The power of front page scoops, real or invented,
to numb the mind of other news media, should never be
underestimated. On October 21, 2002, the New York Times
reported on its front page such a stunning scoop. It
declared that President George Bush had received a phone
call earlier in the year from the Czech president, Vaclav
Havel, revealing that his government had no evidence
of the putative meeting in Prague between the hijacker
Atta and the Iraqi diplomat al-Ani.
The story by James Risen reported, "Havel has quietly
told the White House he has concluded that there is
no evidence to confirm earlier reports that Mohamed
Atta, the leader in the Sept. 11 attacks, met with an
Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague just months before
the attacks on New York and Washington."
Even though the only sources given for this scoop were
anonymous "Czech officials," the story was
uncritically carried as front page news by almost every
major newspaper in America.
The story, however, was untrue. After the story broke,
President Havel stated through his spokesman that he
had never spoken to President Bush or the "White
House" about this meeting. The spokesman, Ladislav
Spacek, stated unequivocally that the Times claim that
Havel had called Bush, or any high-ranking officials
of his Administration, was false. " It is a fabrication,"
Spacek said, "Nothing like this has occurred."
The Times acknowledged the next day that President
Havel denied that he had ever had a phone conversation
with Bush or any other White House official on the subject
of Atta in a story by its Prague stringer, Peter Green.
Green then went on to say:
that Havel spokesman added that, "Mr. Havel was
still certain there was no factual basis behind the
report" of an Atta-Iraqi meeting.
But what Havel's spokesman actually stated was in response
to the New York times story was that Havel had only
talked about Atta at a press conference during his last
working visit to New York in September 2001 and that
" this was Havel's sole statement about Atta over
the last year." That statement did not dispute
the Czech intelligence finding. If that was his sole
statement than Havel had never said, as Peter Green
reports "there was no factual basis" for the
Atta-alAni meeting. It is simply adding fog to fog.
The foggy scoop managed to have an afterlife. Two days
after it was termed a "fabrication" by Havel's
spokesman, the Times recycled it into an editorial "The
Illusory Prague Connection." Citing the (fictional)
phone call between Havel and Bush, it stated that the
"often-cited meeting between Mohamed Atta, the
chief hijacker, and an Iraqi spy in Prague almost certainly
never took place."
Whatever the status of that meeting-- which was re-confirmed
by the Czech
Ambassador to the United Nations on October
26th -- the Times' invented scoop succeeded in casting
a lingering journalistic fog over the event.