Vice President Cheney ignited a firestorm in the press (and perhaps the White House) by asserting that one of the most vexing allegations about 9-11, the putative liaison between hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi official al-Ani, still is unresolved. Asked about the issue on Meet The Press ( September 14, 2003), Cheney answered:“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. We just don’t know.”

The Washington Post ( September 29, 2003) denounced the Vice President for suggesting that the putative meeting was still an open issue, arguing “that the Czech government distanced itself from its initial assertion.” And that “American investigators determined Atta was probably in the United States at the time of the meeting.”
Who is right? Vice President Cheney or the Washington Post?


Cheney is right in saying that it remains an open case. The Washington Post story is wrong in saying that it is a closed case.   Both the Washington Post story’s claims-- the Czech government had distanced itself from its initial assertion and that US intelligence had determined Atta was in the US at the time of the Prague meeting--  are false.

   1)  The Czech government has not distanced itself.   The Czech officials were involved in the case: Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, the intelligence chief, Jiri Ruzek, who reports to Gross, have reaffirmed the validity of the intelligence of the meeting– and expulsion– after news reports called it into question. On May 3rd, 2002, referring to a story in Newsweek, Interior Minister Stanislav Gross stated "I believe the counterintelligence services more than journalists. I draw on the Security Information Service [BIS] information and I see no reason why I should not believe it."
Minister Gross further explained that he had consulted with BIS chief Jiri Ruzek on May 2nd in order to find out whether the Czech intelligence service had any new information that would cast doubt on the meeting. "The answer was that they did not. Therefore, I consider the matter closed.”
      2) As for the US intelligence claim, it is untrue that the CIA, FBI or any other US intelligence agency established that Atta was in the US at the time of the Prague meeting. What the CIA found, and its director George Tenet testified to before a Joint Committee of Congress (June 18, 2002):
“Atta allegedly traveled outside the US 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 US or entered Europe in April 2001 under his true name or any known aliases.”
      If there existed any information that established Atta was in the US at the time of the meeting, Tenet could not have testified that US was “still working to confirm or deny this allegation.”
In fact, the misreporting about Atta being in the US at the time of the alleged meeting proceeds from an erroneous story (uncorrected) in the New York Times on October 26, 2001. The story attributed to "federal law enforcement officials" stated: "On April 2 [Atta] was in Virginia Beach. He flew to the Czech Republic on April 8 . . . by April 11, Mr. Atta was back in Florida, renting a car."

In fact, there were no such car rental records. Nor could there be such records in April 2001. Atta did not obtain his driver’s license, or even apply for it, until May 2, 2001.

It may have been a case of mistaken identity– Atta is a common name– but there is no record of the hijacker Atta being in Virginia Beach in April 2001. Nevertheless, uncorrected, the error became part of the clip file and was recycled by other journals into “contradictory evidence.” Newsweek, for example, (June 6 ,2002) stated that at time of the alleged Prague meeting. “Atta was traveling at the time between Florida and Virginia Beach, Va. (The bureau had his rental car and hotel receipts.)" and USA Today (August 29,2002) reported falsely “records revealed that Atta was in Virginia Beach during the time he supposedly met the Iraqi in Prague."
     If any such “records” existed, CIA Director Tenet could not have testified under oath to Congress that it was possible Atta was in Prague. If he did, the records would have demonstrated he had testified falsely. But of course, no such records existed (other than in erroneous news stories.)
     To be sure, no airplane or other records have been found showing Atta was in Prague during April 2001. So, as Tenet pointed out, if he was in Prague at that time, he must have traveled there under an alias. Since the hijackers used false identities, such a possibility cannot be dismissed.

Cheney statement “We just don’t know,” as unsettling as it may be, is accurate.

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