Is there a Saddam-al Qaeda link?
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Reaction from around the world Tuesday to President Bush's call for increased global pressure on Iraq over its weapons programs ranged from skepticism to support.
Bush presented his case against Iraq to the American people in a televised address Monday night, calling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a "murderous tyrant" and a threat to the United States and other countries.
Bush also contended that some al Qaeda leaders fled Afghanistan and went to Iraq and that a senior al Qaeda leader associated with planning chemical and biological weapons attacks received medical treatment in Baghdad this year.
Saddam's possible ties to al Qaeda have been hotly debated. Some of Bush's critics have suggested the president's focus on the Iraqi leader drains resources from the war on terrorism.
Richard Perle, former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration and chairman of the Defense Policy Board, stepped into the "Crossfire" with hosts Paul Begala and Robert Novak to discuss allegations that al Qaeda is linked to Iraq.
BEGALA: One of the ways that you've made waves has been to link -- you did it again on one of the Sunday shows -- link al Qaeda, the perpetrators of September 11, with Iraq. Now this is a hotly disputed point.
Let me read to you what The New York Times says our intelligence officials say because they don't seem to agree with you, sir. They say, "Senior intelligence and law enforcement officials say they have not received any corroborating evidence to support an initial report from Czech intelligence that Mohammed Atta [a September 11 hijacker] met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April of 2001."
Why are you pushing this line if our intelligence officers say it is not so?
PERLE: They're wrong.
BEGALA: Can you give us some reasons without breaching classified data?President Kennedy showed us the pictures of the missiles in Cuba. Have you got some proof?
PERLE: We don't have pictures. We have intelligence reports that I believe are reliable. I think there are other indications of other meetings with other members of al Qaeda, including hijackers and intelligence officials from Iraq. ... I think the evidence is compelling. If others think it isn't, there is just a difference of opinion between us.
NOVAK: But that difference of opinion, Mr. Perle, is held by your colleagues in the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies and the intelligence committees. But let's listen to what National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said just a few weeks ago when she was asked whether Saddam Hussein had a role in 9/11. ...
RICE (in a video excerpt): Do we know that he had a role in 9/11? No, we do not know that he had a role in 9/11. But I think that this is a test that sets a bar that is far too high.
NOVAK: Now, Richard, you're a chairman of the Defense Policy Board; you're a private citizen. You mean you have intelligence information that the National Security director doesn't have?
PERLE: No. Listen carefully to what she said. She talked about a role in 9/11. What I said is that there is evidence that I find compelling that there were meetings between Czech intelligence, Mohammed Atta and other hijackers. Now whether that constitutes a role in 9/11, that's a matter of judgment.
And I can't tell you it is because I don't know. But how would we know if he did? And in any case, Bob, it really doesn't matter very much. What we do know about Saddam is that he has offered sanctuary in Baghdad to any number of terrorists for a great many years.
BEGALA: Well, let me pick up on that point because if it is -- you know I'm an old political hack from the Clinton days, and my phrase in the campaign was: "It is the economy, stupid." If in fact it's al Qaeda, stupid, which many of us believe, we strongly support the president pursuing him to the ends of the Earth.
One of the people who has that view is Sen. Bob Graham. He is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He in fact thinks that Iraq is the wrong target if we're going after al Qaeda. And this is what he had to say to The New York Times.
Sen. Graham said, "The anti-terrorism effort should focus on countries that had a significant al Qaeda presence or training camps. Those are primarily in Syria and the Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon and in Iran."
I'll tell you, Mr. Perle, if our president had proof of that and said we need to go to war with Iran, I would be first to sign up and agree. But why are we going to Iraq instead of Iran?
PERLE: I think you're confusing issues here. The question is not fundamentally Iraq's involvement in terrorism and, in particular, Iraq's involvement with al Qaeda. The reason for the concern with Iraq with Saddam Hussein has to do with his capacity to do harm to this country because he possesses chemical and biological weapons.
He is working as fast and as hard as he can to acquire nuclear weapons. And if we leave him in place, which is what the Clinton administration did, he will eventually acquire nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver chemical and biological weapons over much greater ranges. And what are we going to do then?
This administration inherited this problem because for eight years the previous administration did nothing. They watched as the inspectors were expelled. They watched as al Qaeda became what it became. It was nothing when Bill Clinton took office. I don't want to be partisan about this.
BEGALA: I'm going to let you walk that back then. Do you really believe that President Clinton did nothing to contain, try to fight al Qaeda when, for example, Army Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick ... told The Washington Post that he served both presidents in national security, both President Clinton and President George W. Bush. He said President Clinton's team had a much stronger focus on terrorism than President Bush's team.
PERLE: Well, they may have had a stronger focus, but when he left office, Osama bin Laden was running a massive terrorist training operation in Afghanistan unperturbed. And what we did in Afghanistan after September 11 could have been done before September 11, but it wasn't.