A new CIA report delivered to Vice President Dick Cheney last week calls into question White House assertions of a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, officials told ABC News.
On Feb. 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a case for war against Iraq to the U.N. Security Council, in part by stating, "Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants."
Earlier this year, in a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the Rose Garden on June 15, President Bush said, "Zarqawi's the best evidence of a connection to al Qaeda affiliates and al Qaeda."
And Cheney, while speaking at the D-Day Museum on July 1, said, "Later, senior al Qaeda associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took sanctuary in Baghdad after coalition forces drove him out of Afghanistan."
But a senior U.S. official told ABC News that the CIA report, based on captured documents and interviews with former Iraqi officials, raises serious questions about such statements.
The official said there was, in fact, no clear-cut evidence that Saddam even knew Zarqawi was in Baghdad, contrary to what Bush has claimed.
"He let Zarqawi run free in Baghdad, and his crowd," Bush said in a rally in Kirtland, Ohio, on Sept. 4.
The CIA report concludes that Zarqawi spent time in Baghdad, but casts doubt on reports that the 37-year-old had been given official approval for medical treatment there, as Bush said this summer.
"This guy Zarqawi got hospital aid there in Baghdad when Saddam Hussein was in power," Bush told the crowd at a Lancaster, Pa., event on July 9.
The CIA presented its findings to the White House one week ago today, in what is known as a red-striped document, one available to only five or six top officials.
Now it seems the ties between Zarqawi and Saddam are not quite as simple as the Bush administration has previously made out.
"This is a murky story," said Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser. "I'm sure we'll find out more but what we do know about Zarqawi is that he knew Iraq well."
Since then, the president has subtly altered his language when discussing Zarqawi's presence in Baghdad before the war. Bush no longer maintains Zarqawi was harbored by Saddam, just that he was there.
In campaign stops on Oct. 1 and 2, Bush said, "Zarqawi was in and out of Baghdad."
Now Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says he knows of no intelligence linking Saddam and al Qaeda.
In prepared remarks given at the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday, Rumsfeld said, "I have not seen any strong hard evidence that links the two."
The CIA assessment was originally reported by Knight-Ridder newspapers.