Declassified CIA report sheds new light on 9/11 terrorist Atta’s Prague visit and the U.S. premise for invading Iraq
The Sept. 11 terrorist who was used to justify the invasion of Iraq did not come to Prague for meetings to plot his deadly mission.
That is the conclusive finding from newly declassified documents prepared by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that show the administration of President George W. Bush knew it was wrong to say a secretive rendezvous in the Czech Republic with an Iraqi spy took place in the capital months before the 2001 terror attacks.
Local officials, however, continue to question these claims, citing Czech intelligence findings that indicate Atta did indeed visit Prague, though potentially not in relation to the 9/11 plot.
Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, was an Egyptian national who piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center in New York City.
The supposed “Prague connection” meeting between al-Qaida operative Mohamed Atta and Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service (ISS), was initially said to have taken place after the hijacker drove a rental car from Germany to the Czech Republic in June 2000.
The suggestion of a June meeting at a Prague café was a key piece of evidence used by the Bush administration to link Saddam Hussein’s regime to the al-Qaida attack and to justify its later invasion of Iraq in 2003.
From the outset, even the Czech government wasn’t consistent about the timing of the supposed meeting.
Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, Czech sources said they had evidence Atta had met with the Iraqi intelligence officer in June 2000, but all subsequent statements from the Czechs put the meeting in April 2001.
In the month after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., then-Interior Minister Stanislav Gross told Czech reporters Atta had twice visited Prague; first June 2, 2000, and then April 8, 2001, to meet with al-Ani, an Iraqi diplomat who held the title of second consul.
Later in November 2001, Prime Minister Miloš Zeman further raised eyebrows in the United States when he told CNN Atta had come to Prague to plot an attack, not on America but on the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, at that time located just off Wenceslas Square.
“It is in our interest to investigate this failure of Czech intelligence,” said Petr Nečas – at the time a leading member of the opposition Civic Democratic Party – in a 2004 interview after the rumor was proved wrong.
The dozens of declassified government documents released June 20 and dated between 1992 and 2004 are heavily blacked out, offering little fresh information about what U.S. authorities knew about the Sept. 11 plot before 2001.
However, the now publicly available files offer some new details about the subsequent investigations into the attacks, including the now apparently disproved link between Atta and the ISS, a connection former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney used to support his case for invading Iraq.
According to a CIA report dated Dec. 8, 2001, that was sent to the White House Situation Room, the intelligence agency had already made a preliminary finding that Atta had not in fact traveled to Prague in May for a secret meeting.
Just one day after the report was sent to the White House, Cheney claimed on national television it had been “pretty confirmed” Atta had gone to the Czech capital several months before the attack.
The previously “top secret” document carried the heading “Discovery that 11 September 2001 hijacker Mohamed Atta did not travel to the Czech Republic on 31 May 2000” and was approved for public release April 25 this year, although heavily redacted.
“Subsequent investigation of the travel to the Czech Republic of terrorist Mohamed Atta revealed that the individual who attempted to enter the Czech Republic on 31 May 2000 at … airport was not the Atta who attacked the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. … It was a Pakistani national,” the report states.
The case of mistaken identity allegedly arose after a Pakistani named Atta, who spelt the name Mohammed with two Ms, had tried to get into the Czech Republic but was turned away.
However, former director general of the Czech Office of Foreign Relations and Information (ÚZSI) František Bublan insists local intelligence contradicts the definite conclusions of the CIA.
“I am not certain the reports of Atta in Prague are false,” Bublan told The Prague Post after the release of the declassified documents. “He stopped in Prague. It is possible it was not an important or strategic meeting. He was probably here for personal reasons. He had a friend and spent a night in her flat.”
“The CIA had information from us. They had to base their [reports] on what we told them,” said the former intelligence boss, now a Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) deputy. “I don’t know on what they base such a claim.”
While the factuality of some of the claims remains debatable, the files shed new light on the Bush administration’s willingness to ignore or manipulate intelligence ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
National Security Archivist Barbara Elias-Sanborn, who compiled the 120 documents ahead of their release, says its former members would not be happy the CIA files had been made public.
“The newly released CIA documents confirm what we already knew: There was no ‘Prague connection’ between al-Qaida and Iraqi intelligence,” she told The Prague Post in an interview from the United States. “What is new in the documents, however, is evidence that the Bush White House had intelligence strongly refuting the ‘Prague connection’ in December 2001, yet continued to make public claims to the contrary in the run up to the U.S. war in Iraq.”
“So long as the documents were classified, the American public had no way to verify their claims,” Elias-Sanborn said. “Now, we know better, but it is too late.”