THE NATIONAL commission studying the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorist buildup that preceded it, appears to have put to rest the notion that Saddam Hussein was involved. Its staff found "no credible evidence'' of a "collaborative relationship'' between the Iraqi regime and the al Qaeda forces who perpetrated the attacks.
In other words, one of the arguments used to justify the invasion of Iraq is fiction. In the months before the war, the White House nursed public misconceptions that Osama bin Laden and Hussein were in league. President Bush exploited this misconception -- by continually linking Iraq and Sept. 11 in speeches -- to help built support for the war.
The reaction by the president and his team to the 9/11 commission's conclusions is all the more disturbing. The White House party line is that the report's findings don't change a thing. A dotted line between Hussein and bin Laden remains, according to the hawks.
The Bush team's straight-faced explanation: there are "numerous contacts'' between the two hate-America zealots, and we in the White House never said Iraq was an actual staging area for al Qaeda.
The report provides a clear-eyed and textured history of terrorist alliances. Bin Laden sought meetings with Iraqi leaders but came away with nothing. His wish for arms, sanctuary and cooperation went unfulfilled. Hussein and bin Laden were a mismatch: One was a secular dictator and the other was a religious extremist. Also, a shadowy get-together in Prague between figures from each side, often used as proof of close cooperation, most likely didn't happen, the report said. Prisoners captured since Sept. 11 offered no fresh evidence of an alliance.
With clarity and firmness, the commission delved into the hours of Sept. 11, tracing the movements of the terrorists and the ill-prepared, confused official response. One of the big "what ifs'' of the day was dispelled -- even if jet fighters were sent aloft promptly, it was unlikely they could've done much good in stopping the crashes that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The 9/11 panel didn't ignore the larger picture either. A history of al Qaeda was put in fresh perspective. Its leader was a deft networker, but also the leader of a group prone to mistakes and feuding. This portrait adds to the severity of early commission findings that U.S. spy operations failed to crack a dangerous threat.
The report also shows why the commission is so badly needed. Leaving a post-mortem of Sept. 11 to the White House or partisans in Congress would raise credibility questions.
But the work of a respected, independent, bipartisan commission is valuable only if the people in power are willing to accept findings that conflict with their preconceptions. So far at least, the Bush White House seems unwilling to do so when it comes to al Qaeda and Iraq.