Mar 15, 2004

PB, Richard Perle and Ken Pollack on Late Edition

BLITZER: Are you still inclined to believe it's ETA, the Basque separatist movement? PERLE: It could very well be a joint venture. It seems clearly intended to affect the Spanish elections. And both ETA and al Qaeda have an interest in seeing the current government defeated. BLITZER: How unusual would that be, Peter, for al Qaeda to cooperate with ETA? PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Extremely unusual. There's no record of al Qaeda cooperating with secular type of groups -- the IRA, ETA, these kinds of things. It would be very unusual. BLITZER: You disagree with that thought? PERLE: I do disagree with that. I think there is evidence of collaboration between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. I also think that what has happened in recent years is that an informal set of arrangements has developed as people with a common purpose help one another in various ways. BLITZER: Peter, you want to respond, the cooperation between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein? BERGEN: I mean, I think the evidence for that is somewhere between tenuous and nonexistent. I mean, sure, there were contacts in the early '90s between Iraq and al Qaeda, but these contacts had no outcomes. BLITZER: Richard? PERLE: Well, we don't know that. It's very easy to assert it. We don't know it. There were lots of contacts, and there were agreements between them. George Tenet has testified to that effect. BLITZER: You spent a career at the CIA, at the NSC, the National Security Council, Ken, trying to assess, is there a connection, was there a connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda? KEN POLLACK, CNN ANALYST: Certainly, I don't think one has been proven. As Richard is pointing out, there are people who suggest that there is evidence out there. I will tell you, from my experience, all the stuff that I saw, led me to believe there was not a very significant relationship. There may have been informal contacts, but I have yet to see evidence that proves to me, demonstrates to me, that there was some kind of a meaningful relationship between them. BLITZER: An operational relationship. Have you seen that kind of evidence, Richard? PERLE: Well, what we have seen is evidence of many meetings between al Qaeda operatives and others who were not religious terrorists. We've seen indications of the training of al Qaeda people in Iraq. And I believe it has been documented that an agreement existed between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's intelligence organization. BLITZER: I'm not familiar with that. Are you familiar with that kind of connection? BERGEN: No. I think there are probably more American members of al Qaeda than Iraqi members. One of the interesting thing is that, if you look at the people who actually make up al Qaeda itself, very few Iraqis in the organization, almost none. A lot of Egyptians, Saudis, Yemenis. And I think the notion that there was an operational link between al Qaeda and Iraq is not truthful. BLITZER: What about when I interviewed the vice president, Dick Cheney, the other day, he pointed to Abu Musab Zarqawi, who's on the loose right now, public enemy in Iraq number one, Ansar al-Islam, and he was getting treatment in Baghdad, he was somebody who associated with al Qaeda. BERGEN: Yes. I mean, his group certainly cooperated with al Qaeda on occasion, but he actually has a separate group, according to both European and American intelligence officials. This is a group that will cooperate with al Qaeda, but it doesn't mean that there was this link between Saddam and al Qaeda. I think the case has not been proven at all. BLITZER: What do you think? PERLE: I think the important thing is precisely what we just heard. There was cooperation. It gets semantic and splitting definitions to talk about whether it's cooperation or an operational link. The fact is that in this witch's brew of terrorist organizations, there's a lot of collaboration. BLITZER: I know you've looked into this, the whole connection between Mohammed Atta supposedly meeting with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in Czechoslovakia before 9/11. You've looked into that, you've studied it about as carefully as anyone possibly can. What do you make of that? POLLACK: As far as I am concerned, on that one I think that the evidence demonstrates that the meeting did not happen. BLITZER: He is the mastermind of 9/11, supposedly. POLLACK: Correct. The Czechs have gone back and forth on this any number of times. The latest one is that they're agreeing that the meeting did not happen. And what's more, the FBI is pretty convinced that Atta was in Florida at the time that he was supposedly in Prague. BLITZER: Richard, do you accept that? PERLE: I think Ed Epstein, who has done a tremendous amount of work on this and whose findings are at his Web site, which I think is, has looked into it methodically, seriously. And I don't think we know the truth yet. You certainly can't definitively say that they didn't meet. BERGEN: You can't definitively say a lot of things, but when you have the largest criminal investigation in history -- after all, the subject, was Atta meeting an Iraqi intelligence agent, would be part of it. The fact is, that the CIA and the FBI have not found this to be the case. PERLE: Nevertheless, Czech intelligence reported it at one time. There have been stories to the effect that they withdrew their conclusion when that wasn't the case, when they stood by the conclusion. There's controversy about it. It's not definitive either way. And frankly, the CIA and the FBI together have yet to convince me that they can run these things to ground effectively. BLITZER: You're among those who are not necessarily convinced that the CIA was doing such a great job looking at all these connections, going into the war. PERLE: I'm convinced that they were not doing a good job. In fact, they were doing hardly any job at all, because they were blinded by a theory. We've just heard it expressed today. The theory was... BLITZER: That al Qaeda could not work with a secular group like Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime. Is that the theory? PERLE: That's right. That al Qaeda, which was run by religious fanatics, would not work with secular... BLITZER: Let's let Ken weigh in on that, because you used to work with the CIA. Was there this mindset that prevented these analysts, your former colleagues at the CIA, from appreciating that perhaps al Qaeda could work with a secular group like the Iraqi government? POLLACK: Wolf, this is only one person's view, and, when I was at CIA, I was an analyst, I had a worm's eye view of things. But I would actually argue the opposite, that in fact the folks at CIA really wanted to find that link, because, in all honesty, if we could have tied al Qaeda more closely to Iraq, it would have justified a whole lot of other things. It would have allowed the United States to make a much stronger case against Iraq much earlier on. And I think most of the folks at CIA wanted to find that link, and didn't. And yes, it may be the case that their tradecraft wasn't as good as it should have been. It may still be that we will find something. But, you know, my sense was that most people wanted to find... BLITZER: All right, I want to move on, but go ahead and wrap up your final thought on this issue. BERGEN: No, I have no dog in the fight ideologically. I mean, if there is -- if we find a huge warehouse of documents in Baghdad proving the Iraq-al Qaeda link, I'd be the first person to say, case closed. But I don't think we've seen that. BLITZER: One issue that has come forward, Richard, is the fact that the intelligence community, the National Intelligence Estimates in general, going into the war, they were all convinced a year ago that there would be huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons discovered in Iraq, and none have been found. PERLE: Not only were they convinced a year ago, they were convinced during the Clinton administration, which expressed its own view entirely consistent with that, which is why it is clearly politically motivated and disingenuous to suggest that President Bush somehow misrepresented or exaggerated the intelligence. BLITZER: Well, you wrote in a compelling article not that long ago suggesting that there was this tailoring of intelligence, picking and choosing, you know, cherrypicking what they wanted to hear and ignoring what they didn't want to hear. POLLACK: And there were a whole variety of different things going on. I'd say that that's a somewhat different issue. I think that there were people within the administration who were trying to make a case that there was a much more threatening Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction capability than even the intelligence community believed. But Richard's absolutely right that there was a consensus in the intelligence community that predated the Bush administration that the Iraqis did have weapons of mass destruction. What I wrote about in the piece I wrote in The Atlantic was that what I thought was somewhat disingenuous on the part of the administration were speeches by various high-ranking administration members where they stressed the most alarmist elements of the CIA estimates, that the Iraqis might have a nuclear weapon in a year or two, rather than what the agency and the other intelligence community agencies thought was most likely. BLITZER: Peter, the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was on this program within the past hour. And he made the case -- and I remember personally the briefings I had going into Kuwait a year ago on the eve of the war, being prepared for a chemical attack, a biological attack, learning how to use a gas mask, learning how to use atropine, having that full gear, chemical protective gear ready to go. There were a quarter of a million U.S. troops who went in with that gear. They firmly believed that the Iraqis were going to launch a chemical or biological strike against the invading U.S. troops. BERGEN: Well, I mean, I was in favor of the war on the WMD grounds, not on the war-on-terrorism grounds. I think it was a huge, you know -- let's file it in the correct category. We did not help ourselves in the war on terrorism with the war in Iraq. We've seen the bomb in Spain just now. The al Qaeda got a tremendous sort of ideological -- it excited them, and it kept them alive, I think. On the WMD, you know, it seemed the right thing to do. It turns out, of course, there wasn't any WMD. BLITZER: Did this war in Iraq set back the war on terror, Richard? PERLE: Absolutely. If we had recoiled from taking on Saddam Hussein after his defiance, after everything we had good reason to believe about his capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction and distribute them, we had to go after Saddam Hussein. BLITZER: I asked, did the war in Iraq set back the war on terror? You said absolutely. PERLE: Oh, no, no. It absolutely did not set back the war on terror. Sorry about that. BLITZER: Because I was getting confused. PERLE: But look, you can't have it both ways. You can't on the one hand say that al Qaeda was inspired by our attacking Iraq, and on the other hand say that al Qaeda is hostile to Iraq on ideological and religious grounds. BERGEN: Well, you can have it both ways. It's not having it both ways. These things appear mutually contradictory, but they're not. I mean, Osama bin Laden was on the record many, many times about how Saddam is a secular socialist. Believe me, these are not terms of endearment on his part. But he was opposed to the policy on Iraq. These are two separate things. They're not having it both ways. BLITZER: Richard -- well, let me ask Ken. Will the transition scheduled for June 30th take place as scheduled? POLLACK: I think that there will be a transition on June 30th, because I think the administration has made it clear that they are committed to that date. At this point, that date is also being invested by the Iraqis with some real significance. I am very concerned, though, about what that transition is going to look like. You know, we had this November 15 political process, which I thought was a good process, but it has clearly failed. And so far, the U.S., the Iraqis and the U.N. have failed to come up with an alternative. BLITZER: What do you think? PERLE: I think to talk about failure, at a moment when the Iraqis have adopted the first constitution in the Arab world to promise individual liberties and to put them on a path to democracy, is a bit churlish, frankly. Of course it's a difficult situation. It's bound to be. But the Iraqis are making enormous progress, far greater than most people believe. We didn't have the civil war that was predicted. BLITZER: There still could be a civil war down the road, though. PERLE: Well, there clearly are terrorists trying very hard to precipitate a civil war, and they've been unsuccessful in their efforts to do so. It isn't going to be easy, and there will continue to be bombs intended to drive us out. But most of all, what the people who are setting off these bombs want to do is prevent the success in Iraq that has important implications for the dictatorships in the region. BLITZER: All right, we have to wrap it up. But I'll give Peter the last word. Go ahead. BERGEN: Well, I mean, I think Mr. Perle is right, of course, there has been progress. There has been progress, and we can't deny it. Of course, there may be a civil war tomorrow. These things aren't necessarily in contradiction. BLITZER: Between the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, getting them to cooperate. If that happens -- and you've studied Iraq for many, many years -- that will be a huge development. POLLACK: Absolutely. Just in response to Richard, I would say it's a lovely constitution, Richard, I absolutely agree. But it's got a huge piece missing, which is what this interim government is going to look like. And that was the key to the November 15 process. It's why it was a good process. But unfortunately, that has failed, and we don't yet have an alternative. PERLE: Well, if this were Philadelphia, we'd do it a different way. But under the circumstances, it's a pretty impressive result. BLITZER: All right, Richard Perle, as usual, thanks very much. Peter Bergen, thank you. Ken Pollack, thanks to you, as well.