Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, according to President Bush.
But don't blame Americans for thinking otherwise.
When reporters asked him last week, Bush said: ``We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th.''
Poof! In an instant, the president knocked the stuffing from one of his stated reasons for leading the United States to war against Iraq. Earlier casualties in the administration's sell-the-war campaign were Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (still missing despite five months of searching by U.S. troops) and Iraq's nuclear arsenal (cancelled out earlier this month by Vice President Cheney.)
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., says that the administration's case for attacking Iraq was a fraud, ''made up in Texas,'' to help Republicans in next year's election. After all, a war-time president is by definition a popular president.
Kennedy says that the administration's sales job was based on ``distortion, misrepresentation, a selection of intelligence.''
The record shows that Kennedy is right on target. A stream of administration rhetoric has skillfully linked Hussein with 9/11 as part of its two-year sales campaign. Some samples:
In a televised speech earlier this month, Bush cited Iraq as the ''central front'' in the war on terrorism. Bush frequently refers to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the same paragraph denouncing Hussein.
Cheney said on NBC-TV's ''Meet the Press'' recently that the war in Iraq enables the United States to strike a major blow at the ``geographic base of the terrorists who have us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11.''
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice recently said on ABC's Nightline that one of the reasons why Bush went to war against Hussein was because he posed a threat ``in a region from which the 9/11 threat emerged.''
Secretary of State Colin Powell pulled out all the stops at his Feb. 5 sales pitch at the United Nations where he described a ``potentially . . . sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder.''
These careful, clever associations are worthy of Madison Avenue marketers trying to sell us a brand of toothpaste on the basis that it would help us get a pay raise.
The administration's phony sales job has been very effective, up until now. A Washington Post poll last month found that 69 percent of Americans thought Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
No substantive link
The president's astonishing acknowledgement that there was no 9/11 link with Iraq came just days after a respected former CIA official made the same point during sworn testimony before Congress.
Vincent Cannistraro, formerly director of the CIA's counter-terrorism operations and analysis, testified at a Senate hearing that there was ''no substantive intelligence information linking Saddam to international terrorism before the war.'' But with U.S. troops now in Iraq, terrorists are gathering there to work their evil.
''Now,'' Cannistraro said, ``we have created the conditions that have made Iraq the place to come to attack Americans.''
Reality is having an effect on some administration officials, now busy backtracking.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz confessed in an ABC-TV interview that he should have been ''more precise'' in saying that Hussein had contact with ''a great many'' bin Laden loyalists when he meant one man.
Cheney now says that he ''misspoke'' when he warned before the war about Hussein's nuclear capability. The new version from the veep: ``We never had any evidence that (Hussein) had acquired any nuclear weapons.''
It was the vice president who clinched the award for keeping a straight face on national television when he could have signaled an exultant high five.
Asked about the poll that showed Americans overwhelmingly believed that Hussein had a role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cheney replied with his well-practiced deadpan: ''It's not surprising people make that connection'' between Hussein and the terrorist attacks.
Well, yes, Mr. Vice President. Wasn't that your aim all along?
A 180-degree switch
We shouldn't take Bush's 180degree switch on Hussein and al Qaeda as evidence of an administration-wide confessional. At his U.N. speech earlier this week, the president returned to his old selfimpeached arguments for war, carefully picking his words so that he can imprint the American public with his argument that Iraq's fingerprints are all over the Sept. 11 attacks, but without saying those exact words.
Trying to defend the unilateral U.S. attack and to enlist global financial support for the flagging reconstruction of Iraq, Bush explained that ``the regime of Saddam Hussein cultivated ties to terror while it built weapons of mass destruction.''
Initial news accounts show that the U.N. audience was unimpressed and still awaits the evidence. More and more Americans are coming to the same conclusion.
Copyright 2003 Hearst Newspapers