WASHINGTON - In publishing a report that cited no evidence of a collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, the September 11 commission actually meant to say that Iraq had no control over the network, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on Friday.
As the White House strove to curb potential damage to US President George W Bush's credibility on Iraq, his closest aide on international security denied any inconsistency between the bipartisan panel's findings and Bush's insistence that a Saddam-Qaeda relationship existed.
"What I believe the 9-11 commission was opining on was operational control, an operational relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq which we never alleged," Rice said in an interview with National Public Radio.
"The president simply outlined what we knew about what al Qaeda and Iraq had done together. Operational control to me would mean that Saddam was, perhaps, directing what al Qaeda would do."
Intelligence reports of links between Saddam and the group blamed for the 2001 attacks formed a cornerstone of Bush's rationale for the invasion and occupation of the turbulent Arab country, where 833 US soldiers have died after 14 months of violence.
The chairman and vice chairman of the September 11 commission differed with Rice's characterisation of their panel's findings in separate interviews with Reuters.
"We don't think there was any relationship whatsoever having to do with 9/11. Whether al Qaeda and Saddam were cooperating on other things against the United States, we don't know," Commission Chairman Thomas Kean said.
Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton said he was unaware of anyone ever claiming that Saddam had directed al Qaeda.
"The word 'control' is new," Hamilton said.
"The president talks in terms of a relationship between the two. The vice president talks in terms of a tie between the two. We talk in terms of contacts between the two," he added.
"All of those words are similar, but clearly relationship and ties suggest more than contacts."
The September 11 commission's staff report said there had been contact between Iraqis and al Qaeda members including a Sudan meeting between al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Iraqi intelligence officers.
But the panel concluded that Iraq never responded to a bin Laden request for help and said there was no evidence of a "collaborative relationship".