New York Times, March 18, 2002
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
WASHINGTON -- Soviet propagandists used to touch up photographs to remove the face of a Kremlin official who had fallen from favor, making him a "nonperson."
The same disinformation technique is now being used to wipe out the fact of a meeting in Prague in April, 2001 -- five months before the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. -- between Mohamed Atta, the leading Qaeda hijacker, and Ahmed al-Ani, the Iraqi consul in Prague, who was Saddam Hussein's intelligence case officer there.
On "Meet the Press" yesterday, Sergei Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister (like his boss, a former K.G.B. disinformation specialist) said of this widely reported Iraqi-Qaeda connection: "That is wrong information."
That denial of an observed connection between bin Laden's suicide bomber and Saddam's spymaster was preceded by a David Ignatius column in The Washington Post last week deriding such reports by me and by James Woolsey, former C.I.A. chief, in The Wall Street Journal. Pooh-poohing the notion of a meeting that "supposedly took place," Ignatius asserted "there is no solid evidence" of such a link. On the contrary, he opined, "hard intelligence to support the Baghdad-bin Laden connection is somewhere between `slim' and `none.' "
My colleague in columny, a respected commentator with a fine writing style, bases his conclusion on recent interviews with "senior European officials." (He also wears another hat as executive editor of The International Herald Tribune and I am buttering him up in the hope he will not kill my column therein.)
These unidentified Europeans tell him that "the C.I.A. now shares their skepticism about the Atta-al Ani connection. . . . Even the Czechs . . . have gradually backed away."
Let us now depart from the line that Ivanov and "senior European officials" and supposedly backing-away Czechs are peddling to gullible commentators. (Couldn't help it; you can cut that line in the Trib.)
On solid evidence: The Czech intelligence agency, B.I.S., had the Iraqi embassy spy in Prague under constant visual and wiretap surveillance, especially after a threat to the Radio Free Europe headquarters there. Three months ago, after the absolve-Saddam campaign began to cast doubt on the report of the Atta-al Ani meeting at the Prague airport, Interior Minister Stanislav Gross issued a statement that "B.I.S. guarantees the information, so we stick by that information." No backing away; on the contrary, strong reaffirmation.
On corroboration of the evidence that Atta flew 7,000 miles, from Virginia Beach to Prague and back to Florida (his third trip to Prague in a year): The F.B.I. has car-rental and other records that Atta left for Prague on April 8, 2001, and returned on April 11. The B.I.S. report of the meeting that Saddam's case officer had with the suicide hijacker fell precisely within those dates. Czech intelligence, in identifying al-Ani's contact as Atta, had no knowledge of the F.B.I.'s evidence that independently corroborates Atta's brief presence in Prague.
On C.I.A. assessment of the evidence: James Risen reported in The New York Times last month that while not enough evidence ties Saddam specifically to Sept. 11, "senior American intelligence officials have concluded that the meeting between Mr. Atta and the Iraqi officer, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, did take place." Congressional intelligence committees could confirm that with one secure phone call.
Now let's walk back the cat, as the spooks say. What's behind the campaign to cast doubt on the meeting? It cannot be only posterior-covering by junior C.I.A. analysts and N.S.A. "Big Ear" monitors who should have known of a meeting about what was then believed to be the terrorist threat to Americans at R.F.E. in Prague.
The smooth Russian diplomat, "European officials" and Arab potentates seeking to erase the evidence have one purpose: to throw dust in our eyes about Saddam's clandestine support of international terrorism. They don't want the U.S. to have any reason to liberate the Iraqi people. They see great profit in doing oil business with Saddam and collecting tens of billions in debts.
The name of their game is delay -- to demand evidence of nuclear development while unfettered inspections are forbidden, and to dismiss as a non-meeting the hard evidence of a terrorist connection. Meanwhile, Iraqi scientists race to build the weapons that would blackmail into impotence any power daring to unseat Saddam.
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