Jun 16, 2003

Bush Karzai press conference, Steve Coll, PB, Wolf Blitzer

Welcome back. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has now been to the Pentagon, the Capitol and the White House. He's talked about the security problems facing his nation prior to September's scheduled elections. And he's asking for more help for his fragile nation. That comes as the hunt, of course, continues for Osama bin Laden.
To talk about all of this and more two guests. Steve Coll is the managing editor of The Washington Post, the author of the important book "Ghost Wars." CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen is joining us as well.

Steve, let me begin and with you and get to one of the sensitive issues. Dick Cheney, last night in his speech in Jacksonville, made it clear he believes there was a direct connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda. The president was asked about it at the news conference just a little while ago in the Rose Garden, and he said Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that's the most clear evidence of the connection. What do you make of that?

STEVE COLL, MANAGING EDITOR, WASHINGTON POST: Well, this has now become politicized is the first thing that I make of it. And it's going to become part of the campaign. And so people are going to stick to their positions and continue to argue the same points over and over again.

As to the evidence itself, Zarqawi clearly did find some medical treatment in Baghdad. But the significance of that link, I think, is regarded as not very convincing by large portions of the American and the western European intelligence community.

There -- the evidence about links between al Qaeda and Saddam's regime is fragmentary at best. Very little of it has been brought on to the public record by the Bush administration. Yet, it's clear that important members of the administration remain convinced that this -- that this is an important link.

BLITZER: Clearly, Peter, the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States are convinced there is a link. I know you've done a lot of extensive research into this area. What do you make of his pointing to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is still supposedly at large in Iraq right now as the single best piece of evidence, according to the president, of this connection?

PETER BERGEN, TERRORISM EXPERT: Well, the president specifically mentioned an e-mail. And I think by that he meant a letter, a 17-page letter that Zarqawi wrote to the al Qaeda leadership in January that was discovered by U.S. forces. That letter, I think, indicates that Zarqawi was sort of -- he's comfortable with al Qaeda, but he obviously is running a completely separate organization.

The letter asked for help. And in the course of the letter, Zarqawi says, if you can't help me, no big deal, you know, our relationship is still cordial. But it is quite clear from U.S. intelligence officials he runs a totally separate organization called Tawhid, which is -- in Arabic means unity. An organization that may even be competitive to al Qaeda.

BLITZER: Well, what about this alleged meeting -- and I want both of you to weigh in -- Peter, you first -- this meeting in Prague before 9/11 between Mohammed Atta and a high-level Iraqi intelligence official? We interviewed Steve Hayes on this program now not that long ago. He's got a new book out entitled "The Connection," in which he suggests that George Tenet, the CIA director, in private conversations seems to take this meeting did take place?

BERGEN: I think the positions of the Czechs now is there's no evidence for this meeting. The position of the U.S. intelligence community is there's no evidence for this meeting. It's impossible to completely prove a negative, but it seems this meeting never happened.

BLITZER: What about your research, Steve? What do you make of this alleged meeting, the ringleader, Mohammed Atta, and some intelligence official in Prague before 9/11?

COLL: I think Peter's right. The Czechs clearly now have repudiated their earlier reports of such a meeting which was based on surveillance, photographs that were not very reliable. The Americans, also, at least the intelligence community today, does not believe the evidence supports such a meeting.

The U.S. intelligence community does have a record of sporadic mid-level contacts between some members of Saddam's regime and some al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic radicals dating back to the mid 1990s in places like Sudan and Pakistan. But this is a really scatter shot array of half-reported context. It doesn't amount to enough evidence of an operational relationship.

There's very little connection between al Qaeda leadership and Baghdad central. All of the contacts that are alleged to have occurred are dated and scattered around the world in places like Khartoum and Karachi.

BLITZER: All right. I'm going to ask Steve Coll and Peter Bergen to stand by. We're going to take a quick break. Lots more to talk about in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and more.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing to talk about Osama bin Laden, the hunt for the al Qaeda leader. Two guests joining us: the managing editor of The Washington Post, the author of the book "Ghost Wars"; our own CNN terrorism analyst, Peter Bergen.

Peter, a lot of our viewers just saw Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, in the Rose Garden with the president of the United States. This issue of poppies, of opium, drugs in Afghanistan, not mentioned barely just a little bit, but this is a huge issue with enormous ramifications.

BERGEN: Yes. The largest supply of opium in the world, $2.6 billion. There's a lot of money. Who's it going to is a very interesting question.

Not clear exactly yet, but I think there's indications that terrorist groups may be starting to profit from this. And that is a huge issue.

BLITZER: Steve, we know -- we used to say -- and maybe The Washington Post was famous during Watergate for this -- follow the money. If you follow the money in Afghanistan for these opium, these poppies, it's probably going to wind up some place significant. I interviewed Hamid Karzai on Sunday, and he said they made a big mistake a couple of years ago when they began to pay off farmers to sort of destroy their poppy fields, their opium out there, because that encouraged others to start growing the same kind of opium poppies out there.

I know your paper has done some great reporting on this. What do you make of this whole issue?

COLL: Well, the biggest problem in 2004 is that the money that flows from the opium and heroin trade is reinforcing sources of instability at the very time when Afghanistan is trying to come together and hold an election. Specifically, the money tends to go to regional militias, warlords, local powers who can control the roads, control the local markets as opium is harvested and then manufactured.

And then there's another ring of profiteering around the edges of Afghanistan that's equally insidious. Particularly across the border in Pakistan. In the same tribal areas where the hunt of Osama bin Laden has been on the spring without much success, local powers are reinforced by heroin manufacturing labs, smuggling networks.

They pay off the police. They try to corrupt the Pakistani constabulary in the army. It makes it very difficult to go after fugitives like bin Laden because the drug money is all around.

BLITZER: Is it fair to say, Peter, that this is worse now than it was before, the opium, the heroin, the poppies that are being grown out there? That it's worse than ever?

BERGEN: I think it is the case. The Taliban -- one of the few achievements of the Taliban is they pretty much abolished the trade, at least for a year or so. Having tolerated it for some time, they abolished it and it was pretty clear that people stopped growing poppy. Now it's back, and it's back even bigger than it was before.

BLITZER: Steve, do you get any sense that the U.S. and its partners, whether the Afghans, the Pakistanis, or others, are, in fact, get anything closer to finding Osama bin Laden?

COLL: Not over the last six weeks. It sounds like the Pakistani offensive in the tribal areas has been largely stalled, although recently there's been some fighting.

The Pakistani army hasn't been up in this part of the world for a long time. And when they made their initial foray, they really got hit much harder than they expected. They've essentially settled down, tried to negotiate with the local tribal leaders to try to get them to turn over the fugitives in their midst. That hasn't anyone successful, nor has the military campaign. So it looks stalled on the Pakistani side.

BLITZER: All right.

Peter, what do you say?

BERGEN: I'm -- I'm with Steve. I mean, it's sort of back to square one. There was a spring offensive. It didn't seem to yield very much. We don't seem to have a very good lead on either Zarqawi -- on either Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden.

BLITZER: All right; Peter Bergen, as usual, thanks very much.

Steve Coll, of The Washington Post, the author of "Ghost Wars," a book I highly recommend. You might want to read it. You probably should read it if you want to know what's going on right now.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.