New on Zarqawi:

Last week I quoted from a Robert Novak column on the Zarqawi story. George Stephanopolous has written a letter to the editor of the Post taking issue with the column. (Registration required.)

Novak mischaracterizes an exchange I had with Condoleezza Rice on the June 27 edition of “This Week.” I did not ask Rice, as Novak states, “Why did the United States pass up chances to kill terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi in 2002 and 2003?” Instead, I laid out a series of facts on the public record: that Zarqawi had set up a weapons and training camp in northern Iraq; that the United States had evidence Zarqawi had visited the camp; and that the United States had considered but rejected plans to attack the camp in 2002 and 2003. I then asked Rice: “Was it a mistake not to take out that camp when you had a chance?” Either Novak didn’t check the transcript or chose to rewrite my question precisely because it didn’t fit his thesis.

Novak goes on to question my motives: “Why would [George] Stephanopoulos bring up another network’s March broadcast of an obscure story never reported elsewhere? It has been spread by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to imply that President Bush held back the attack to gain support for invading Iraq.” Had Novak bothered to call, I could have told him that I’ve never discussed this issue with Clinton or her staff. Had Novak done his homework he would have known that possible military action against the Zarqawi camp had been reported not just by NBC News but also by ABC, the Los Angeles Times and columnists such as Andrew Sullivan in the Washington Times and Fred Kaplan on Questions about the failure to strike the camp were raised at hearings conducted by several congressional oversight committees both before and after the start of the war in Iraq.

Each time the questions were asked, administration officials declined to answer them in public session or provided incomplete, equivocal responses. Novak himself admits that the public responses from Pentagon and CIA officials have been “cautious” — which is why I raised the question with Rice. While she did not acknowledge that an attack against Zarqawi’s camp had been contemplated, she did say that “Zarqawi was on people’s radar screens” and described the administration’s efforts to capture Zarqawi and cripple his network. Her conclusion? The United States “never had a chance to get Zarqawi.”

Rice’s answer is the most forthcoming description of actions taken against Zarqawi and his network that I have heard from a top administration official. I have no reason to doubt it. Considering the havoc being created by Zarqawi in Iraq right now, I’m glad “This Week” viewers got to hear it.

Stephanopolous takes– or at least says he takes– Rice’s statement as being more definitive than I take it to be; I’ve already blogged about that. Just wanted to keep you up-to-date on the latest.

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