There are likely bits and pieces of intelligence to refute each point Hayes makes. That is the very nature of intelligence. In other words, it’s impossible to evaluate two cases until you’ve heard both sides. When Hayes does cite intelligence reports contradicting his theories, he blames “the erroneous assumption the [sic] intelligence officials are disinterested actors whose assessments are somehow above politics.” So when CIA reporting verifies his hypothesis, it’s given as fact. Anything contradictory constitutes intelligence officials playing politics to undermine national security. If someone were to buy this book not knowing that Hayes is an ideological warrior, the book could easily be misread.

Further, while Hayes digs furiously where he knows there’s treasure, he pulls back where he knows there isn’t any. His coverage of Salman Pak (the camp that was expected by many hawks to provide a smoking gun of Saddam’s links to anti-America terrorism and development of biological weapons) is something like a PG-13 movie–it’s titillating, but ultimately it doesn’t deliver. We’re worked up with circumstantial evidence until April 2003, and then he moves on. The reason, one suspects, is that the smoking gun has never emerged. The book is littered with such careful omissions.

The book is also cluttered with an omnipresent whining about the “mainstream media,” which he claims is crippled by “media arrogance.” Though media-bashing has become a favorite neoconservative pastime, it just seems out of place. Hayes claims to investigate “the connection” not “the media.” He is particularly vicious in going after Richard Clarke’s famous proclamation that “[t]here’s absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda, ever.” Though certain points he makes in going after anti-war types are interesting and provocative, constant harping on The Washington Post and The New York Times doesn’t add much to the case that Saddam cooperated with al Qaeda to threaten America.

The book’s main weakness, though, is that it is something of a bait and switch. The careful reader will notice the subtitle and look through the book for proof that Saddam was collaborating with al Qaeda in a way that endangered America. But he will be disappointed on that score. Hayes’ thesis could effectively be recast as, “Neither the media nor the government has adequately followed up on indications Saddam could have cooperated in some way with al Qaeda. The case remains open, and should be investigated further.”

But that thesis just leads to a larger question: Given that Hayes supported the Iraq War on the grounds that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was going to hand them off to terrorists, where does he stand in the absence of WMD and without proof of Saddam-al Qaeda links? If after more than a year of occupation his reasoning hasn’t been validated, doesn’t the war remain unjustified?

I asked him just this question at his book forum at the American Enterprise Institute, after he described the decision to go to war as a “no brainer.” His response was that we had no choice, that in a post-9/11 world we had to act first. Though his answer was unsatisfying (I asked him to answer with the wisdom of hindsight), the logic that comes out of it is frightening: If one cannot prove a negative where there is doubt, one should make war and ask questions later, hopefully getting some answers. Even in the absence of answers, war is justified. Logic like that can make you hope that America doesn’t lead by example anymore.

Justin Logan is a freelance writer living in Bethesda, Maryland. His website is www.justinlogan.com.