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Sunday, June 20, 2004

The New York Times versus Dick Cheney

by Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher

NEW YORK -- Forget about who's winning the war in Iraq. Who's winning the war between Dick Cheney and The New York Times?

In the latest development, the newspaper returned the Vice President's fire over the weekend, in a Saturday editorial that accused him of "trying to rewrite history," and in a Sunday collection of allegedly unproven Cheney charges.

It all began (though it had been brewing) on Thursday when the Times, like most other papers in the country, featured on its front page news that the staff of the federal 9/11 commission had concluded, as the article put it, "that there did not appear to have been a 'collaborative relationship' between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein." It suggested that this conclusion put into question one of the administration's prime reasons for invading Iraq last year.

But what must have really gotten the Vice President's goat was a Times editorial the same day. Noting the lack of evidence for an Al Qaeda/Iraq/September 11 link, it called on President Bush to "apologize to the American people, who were led to believe something different." It labeled as "plainly dishonest" the President's effort "to link his war of choice with the battle against terrorists worldwide."

Then the editorial chastised Cheney for "continuing to declare" a likely Saddam/bin Laden connection.

Well, Cheney wasn't going to take that hunkering down. The following day, appearing on TV, he called the Times coverage of the commission's findings "outrageous," sometimes "malicious." He said the "vaunted" newspaper did "a lot of outrageous things." (He probably was not referring to the paper's pre-war promotion of the Saddam/WMD link, which proved useful for his administration.) He continued to call evidence of the Iraq connection to Al Qaeda before the war "overwhelming."

Cheney also claimed "We still don't know" if Iraq had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks. For example, he said, the long-cited claim that chief hijacker Mohamed Atta met an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in 2001 has "never been refuted." This seemed odd to some observers, since the commission staff had just declared that meeting could not have taken place, citing phone records and other evidence that Atta was in Florida at the same time he was said to be in Czechoslovakia.

The Times put Cheney's remarks on its front page, anyway. Inside it also ran a long story on the commission's review of the Vice President's performance on 9/11, titled, "Account Recalls Cheney as a Swift and Steady Hand."

On Saturday, however, the Times went back to hammering the Veep on its editorial page, and a news story dryly reported that the leaders of the 9/11 commission had called on Cheney to turn over any intelligence reports that would support his insistence that there was a close relationship between Saddam and Al Qaeda. The commissioners specifically asked for any proof of the alleged Atta visit to Prague.

The Times editorial, titled "Show Us the Proof," said it was "surprised by the depth and ferocity of the administration's capacity for denial." It observed that what Cheney called "longstanding ties" between Saddam and bin Laden so far amount amounted "to one confirmed meeting, after which the Iraq government did not help Al Qaeda. By those standards, the United States has longstanding ties to North Korea." Cheney, as usual, the newspaper said, "is not prepared to offer any evidence beyond the flimsy-to-nonexistent arguments he has used in the past."

Cheney did not immediately respond to this, and on Sunday the Times returned with a long record of quotes from Cheney and others attesting to a Saddam link to 9/11, even though the Vice President claims he never explicitly made that charge. The paper also cited polls showing that 40 percent of the public still believes Saddam had something to do with 9/11, and suggested that misleading information from the administration had something to do with that.

On top of that, columnist Maureen Dowd called Cheney "Tricky Dick." Stay tuned Monday.

UPDATE 06/21/04: DEBKA -Information that lieutenant colonel in Saddam’s Fedayeen was “a very prominent member of al Qaeda” has reached 9/11 bipartisan commission - according to member John Lehman in NBC’s Meet the Press. If confirmed, he said, Cheney was right and panel would modify final report to reflect evidence reversal.