Havel's Unpublished Correction

Saddam and Terrorism

Havel's Unpublished Correction

Saddam and Terrorism

Havel's Unpublished Correction
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 1 2003 9:21 AM

Saddam and Terrorism

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Hi, Dan,

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So, we agree that Iraq sponsors covert attacks on American targets. The extent of such state sponsorship, however, is not so easily settled. Even if your former boss Richard Clarke did not uncover evidence of more "ambitious" covert operations by Iraq, it does not mean that they did not occur. Intelligence services, after all—even "broken down" ones like Iraq— use false flag recruitments, bogus identities, and diversions to disguise their authorship. So, it remains an unfortunate, if tautological, reality in counter-intelligence (or in weapons verification) that nothing that is successfully hidden is ever found.

In any case, it may take a great deal of time to uncover. Consider again the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. You say that you are unaware of any FBI or Justice Department investigators who believe that there was more Iraqi involvement in it than that country's documentation for conspirator Ramzi Yousef and its sanctuary for conspirator Abdul Rahman Yasin. But have those agencies proven all that prescient in this case? The FBI released Yasin from custody, allowing him to fly to the Iraqi Embassy in Jordan and then to his safe haven in Baghdad. The Justice Department, for its part, missed the connection with al-Qaida, Osama Bin Laden, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, none of whom were included in the indictment as co-conspirators. As you yourself point out in your excellent book, although there were "threads" pointing to al-Qaida, "within the Bureau, there was also an unwillingness to believe that there was more than met the eye." Wouldn't that same reluctance also apply to threads leading to Iraq such as the escape route of Yasin to Baghdad and the altering of documents under Iraq's control in Kuwait to support the false identity which Yousef assumed for his escape?

In the case of the 9/11, I accept your point that the purported meeting between Iraqi consul al-Ani and Mohammed Atta in Prague is open to question. All evidence, and especially that evidence produced in the murky world of intelligence-gathering, can be controverted: Otherwise, it would not be evidence but an article of faith. But it is untrue that the Czech government has discredited the report about this meeting. You say: "President Vaclav Havel, no less, had to walk it back. Jim Risen has written about this in the New York Times." Risen wrote (New York Times, October 21, 2001) that Havel told the White House in a phone call that there was no evidence to confirm the Atta/al-Ani meeting, but that's erroneous. Immediately after the story appeared, Havel not only denied he had ever communicated the information to the White House, but he also said, through his spokesman, that the New York Times story was "a fabrication," and "nothing like this has occurred." Unfortunately, the Times' error-correction policy (which is brilliantly elucidated by Renata Adler in her book Canaries in the Mine Shaft) remedies misspelling and inaccurate photo-captions, but not errors of substance. So, the Times never reported that its own authority for its exclusive story, Havel, had said it was a fabrication.

In fact, over the past 18 months, and as recently as last week (when it expelled additional Iraqi diplomats), the Czech government, through the statements of its intelligence chief Jiri Ruzek, its Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, and its U.N. Ambassador Hynek Kmonicek (who served the expulsion notice on al-Ani), has confirmed that it has credible intelligence about the meeting.

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I am intrigued by your "intelligence community sources" who express doubts about the reliability of the Czech intelligence (perhaps they, like you, were unaware that the Times story had been an invention). Have you considered the possibility that the CIA may have an interest in not opening this particular can of worms, especially given its delicate chronology? The reported meeting, and the expulsion of Iraq consul al-Ani, happened on its watch: April 2001. The agency couldn't be unaware of it.

Never before had the Czech Republic expelled such a high-ranking Iraqi diplomat. The CIA maintained a liaison with the Czechs. Prime Minister Milos Zeman said that Czech intelligence assumed that the meeting between al-Ani and Atta concerned the plot to blow up the American target Radio Free Europe—not the World Trade Center. Czech intelligence and British intelligence (through an Iraqi defector, who was in fact al-Ani's predecessor in Prague) had information about such a plan, targeting the Radio Free Europe building. It seems unlikely that this information was not passed on, by both British and Czech intelligence, to the CIA. The CIA would have had this information in their files. What did they do about it? Did they pass it on to the FBI?

You note that during your tenure, the CIA and FBI shared such information in the Counterterrorism Security Group. Did the Czech report get lost in the shuffle in the transition? If so, wouldn't this report coming to light prove embarrassing after 9/11, especially after the Czech foreign minister informed Secretary of State Powell that Czech intelligence had identified the individual with whom al-Ani met as a 9/11 hijacker who had made a previous unexplained trip to Prague?

While you make many good points about Saddam's logic, in my opinion we need not go that deep to find a motive for him. The United States had been attacking his forces in the "no fly" zones, embargoing his economy, and attempting to subvert his regime since 1992. Even before President Clinton had ordered the sustained bombing of Iraq in Desert Fox, Saddam's Revolutionary Command Council (May 1, 1998) had justified a "great jihad" against America and threatened "dire consequences." Why, Dan, are you so sure these "consequences" did not include a terrorist attack?

Cheers,
Ed Epstein