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PostWatch: An irregular correction to the Washington Post

Brought to you by Christopher Rake


Friday, January 23, 2004
12:55 PM

I don't think Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus like Dick Cheney very much. Just a hunch. This story is a fact-checking exercise in which they try to knock down many of the key points made by VP Cheney in a recent NPR radio interview. One example:

"On the 9/11 question, we've never had confirmation one way or another," [about a 9/11-Iraqi link] he said. "We did have reporting that was public, that came out shortly after the 9/11 attack, provided by the Czech government, suggesting there had been a meeting in Prague between Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker, and a man named al-Ani [Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani], who was an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague, at the embassy there, in April of '01, prior to the 9/11 attacks. . . . That was the one that possibly tied the two together to 9/11."

An FBI investigation concluded that Atta was apparently in Florida at the time of the alleged meeting, and the CIA has always doubted it took place. Czech authorities first mentioned the alleged meeting to U.S. officials in October 2001, but have since said they no longer are certain Atta was there. The U.S. military has captured the Iraqi intelligence officer who was supposed to have met Atta but has not obtained confirmation from him.

Interesting, didn't know we'd captured that guy. But how solid is the FBI position on Atta's visit to Florida?

In the Nov. 19 Slate, Edward Jay Epstein writes about the possible Czech connection, and finds a motive for U.S. intelligence to discredit the link: they'd been informed by Czech intelligence of a meeting between an Iraqi "diplomat" and a man later thought to be Atta. This meeting took place before 9/11, in April, and "it could also be potentially embarrassing... 'if American intelligence had failed before 9/11 to adequately appreciate the significance of the April meeting.'"

Yep, that's speculation, but let's not weigh too heavily the FBI statements about Atta being in Florida at the time. According to Epstein:

In Washington, the FBI moved to quiet the Prague connection by telling journalists that it had car rentals and records that put Atta in Virginia Beach, Va., and Florida close to, if not during, the period when he was supposed to be in Prague. The New York Times, citing information provided by "federal law enforcement officials," reported that Atta was in Virginia Beach on April 2, 2001, and by April 11, "Atta was back in Florida, renting a car." Newsweek reported that, "the FBI pointed out Atta was traveling at the time [in early April 2001] between Florida and Virginia Beach, Va.," adding, "The bureau had his rental car and hotel receipts."
etc., etc....

All these reports attributed to the FBI were, as it turns out, erroneous. There were no car rental records in Virginia, Florida, or anywhere else in April 2001 for Mohamed Atta, since he had not yet obtained his Florida license. His international license was at his father's home in Cairo, Egypt (where his roommate Marwan al-Shehhi picked it up in late April). Nor were there other records in the hands of the FBI that put Atta in the United States at the time.

Of course that doesn't settle anything either. But as Cheney might say, the people who believe there may be an Iraq-9/11 connection are not just making things up.

The Slate Epstein story is a couple of months back now, so perhaps there have been other developments.

Separately, I need to run down the Czech/Atta ID. I could be mistaken, but I think there are one or two key Czech figures who remain adamant that it was Atta.

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