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Rumsfeld: Al Qaeda comments 'misunderstood'

Also concedes WMD claims about Iraq were proved wrong

From Jamie McIntyre
CNN Washington Bureau

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addresses the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Monday.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld conceded Monday that U.S. intelligence was wrong in its conclusions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and appeared to back off earlier statements suggesting former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had links to al Qaeda.

"Why the intelligence proved wrong (on WMDs), I'm not in a position to say," Rumsfeld said in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "I simply don't know."

When asked about any connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, Rumsfeld said, "To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two."

But a short time later, Rumsfeld released a statement: "A question I answered today at an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations regarding ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq regrettably was misunderstood.

"I have acknowledged since September 2002 that there were ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq." (Rumsfeld statementexternal link)

Rumsfeld's restated position mirrors what Vice President Dick Cheney had said as recently as June.

"There clearly was a relationship. It's been testified to. The evidence is overwhelming," Cheney said in an interview with CNBC's "Capitol Report." "It goes back to the early '90s. It involves a whole series of contacts, high-level contacts with Osama bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence officials."

Suggesting that the 9/11 commission had reached a contradictory conclusion was "irresponsible," he said.

Before the war, in a speech in Atlanta in September 2002, Rumsfeld said he the CIA provided "bulletproof" evidence demonstrating "that there are in fact al Qaeda in Iraq."

In Monday's address, Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations that U.S. intelligence analysts have changed their assessment: "I have seen the answer to that question migrate in the intelligence community over a period of a year in the most amazing way."

The 9/11 commission report, issued in July, concluded there may have been meetings between Iraqi officials and Osama bin Laden or his aides in 1999 but there was "no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship."

Nor did the commission find any evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States," the commission report said.

In June, President Bush repeated his administration's claim that Iraq was in league with al Qaeda under Saddam Hussein's rule, saying that fugitive Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi ties Saddam to the terrorist network.

"Zarqawi's the best evidence of a connection to al Qaeda affiliates and al Qaeda," Bush told reporters at the White House. "He's the person who's still killing."

But Rumsfeld Monday in his address to the CFR questioned whether al-Zarqawi is working with al Qaeda even as he seemed to have a similar agenda.

"In the case of al Qaeda, my impression is most of the senior people have actually sworn an oath to Osama bin Laden, and to my knowledge, even as of this late date, I don't believe Zarqawi, the principal leader of the network in Iraq, has sworn an oath, even though what they're doing -- I mean, they're just two peas in a pod in terms of what they're doing," Rumsfeld said.

On the question of whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld dropped his common assertion that weapons "may yet be found," instead saying the world is "a lot better off" without Saddam Hussein.

"It turns out that we have not found weapons of mass destruction. And does everyone know he had them at one point? Certainly. Does everyone believe -- even those in the U.N. who voted the other way -- acknowledge the fact that he had filed a fraudulent declaration with the United Nations?" Rumsfeld said.

"And why the intelligence proved wrong, I'm not in a position to say. I simply don't know. But the world is a lot better off with Saddam Hussein in jail than they were with him in power."

Rumsfeld also said the United States must remain steadfast in Iraq, lest the perception of wavering empower its enemies. Comparing the war against terrorism to the Cold War, he credited a firm approach for the ultimate success of the United States against the Soviet Union.

Though many Americans failed to take communism seriously, the United States and its allies "showed perseverance and resolve," Rumsfeld said. "Year after year, they fought for freedom. They dared to confront what many thought might be an unbeatable foe. And eventually, the Soviet regime collapsed."

But the lesson "that weakness can be provocative" has to be relearned, he said.

To have second thoughts in Iraq, he said, "would embolden the extremists and make the world a far more dangerous place."

Asked if the "no-go" zones that exist in a number of major cities in Iraq would invalidate the results of January's planned elections, Rumsfeld was circumspect.

"It seems to me that, that is up to the Iraqis, number one. They have a sovereign country. They're going to decide what their elections are. They're going to make every call with respect to it."

He added, "Needless to say, your first choice is to say that every -- we know every Iraqi deserves the right to vote. And one would anticipate that that would be the case."

That answer differed from the one he gave to a similar question last month, when he implied that voting need not be universal. "Let's say you tried to have an election and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country, but some places you couldn't because the violence was too great," he said. "Well, that's -- so be it. Nothing's perfect in life. So you have an election that's not quite perfect."

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