In an interesting recent comment, Brian asked me whether I thought Salman Pak, the Iraqi training camp south of Baghdad, undermined my critique of Bush's decision to invade Iraq. The right-wing press has made much of the fact that two Iraqi defectors claim that Iraq used a 707 fuselage at Salman Pak to train non-Iraqis to hijack airplanes. Some even claim that Salman Pak may well be the "smoking gun" connecting Iraq to 9/11.
But not so fast. Here's what Seymour Hersh, whose insider access in Iraq is without parallel, has to say on the subject:
The U.N. teams that returned to Iraq last winter were unable to verify any of al-Haideri’s claims. In a statement to the Security Council in March, on the eve of war, Hans Blix, the U.N.’s chief weapons inspector, noted that his teams had physically examined the hospital and other sites with the help of ground-penetrating radar equipment. “No underground facilities for chemical or biological production or storage were found so far,” he said.
Almost immediately after September 11th, the I.N.C. began to publicize the stories of defectors who claimed that they had information connecting Iraq to the attacks. In an interview on October 14, 2001, conducted jointly by the Times and “Frontline,” the public-television program, Sabah Khodada, an Iraqi Army captain, said that the September 11th operation “was conducted by people who were trained by Saddam,” and that Iraq had a program to instruct terrorists in the art of hijacking. Another defector, who was identified only as a retired lieutenant general in the Iraqi intelligence service, said that in 2000 he witnessed Arab students being given lessons in hijacking on a Boeing 707 parked at an Iraqi training camp near the town of Salman Pak, south of Baghdad.
In separate interviews with me, however, a former C.I.A. station chief and a former military intelligence analyst said that the camp near Salman Pak had been built not for terrorism training but for counter-terrorism training. In the mid-eighties, Islamic terrorists were routinely hijacking aircraft. In 1986, an Iraqi airliner was seized by pro-Iranian extremists and crashed, after a hand grenade was triggered, killing at least sixty-five people. (At the time, Iran and Iraq were at war, and America favored Iraq.) Iraq then sought assistance from the West, and got what it wanted from Britain’s MI6. The C.I.A. offered similar training in counter-terrorism throughout the Middle East. “We were helping our allies everywhere we had a liaison,” the former station chief told me. Inspectors recalled seeing the body of an airplane—which appeared to be used for counter-terrorism training—when they visited a biological-weapons facility near Salman Pak in 1991, ten years before September 11th. It is, of course, possible for such a camp to be converted from one purpose to another. The former C.I.A. official noted, however, that terrorists would not practice on airplanes in the open. “That’s Hollywood rinky-dink stuff,” the former agent said. “They train in basements. You don’t need a real airplane to practice hijacking. The 9/11 terrorists went to gyms. But to take one back you have to practice on the real thing.”
Salman Pak was overrun by American troops on April 6th. Apparently, neither the camp nor the former biological facility has yielded evidence to substantiate the claims made before the war.
A former Bush Administration intelligence official recalled a case in which Chalabi’s group, working with the Pentagon, produced a defector from Iraq who was interviewed overseas by an agent from the D.I.A. The agent relied on an interpreter supplied by Chalabi’s people. Last summer, the D.I.A. report, which was classified, was leaked. In a detailed account, the London Times described how the defector had trained with Al Qaeda terrorists in the late nineteen-nineties at secret camps in Iraq, how the Iraqis received instructions in the use of chemical and biological weapons, and how the defector was given a new identity and relocated. A month later, however, a team of C.I.A. agents went to interview the man with their own interpreter. “He says, ‘No, that’s not what I said,’” the former intelligence official told me. “He said, ‘I worked at a fedayeen camp; it wasn’t Al Qaeda.’ He never saw any chemical or biological training.” Afterward, the former official said, “the C.I.A. sent out a piece of paper saying that this information was incorrect. They put it in writing.” But the C.I.A. rebuttal, like the original report, was classified. “I remember wondering whether this one would leak and correct the earlier, invalid leak. Of course, it didn’t.”
The former intelligence official went on, “One of the reasons I left was my sense that they were using the intelligence from the C.I.A. and other agencies only when it fit their agenda. They didn’t like the intelligence they were getting, and so they brought in people to write the stuff. They were so crazed and so far out and so difficult to reason with—to the point of being bizarre. Dogmatic, as if they were on a mission from God.” He added, “If it doesn’t fit their theory, they don’t want to accept it.”
Edward Jay Epstein also points out that Salman Pak was under routine aerial reconnaissance by the US from 1995 to 2000, making it extremely unlikely Iraq could have been training hijackers there:
What warning, if any, did the CIA receive from the National Reconnaissance Office concerning Arabs training on the fuselage of a passenger airliner at a terrorist training camp prior to September 11th, 2001?
After Sabah Khalifa Khodada Alami, an Iraqi military officer, defected from Iraq in 1999 to Turkey. He now lives in Fort Worth, Texas. When he was debriefed, he described his training mission at Salman Pak, a military base about 21 miles from Baghdad that had been used for the testing of secret weapons, including chemical biological warfare agents, and paramilitary training for covert actions. Captain Sabah Khalifa Khodada Alami said that as late as 1998 he trained an elite commando team, Fedayeen Saddam, in airline hijacking and sabotage. Through a translator, Mr. Alami described, according to the Wall street Journal, a daily regimen of exercises on kidnapping, assassination, and -- using a Boeing 707 parked inside the complex -- how to hijack a plane or bus without weapons. He said that a separate group of non-Iraqis were being similarly trained by Saddam's intelligence service, the mukhabarat. Asked about the plane by an interviewer for Front Line, he said "Yes, there's a real whole 707 plane, a whole real plane, standing in the middle of the training area in this camp."
Subsequently, a second Iraqi defector, a former intelligence officer who defected in early 2001 , described "Islamicists" training on a Boeing 707 parked in Salman Pak from about 1995 to as recently as September 2000. Neither defector said any efforts were made to hide or conceal the Boeing from satellite photography. And, according to Front Line, a former U.N. inspector who worked for the United Nations said that he saw the fuselage of an airliner at Salman Pak which was smaller than a Boeing. Whatever manufacture and size , there is agreement such a plane was in the Salman Pak complex.
During this period, the base at Salman Pak was under surveillance of US KH-11 reconnaissance satellites which were providing intelligence on Iraq's possible weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological warfare equipment, to the CIA. The information about Salman Pak was also used publically by UNSCOM, the UN agency charged with monitoring Iraq's disposal of such weapons. Since Salman Pak was systematically photographed, if the defectors' accounts are accurate, the Boeing 707 would also have been routinely photographed between 1995 and 2000 many times. Given that Salman Pak was not an air base, a Boeing 707 on the ground there would have stood out like a sore thumb. It is also possible that the Arabs training on it were recognizable (unless training was only at night or they wore masks). After September 11th, a private US satellite photo company, Space Imaging, went through its archives and found a photo that included a plane parked in the Salman Pak compound.
The National Reconnaissance Office collates, analyzes and distributes the intelligence gleaned from satellite imagery in Iraq. If it had pictures of an airliner, Boeing or whatever kind, permanently stationed inside the Salmon Pak complex, it is reasonable to assume that they would not have withheld them from the CIA. If so, the CIA had photographic evidence confirming defectors claims that Iraq was practicing, if not preparing, covert actions against a Boeing prior to September 11th.
Smoking gun? Judge for yourself.