They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps. If so, Stephen Hayes must not want us to take his new book, The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America, very seriously.

At a publicity event for the book held on June 3 at the American Enterprise Institute, epicenter of the crazy wing of conservative foreign-policy thought, Hayes found himself surrounded by some rather unsavory allies. Moderating the panel and supporting Hayes' point of view was Michael Ledeen, advocate of an ultra-hawkish line on Iran who, rather awkwardly, is also a leading supporter of Iranian spy Ahmad Chalabi and possessor of some unexplained ties to the mullahs dating back to his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Another Hayes supporter on the panel was James Woolsey, the former CIA Director-turned-lunatic who's given to speculation that America could resolve its energy problems through a speedy invasion of Saudi Arabia.

And introducing the group was Danielle Pletka, ringleader of the AEI national-security clown show, who still feels comfortable expressing 2002-vintage derision toward the State Department despite 18 months' worth of revelations that State was completely correct -- and sadly ignored -- in its disputes with the Defense Department over Iraqi WMD and postwar planning.

During the question-and-answer period, a disheveled Christopher Hitchens rose to suggest that Abu Zarqawi was all the "connection" one needed to make the case. Hitchens' "evidence" is that Zarqawi leads a terrorist group that is in communication with, though not a member of, al-Qaeda and has collaborated to some extent with ex-Baathists after the fall of Hussein. (Similar logic would suggest that Hitchens' former editors at The Nation are, in fact, in league with his newfound neoconservative friends, but never mind.)

Other members of the audience felt Hayes had not gone nearly far enough. What about, one questioner asked, the still-unsolved 2001 anthrax attacks: Weren't Iraqi hands all over that? Actually, no; as Hayes and other panelists noted, the DNA analysis proves otherwise. Much of Hayes' information seems to come from Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, who wrote a memo filled with raw intelligence alleging such leaks last November. The memo has since been disavowed by the Pentagon.

What can one say about Hayes's source, Feith?

As Josh Marshall said, he "put the FU in FUBAR." In Chris Suellentrop's words, "What has the Pentagon's third man done wrong? Everything." Even Feith and the other in-government neocons, however, have abandoned the AEI gang at this point over l'affaire Chalabi. Judging by the attitude in the room, though, no one's told them yet.

All this notwithstanding, Hayes says he does want to be taken seriously, and obviously resents these guilt-by-association tactics. To his credit, and to her visible consternation, Hayes specifically refutes Laurie Mylroie's theory that Saddam was in some sense a "sponsor" of al-Qaeda or in any way enjoyed a command-and-control relationship with the group.

And he really is right about one thing: Overreacting to the Bush administration's history of misstatements on the subject, some have gone too far and made categorical statements like Leslie Stahl's claim that "there was no connection" whatsoever between the groups.

As Hayes demonstrates, there were meetings between al-Qaeda members and Iraqi intelligence during the early 1990s, when the group was based in Sudan. After bin Laden left Khartoum, things grow murkier. Hayes provides scraps of evidence indicating a possible meeting here and there over the years. Some of these scraps are contradicted by other bits of intelligence; others are based on sources of questionable reliability.

In his reasonable mode, Hayes concedes that this is "evidence" rather than "proof" of a connection -- something that, he says, deserves further investigation. But how likely is it that these leads really have gone uninvestigated by an administration with an obvious interesting in coming up with something solid?

When I asked him this, Hayes had no real answer except to suggest the president has only a limited ability to bend the Intelligence Community to his will. Perhaps, but we know now that an operation was set up in the Pentagon, under Feith's supervision, and specifically charged with re-sifting the raw data to try and find a connection. What they came up with is what Hayes already has.

Since the end of the war, the "absence of evidence" problem has only grown larger. The United States has in its custody a number of high-ranking al-Qaeda and Iraqi officials, including Saddam Hussein. We've learned recently that American interrogators are not exactly shy about using aggressive methods on such persons. And we know that if these interrogations had turned up anything useful to the president's case, we would have heard about it. But we haven't. Nor have the thousands and thousands of documents captured in both Afghanistan and Iraq provided any smoking guns.

But reasonable is just one of Hayes' modes, and not the most important one. The purpose underlying the fairly measured text is betrayed by magazine article headlines like "Case Closed," the book's subtitle suggesting that America has been "endangered" by a failure to take this more seriously, and by his publisher's press release proclaiming that the justification of the Iraq War hinges on the evidence Hayes presents. Faced with even the possibility of a connection, he said Thursday, taking action was a "no-brainer." We know that the price of waiting too long, after all, could be "3,000 dead."

This is, simply put, nonsense. More than 3,000 people have already died as a result of the Iraq War. And one must recall the actual case made for this war. The threat to which the president was allegedly responding most certainly was not that if the country failed to act, Saddam might continue to schedule occasional mid-level meetings at which unknown matters would be discussed. Rather, the fear was that Saddam would give weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda and that al-Qaeda would use the weapons to attack the United States. This is a far cry from what Hayes, by his own admission, has found no real proof for.

For one thing -- and it's a pretty important thing -- Iraq didn't have WMD to give al-Qaeda. For another thing, there was a period in which Iraq did have WMD and there were terrorist groups like the Abu Nidal Organization with which Saddam had a much closer working relationship, and he never gave them WMD. Indeed, since 1993 Saddam had distanced himself from terrorism and avoided all attacks against the United States, realizing that he'd really prefer not to be overthrown. There is no evidence whatsoever that Iraq has been involved in any of the attacks al-Qaeda has actually carried out so far, nor is there any evidence that al-Qaeda requires state assistance to mastermind its plots. The question of perspective arises here. If we take the "Bush doctrine" (the theory that regimes that assist terrorist groups must be overthrown) seriously, then perhaps there is a case to be made that these possible meetings constitute good grounds for an invasion. But what about Saudi Arabia, where evidence for the complicity of some regime members in al-Qaeda actions is significantly stronger? Or Pakistan, which certainly had much closer ties to al-Qaeda before 9-11, which continues to sponsor Kashmiri terrorist groups, and members of whose security forces continue to enjoy connections to bin Laden? Or Iran and Syria, both of which are uncontroversially sponsors of Hezbollah?

The reality is that the Bush doctrine is obviously not meant to be taken seriously, since neither the president nor anyone else has any intention of fighting all these wars. It's just something he put in a speech because it sounded good. Which brings us back to Hayes and the company he keeps. This evidence, even if you accept it all, only begins to remotely resemble an argument for war if you've already decided you want to invade Iraq and are casting about for excuses. And this, of course, is exactly what Hayes' editors at The Weekly Standard are doing. The Standard has been calling for an invasion of Iraq since a December 1, 1997, article (written by Bush officials Paul Wolfowitz and Zalmay Khalizad, no less) in which al-Qaeda does not figure into the case. Reuel Marc Gerecht went so far as to publish a July 30, 2001, Standard article calling for tougher actions against both Saddam and bin Laden without suggesting that links between the two existed.

Now is this proof that the war party -- including Hayes' bosses and sources, if not Hayes himself -- are deliberately manufacturing evidence to gain public support for a war they favored on unrelated grounds? No, but it is evidence. And in a dangerous world, faced with such uncertainty, people would do well to take pre-emptive action before America's leaders embroil the country in some new misbegotten scheme.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.

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