Atta In Prague

Wall Street Journal

November 22, 2005

November 22, 2005

by Edward Jay Epstein

On 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.

The proximate 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 Prague.
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.

Meanwhile, pressure 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 known aliases."

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.


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