WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Sept. 11 commission said yesterday that Al Qaeda had much more interaction with Iran and Pakistan than it did with Iraq, underscoring a controversy over the Bush administration's insistence that there was collaboration between the terrorist organization and Saddam Hussein.
Thomas Kean made the comment even as he and other commissioners tried to steer clear of the debate over one of the administration's primary justifications for invading Iraq.
''We believe . . . that there were a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq," said Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey.
''Al Qaeda didn't like to get involved with states, unless they were living there. They got involved with Sudan, they got involved . . . where they lived, but otherwise, no," he told ABC's ''This Week."
Kean said a commission staff document is an interim report, and ''we don't see any serious conflicts" with what the administration is saying.
That report, released last week, said there were contacts between Osama bin Laden's network and the Iraqi government, but they did not appear to have produced a collaborative relationship.
''I find it, frankly, shocking that the exaggerations of the administration before the war relative to that connection continue to this day," Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said on CNN's ''Late Edition."
Commissioner John Lehman, a Republican, came to the defense of Vice President Dick Cheney, who is the most aggressive in contending that there were strong Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda.
Lehman said new intelligence that ''we are now in the process of getting" indicates one of Hussein's Fedayeen fighters, a lieutenant colonel, was a prominent Al Qaeda member.
Cheney has said he probably has intelligence the commission does not have, and ''the vice president was right when he said that," Lehman said on NBC's ''Meet the Press."
Lehman said the news media were ''outrageously irresponsible" to portray the staff report as contradicting what the administration said.
The commission's vice chairman, former representative Lee Hamilton, Democrat of Indiana, said the White House and the commission agree on the central point: There is no evidence of a collaborative relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the United States.
Among the differences between what the White House has asserted and what the commission says it has found are:
Cheney said Iraq deployed a bomb-making expert, a brigadier general in the Iraqi intelligence service, when bin Laden asked for terror training. President Bush said on Feb. 8, 2003, that Iraq had provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.
''The vice president, I believe, said that there was a response by Iraq to some of Osama bin Laden's requests. We found no evidence of that response," said Hamilton.
Cheney said it has ''never been proven" and ''it's never been refuted" that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official on April 9, 2001, in Prague. Hamilton said the commission has a picture of Atta taken in Virginia just a few days before the supposed meeting in Prague, as well as his cellphone records with calls placed in the United States at the time of the meeting.
Hamilton noted that such data ''is not conclusive proof" of Atta's whereabouts, and added that the vice president himself was saying the proof was not clear one way or the other.
Along with differences over Hussein's government and Al Qaeda, a new question arose over whether Bush or Cheney gave the order on Sept. 11 to shoot down the fourth hijacked airliner.
Lehman said Bush and Cheney told the commission that the president gave his approval after a discussion with Cheney who was on the scene in the White House command center. Newsweek magazine reported that commission staff members did not believe Cheney's account that he called Bush to get his approval for the shoot-down order.
In response to the flap over how strong Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda were, Kean noted that the commission's mandate is confined to the Sept. 11 attacks. But the commission's inquiry has led members into related areas as well, prompting Lehman to level strong criticism at Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, saying they have been paying ''a kind of blackmail" and ''certainly turned a blind eye for a long period of time to Al Qaeda operations and Al Qaeda operatives in their countries."