Did Mohamed Atta Meet an Iraqi Spy in Prague?

In a recent column, the New York Times’ William Safire tallied the evidence connecting Saddam Hussein to the terrorists who plotted the Sept. 11 attacks. He claimed that in April 2001, terrorist leader Mohamed Atta met one of Saddam’s top spies in Prague. But other publications, including the Times’ own news pages, have questioned whether the meeting really happened. What’s the evidence for and against?

Here’s how the Atta-in-Prague story has developed, and dissipated, since last fall:

In the beginning, even the Czech government couldn’t make up its mind. Within weeks of the attacks, sources in that nation’s government said they had evidence that Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. An initial statement placed the meeting in June 2000, but all subsequent statements from the Czechs put the meeting in April 2001. A few weeks later, the New York Times quoted Czech officials appearing to take the story back, saying that the reports weren’t credible, and that some of the people claiming to have seen Atta with al-Ani were small businessmen trying to accuse their competitors of doing business with terrorists. Then, in a reversal, the Czech government surprised Washington, first by confirming that Atta had contact with al-Ani, and then by asserting that the two men met, not to discuss plans for Sept. 11, but to plot a bombing of the Radio Free Europe building in Prague. In mid-November, Safire in his column called the Atta/al-Ani meeting an “undisputed fact.”

The story lost ground and then regained it. In December, the news pages of the Times said the mass of confusions made the alleged Prague meeting more “an object lesson in the limits of intelligence” than a casus belli against Iraq. The paper theorized that it might have been a case of mistaken identity: Atta strongly resembled a used-car dealer whom al-Ani often met with; al-Ani himself was, according to American officials, only a minor functionary with the same name as a more important Iraqi intelligence agent.

On the Times Op-Ed page, Bush adviser Richard Perle insisted that the evidence of the meeting (which he didn’t describe) was “convincing.” In February, the news pages of the Times reversed themselves and reported that American officials had concluded that the meeting did take place. In March, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that the evidence for the meeting was slim to none and that even the Czechs themselves were backing away. Safire fired back, referring to “gullible commentators” being fed lines by European officials who opposed military action against Iraq.

An April 28 Newsweek report sought to kill the story for good. According to the story, the Czechs had, months earlier, quietly acknowledged that they “may have been mistaken about the whole thing.” After a lengthy search, the FBI had found no evidence that Atta was even in Prague in April 2001. Following the Newsweek report, the Times reversed itself a second time, citing a senior administration official who said the FBI and CIA had both firmly concluded that no such meeting had occurred.

A week later on the Times Op-Ed page, Safire remained undeterred, referring to “skillful manipulation [of journalists] by anonymous sources whose policy agenda is never revealed to readers” (though Safire didn’t reveal his sources, either). Safire also drew on new confirmations from Czech officials, although in fact the messages were mixed: The Czech interior minister and the envoy to the United Nations stuck with their story that the meeting took place, but the chief of foreign intelligence voiced strong doubts.

Though the latest wave of news stories says the meeting never happened, the Bush administration reportedly isn’t ready to abandon the story. The Los Angeles Times reported in early August that the administration had decided to back the story over the doubts of the FBI and CIA. But an intelligence official told the LAT that there was no new evidence of a meeting between Atta and al-Ani, and the CIA had not been asked to re-evaluate the case. On Aug. 22, Newsweek said that the only evidence remains the “uncorroborated claim” of a Czech informant who says he saw the two men together on April 9, 2001. But, who needs evidence? According to Newsweek, when an FBI agent recently told Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that the meeting was “unlikely,” Wolfowitz grilled him until he agreed it was technically possible, since the FBI can’t cite Atta’s whereabouts on April 9.

Next question?