Periscope

In investigating the Sept. 11 attack, few tasks are more difficult--and potentially more ominous--than unraveling the role of a mysterious Iraqi official named Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. Until last spring, al-Ani was listed as the chief of consular affairs in the Iraqi Embassy in Prague. But last month U.S. officials were told by Czech intelligence that al-Ani had been spotted having a number of meetings with Mohamed Atta, the suspected hijack ringleader, near the Iraqi Embassy during a visit Atta made to the Czech Republic in April 2001.

The report prompted tense debate within the Bush administration over possible Iraqi involvement in the attack. Al-Ani is believed to be a hardened Iraqi intelligence agent. In late April the Czech Foreign Ministry called in Iraq's mission chief in Prague and demanded that al-Ani leave the country within 48 hours. Why? U.S. and Czech officials told NEWSWEEK that al-Ani had been spotted "casing" and photographing the Radio Free Europe building in Prague. Czech officials feared al-Ani was plotting an attack on Radio Free Europe, which incurred Saddam's wrath when it began broadcasting into Iraq in 1998. "I told the Iraqi chief of mission that [al-Ani] was involved in activities which endanger the security of the Czech Republic," Hynek Kmonicek, the Czech Foreign Ministry official who ordered al-Ani's expulsion, told NEWSWEEK.

Kmonicek, now Czech ambassador to the United Nations, compiled a considerable file on al-Ani. One red flag was that al-Ani "was never present at any diplomatic event." Iraqi opposition leaders in Prague say that al-Ani paid a number of visits to Iraqi dissidents in that city and sought to persuade them to return to Iraq, once threatening a young defector if he refused to do so. What link these activities might have with his meetings with the Egyptian-born Atta is unclear. "It's suspicious," says Kmonicek. "Why would a diplomat with no diplomatic duties meet with a student of architecture? How is it possible they even know each other?"

Those questions have been made even more difficult by confusion about the timing of Atta's visits to Prague. U.S. officials have confirmed at least one brief, previous trip--in early June 2000-- when Atta, having driven a rental car from Germany, hopped a plane in Prague and flew to Newark, N.J. There is no hard evidence Atta met with al-Ani during that trip. But Czech police are now investigating whether Atta made even more trips to Prague using a false name and passport.

Debate over "the Iraqi connection" is sharpening. Some Bush hard-liners, who want to oust Saddam with military action, say the State Department and CIA are downplaying clues of possible Iraqi complicity. One example: when anti-Saddam Iraqis told U.S. officials two weeks ago of a defector with information about "terrorist training" operations at an Iraqi facility called Salman Pak, the CIA officer on the case was openly dismissive. But others say it's currently impossible to draw any firm conclusions about Saddam's involvement. Two years ago a top Iraqi intelligence official flew to Afghanistan, reportedly to offer bin Laden "refuge" in Iraq. According to an ex-CIA official, bin Laden said no, fearing Saddam would "use" him. Did bin Laden later change his mind, giving Iraq a role in the attack? U.S. officials can't say for sure. Until they can,Saddam may stay out of the military's cross hairs.

If we take Osama bin Laden alive--or catch some of his recruits in the United States or abroad--what would we do with them? Well-connected officials say one option is to try accused terrorists as war criminals before military tribunals. Conventional criminal trials may still be more likely, especially for accused terrorists caught in the United States. But if the president so ordered--with or without congressional approval--a military trial could be conducted at home or abroad, rapidly, in complete or partial secrecy, with liberal use of all relevant evidence, no need for proof beyond a reasonable doubt and limited appeals. Defendants sentenced to death could be executed within weeks.

The president's constitutional authority to order such trials is clearly established. In June 1942, eight English-speaking German saboteurs secretly landed on beaches in New York's Long Island and Florida with explosives and instructions to disguise themselves as civilians, blow up factories, bridges, railroads and department stores, and spread terror. But one turned himself in and led the FBI to the other seven. They were secretly tried by a military commission specially created by President Franklin Roosevelt and convicted. Six were executed, less than two months after hitting the beaches. A unanimous Supreme Court upheld this procedure, ruling that an enemy "who without uniform comes secretly through the lines for the purpose of waging war by destruction of life or property" was an "unlawful combatant" subject to military trial and not "entitled to the status of prisoners of war."

Recent terrorism cases have gone to ordinary criminal courts. But the rules may change. Proving guilt in an ordinary trial requires disclosure of critical intelligence secrets; protecting the courthouse and participants would be costly and far from foolproof. And the media spotlight might provoke further terrorism. But a military trial also has disadvantages. International opinion would range from skeptical to hostile. And any decision to drop the "reasonable doubt" rule could lead to convictions of innocent people. Either way, it may be hard to avoid further casualties of war.

Snow, rain, heat, gloom of night--no problem. But anthrax? The letterborne attacks have added to the U.S. Postal Service's sack of problems. Ballooning expenses (leading to an annual loss of about $1.65 billion) prompted two rate increases this year and a request for a third. Now the Postal Service faces the cost of increased security plus $25 million in damage to a facility near Ground Zero. The huge agency could see a drop in revenue, too, if direct-mailers think people are tossing catalogs and credit-card come-ons out of fear. Many Americans may also start paying bills on the Web. "The Post Office was bleeding and now it's hemorrhaging,'' says Robert Wientzen, president of the Direct Marketing Association. Rate hikes are a short-term answer, but at some point marketers will have to look for cheaper avenues to reach consumers. This latest crisis may increase pressure for structural changes to let the agency operate more efficiently. John Potter, postmaster general, still sounded optimistic last week, telling NEWSWEEK that marketers may find consumers more responsive to direct mail because their "heightened awareness'' will make them read it more closely. No wonder gloom of night doesn't deter these guys.

KIDS

'WE'RE ALL THE SAME'

Many U.S. kids are worried about their safety. Khris Nedam's third-grade class in Northville, Mich., fears for the children they've befriended in Afghanistan. "I'd like to tell them we wouldn't bomb them because they're innocent," says Laura Cronin, 8, fighting back tears. "We're all the same because we don't like Osama bin Laden." The kids at Amerman Elementary School (along with two nearby middle schools) raised $20,000 to build an elementary school in the mountains of central Afghanistan. The school opened in March, skirting Taliban laws barring female education. Boys attend classes by day; girls, in the late afternoon. The Americans have come to know their counterparts through videotapes smuggled out of Afghanistan. Afghan students and teachers even visited this leafy suburb last year. "The Afghan kids are just like us," explains third-grader Eric Ostrowski, "except they are very poor." Nedam, who taught in Kabul in the early '90s, forged the sister-school relationship by inviting an Afghan friend to meet her students in 1997. She hopes the school is remote enough to avoid warfare. Last week the school's administrator called to say the students and teachers are safe. He had one request: "You won't forget us, will you?"

Just when Broadway needs a kick in the pants, a shot in the arm and a song in its heart, along comes "Mamma Mia!"--which delivers none of the above but cliches. OK, there are plenty of tunes--22 to be exact, all from that bible of'70s kitsch, the ABBA songbook. But for a musical that badly wants to be a Technicolor nostalgia trip, "Mamma Mia!" feels forced and flat. There is some fun in watching "Dancing Queen," "The Winner Takes It All" and the rest sewn together to create a story about a young woman in search of her father, not to mention the perverse pleasure of hearing someone sing "Knowing Me, Knowing You" as if it means something. But the novelty fades fast, leaving behind corny jokes, second-rate choreography and more camping than at a Boy Scout jamboree. ABBA has long been about camp, of course, and in that sense "Mamma Mia!" is the lite musical it deserves. But an ABBA song lasts four minutes; "Mamma Mia!" runs two hours. It's not surprising that the show is most effective in the encore, where the cardboard story makes way for the cast to simply belt out those catchy tunes. Not that any of this matters. "Mamma Mia!" is already a hit, with $27 million in tickets sold for Broadway and runs in London, Los Angeles and beyond. That may thrill producers ailing since Sept. 11. But laugh-starved New Yorkers need something more potent than Swede and low.

Record-industry giants thought they were gaining ground on Internet music-sharing services when the industry itself discovered it's in legal hot water. The question is whether the music-downloading joint ventures set up by recording companies are an attempt to corner the market by controlling online distribution. Last week the Department of Justice stepped up an antitrust investigation begun last summer. And recently the judge in the Napster case, Marilyn Patel, remarked that the industry's joint-venture strategy "looks bad, sounds bad, smells bad." This may not save Napster, but it's an ominous chord for the record labels.

In "Austerlitz," W. G. Sebald performs a small but significant miracle: he wrests the Holocaust out of the clutches of stereotypes. He does this without ever showing us a death camp or a gas chamber. Instead, this superb novel concentrates on the wreckage of one man's life. Orphaned as a young boy during the Nazi occupation of Prague, Jacques Austerlitz spends years not knowing who he is and then more years trying to uncover his identity. In Sebald's hands, this search takes on the weird specificity of a nightmare from which there is no awakening. Austerlitz discovers where he came from, but he never shakes the feeling that he is living a borrowed life.

In four genre-bending novels published in the last decade, the 57-year-old Sebald has established himself as Europe's most idio-syncratic author. His fiction comes loaded with essayistic digressions and is generously salted with photographs, newspaper clippings, maps and railroad timetables. There is something of Poe in these books, and Borges and Kafka, which is to say, here's a storyteller who knows his stuff. The only solace at the close of this haunting fiction is that the fallout from the Holocaust that continues to engulf people like Austerlitz can also inspire such a singularly beautiful work of art.

Hollywood is betting that audiences aren't so war weary after all. A spate of new WWII movies are hitting screens, starting with "Charlotte Gray" on Dec. 28. Cate Blanchett is an English spy in German-occupied France, where she meets a Resistance fighter (Billy Crudup). "Enigma" (Kate Winslet, Jeremy Northam), about the Brit attempt in Bletchley Park to crack Nazi code, opens in January. In the spring: "Hart's War" (Bruce Willis) and, in June, "Windtalkers" (a John Woo pic with Nic Cage). Next month NBC airs "Uprising," a mini-series about the Warsaw ghetto resistance.

To really enjoy the Hughes Brothers' "From Hell," you've got to subscribe to some patently screwed-up notions, among them the idea that it's OK if Jack the Ripper slashes some starving prostitutes to pieces as long as he doesn't hurt the really pretty one. Mary Kelly (Heather Graham, in a bland performance) and her associates are working London's dankest alleyways when they start getting disemboweled. Psychic, opium-addicted Inspector Abberline (the never-dull Johnny Depp) falls for Mary and unravels a conspiracy. "From Hell" is handsomely shot, historically accurate when it feels like it--the conspiracy theory is a familiar one--and compelling for maybe 35 minutes. But ultimately it's a formula cop movie with unsurprising surprises and nowhere near enough to say about elitism or the history of medicine to justify the ghastly knife-flashing. Early on, a coroner recoils from a victim whose uterus has been cut out, exclaiming, "Why do I have to be exposed to this degradation over and over again?" Another unsolved mystery.

MTV: Where Britney Meets Bin Laden

Between endless bump-and-grind videos, MTV viewers now learn how the Taliban oppresses women--thanks to the network's new "What's Going On" campaign. The minutelong spots pose questions such as "Who is Donald Rumsfeld?" and answer in five easy bullet points. The Northern Alliance? "They're tiny but tough" and "They're no angels." Ridiculously simple, yet effective.

Been There, Seen That

The last castle" is meant to be a battle of wits and wills between a noble prisoner and his vicious warden. The prisoner is three-star General Irwin (Robert Redford), locked up for disobeying orders. The warden of the high-security military prison is the iron-fisted martinet Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), whose awe of the legendary general quickly turns to envy and enmity. Right at the start the movie gives the game away (at least to anyone who's seen "Amadeus"): the classical-music-loving colonel listens to Salieri! This does not bode well for him, or us.

Redford's general is a paragon of courage, wisdom, fortitude and cool. As the reverent music swells, he teaches his downtrodden fellow prisoners self-respect, molding them into a fighting unit to wrest control of the prison from its sadistic master. The cliches pile up as high as the rocks the bare-chested general must tote back and forth as punishment. Cool Hand who? Director Rod Lurie generates some excitement once the battle commences, but since the fix is in from the get-go, there's no room for surprises.

OK, France, we're even now. We had your back in World War II. Now we're the ones with worries up to here, and you give us not just Amelie, a wild, enchanting, boy-did-we-need-this romantic comedy, but also Amelie herself: 24-year-old Audrey Tautou, a blast of fresh air who makes this whirligig of a movie spin at light speed. Tautou (it rhymes with ingenue) plays a shy Parisian waitress who finds a rusty tin of toys stashed in her apartment wall. She schemes to reunite the tin with its aging owner, touching off a crusade to improve the lives of her neighbors and, just maybe, her own.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's movie is an ode to life's tiny pleasures-not goop like long walks on the beach, but the really great stuff like cracking creme brulee with a spoon. He searched all of Paris for his Amelie and found her on a movie poster for another film. I saw those big eyes, big ears-she glowed. She was perfect, Jeunet says. When I met her I thought, 'Where did you come from? Are you an E.T.?'

Not quite. Tautou was raised in Auvergne, and a trace of the young girl still pops up in her speech, like the way she parses her phrases with French equivalents of like and you know. During the interview, she gasps when she spies a plate of croissants and asks permission before taking one. The film's tremendous success in France, though, has knocked her for a bit of a loop. When I see my face everywhere, she says, I don't feel like it's me. My God, when I see my nostrils on the poster... Sorry, Audrey, every last (lovely, beguiling) feature is unmistakably yours.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
Desperately Seeking Cipro Edition

Anthrax fear is not the only fever raging in media circles. There's anthrax envy, too, as in "what are we, chopped liver?" But the CW is happy to take a pass, thank you.

C.W. Bush + With pal Putin, Mr. Diplomacy puts cold war in cold storage. Now fix the Mideast House - Bolt town when other chamber gets anthrax. Now that's leadership. Ridge = Already tangled in red tape. Grab some real power or you're just another empty suit. Thompson - Cheesehead health chief looks out of his depth. Try some generic candor. Bayer - German Cipro patent holder gives U.S. headache. New ad: "Bayer works blunders." Yankees + More woe for Yankee haters: They keep win- ing and you feel guilty rooting against them.