Important new information has come from Edward Jay Epstein about Mohammed Atta’s contacts with Iraqi intelligence. The Czechs have long maintained that Atta, leader of the 9/11 hijackers in the United States, met with Ahmed al-Ani, an Iraqi intelligence official, posted to the Iraqi embassy in Prague. As Epstein now reports, Czech authorities have discovered that al-Ani’s appointment calendar shows a scheduled meeting on April 8, 2001 with a "Hamburg student."
That is exactly what the Czechs had been saying since shortly after 9/11: Atta, a long-time student at Germany’s Hamburg-Harburg Technical University, met with al-Ani on April 8, 2001. Indeed, when Atta earlier applied for a visa to visit the Czech Republic, he identified himself as a “Hamburg student.” The discovery of the notation in al-Ani’s appointment calendar about a meeting with a “Hamburg student” provides critical corroboration of the Czech claim.
Epstein also explains how Atta could have traveled to Prague at that time without the Czechs having a record of such a trip. Spanish intelligence has found evidence that two Algerians provided Atta a false passport.
The Iraqi Plot against Radio Free Europe
Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the Czechs were closely watching the Iraqi embassy. Al-Ani’s predecessor had defected to Britain in late 1998, and the Czechs (along with the British and Americans) learned that Baghdad had instructed him to bomb Radio Free Europe, headquartered in Prague, after RFE had begun a Radio Free Iraq service earlier that year.
On April 8, 2001, an informant for Czech counter-intelligence (known as BIS), observed al-Ani meet with an Arab man in his 20s at a restaurant outside Prague. Another informant in the Arab community reported that the man was a visiting student from Hamburg and that he was potentially dangerous.
The Czech Foreign Ministry demanded an explanation for al-Ani’s rendezvous with the Arab student from the head of the Iraqi mission in Prague. When no satisfactory account was forthcoming, the Czechs declared al-Ani persona non grata, and he was expelled from the Czech Republic on April 22, 2001.
Hyman Komineck was then Deputy Foreign Minister and had earlier headed the Czech Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Department. Now Prague’s ambassador to the United Nations, Komineck explained in June 2002, “He didn’t know [what al-Ani was up to.] He just didn’t know.” As Komineck told the Times of London in October 2001, "It is not a common thing for an Iraqi diplomat to meet a student from a neighboring country."
Following the 9/11 attacks, the Czech informant who had observed the meeting saw Mohammed Atta’s picture in the papers and told the BIS he believed that Atta was the man he had seen meeting with al-Ani. On September 14, BIS informed its CIA liaison that they had tentatively identified Atta as al-Ani’s contact.
So Many Errors: the Clinton Years
Opinion polls show that most Americans still believe Iraq had substantial ties to al Qaeda and even that it was involved in 9/11. Yet among the “elite,” there is tremendous opposition to this notion. A simple explanation exists for this dichotomy. The public is not personally vested in this issue, but the elite certainly are.
America’s leading lights, including those in government responsible for dealing with terrorism and with Iraq, made a mammoth blunder. They failed to recognize that starting with the first assault on New York’s World Trade Center, Iraq was working with Islamic militants to attack the United States. This failure left the country vulnerable on September 11, 2001. Many of those who made this professional error cannot bring themselves to acknowledge it; perhaps, they cannot even recognize it. They mock whomever presents information tying Iraq to the 9/11 attacks; discredit that information; and assert there is “no evidence.” What they do not do is discuss in a rational way the significance of the information that is presented. I myself have experienced this many times, including in testimony before the 9/11 Commission, when as I responded to a Commissioner’s question, a fellow panelist repeatedly interrupted, screeching “That is not evidence,” even as C-SPAN broadcast the event to the entire country.
Former White House counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke is a prime example of this phenomenon. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when President Bush asked him to look into the possibility of Iraq’s involvement, Clarke was “incredulous” (his word), treating the idea as if it were one of the most ridiculous things he had ever heard. On September 18, when Deputy National Security Adviser Steven Hadley asked him to take another look for evidence of Iraqi involvement, Clarke responded in a similar fashion.
Yet as we know now, thanks to Epstein’s work, Czech intelligence at that point had already informed their CIA liaison that they had tentatively identified Mohammed Atta as the Arab whom al-Ani had met on April 8, 2001.
Evidence is “something that indicates,” according to Webster’s. Proof is “conclusive demonstration.” The report of a well-regarded allied intelligence service that a 9/11 hijacker appeared to have met with an Iraqi intelligence agent a few months before the attacks is certainly evidence of an Iraqi connection.
Clarke’s adamant refusal to even consider the possibility of an Iraqi role in the 9/11 attacks represents an enormous blunder committed by the Clinton administration. Following the February 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center, senior officials in New York FBI, the lead investigative agency, believed that Iraq was involved. When Clinton launched a cruise missile attack on Iraqi intelligence headquarters in June 1993, saying publicly that the strike was punishment for Saddam’s attempt to kill former President Bush when he visited Kuwait in April, Clinton believed that the attack would also take care of the terrorism in New York, if New York FBI was correct. It would deter Saddam from all future acts of terrorism.
Indeed, Clarke claims the strike did just that. The Clinton administration, Clarke explains in Against All Enemies, also sent “a very clear message through diplomatic channels to the Iraqis saying, ‘If you do any terrorism against the United States again, it won't just be Iraqi intelligence headquarters, it'll be your whole government.' It was a very chilling message. And apparently it worked.”
But if the entire 1991 Gulf War did not deter Saddam for long, why should one cruise missile strike accomplish that aim? Indeed, the Iraqi plot against Radio Free Europe—the existence of which is confirmed by RFE officials—is clear demonstration that the June 1993 cruise missile strike did not permanently deter Saddam.
Bush 41: A War Left Unfinished
The claim that Iraq was involved in 9/11 is also strongly opposed by some senior figures in Bush 41. They include former National Security Council Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, who wrote in the summer of 2002, “There is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the Sept. 11 attacks.”
Iraqi involvement in the 9/11 attacks carries serious implications for judgments about the way that Bush 41 ended the 1991 war. As will be recalled, after 100 hours of a ground war, with Saddam still in power and Republican Guard units escaping across the Euphrates, Bush called for a cease-fire. Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed for that decision, and Scowcroft backed him, although it was totally unnecessary, and many Arab members of the coalition were astounded at the decision.
To err is human. And if one errs, one should correct the mistake and move on. The prevailing ethos, however, is quite different, even when serious national security issues are involved. Extraordinarily rare is a figure like Dick Cheney, who as Secretary of Defense, supported the decision to end the 1991 war with Saddam still in power, but after the 9/11 attacks was prepared to recognize the evidence suggesting an Iraqi role in those attacks and memorably remarked that it was rare in history to be able to correct a mistake like that.
Why we are at war: Iraq’s Involvement in 9/11
Never before in this country’s history has a president ordered American soldiers into battle, without fully explaining why they are asked to risk life and limb. One would never know from the administration’s public stance that senior officials, including the President, believe that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks.
Iraq was indeed involved in those assaults. There is considerable information to that effect, described in this piece and elsewhere. They include Iraqi documents discovered by U.S. forces in Baghdad that U.S. officials have not made public.
We are now engaged in the most difficult military conflict this country has fought in thirty years. Even before the fiasco at Abu Ghraib became widely known, both the American public and international opinion were increasingly skeptical of U.S. war aims.
In taking on and eliminating the Iraqi regime, Bush corrected a policy blunder of historic proportions. His decision for war was both courageous and necessary. Now, he needs to make it clear just why that decision was made.
Laurie Mylroie was adviser on Iraq to the 1992 campaign of Bill Clinton and is the author of Bush vs. the Beltway: How the CIA and the State Department tried to Stop the War on Terror. (HarperCollins) She can be reached through www.benadorassociates.com.