Atta in Prague: Did It Happen?

The claim that terrorist leader Mohamed Atta met in Prague with an Iraqi spy a few months before 9/11 was never substantiated, but that didn't stop the White House from trying to insert the allegation in presidential speeches, according to classified documents.

Cryptic references to the White House efforts are contained in a new Senate Intelligence Committee report released last Friday that debunked purported links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. However, attempts by committee Democrats to make public a more explicit account of White House interest in the anecdote were thwarted when the "intelligence community" refused to declassify a CIA cable that lays out the controversy, according to congressional sources. Democrats charged in a written statement that intelligence officials had failed to demonstrate "that disclosing the [cable] ... would reveal sources and methods or otherwise harm national security." The Democrats also complained that officials' refusal to declassify the cable "represents an improper use of classification authority by the intelligence community to shield the White House."

According to two sources familiar with the blacked-out portions of the Senate report that discuss the CIA cable's contents, the document indicates that White House officials had proposed mentioning the supposed Atta-Prague meeting in a Bush speech scheduled for March 14, 2003. Originated by Czech intelligence shortly after 9/11, the tendentious claim was that in April 2001, Atta, the 9/11 hijack leader, had met in Prague with the local station chief for Iraqi intelligence. The sources said that upon learning of the proposed White House speech, the CIA station in Prague sent back a cable explaining in detail why the agency believed the anecdote was ill-founded.

According to one of the sources familiar with the Senate report's censored portions, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, the tone of the CIA cable was "strident" and expressed dismay that the White House was trying to shoehorn the Atta anecdote into the Bush speech to be delivered only days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The source said the cable also suggested that policymakers had tried to insert the same anecdote into other speeches by top administration officials.

A second source familiar with the Senate report, however, maintained that it could be read as routine give-and-take between policymakers asking legitimate questions about intelligence reporting and field operatives giving respectful responses. Both sources familiar with the report acknowledge that there is no proof the White House saw the cable, and thus it is unclear whether the CIA document had any bearing on the fact that Bush never mentioned the Atta anecdote in a speech. One of the sources said that some GOP senators on the Intelligence Committee felt the CIA cable issue should be omitted entirely from the Senate report because there was no proof the cable had influenced the White House.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano says the agency "cooperated closely with the committee as it prepared its report. Mindful of the vital oversight role that Congress plays—and the important issues it was reviewing in this case—the agency provided the committee with classified material that typically does not leave our headquarters. And we agreed to the vast majority of the committee's declassification requests. When CIA did not agree to a specific public release, its case was based on current intelligence equities and a desire to preserve the candor essential to good internal discussion of complex issues. It's simply wrong to suggest the goal was to protect the White House." A White House spokesman had no comment.

Uncensored portions of the Senate report say that by January 2003, the CIA had issued two assessments questioning whether the Prague meeting occurred. In these assessments, the agency said that neither it nor the FBI were able to confirm the meeting happened.

A former senior intelligence official who was in active service at the time confirmed to NEWSWEEK that the White House on multiple occasions had proposed inserting the Atta-in-Prague anecdote in speeches by both the president and Vice President Dick Cheney. The official said that the CIA usually objected to the White House proposals. Although Bush never mentioned the Atta anecdote, Cheney referred to it on several occasions—most recently in a TV appearance last weekend on NBC's "Meet the Press" during which he conceded that the claim that Atta had a pre-9/11 meeting with an Iraqi spook had never been confirmed.

After the Czech intelligence report first surfaced, it became a holy grail for Bush administration hard-liners seeking evidence to justify a possible U.S. war in Iraq. Cheney and his aides in particular badgered intelligence officials for evidence confirming the Prague meeting and for other proof connecting Saddam to 9/11 and Al Qaeda, according to several former intelligence officials. As my NEWSWEEK colleague Michael Isikoff and his coauthor David Corn report in their new book "Hubris," some top Pentagon and White House conservatives, including former Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, were admirers of Laurie Mylroie, an eccentric author and academic who theorized that Saddam's intelligence apparatus, rather than Osama bin Laden, was directing Al Qaeda attacks. While the administration, and particularly Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, put a lot of effort into trying to confirm Mylroie's claims, they were never substantiated.

In uncensored comments attached to Friday's Senate Intelligence Committee report, Democrats explicitly charge that the administration bullied and harangued intelligence agencies to come up with evidence linking Saddam to Al Qaeda. "This pressure took the form of policymakers repetitively tasking analysts to review, reconsider and revise their analytical judgments," the Democrats allege. In support of this claim, the Democrats cite a July 2003 paper on Iraq in which the CIA itself said that "Requests for reporting and analysis of [Iraq's link to Al Qaeda] were steady and heavy in the period leading up to the war, creating significant pressure on the Intelligence Community to find evidence that supported a connection."

Democrats also publicly report that an internal CIA watchdog known as the "politicization ombudsman" had looked into complaints that the administration was pressuring intelligence analysts to come up with intelligence connecting Saddam to Al Qaeda. According to the Democrats, the ombudsman told committee investigators that he felt the "hammering" that intelligence analysts got from administration policymakers on Iraq intelligence was, in the Democrats' language, "harder than he had previously witnessed in his 32-year career" at the CIA. The Democrats also report that former CIA chief George Tenet told the committee that analysts had felt pressured by policymakers and that "The issue where there was intense focus and questioning where the analysts felt pressure was Iraq and Al Qaeda." A White House official noted that investigations by the 9/11 Commission and the commission headed by Judge Lawrence Silberman, which investigated WMD threats, did not substantiate suggestions that the CIA or other intelligence analysts had been pressured over Iraq.

According to a chronology included by Democrats in their appendix to the Senate report, Cheney alluded to the purported Atta-in-Prague meeting at least three times between 9/11 and a year later, and Condoleezza Rice, then the national-security adviser, alluded to it cryptically right before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In December 2001, Cheney had claimed: "It's been pretty well confirmed that [Atta] 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."

On TV last Sunday, however, Cheney said: "We've never been able to confirm any connection between Iraq and 9/11."

Host Tim Russert then asked him: "And the meeting with Atta did not occur?"

Cheney replied: "We don't know. I mean, we've never been able to, to, to link it, and the FBI and CIA have worked it aggressively. I would say, at this point, nobody has been able to confirm …"

According to former senior intelligence officials, when the White House sent to the CIA its first proposed version of the now-famous United Nations speech by Secretary of State Colin Powell outlining the U.S. case against Saddam, the 48-page draft—which the officials say they believe was largely written by Scooter Libby—included prominent references to the Atta-in-Prague anecdote. Powell's chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, told a hearing organized by congressional Democrats earlier this year that one of the most dramatic moments in the preparation for the speech occurred in Tenet's conference room at CIA headquarters. Powell was reading through the speech as part of a final rehearsal before leaving for New York. According to Wilkerson's account, as Powell proceeded, Stephen Hadley, then the deputy national-security adviser (who is now the national-security adviser) asked what happened to the Atta-in-Prague story, which Powell had omitted. According to Wilkerson, Powell replied, "We took it out, and it's staying out."

According to portions of the new Senate report that were not censored, the anecdote about Atta meeting Ahmed al-Ani, the Iraqi intelligence station chief, in Prague originated with a "single source" for Czech intelligence. Investigations by the CIA and FBI determined that in the years before 9/11, Atta had indeed visited Prague on at least two occasions. But according to a July 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency paper quoted in the Senate report, investigators trying to substantiate the single-source claim about Atta's 2001 Prague meeting found "no photographic, immigration or other documentary evidence" to back it up. Investigations by the FBI and CIA also turned up evidence that Atta was in the United States on days shortly before and shortly after the alleged Prague meeting. The CIA also turned up information indicating that for most of the day the alleged meeting occurred, Atta's alleged Iraqi interlocutor, al-Ani, was not even in Prague but rather was visiting a city about 60-90 minutes away. Al-Ani also denied to U.S. interrogators after the U.S. invasion of Iraq that he had ever met with Atta in Prague, or anywhere else.

Even after most career intelligence operatives and analysts had begun to doubt the credibility of the Atta-in-Prague story, some administration hard-liners still were touting it as a possible Saddam-9/11 smoking gun and scrounging around for scraps of corroboration. In a secret briefing prepared for delivery to White House officials including Hadley and Libby in September 2002, officials working for Douglas Feith, then the hard-line head of the Pentagon's policy development branch, included a special slide about the purported meeting that included an allegation that "several workers at Prague Airport identified Atta following 9/11 and remember him traveling with his brother Farhan Atta." When earlier versions of the same briefing were presented to CIA officials and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, however, the Prague slide was not included. Several former intelligence officials who worked directly on investigations of Saddam's alleged Al Qaeda ties said that they had never heard of the allegation about Atta's brother, even though defense officials claimed this had been reported through normal intelligence channels. In a footnote to their new book, Isikoff and Corn report that Atta had two sisters, but no brother.

While some senators did dispute whether references to the censored CIA cable about Atta in Prague should be included in their new report, all but one Republican member of the Intelligence Committee voted to endorse the more sweeping conclusions comparing pre-war and postwar intelligence findings about Saddam and Al Qaeda. Among the findings: Saddam's dealings with Al Qaeda were tentative and wary rather than collaborative, and Saddam's intelligence service once warned him that the United States might try to make up or exploit any Iraqi links to Al Qaeda for propaganda purposes.

In a section of the Senate report that is not questioned by administration supporters on the committee, investigators also produce strong new evidence undermining a key section of Powell's U.N. speech, in which the secretary of State claimed that the presence in Baghdad, during the spring and summer of 2002, of alleged Al Qaeda associate Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi demonstrated evidence of a possible relationship between Saddam's government and Al Qaeda. The new Senate report says that after the U.S. invasion, American personnel in Baghdad discovered evidence that Saddam's government considered Zarqawi an outlaw and made unsuccessful efforts to track him down and capture him. Postwar investigations turned up no evidence Saddam's government ever had friendly dealings with Zarqawi, who later gained worldwide notoriety as the beheader of U.S. hostages and self-proclaimed leader of jihadi forces in post-Saddam Iraq.