The Iraq/al-Qaida connection hasn't gone away.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 19 2003 12:58 PM

Prague Revisited

The evidence of an Iraq/al-Qaida connection hasn't gone away.

Partners in crime?
Partners in crime?

This month, I went to Prague to meet with Czech officials who had directly handled the pre-9/11 expulsion of a senior Iraqi diplomat, a case that would became known as the Prague Connection. Because it goes to the heart of the issue of whether Saddam Hussein might have played a role in the attack on the World Trade Center, this controversy has continued to rage, without any satisfying conclusion, for more than two years. 

The background: On April 21, 2001, the CIA's liaison officer at the U.S. Embassy in Prague was briefed by the Czech counterintelligence service (known by its Czech acronym, BIS) about an extraordinary development in a spy case that concerned both the United States and the Czech Republic. The subject of the briefing was Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, the consul at Iraq's embassy in Prague.  

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The reason there had been joint Czech-American interest in the case traced back to the December 1998 when al-Ani's predecessor at the Iraq Embassy, Jabir Salim, defected from his post. In his debriefings, Salim said that he had been supplied with $150,000 by Baghdad to prepare a car-bombing of an American target, the Prague headquarters of Radio Free Europe. (This bombing never took place because Salim could not recruit a bomber.) 

So when al-Ani replaced Salim at the Iraq Embassy in Prague in 1999, both the United States and the Czech Republic wanted him closely watched in case he had a similar assignment. The BIS handled the surveillance through its own full-time teams and its network of part-time "watchers" at hotels, restaurants, and other likely locations. Then, on April 8, 2001, a BIS watcher saw al-Ani meeting in a restaurant outside Prague with an Arab man in his 20s. This set off alarm bells because a BIS informant in the Arab community had provided information indicating that the person with whom al-Ani was meeting was a visiting "student" from Hamburg—and one who was potentially dangerous.

On my trip, I spoke to Jan Kavan, who in 2001 was foreign minister and coordinator of intelligence. According to Kavan—who to my knowledge has not spoken publicly about this episode before—al-Ani had previously been spotted taking photos of the headquarters of Radio Free Europe. In this context, the restaurant meeting suggested that al-Ani might be recruiting someone to resume the bombing plot. Adding to the tension, the BIS lost track of the "student." So Kavan decided to act: He ordered al-Ani out of the Czech Republic.

During the next 48 hours, as al-Ani prepared his hasty departure, the CIA liaison called both the BIS liaison and the Czech National Security Office for further details about the expulsion, which presumably he then passed on to the FBI and other relevant parties. Kavan's able deputy, Hynek Kmonicek, arranged for al-Ani to exit via Vienna, Austria. As far as Kavan was concerned, the al-Ani problem was, if not resolved, then in the hands of American intelligence

The issue re-emerged three days after the 9/11 attack when the CIA intelligence liaison was told by the BIS that the Hamburg "student" who had met with al-Ani on April 8 had been tentatively identified as the 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. Since al-Ani was an officer of Saddam Hussein's intelligence (and diplomatic) service, this identification raised the possibility that Saddam might have had a hand in the 9/11 attack. It could also be potentially embarrassing, as Kavan pointed out, "if American intelligence had failed before 9/11 to adequately appreciate the significance of the April meeting."  

Kavan, in the newly created position of coordinator for intelligence, was in the center of the ensuing "crisis," as he termed it. He gave the FBI full access to the Czech side of the investigation. Two Czech-speaking FBI agents were allowed not only to sit in on the high-level task force evaluating the intelligence but to examine source material. If Atta was at the meeting, he could not have used his own passport to enter the Czech Republic, so the BIS assumed he had used a false identity and began checking through visa records for suspicious visitors in April, examining grainy videotapes from cameras at airports, bus stations, and game arcades. As the investigation was still in an early stage, the FBI had been asked to keep the identification of Atta secret, but within a week, the Prague connection was leaked to the press—from Washington. On Sept. 18, 2001, the Associated Press reported, "A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States has received information from a foreign intelligence service that Mohamed Atta, a hijacker aboard one of the planes that slammed into the World Trade Center, met earlier this year in Europe with an Iraqi intelligence agent." CBS then reported that Atta had been seen with al-Ani.

In Washington, the FBI moved to quiet the Prague connection by telling journalists that it had car rentals and records that put Atta in Virginia Beach, Va., and Florida close to, if not during, the period when he was supposed to be in Prague. The New York Times, citing information provided by "federal law enforcement officials," reported that Atta was in Virginia Beach on April 2, 2001, and by April 11, "Atta was back in Florida, renting a car." Newsweek reported that, "the FBI pointed out Atta was traveling at the time [in early April 2001] between Florida and Virginia Beach, Va.," adding, "The bureau had his rental car and hotel receipts." And intelligence expert James Bamford, after quoting FBI Director Robert Mueller as saying that the FBI "ran down literally hundreds of thousands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on," reported in USA Today, "The records revealed that Atta was in Virginia Beach during the time he supposedly met the Iraqi in Prague." 

All these reports attributed to the FBI were, as it turns out, erroneous. There were no car rental records in Virginia, Florida, or anywhere else in April 2001 for Mohamed Atta, since he had not yet obtained his Florida license. His international license was at his father's home in Cairo, Egypt (where his roommate Marwan al-Shehhi picked it up in late April). Nor were there other records in the hands of the FBI that put Atta in the United States at the time. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet testified to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in June 2002, "It is possible that Atta traveled under an unknown alias" to "meet with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague." Clearly, it was not beyond the capabilities of the 9/11 hijackers to use aliases.

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