U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is disputing the conclusion of a special commission probing the 9/11 attacks that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida did not have a collaborative relationship. The vice president spoke out in an interview Friday.
President Bush frequently cited Iraq's links with al-Qaida as one of the reasons for the U.S.-led invasion.
In an interview with CNBC television, Vice President Cheney repeated his assertion that the ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida were substantial.
"There clearly was a relationship. It has been testified to. The evidence is overwhelming," he said. "It goes back to the early 90s. It involves a whole series of high level contacts between Osama bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence officials."
That view conflicts with the findings of the independent, bipartisan commission investigating the 2001 terrorist attacks. In a report released this week, the 9/11 panel said there were contacts between Iraqi officials and al-Qaida operatives prior to 2001. But commission staff member Douglas MacEachin, a former CIA official, said the two parties never really established a working relationship.
"There have been reports of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida (that) also occurred after bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," he said. "And two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied any ties existed between al-Qaida and Iraq and so far we have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States."
Vice President Cheney also says he is not willing to rule out the possibility that Iraq was somehow involved in the 9/11 terrorist plot against the United States.
He was asked about that by CNBC's Gloria Borger.
Borger: "Was Iraq involved?"
Cheney: "We don't know. What the commission says is that they cannot find any evidence of that."
Borger: "But you say you disagree with the commission."
Cheney: "On this question of whether or not there is a general relationship."
Borger: "And they say that there was not one forged and you are saying yes, that there was. Do you think the commission does not know?"
The disagreement between the Bush administration and the 9/11 commission over the extent of Iraq's involvement with al-Qaida has also found its way into the U.S. presidential campaign.
Senator John Kerry, the president's presumptive opponent in the November election, says the 9/11 panel's conclusion shows the administration rushed to war in Iraq for reasons that are not supported by the facts.
"This administration took its eye off of al-Qaida, took its eye off of the real war on terror which was in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan and transferred it for reasons of its own to Iraq," he said.
But at the White House this week, President Bush left no doubt that he will counter Senator Kerry on the issue during the campaign. "This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaida. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida."
The issue could be reignited late next month when the 9/11 panel is scheduled to issue its final report and recommendations based on its investigation of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.