WASHINGTON — President Bush, having repeatedly linked Saddam Hussein to the terrorist organization behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Wednesday there is no evidence that the deposed Iraqi leader had a hand in those attacks, in contrast to the belief of most Americans.
The president's comments came in response to a reporter's question about Vice President Cheney's assertion Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press" program that Iraq was the "geographic base" of the terrorists behind the attacks on New York and Washington.
Bush's statement was the latest in a series by top administration officials this week that appeared to distance the White House from the widely held public perception that Saddam was a key figure in the attacks.
"We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11th (attacks)," Bush said just prior to a meeting of senior administration officials in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
Publicly, at least, Bush has not explicitly blamed the attacks on Saddam. In speech after speech, however, the president has strongly linked Saddam and al-Qaida, the terrorist organization of Osama bin Laden, the renegade Saudi whose followers hijacked jetliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania.
In his May 1 declaration of military victory in Iraq from the deck of the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, Bush said, "We have removed an ally of al-Qaida and cut off a source of terrorist funding." He also said, "The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror."
Two months earlier, in a speech aimed at mustering public support for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, Bush said, "The attacks of September 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 mass destruction."
Critics have said the steady drumbeat of that message has tied Saddam to the attacks in the mind of the public. A recent poll by The Washington Post found that nearly 7 Americans out of 10 believe Saddam played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, a notion the administration has done little to tamp down.
But retired NATO commander Wesley Clark, in a little noticed appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press" on June 15, charged that "a concerted effort to pin 9/11" on Saddam began in the fall of 2001, and "it came from people around the White House." Clark, who declared his campaign for president Wednesday, did not identify anyone by name.