WARRENTON, Mo. — The phrases vary. Some days, Vice President Dick Cheney says Saddam Hussein had "long-established" ties to Al Qaeda. Other days, he says the onetime Iraqi dictator "had a relationship" with the terrorist group.
But the underlying message remains unchanged — Cheney plants the idea that Hussein was allied with the group responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Although the extent of the Al Qaeda-Hussein relationship — if it existed — has been widely disputed, Cheney proceeds with nary a nod toward such questions.
And in doing so, he draws a line from the war in Iraq, on which public opinion is divided, to the larger war on terrorism, for which President Bush wins greater support.
"When voters look at Iraq as a standalone issue
it is a horrible situation for the president," said Charles Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst in Washington. "But when it is woven into the fabric of a global war on terrorism, people are more accepting of it as the price we have to pay."
Cheney slips his reference to Hussein and Al Qaeda into his litany of Hussein's offenses: the regime's production and use of chemical weapons against enemies; support for the families of suicide bombers; Iraq's defiance of various U.N. resolutions.
Each has largely been established and is subject of little debate — with the exception of the tie to Al Qaeda.
The bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks said it had found no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between Hussein and the terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden. Its staff has said it had found "no credible evidence" that Iraq had cooperated with Al Qaeda in targeting the United States.
To back up Cheney's claim of an Al Qaeda-Hussein "relationship," his aides point to the presence in pre-invasion Iraq of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant believed to be behind much of the insurgency in postwar Iraq.
But while Zarqawi is widely thought to have had ties to Bin Laden's group — the vice president calls him "a senior Al Qaeda associate" — the extent of his links to Hussein, if any, has never been established.
The vice president's staff notes that former CIA Director George J. Tenet testified in Congress about a relationship between Hussein and Al Qaeda. And, his aides say, Cheney has been careful to not state that Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Still, Cheney's references to an Al Qaeda-Hussein connection may obscure that distinction for many voters.
Surveys of Americans consistently have found large numbers who say Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, despite repeated declarations by a variety of investigators to the contrary. As recently as June, a Gallup Poll found that 44% said Hussein was personally tied to the terrorist strikes; 51% said he was not.
A senior Republican who served in top White House positions during the Ford and Reagan administrations cited the Gallup findings in discussing Cheney's campaign comments on Al Qaeda and Hussein. The vice president, the senior Republican said, is "talking about something that is credible with the American people, despite the intelligence. And the intelligence community is so under attack that he can say whatever he wants.
"What he gets out of it is making the case even stronger for why we went into Iraq, and it fits a pattern of what the American people want to believe," said the Republican, who requested anonymity.
Many Democrats are infuriated by what they view as an effort by Cheney to exaggerate the link between Al Qaeda and Hussein.
"This is one of his major issues. He tries to blur the lines between Al Qaeda and 9/11, and Saddam Hussein and Iraq," said Michael B. Feldman, a senior aide four years ago to Al Gore who is not active in this year's presidential race.
"From the very beginning of the effort to sell the [Iraq] war, this has been Cheney's role. He's also
at odds with the facts
. That doesn't stop him. I don't think it's an accident. I don't think it's a slip of the tongue."
Polls have found that, overall, Cheney is one of the least popular vice presidents in recent administrations. But he is a major draw among the Republican faithful. The Bush reelection campaign frequently sends him to the most closely contested states, where he is dispatched to communities that supported the Republican ticket four years ago.
In the speeches he delivers — at rallies, at town hall question-and-answer sessions and at small round-table meetings to audiences made up almost entirely of loyal supporters admitted by invitation — the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism are woven throughout. They are the vice president's central, inseparable themes. And he delivers his message in a rich baritone and no-nonsense manner.
He delivered one of his typical speeches Friday at a dusty fairgrounds in Warrenton, Mo., about 40 miles west of St. Louis. Speaking of Hussein, Cheney said: "He provided safe haven for terrorists over the years. He was making $25,000 payments to the families of suicide bombers, and he had a relationship with Al Qaeda, and Iraq for years was carried by our State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism."
Hours later, he made similar comments at a fundraising dinner in Tulsa, Okla.
Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and author of several books on the vice presidency, offered a succinct explanation for Cheney's effort to connect Hussein to Al Qaeda: He does it, Light said, "because he can."
He added: "It's a statement to the party faithful. He doesn't say Saddam Hussein planned 9/11 and funded it. There's no evidence of that. But he pushes the envelope, for sure."
Light also said that Cheney had been seen in a more serious light than most of his predecessors, taking on "an important role as a 'legitimizer' at the start of [Bush's] term," when the president was seen as inexperienced in the ways of Washington, the presidency and the world.
"The veneer of legitimacy has stuck to him," Light said of Cheney, "and allows him to say things that are outrageous."
"In a sense, Cheney wants it both ways: to be seen as an influential vice president who has expanded the job and to also have the leeway of past vice presidents and not be subjected to the same scrutiny as the president."
© 2004 Los Angeles Times