Iraq, 9/11 Still Linked By Cheney
By Dana Priest and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 29, 2003; Page A01
In making the case for war against Iraq, Vice President Cheney
has continued to suggest that an Iraqi intelligence agent met with a
Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker five months before the attacks, even as the
story was falling apart under scrutiny by the FBI, CIA and the foreign
government that first made the allegation.
The alleged meeting in Prague between hijacker Mohamed Atta and
Iraqi Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani was the single thread the
administration has pointed to that might tie Iraq to the attacks. But
as the Czech government distanced itself from its initial assertion and
American investigators determined Atta was probably in the United
States at the time of the meeting, other administration officials
dropped the incident from their public statements about Iraq.
Not Cheney, who was the administration's most vociferous advocate
for going to war with Iraq. He brought up the connection between Atta
and al-Ani again two weeks ago in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the
Press" in which he also suggested links between Iraq and the Sept. 11
Cheney described Iraq as "the geographic base of the terrorists
who have had us under assault for many years, but most especially on
9/11." Neither the CIA nor the congressional joint inquiry that
investigated the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
found any evidence linking Iraq to the hijackers or the attacks.
President Bush corrected Cheney's statement several days later.
Cheney's staff also waged a campaign to include the allegation in
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's speech to the United Nations in
February in which he made the administration's case for war against
Iraq. Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, pressed
Powell's speechwriters to include the Atta claim and other suspected
links between Iraq and terrorism, according to senior and mid-level
administration officials involved in crafting the speech.
When State Department and CIA officials complained about Libby's
proposed language and suggested cutting large sections, Cheney's
associates fought back. "Every piece offered . . . they fought tooth
and nail to keep it in," said one official involved in putting together
The vice president's role in keeping the alleged meeting in
Prague before the public eye is an illustration of the administration's
handling of intelligence reports in the run-up to the war, when senior
officials sometimes seized on reports that bolstered the case against
Iraq despite contradictory evidence provided by the U.S. intelligence
Cheney's office declined to comment. Mary Matalin, a former
senior aide to Cheney who still provides the vice president with
advice, said Cheney's job is to focus on "the big picture." His
appearance on "Meet the Press" on Sept. 14, she said, was intended to
"remind people that Iraq is part of a bigger war that will require
patience and sacrifice."
Cheney does not fully vet his speeches or public statements with
the CIA or the wider intelligence community for accuracy, according to
several administration officials, but usually gives the CIA a list of
possible points or facts that might be used in a speech or appearance.
Matalin said Cheney "doesn't base his opinion on one piece of
data," but has access to information that cannot be declassified
because it would harm national security or compromise sources. "His job
is to connect the dots in a way to prevent the worst possible case from
happening," she said, but in public "he has to tiptoe through landmines
of what's sayable and not sayable."
The claim that Atta, an Egyptian and Sept. 11 hijacker, had met
with al-Ani in early April 2001 has been a constant element of the vice
president's case against Iraq. Surveillance cameras at the Radio Free
Europe building in Prague had picked up al-Ani, an intelligence officer
at the Iraq embassy, surveying the building in April, five months
before the Sept. 11 attacks. The tape was made available to Czech
intelligence. Al-Ani was expelled at the U.S. government's request soon
afterward for conduct incompatible with his diplomatic status.
In October 2001, after pictures of Atta had circulated publicly,
an Arab student who worked as an informant for BIS, the Czech Security
Information Service, told the service he had seen Atta meeting with
al-Ani in April.
That November, Stanislav Gross, the Czech Republic's interior
minister, said publicly that al-Ani and Atta had met in Prague. A short
while later, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman told Powell that the two
had discussed targeting the Radio Free Europe building, not the Sept.
On Dec. 9, 2001, Cheney said on "Meet The Press" that "it's been
pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with a
senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia
last April, several months before the attack."
But that same month, Czech President Vaclav Havel was retreating
from the more definitive accounts provided by his government, saying
there was "a 70 percent" chance the meeting took place. Indeed, while
Czech officials never officially backed away from their initial stance,
officials at various agencies say that, privately, the Czechs have
discredited the accuracy of the untested informant who came to them
with the information. According to one report, Havel quietly informed
the White House in 2002 there was no evidence to confirm the meeting.
The Czechs had reviewed records using Atta's name and his seven
known aliases provided by the CIA and found nothing to confirm the
April 2001 trip. Meanwhile, CIA and FBI officials were running down
thousands of leads on Atta and the other 18 hijackers involved in the
Sept. 11 plot.
U.S. records showed Atta living in Virginia Beach in April 2001,
and they could find no indication he had left Virginia or traveled
outside the United States.
Even so, on March 24, 2002, Cheney again told NBC, "We discovered
. . . the allegation that one of the lead hijackers, Mohamed Atta, had,
in fact, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague."
A few weeks later, in April, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III
told a San Francisco audience, "We ran down literally hundreds of
thousands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on,
from flight reservations to car rentals to bank accounts." The FBI, he
said, could find no evidence that Atta left or returned to the United
States at the time.
In May, senior FBI and CIA analysts, having scoured thousands of
travel records, concluded "there was no evidence Atta left or returned
to the U.S.," according to officials at the time.
But on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney, again on "Meet the Press," said
that Atta "did apparently travel to Prague. . . . We have reporting
that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer a
few months before the attacks on the World Trade Center."
"What does the CIA say about that?" asked host Tim Russert. "Is it credible?"
"It's credible," Cheney replied. "But, you know, I think the way to put it would be it's unconfirmed at this point."
As war loomed closer, the Atta allegation generally began to
disappear from the administration's public case against Iraq. Bush did
not mention Atta or the Prague meeting in his Jan. 28 State of the
Union address, when he sought to show Iraq's links to terrorism.
But behind the scenes, the Atta meeting remained tantalizing to
Cheney and his staff. Libby -- along with deputy national security
adviser Stephen J. Hadley, a longtime Cheney associate -- began pushing
to include the Atta claim in Powell's appearance before the U.N.
Security Council a week after the State of the Union speech. Powell's
presentation was aimed at convincing the world of Iraq's ties to
terrorists and its pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
On Jan. 25, with a stack of notebooks at his side, color-coded
with the sources for the information, Libby laid out the potential case
against Iraq to a packed White House situation room. "We read [their
proposal to include Atta] and some of us said, 'Wow! Here we go again,'
" said one official who helped draft the speech. "You write it. You
take it out, and then it comes back again."
Libby described the material as a "Chinese menu," simply the
broadest range of options, according to several administration
officials. "The papers were designed to assist [Powell's] preparation
by organizing a lot of materials so that he could choose the order and
evidence he found most compelling, although some of it, in the end,
could not be declassified," said one administration official.
But other officials present said they felt that Libby's
presentation was over the top, that the wording was too aggressive and
most of the material could not be used in a public forum. Much of it,
in fact, unraveled when closely examined by intelligence analysts from
other agencies and, in the end, was largely discarded.
"After one day of hearing screams about who put this together and
what are the sources, we essentially threw it out," one official
Cheney's staff did not entirely give up. Late into the night
before Powell's presentation, Libby called Powell's staff, waiting at
the United Nations in New York, to question why certain material was
not being included in the terrorism section, according to two State
Earlier this month, on his most recent "Meet the Press"
appearance, Cheney once again used Atta to subtly suggest a connection
between Iraq and Sept. 11, 2001.
"With respect to 9/11, of course, we've had the story . . . the
Czechs alleged that Mohamed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with
a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack, but
we've never been able to develop anymore of that yet, either in terms
of confirming it or discrediting it."
Defense and intelligence officials say al-Ani, who was
apprehended by U.S. forces earlier this year, has denied meeting with
Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.
2003 The Washington Post Company