Atta In Prague
November 22, 2005
Edward Jay Epstein
Oct. 27, 2001, the New York Times reported (erroneously)
that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta "flew to the Czech
Republic on April 8 and met with [an] Iraqi intelligence
officer," helping to give credence to the so-called
"Prague connection." It subsequently cast doubt
on it, editorializing in November 2005 that the alleged
meeting between the hijacker and the Iraqi was part of President
Bush and his team's "rewriting of history" based
on nothing more than a false tale "from an unreliable
drunk." But was the putative Prague connection solely
an invention of the Bush administration -- or was it the
product of an incomplete intelligence operation?
To sort out the
confusion, I met earlier this month in Prague with Jiri
Ruzek, chief at the time of the Czech counterintelligence
service (BIS). Mr. Ruzek is in a position to know what happened.
He personally oversaw the investigation of Iraq's alleged
covert activities that began, with full American collaboration,
nearly two years before Mr. Bush became president and resulted,
some five months before the 9/11 attack, in the expulsion
of Ahmad al-Ani, the Iraqi intelligence officer alleged
to have met with Atta. I also spoke with ex-Foreign Minister
Jan Kavan, who headed the intelligence committee to whom
Mr. Ruzek reported, and to Ambassador Hynek Kmonicek, who,
as deputy foreign minister at the time, handled the al-Ani
expulsion for the foreign ministry. According to them, here's
how the Prague connection developed.
cause for BIS interest in al-Ani was a sensational revelation
of Jabir Salim, the Iraqi consul who defected in Prague
in December 1998. Mr. Salim said in his debriefings that
the Mukhabarat, Iraq's intelligence service, had given him
$150,000 and tasked him with carrying out a covert action
against an American target in the Czech Republic: Using
a freelance terrorist, he was to blow up the headquarters
of Radio Free Europe in Wenceslas Square, in the heart of
This intelligence about state-sponsored terrorism was taken
very seriously by both America and the Czech Republic. The
U.S., for its part, doubled security at the Radio Free Europe
facility and began its own countersurveillance, including
photographing suspicious individuals in Wenceslas Square.
The BIS did what counterintelligence services do in such
circumstances: They sought to penetrate the Iraq Embassy
by recruiting Arabic-speaking employees familiar with its
operations. The source the BIS used, according to Mr. Ruzek,
was neither unreliable nor a drunk.
Ahmad al-Ani was
Jabir Salim's replacement at the embassy. Soon after he
arrived in March 1999, he was picked up by U.S. countersurveillance
cameras. The interest in him intensified after the BIS learned
from its penetration of the embassy that he was attempting
to acquire explosives and contact foreign-based Arabs. Then,
on April 9, 2001, the BIS's source in the embassy reported
that al-Ani had gotten into a car with an unknown foreign
Arab. After the car managed to elude BIS surveillance, concern
mounted that he was in the process of recruiting his bomber,
and, since the BIS could not find the mystery Arab, Mr.
Ruzek decided to act pre-emptively. He recommended to Foreign
Minister Kavan that al-Ani be immediately expelled from
the Czech Republic. He was given 48 hours to get out of
Prague on April 19 -- and he returned to Baghdad.
On Sept. 11, Mohammed
Atta's picture was shown on Czech television, and the next
day, the BIS's source in the Iraq embassy dropped a bombshell.
He told his BIS case officer that he recognized Atta as
the Arab who got in the car with al-Ani on April 9. Mr.
Ruzek immediately relayed the secret information to Washington
through the CIA liaison. The FBI sent an interrogation team
to Prague, which, after questioning and testing the source,
concluded that there was a 70% likelihood that he was not
intentionally lying and sincerely believed that he saw Atta
with al-Ani. The issue remained whether he had mistaken
someone who resembled Atta for the 9/11 hijacker. Meanwhile,
records were found showing that Atta had applied for a Czech
visa in Germany in 2000, and made at least one previous
trip to Prague (from Bonn, by bus, on June 2, 2000, flying
to Newark, N.J. the next day).
Less than a week
after Mr. Ruzek shared the BIS's confidential information
with American intelligence, it was leaked. The AP reported,
"A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity,
said the United States has received information from a foreign
intelligence service that Mohamed Atta, a hijacker aboard
one of the planes that slammed into the World Trade Center,
met earlier this year in Europe with an Iraqi intelligence
agent." CBS named al-Ani as the person meeting with
Atta in Prague.
Mr. Ruzek was furious. He considered what he had passed
on to the FBI to be unevaluated raw intelligence, and its
disclosure not only risked compromising the BIS's penetration
in the Iraq embassy but also greatly reduced the chances
of confirming the intelligence in the first place.
In Baghdad, al-Ani,
through an Iraqi spokesman, denied ever meeting Atta. In
Prague, Czech officials who had not been fully briefed added
to the confusion. Prime Minister Milos Zeeman, wrongly assuming
that the meeting had been confirmed, stated on CNN that
Atta and al-Ani had met to discuss Radio Free Europe, not
the 9/11 attack.
on Mr. Ruzek mounted. Richard Armitage, Colin Powell's deputy,
complained to Prime Minister Zeeman that Mr. Ruzek was not
cooperating in resolving the case, even though Mr. Ruzek
had extended unprecedented access to the FBI and CIA, access
that included allowing their representatives to sit on the
task force reviewing the case. He was also warned by a colleague
in German intelligence that he could become entangled in
a heated hawk-versus-dove struggle over Iraq.
Mr. Ruzek decided
that if this was an American game, he did not want to be
a part of it. So he threw the ball back in the CIA's court,
taking the position that if al-Ani did meet Atta for a nefarious
purpose, it would have been not on his own initiative but
as a representative of the Mukhabarat. The answer was not
in Prague but in Iraq's intelligence files; and the CIA
and FBI would have to use their own intelligence capabilities
to obtain further information about al-Ani's assignment.
That more or less concluded the Czech role in the investigation.
The FBI had by this time established that Atta checked out
of the Diplomat Inn in Virginia Beach and cashed a check
for $8,000 from a SunTrust account on April 4, 2001, and
was seen again in Florida on April 11, 2001. But it could
not account for his movements during this period (or how
he used that money), though there was no record of Atta
using his passport to travel outside the U.S. The CIA also
drew a blank, and Director George Tenet, testified on June
18, 2002 before a Joint Committee of Congress: "Atta
allegedly traveled outside the U.S. 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 U.S.
or entered Europe in April 2001 under his true name or any
Al-Ani was captured
by the CIA in Baghdad in 2003, and he remains in detention
in Iraq. Though no one has been allowed to interview him,
he told the CIA that he was not anywhere near Prague at
the time of the meeting. Although Mr. Ruzek termed al-Ani's
claim of being elsewhere "pure nonsense," the
CIA had evidently found it could go no further with the
vexing case. Mr. Tenet, on March 9, 2004, told a closed
session of the Senate Armed Service Committee, "Although
we cannot rule it out, we are increasingly skeptical such
a meeting occurred."
Before 9/11, when
the investigation into al-Ani's activities was initiated,
both the CIA and the BIS took deadly serious the allegation
of state-sponsored terrorism directed against Radio Free
Europe. Both agencies cooperated in attempting to thwart
it, accepting the information furnished by the BIS penetration
agent as sufficiently reliable to expel al-Ani. After 9/11,
with Iraq now on the Bush administration's agenda, the subject
of state-sponsored terrorism became a political hot potato,
as Mr. Ruzek learned, that could easily burn anyone who
touched it. So hot that if the CIA even questioned al-Ani
about the instruction he had concerning blowing up Radio
Free Europe, it never disclosed the answers to the BIS.
So, like many other intelligence cases that become politicized,
the Prague connection, and all that led up to it, was consigned
to a murky limbo.