Hussein Link to 9/11 Lingers in Many Minds
By Dana Milbank and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 6, 2003; Page A01
Nearing the second
anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, seven in 10
Americans continue to believe that Iraq's Saddam Hussein had a role in
the attacks, even though the Bush administration and congressional
investigators say they have no evidence of this.
percent of Americans said they thought it at least likely that Hussein
was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,
according to the latest Washington Post poll. That impression, which
exists despite the fact that the hijackers were mostly Saudi nationals
acting for al Qaeda, is broadly shared by Democrats, Republicans and
The main reason for the endurance of the apparently
groundless belief, experts in public opinion say, is a deep and
enduring distrust of Hussein that makes him a likely suspect in
anything related to Middle East violence. "It's very easy to picture
Saddam as a demon," said John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio
State University and an expert on public opinion and war. "You get a
general fuzz going around: People know they don't like al Qaeda, they
are horrified by September 11th, they know this guy is a bad guy, and
it's not hard to put those things together."
Although that belief came without prompting from
Washington, Democrats and some independent experts say Bush exploited
the apparent misconception by implying a link between Hussein and the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the months before the war with Iraq. "The
notion was reinforced by these hints, the discussions that they had
about possible links with al Qaeda terrorists," said Andrew Kohut, a
pollster who leads the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People
and the Press.
The poll's findings are significant because they help
to explain why the public continues to support operations in Iraq
despite the setbacks and bloodshed there. Americans have more tolerance
for war when it is provoked by an attack, particularly one by an
all-purpose villain such as Hussein. "That's why attitudes about the
decision to go to war are holding up," Kohut said.
Bush's opponents say he encouraged this misconception
by linking al Qaeda to Hussein in almost every speech on Iraq. Indeed,
administration officials began to hint about a Sept. 11-Hussein link
soon after the attacks. In late 2001, Vice President Cheney said it was
"pretty well confirmed" that attack mastermind Mohamed Atta met with a
senior Iraqi intelligence official.
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Cheney was
referring to a meeting that Czech officials said took place in Prague
in April 2000. That allegation was the most direct connection between
Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks. But this summer's congressional report
on the attacks states, "The CIA has been unable to establish that
[Atta] left the United States or entered Europe in April under his true
name or any known alias."
Bush, in his speeches, did not say directly that
Hussein was culpable in the Sept. 11 attacks. But he frequently
juxtaposed Iraq and al Qaeda in ways that hinted at a link. In a March
speech about Iraq's "weapons of terror," Bush said: "If the world fails
to confront the threat posed by the Iraqi regime, refusing to use
force, even as a last resort, free nations would assume immense and
unacceptable risks. The attacks of September the 11th, 2001, showed
what the enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait
to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of
Then, in declaring the end of major combat in Iraq on
May 1, Bush linked Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: "The battle of
Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11,
2001 -- and still goes on. That terrible morning, 19 evil men -- the
shock troops of a hateful ideology -- gave America and the civilized
world a glimpse of their ambitions."
Moments later, Bush added: "The liberation of Iraq is a
crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We've removed an ally
of al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much
is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction
from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more. In these 19
months that changed the world, our actions have been focused and
deliberate and proportionate to the offense. We have not forgotten the
victims of September the 11th -- the last phone calls, the cold murder
of children, the searches in the rubble. With those attacks, the
terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And
war is what they got."
A number of nongovernment officials close to the Bush
administration have made the link more directly. Richard N. Perle, who
until recently was chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board,
long argued that there was Iraqi involvement, calling the evidence
Some Democrats said that although Bush did not make the
direct link to the 2001 attacks, his implications helped to turn the
public fury over Sept. 11 into support for war against Iraq. "You
couldn't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein," said
Democratic tactician Donna Brazile. "Every member of the administration
did the drumbeat. My mother said if you repeat a lie long enough, it
becomes a gospel truth. This one became a gospel hit."
In a speech Aug. 7, former vice president Al Gore cited
Hussein's culpability in the attacks as one of the "false impressions"
given by a Bush administration making a "systematic effort to
manipulate facts in service to a totalistic ideology."
Bush's defenders say the administration's rhetoric was
not responsible for the public perception of Hussein's involvement in
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. While Hussein and al Qaeda come from
different strains of Islam and Hussein's secularism is incompatible
with al Qaeda fundamentalism, Americans instinctively lump both foes
together as Middle Eastern enemies. "The intellectual argument is there
is a war in Iraq and a war on terrorism and you have to separate them,
but the public doesn't do that," said Matthew Dowd, a Bush campaign
strategist. "They see Middle Eastern terrorism, bad people in the
Middle East, all as one big problem."
A number of public-opinion experts agreed that the
public automatically blamed Iraq, just as they would have blamed Libya
if a similar attack had occurred in the 1980s. There is good evidence
for this: On Sept. 13, 2001, a Time/CNN poll found that 78 percent
suspected Hussein's involvement -- even though the administration had
not made a connection. The belief remained consistent even as evidence
to the contrary emerged.
"You can say Bush should be faulted for not correcting
every single misapprehension, but that's something different than
saying they set out deliberately to deceive," said Duke University
political scientist Peter D. Feaver. "Since the facts are all over the
place, Americans revert to a judgment: Hussein is a bad guy who would
do stuff to us if he could."
Key administration figures have largely abandoned any
claim that Iraq was involved in the 2001 attacks. "I'm not sure even
now that I would say Iraq had something to do with it," Deputy Defense
Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a leading hawk on Iraq, said on the Laura
Ingraham radio show on Aug. 1.
A top White House official told The Washington Post on
July 31: "I don't believe that the evidence was there to suggest that
Iraq had played a direct role in 9/11." The official added: "Anything
is possible, but we hadn't ruled it in or ruled it out. There wasn't
evidence to substantiate that claim."
But the public continues to embrace the connection.
In follow-up interviews, poll respondents were
generally unsure why they believed Hussein was behind the Sept. 11,
2001, attacks, often describing it as an instinct that came from news
reports and their long-standing views of Hussein. For example, Peter
Bankers, 59, a New York film publicist, figures his belief that Hussein
was behind the attacks "has probably been fed to me in some PR way,"
but he doesn't know how. "I think that the whole group of people, those
with anti-American feelings, they all kind of cooperated with each
other," he said.
Similarly, Kim Morrison, 32, a teacher from Plymouth,
Ind., described her belief in Hussein's guilt as a "gut feeling" shaped
by television. "From what we've heard from the media, it seems like
what they feel is that Saddam and the whole al Qaeda thing are
connected," she said.
Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University professor of
linguistics who has studied Bush's rhetoric, said it is impossible to
know but "plausible" that Bush's words furthered such public
impressions. "Clearly, he's using language to imply a connection
between Saddam Hussein and September 11th," she said.
"There is a specific manipulation of language here to
imply a connection." Bush, she said, seems to imply that in Iraq "we
have gone to war with the terrorists who attacked us."
Tannen said even a gentle implication would be enough
to reinforce Americans' feelings about Hussein. "If we like the
conclusion, we're much less critical of the logic," she said.
The Post poll, conducted Aug. 7-11, found that 62
percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of
independents suspected a link between Hussein and 9/11. In addition,
eight in 10 Americans said it was likely that Hussein had provided
assistance to al Qaeda, and a similar proportion suspected he had
developed weapons of mass destruction.
2003 The Washington Post Company