Question:

What is the status of the meeting in Prague between September 11th hijacker Mohamed Atta and Iraqi embassy intelligence officer, Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani?

Answer:

The basic information has not changed: Czech counter intelligence determined that an Iraqi official under its surveillance met Atta in April 2001. The interpretation of it, however, has undergone a number of vacillations. Here is the chronology:

1. October 13, 2001. Based on an apparent leak from the Czech foreign ministry in Prague, Czech newspapers reported that Czech foreign minister Jan Kavan had briefed Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington about a trip Atta had taken to the Czech Republic in April. Kavan said that Czech intelligence had observed Mohamed Atta meeting in Prague with Iraqi Counsel Al-Ani. Since Ani worked as a case officer for Iraqi intelligence, the liaison implied a connection between the hijackers and Iraq.

After the leaked story was confirmed by the State Department, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers published the story about the liaison.

2. On October 20th, John Tagliabue wrote in the New York Times that Czech officials had denied such a meeting had ever taken place.

3. On October 26th, Stanislav Gross, the Minister of Interior of the Czech Republic, called a press conference to clarify what was known about the meeting. Gross was in a position to do so because the Czech counterintelligence service, the BIS, reported to him, not to Parliament or the President. He explained that Atta had been in the Czech Republic at least twice: on June 2, 2000 and in early April 2001. During his brief June visit, Gross said Atta was not observed by Czech intelligence, but in April, "We can confirm now that during his trip to the Czech Republic, he did have a contact with an officer of the Iraqi intelligence, Mr. Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al Ani."

Since Gross had full access to the records of the BIS, which uses both electronic surveillance and visual surveillance, his confirmation sent shock waves around the world.

4. In Baghdad, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz denied that the meeting had taken place. In case he was proven wrong, however, he said: "Even if such an incident had taken place, it doesn't mean anything. Any diplomat in any mission might meet people in a restaurant here or there and talk to them, which is meaningless. If that person turned out to be something else, that doesn't mean he had a connection with what that person did later."

5. On October 27th, the New York Times published an extraordinary refutation of its October 20th story, co-written by Patrick E. Tyler and John Tagliabue . This piece asserted that, contrary to the prior denial, sources confirmed that the meeting had in fact taken place.

The Times story provided a number of new details, such as a Czech member of parliament, who had been briefed by the Czech intelligence services on this issue, said he “believed the meeting with Atta may have been captured by airport surveillance cameras.” This would imply that the meeting took place at the Prague airport. It also reported that on Friday April 20th, Hynek Kmonicek, the deputy foreign minister of the Czech Republic, had al-Ani expelled from the Czech Republic for activities incompatible with his diplomatic status.

Kmonicek, who was quoted in the Times story, explained Al-Ani’s expulsion was connected to his meeting with Atta. "It's not a common thing for an Iraqi diplomat to meet a student from a neighboring country.” Atta had been a student in Hamburg. If al-Ani’s expulsion proceeded from his meeting with Atta, then clearly Czech intelligence had identified Atta some four months before the September 11th attack.

The New York Times did not, however, rely solely on Czech sources to publish such a corrective story. Tyler and Tagliabue also confirmed the story with US ‘law enforcement officials’ and the White House. By that time, the FBI had pieced together Atta’s movements from INS files, car rental records, vehicles, airlines reservations data and other documents. These files showed Atta’s entries into the US when he used his passport, when he rented and returned vehicles, and some flights he had booked.

The story stated “Federal law-enforcement officials said the Prague meeting fits into Atta's itinerary this way: On April 4 he was in Virginia Beach. He flew to the Czech Republic on April 8 and met with the Iraqi intelligence officer, who was identified as Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. By April 11, Atta was back in Florida renting a car.”

The New York Times also said “A senior Bush administration official Friday night indicated the Czech decision to go public with the information about the meeting took Washington by surprise. “As for the meeting itself, the official said, "We are not sure we know exactly the full meaning of this, but we have known about it for some time." So presumably the President had known that one of the September 11 hijackers was observed by the Czech intelligence contacting an Iraqi official in Prague in April 2001.

6. In November, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman added another element to the story. He said that when Czech intelligence determined Atta had contacted Al-Ani, it raised the “hypothesis” that the purpose of the meeting might be to discuss an attack on the Prague the headquarters for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

This hypothesis was based on information provided by Jabir Salim in December 1998. Salim, like Al-Ani, had been the Iraq Consul in Prague, and had defected. When debriefed by western intelligence services, he revealed that Iraq had been planning a car bombing of Radio Free Europe. So when al-Ani took Salim’s place at the Iraq Embassy, Czech intelligence assumed that he might be continuing that mission, which accounted for the surveillance on al-Ani.

Although the hypothesis about the Radio Free Europe target proved wrong on September 11th, it raised another potentially embarrassing intelligence concern: Did the Czechs pass on information about the al-Ani encounter, and the reasons for his expulsion, to other intelligence services prior to September 11th?

Heightened security at Radio Free Europe and the Al-Ani expulsion that April were highly visible moves. Since Radio Free Europe, was a prime US target in the Czech Republic, the Czechs had reason to explain the security precautions to US intelligence. After all, the US they had capabilities for surveillance unavailable to the Czech intelligence. Since al-Ani’s predecessor, Salim, was being handled by the British intelligence service, the Czechs also had reason to brief the British on al-Ani expulsion, if only to get Salim’s views.

7. In December, 2001, Czech newspapers reported that President Havel saying “it was only 70 percent certain” that the identification of Atta was accurate. Havel, who was not privy to BIS reporting, subsequently explained the “70 percent” figure was his personal assessment based on his past experience.

8. On December 17th, Gross, in response to these questions, re-confirmed the meeting. The AP reported: “Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, responding to the report, said he stood by his original statement that Atta and Al-Ani met at least once in Prague and said it was based on a reputable account from BIS, the Czech counterintelligence agency.”

9. On May 1st, 2002, the status of the case changed radically when first Newsweek and then the Washington Post declared the meeting a fictoid. Walter Pincus in the Washington Post (based on a story a few days earlier by Michael Isikoff in Newsweek) stated “There is no evidence that the alleged leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, met in April 2001 with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, a finding that eliminates a once-suggested link between the terrorist attacks and the government of President Saddam Hussein, according to a senior administration official.”

Without giving a further source, Pincus explained that false reports that such a meeting had taken place were based not on BIS surveillance but a claim by “a Middle East informant” after September 11th that “he had seen the hijacker five months earlier meeting with al-Ani.” Pincus thus dates the identification as Atta to after the September 11th attack (which is inconsistent with the deputy foreign minister’s assertion that he had ordered al-Ani expelled in April 2001 because of his inappropriate contact with Atta.)

According to the anonymous “senior administration official,” Pincus writes “the Czechs said they were no longer certain that Atta was the person who met al-Ani.”

The same “senior administration official” was also quoted as saying that FBI and CIA analysts concluded that "there was no evidence Atta left or returned to the U.S." at the time he was supposed to be in Prague. (Neither the FBI, the New York Times nor anyone else had claimed that there was evidence Atta had used his own passport to travel to the Czech Republic in April 2001. The assumption was that, if Atta was in Prague in April, he traveled there under a false identity.)

Neither Pincus nor Isikoff identified the deep-throated “senior administration official,” nor specified which “Czechs,” according to this anonymous source, doubted the identification of Atta.

10. Czech intelligence responds. In, fact there never was a retraction, or even modification, from the relevant officials in and supervising the Czech intelligence service. On December 17th, 2001 Gabriela Bartikova, the spokeswomen for the Minister of the Interior, had said "Minister Gross had the information from BIS, and BIS guarantees the information, So we stick by that information." On May 3rd, 2002 referring to the Washington Post-Newsweek allegation, Interior Minister Stanislav Gross stated "I believe the counterintelligence services more than journalists. I draw on the Security Information Service [BIS] information and I see no reason why I should not believe it." He further explained that he had consulted with BIS chief Jiri Ruzek on May 2nd in order to find out whether the Czech intelligence service had any new information that would cast doubt on the meeting. "The answer was that they did not. Therefore, I consider the matter closed,” Gross concluded.

In other words, to date, Czech intelligence, the only agency anywhere that claimed to monitor the meeting, stood by its guarantee that the atta-al-Ani had taken place.

What changed in this ping-pong journalism therefore was not any new revelations— or retractions— but the introduction of an anonymous “senior administration source” with an unknown agenda, whose claim that “the Czechs” doubted the meeting took place, has now been directly denied by the relevant officials.


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