A year ago, on Oct. 1, one of the most important documents in U.S. history was published and couriered over to the White House.
The 90-page, top-secret report, drafted by the National Intelligence Council at Langley, included an executive summary for President Bush known as the "key judgments." It summed up the findings of the U.S. intelligence community regarding the threat posed by Iraq, findings the president says formed the foundation for his decision to preemptively invade Iraq without provocation. The report "was good, sound intelligence," Bush has remarked.
Most of it deals with alleged weapons of mass destruction.
But page 4 of the report, called the National Intelligence Estimate, deals with terrorism, and draws conclusions that would come as a shock to most Americans, judging from recent polls on Iraq. The CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the other U.S. spy agencies unanimously agreed that Baghdad:
* had not sponsored past terrorist attacks against America,
* was not operating in concert with al-Qaida,
* and was not a terrorist threat to America.
"We have no specific intelligence information that Saddam's regime has directed attacks against U.S. territory," the report stated.
However, it added, "Saddam, if sufficiently desperate, might decide that only an organization such as al-Qaida could perpetrate the type of terrorist attack that he would hope to conduct."
Sufficiently desperate? If he "feared an attack that threatened the survival of the regime," the report explained.
"In such circumstances," it added, "he might decide that the extreme step of assisting the Islamist terrorists in conducting a CBW [chemical and biological weapons] attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."
In other words, only if Saddam were provoked by U.S. attack would he even consider taking the "extreme step" of reaching out to al-Qaida, an organization with which he had no natural or preexisting relationship. He wasn't about to strike the U.S. or share his alleged weapons with al-Qaida – unless the U.S. struck him first and threatened the collapse of his regime.
Now turn to the next page of the same NIE report, which is considered the gold standard of intelligence reports. Page 5 ranks the key judgments by confidence level – high, moderate or low.
According to the consensus of Bush's intelligence services, there was "low confidence" before the war in the views that "Saddam would engage in clandestine attacks against the U.S. Homeland" or "share chemical or biological weapons with al-Qaida."
Their message to the president was clear: Saddam wouldn't help al-Qaida unless we put his back against the wall, and even then it was a big maybe. If anything, the report was a flashing yellow light against attacking Iraq.