Atta in Prague?
EDWARD JAY EPSTEIN
November 22, 2005; Page A14
PRAGUE -- On Oct. 27,
2001, the New York Times reported (erroneously) that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta "flew to the Czech Republic on April 8 and met
with [an] Iraqi intelligence officer," helping to give credence to the
so-called "Prague connection." It subsequently cast doubt on it,
editorializing in November 2005 that the alleged meeting between the hijacker
and the Iraqi was part of President Bush and his team's "rewriting of
history" based on nothing more than a false tale "from an unreliable
drunk." But was the putative Prague
connection solely an invention of the Bush administration -- or was it the product
of an incomplete intelligence operation?
To sort out the
confusion, I met earlier this month in Prague
with Jiri Ruzek, chief at
the time of the Czech counterintelligence service (BIS). Mr. Ruzek is in a position to know what happened. He personally
oversaw the investigation of Iraq's alleged covert activities that began, with
full American collaboration, nearly two years before Mr. Bush became president
and resulted, some five months before the 9/11 attack, in the expulsion of
Ahmad al-Ani, the Iraqi intelligence officer alleged
to have met with Atta. I also spoke with ex-Foreign
Minister Jan Kavan, who headed the intelligence
committee to whom Mr. Ruzek reported, and to
Ambassador Hynek Kmonicek,
who, as deputy foreign minister at the time, handled the al-Ani
expulsion for the foreign ministry. According to them, here's how the Prague connection
The proximate cause for
BIS interest in al-Ani was a sensational revelation
of Jabir Salim, the Iraqi
consul who defected in Prague
in December 1998. Mr. Salim said in his debriefings
that the Mukhabarat, Iraq's intelligence service, had
given him $150,000 and tasked him with carrying out a covert action against an
American target in the Czech Republic: Using a freelance terrorist, he was to
blow up the headquarters of Radio Free Europe in Wenceslas Square, in the heart
This intelligence about
state-sponsored terrorism was taken very seriously by both America and the Czech Republic.
for its part, doubled security at the Radio Free Europe facility and began its
own countersurveillance, including photographing
suspicious individuals in Wenceslas
Square. The BIS did what counterintelligence
services do in such circumstances: They sought to penetrate the Iraq Embassy by
recruiting Arabic-speaking employees familiar with its operations. The source
the BIS used, according to Mr. Ruzek, was neither
unreliable nor a drunk.
Ahmad al-Ani was Jabir Salim's
replacement at the embassy. Soon after he arrived in March 1999, he was picked
up by U.S.
countersurveillance cameras. The interest in him
intensified after the BIS learned from its penetration of the embassy that he
was attempting to acquire explosives and contact foreign-based Arabs. Then, on
April 9, 2001, the BIS's source in the embassy reported
that al-Ani had gotten into a car with an unknown
foreign Arab. After the car managed
to elude BIS surveillance, concern mounted that he was in the process of
recruiting his bomber, and, since the BIS could not find the mystery Arab, Mr. Ruzek decided to act pre-emptively.
He recommended to Foreign Minister Kavan that al-Ani be immediately expelled from the Czech Republic.
He was given 48 hours to get out of Prague on
April 19 -- and he returned to Baghdad.
On Sept. 11, Mohammed Atta's picture was shown on Czech television, and the next
day, the BIS's source in the Iraq embassy dropped a bombshell.
He told his BIS case officer that he recognized Atta
as the Arab who got in the car with al-Ani on April
9. Mr. Ruzek immediately relayed the secret information
through the CIA liaison. The FBI sent an interrogation team to Prague, which, after
questioning and testing the source, concluded that there was a 70% likelihood
that he was not intentionally lying and sincerely believed that he saw Atta with al-Ani. The issue
remained whether he had mistaken someone who resembled Atta
for the 9/11 hijacker. Meanwhile, records were found showing that Atta had applied for a Czech visa in Germany in 2000, and
made at least one previous trip to Prague (from Bonn, by bus, on June 2, 2000,
flying to Newark, N.J. the next day).
Less than a week after
Mr. Ruzek shared the BIS's
confidential information with American intelligence, it was leaked. The AP
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
met earlier this year in Europe with an Iraqi
intelligence agent." CBS named al-Ani as the
person meeting with Atta in Prague.
was furious. He considered what he had passed on to the FBI to be unevaluated
raw intelligence, and its disclosure not only risked compromising the BIS's penetration in the Iraq embassy but also greatly
reduced the chances of confirming the intelligence in the first place. In Baghdad, al-Ani, through an Iraqi spokesman, denied ever meeting Atta. In Prague,
Czech officials who had not been fully briefed added to the confusion. Prime
Minister Milos Zeeman,
wrongly assuming that the meeting had been confirmed, stated on CNN that Atta and al-Ani had met to
discuss Radio Free Europe, not the 9/11 attack.
Meanwhile, pressure on
Mr. Ruzek mounted. Richard Armitage,
Colin Powell's deputy, complained to Prime Minister Zeeman
that Mr. Ruzek was not cooperating in resolving the
case, even though Mr. Ruzek had extended
unprecedented access to the FBI and CIA, access that included allowing their
representatives to sit on the task force reviewing the case. He was also warned
by a colleague in German intelligence that he could become entangled in a
heated hawk-versus-dove struggle over Iraq.
decided that if this was an American game, he did not want to be a part of it.
So he threw the ball back in the CIA's court, taking the position that if al-Ani did meet Atta for a nefarious
purpose, it would have been not on his own initiative but as a representative
of the Mukhabarat. The answer was not in Prague but in Iraq's intelligence files; and the
CIA and FBI would have to use their own intelligence capabilities to obtain
further information about al-Ani's assignment. That
more or less concluded the Czech role in the investigation.
The FBI had by this time
established that Atta checked out of the Diplomat Inn
Beach and cashed a check for $8,000 from a SunTrust account on
April 4, 2001, and was seen again in Florida
on April 11, 2001. But it could not account for his movements during this
period (or how he used that money), though there was no record of Atta using his passport to travel outside the U.S.
The CIA also drew a blank, and Director George Tenet, testified on June 18,
2002 before a Joint Committee of Congress: "Atta
allegedly traveled outside the U.S.
in early April 2001 to meet with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, we are still
working to confirm or deny this allegation. It is possible that Atta traveled under an unknown alias since we have been
unable to establish that Atta left the U.S. or entered Europe
in April 2001 under his true name or any known aliases."
was captured by the CIA in Baghdad in 2003, and
he remains in detention in Iraq.
Though no one has been allowed to interview him, he told the CIA that he was
not anywhere near Prague
at the time of the meeting. Although
Mr. Ruzek termed al-Ani's
claim of being elsewhere "pure nonsense," the CIA had evidently found
it could go no further with the vexing case. Mr. Tenet, on March 9, 2004, told
a closed session of the Senate Armed Service Committee, "Although we cannot rule it out, we are increasingly
skeptical such a meeting occurred."
9/11, when the investigation into al-Ani's activities
was initiated, both the CIA and the BIS took deadly serious the allegation of
state-sponsored terrorism directed against Radio Free Europe. Both agencies
cooperated in attempting to thwart it, accepting the information furnished by
the BIS penetration agent as sufficiently reliable to expel al-Ani. After 9/11, with Iraq now on the Bush
administration's agenda, the subject of state-sponsored terrorism became a
political hot potato, as Mr. Ruzek learned, that
could easily burn anyone who touched it. So hot that if the CIA even questioned
al-Ani about the instruction he had concerning
blowing up Radio Free Europe, it never disclosed the answers to the BIS. So,
like many other intelligence cases that become politicized, the Prague connection, and all
that led up to it, was consigned to a murky limbo.