He said it, he meant it, and there's no denying it.
On Monday, in a statement carried at the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the New York Times (Page A8 of Tuesday's print edition), and elsewhere, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told U.S. troops at Camp Victory in Baghdad: "The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked. And 3,000 Americans — 3,000 not just Americans, 3,000 human beings, innocent human beings — got killed because of al-Qaeda. And we’ve been fighting as a result of that."
That sound you hear is a Democratic Party meme shattering into teeny tiny pieces. The attempts to put Humpty Dumpty together again, both by Panetta himself and the establishment press contingent following him, have been pathetic and ineffectual, which is what happens when one is up against succinctly stated truths.
Aaron Worthing at Patterico's place correctly characterizes Panetta's statement "the Mother of All Kinsley gaffes." Named after lefty journalist Michael Kinsley, it actually has its own Wikipedia entry, where it is defined as "a politician inadvertently saying something publicly that they privately believe is true, but would ordinarily not say publicly because they believe it is politically harmful."
Perhaps indicating that the Defense Secretary himself realizes the extent of his Kinsley gaffe, Panetta's statement does not appear in any of the four reports the Armed Forces Press Service filed from Camp Victory (here, here, here, and here). We wouldn't want the troops getting the wrong idea, eh Leon?
Panetta's own attempt at the impossible walkback is as follows:
Pressed by reporters to elaborate, Panetta said: “I wasn’t saying, you know, the invasion — or going into the issues or the justification of that. It was more the fact that we really had to deal with al-Qaeda here; they developed a presence here and that tied in.” His aides then intervened and shooed the press corps away.
Sorry, Leon, yes you were saying that 9/11 justified the invasion.
That there is substantial evidence that there were meaningful ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein is an inconvenient truth the left and Democrats have attempted to shout down and whitewash for almost eight years.
Stephen Hayes's September 1, 2003 Weekly Standard report ("Saddam's al Qaeda Connection") cited many items known before the Iraq War began, some of which included the following:
- A letter from CIA Director George Tenet to Senate Intelligence chairman Bob Graham said that "We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qa'ida going back a decade."
- "Iraqi defectors had been saying for years that Saddam's regime trained 'non-Iraqi Arab terrorists' at a camp in Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. U.N. inspectors had confirmed the camp's existence, including the presence of a Boeing 707." Though there seems to have been reluctance to tag Al Qaeda recruits as being among the "non-Iraqi Arab terrorists," it's not like there were dozens of such organizations at the time. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia.
- "According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, an (Al Qaeda affiliate) Abu Sayyaf leader who planned ... a bomb attack in Zamboanga City in the Philippines) bragged on television a month after the bombing that Iraq had contacted him about conducting joint operations. Philippine intelligence officials were initially skeptical of his boasting, but after finding the telephone records they believed him."
Hayes also noted information obtained after Saddam Hussein was toppled, some of which includes the following:
- "Farouk Hijazi, former Iraqi ambassador to Turkey and Saddam's longtime outreach agent to Islamic fundamentalists, has been captured. In his initial interrogations, Hijazi admitted meeting with senior al Qaeda leaders at Saddam's behest in 1994. According to administration officials familiar with his questioning, he has subsequently admitted additional contacts, including a meeting in late 1997. Hijazi continues to deny that he met with bin Laden on December 21, 1998, to offer the al Qaeda leader safe haven in Iraq. U.S. officials don't believe his denial." ... "(That) meeting was reported in the press at the time."
- The day after a hawkish Bill Clinton speech about "an unholy axis of terrorists, drug traffickers, and organized international criminals," specifically on February 19, 1998, "according to documents unearthed in Baghdad after the recent war by journalists Mitch Potter and Inigo Gilmore, Hussein's intelligence service wrote a memo detailing upcoming meetings with a bin Laden representative traveling to Baghdad. Each reference to bin Laden had been covered with Liquid Paper. The memo laid out a plan to step up contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda."
- "According to U.S. officials, soldiers in Iraq have discovered additional documentary evidence like the memo Potter found. This despite the fact that there is no team on the ground assigned to track down these contacts--no equivalent to the Iraq Survey Group looking for evidence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Interviews with detained senior Iraqi intelligence officials are rounding out the picture."
Hayes correctly faulted the Bush administration for not more aggressively building and publicly noting evidence of the AQ-Saddam Hussein connections and cooperation.
Support for the AQ-Saddam connection is also nicely accumulated here by a person who says he was a high school student at the time, and who clearly had more willingness to look at the truth than hardened, supposedly adult leftists, who have been trying to wish it away since 2003.
And for an after-the-fact bonus, in discussing something which military planners were probably hoping for before the invasion, there's this analysis from Strategy Page in 2007:
Al Qaeda was a growing movement before 2003, and before 2001. But after the Iraq invasion, and especially the Sunni Arab terrorism, al Qaeda fell in popularity throughout the Moslem world. Arab countries cracked down on al Qaeda operations more than ever before. Without the Iraq invasion, al Qaeda would still have safe havens all over the Arab world.
In 2011, unfortunately, the current administration looks to be increasing the number of Al Qaeda safe havens (e.g., Libya), but that's on them, not Bush or Cheney.
Leon Panetta certainly knows much of what Hayes identified, and probably much more. No wonder he committed the Mother of All Kinsley Gaffes.
Now let's look at the excuse-making emanating from the Washington Post's Craig Whitlock, the AP's Robert Burns, and the New York Times's Elisabeth Bumiller (bolds and numbered tags are mine):
Panetta appears to link al-Qaeda presence with Iraq invasion
Just 11 days into his tenure as defense secretary, Leon Panetta has demonstrated a flair for making blunt, unscripted comments. But his inability to stick to prepared talking points is getting him into rhetorical trouble. 
On Monday, in his first visit to Iraq as Pentagon chief, Panetta appeared to justify the U.S. invasion of the country as part of the war against al-Qaeda, a controversial argument made by the George W. Bush administration but rebutted by President Obama and many Democrats. 
... His statement echoed comments made by Bush and his administration, which tried to tie then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda. But it put Panetta at odds with Obama, the 9/11 Commission and other independent experts, who have said that al-Qaeda lacked a presence in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. 
Pentagon chief: A mix of blunt, charm, slip-ups
At once blunt and bubbly, poised but prone to gaffes, Leon Panetta showed on his first overseas trip as Pentagon chief that he has framed his agenda but not yet mastered the art of expressing it publicly in detail. 
In a talk to troops in Afghanistan he said he was the CIA director (his previous job). The next day he invoked the language of George W. Bush in saying the U.S. is at war in Iraq because al-Qaida attacked on 9/11 - a message that runs counter to the view of his boss, President Barack Obama. 
... In Baghdad on Sunday, for example, Panetta appeared to slip on the politics of the Iraq war, which was started by the Bush administration in March 2003 on grounds that then-ruler Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.  The Bush White House also suggested a Saddam link to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. by al-Qaida - a connection that Obama and other Democrats have called wrongheaded. 
Panetta seemed to make the Bush argument.
Making his first visit to Iraq as defense secretary, Mr. Panetta also said flatly — before he and a Pentagon spokesman qualified his remarks — that United States forces were in Iraq was because of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That was part of the narrative advanced by former Vice President Dick Cheney and the Bush White House, but it is now widely dismissed. 
... In the run-up to the 2003 war, Bush administration officials repeatedly cited ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but a government investigation found no meaningful operational link between the two.  After the invasion, Al Qaeda fighters did pour into Iraq to launch attacks on the American military. 
Doug Wilson, a Pentagon spokesman traveling with Mr. Panetta, described Mr. Panetta as a “very plain-spoken defense secretary” who he said was not getting into the arguments over Iraq in 2002 and 2003. “I don’t think he’s going down that rabbit hole,”  Mr. Wilson said.
 and  -- Translation in each instance: "Get this guy a teleprompter and tell him to stick to the script so we don't have to keep trying to bail him out."
 -- Excerpts of this sentence at the blogs of Patterico, Althouse, and others show that Whitlock originally used "refuted" and replaced it with "rebutted." Sorry, Craig, that's still not good enough. "Rebut" means "to refute by evidence or argument." As seen in the evidence already presented along with additional support coming up in Note , nothing has been "rebutted," by evidence or argument.
 and  -- Even if one concedes that Al Qaeda had no "presence" or "operational presence" in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion, there are two other direct justifications for the invasion (approved by Congressional resolution). They are in the September 20, 2001 speech President Bush delivered at a joint session of Congress to wildly cheering lawmakers of both parties. Specifically (bolds are mine): "... we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." It is not arguable that Iraq under Saddam Hussein "provided aid" to Al Qaeda as well as "support" for its terrorism.
 and  -- It doesn't matter whether what Panetta said runs counter to President Obama's "views," what Obama's "views" happen to be, or that Obama and Democrats believe that what Panetta said is "wrongheaded." The fact is that Bush, Cheney, and Panetta are factually correct. That's all that matters.
 -- The AP's Burns acts as if the presence of weapons mass destruction was the only justification for the invasion. Again, going back to Bush's September 20, 2001 speech, that's simply not the case. Besides, weapons of mass destruction were found (along with "550 tons of yellowcake uranium," which, "once refined, could make 142 nuclear weapons"). Even Wikileaks acknowledges that WMDs were there before the invasion.
 -- Bumiller cleverly doesn't identify the specific people who have "widely dismissed" the justification of the Iraq invasion based on 9/11 -- which is fortunate for them, because it spares them further embarrassment. As already noted, Bush justified it on September 20, 2001, Congress in essence ratified it in voting for the war resolution in 2002, and the evidence, to adapt words used by WaPo's Whitlock, is "irrefutable" and "not rebuttable."
 -- Bumiller my not realize it, but she totally busted the Times's post-invasion coverage of the Iraq War. For years, the Times insisted on naming the enemy our soldiers were fighting "Al Qaeda in Iraq," as if it was an entirely homegrown organization which rose up after the invasion to fight the American occupiers. Now Bumiller tells the truth: "After the invasion, Al Qaeda fighters did pour into Iraq" from elsewhere. Thanks, Liz. It's been a good day for busting tired media memes.
 -- Memo to Doug Wilson: It's too late. Panetta's already gone "down the rabbit hole," and he can't come out. He agrees with Bush and Cheney, and though the attempts to minimize and cover up that agreement will surely continue, there's no changing the fact that he agrees, and that it's on the record. Too bad, so sad.
(Photo above is from DOD via U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey)
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.