Tuesday, November 22, 2005

OpinionJournal - Atta in Prague? An Iraqi prisoner holds the answer to this 9/11 mystery.

OpinionJournal - Featured Article: "Atta in Prague?
An Iraqi prisoner holds the answer to this 9/11 mystery.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

PRAGUE--On Oct. 27, 2001, the New York Times reported (erroneously) that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed 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: It 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."

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