Why did some administration officials--including Vice President Dick Cheney--still lend credit to disputed reports of an April 2001 Prague meeting between 9/11 leader Muhammad Atta and an Iraqi spy even after the 9/11 Commission concluded the encounter probably didn't occur? Administration critics have long suspected that a secret briefing on an alleged Iraq-Qaeda connection, prepared by the Pentagon in 2002, helped keep the tale alive.
NEWSWEEK has obtained declassified copies of slides made for the briefing. There are three sets: a version for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one for the then CIA Director George Tenet and one shown at a White House session attended by the then deputy national-security adviser Stephen Hadley and Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Cheney's chief of staff at the time. The White House materials include a slide, not part of the other briefings, devoted to the alleged Atta meeting. (Rumsfeld and Tenet were told there was "one indication of Iraqi involvement with Al Qaeda specifically related to 9/11.") The White House slide, dated September 2002, cites publicized allegations from a post-9/11 Czech intel report that Atta met the April before 9/11 with Iraqi spy Ahmed al-Ani, and asserts the United States had "no other" intel contradicting the report. The slide offers purported details about Atta's activities in Prague (including two earlier, confirmed visits). It says that during one visit al-Ani ordered an Iraqi intelligence officer to "issue funds to Atta." The slide also includes previous unpublished allegations that Atta met the Iraqi Embassy charge d'affaires and that "several workers at Prague airport identified Atta following 9/11 and remember him traveling with his brother Farhan Atta."
Four former senior intel officials who monitored investigations into Atta's alleged Iraqi contacts say they never heard the airport anecdote. One official (all asked not to be named while discussing intel issues) says intel analysts had "rejected" the anecdote about al-Ani's giving Atta money. Former Pentagon policy chief Douglas Feith says he was told (and other officials confirmed) that the slide was prepared from reports obtained through normal intel channels. He told NEWSWEEK the briefing's principal author told him she didn't get satisfactory answers questioning analysts about why they had "downplayed" raw intel regarding dealings between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. In June 2004, the 9/11 Commission staff said it did "not believe" the April 2001 meeting had occurred. The next day, Cheney said that while the report of Atta's Prague visit had "never been proven, it's never been refuted." Cheney's office didn't respond to queries about the Pentagon briefing.