Rebirth of Reason


A Retroactive Analysis of National Security Casus Belli for the Iraq War: Part 1
by Jonathan R

Iraqi Collaboration with Al Qaeda

Without 9/11, the Iraq war would have been politically unsellable. Hence, alleged Iraqi collaboration with Al Qaeda was the most immediate and compelling casus belli. Many have argued, however, that the holy-warriors of Al Qaeda would have been very reluctant to dirty their hands with the secular Arab nationalists of Iraq. After all, Osama bin Laden had long viewed the Saudi Wahhabi theocracy as insufficiently Islamic and repeatedly called Saddam an “infidel”[1]—so much so that when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden offered to deploy his mujahedeen to battle the Baath and protect the land of Mecca and Medina. Yet while divergent ideologies and ambitions would have circumscribed any Iraqi-Qaeda relationship, mutual antipathy toward the “Great” and “Little Satan” (America and Israel), as well as toward the House of Saud, suggests they would have suspended their differences for tactical and temporary collusion. As the pacts between such sworn archenemies as the Soviets and Nazis, and, later, the Soviets and Americans, show, “expediency, not affinity,” often governs such marriages of convenience, as one analyst observes.[2] This is why even the Prophet Muhammad cooperated with outright pagans, in the Treaty of Hudaibiyah (628 AD); why Afghan mujahedeen took handouts from the U.S. in their jihad against the Soviets; and why, a month before the Iraq war began, in an audiotape released by Al-Jazeera, bin Laden assured his followers that “[T]here will be no harm if the interests of Muslims converge with the interests of the socialists [like Saddam] in the fight against the crusaders.”[3] Likewise, following Nasser, Saddam was not principled but Machiavellian, and so harnessed the potency of religious extremism to thrust against his adversaries.

Collaboration in 9/11


Two days after 9/11, James Woolsey, a C.I.A. director under President Clinton, suggested in the New Republic that the 9/11 attacks “were sponsored, supported, and perhaps even ordered by Saddam Hussein.”[4] Five days later, a U.S. official leaked to the Associated Press that “the United States has received information from a foreign intelligence service that Mohamed Atta,” the ringleader of the 9/11 gang, “met earlier this year in Europe with an Iraqi intelligence agent.”[5] As the story unfolded over the next month,[6] the world learned that in April 2001, Atta had allegedly met with Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, officially a vice consul in Iraq’s embassy in Prague but actually a spymaster. (Indeed, less than two weeks after Ani allegedly met with Atta, the Czech Republic expelled Ani for “activities incompatible with his diplomatic status,” a euphemism for espionage.[7]) The meeting was Atta’s second[8] time in the Czech capital in less than a year, having passed through the city’s airport en route from Germany to New Jersey in June 2000, and was the strongest evidence typing Saddam to 9/11.

Accordingly, the so-called Prague connection underwent storied scrutiny. In his October 15 column in the Chicago Sun-Times, Republican confidant, Robert Novak, wrote that his intelligence sources agreed with what Lord Robertson, NATO’s secretary general, had told U.S. senators the previous week: there was “not a scintilla” of evidence implicating Baghdad in 9/11.[9] On October 20, the New York Times reported that Stanislav Gross, the Czech interior minister, had announced that he could not confirm the meeting.[10] Apparently, some of those making the allegation were small businessmen accusing their competitors of doing business with terrorists.[11]

On October 26, Gross called a news conference to assert that Atta had, in fact, been in Prague in early April,[12] a corrective shared by U.S. “[f]ederal law enforcement officials.”[13] In early November, the Czech prime minister, Milos Zeman, qualified Gross’s statement, telling C.N.N. that “Atta contacted some Iraqi agent,” not to plot attacks on America, but on the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague.[14] (The international communications service had incurred Saddam’s wrath when it began broadcasting anti-Saddam programs into Iraq that year.) Back in Prague, however, Gross; Jiri Kolar, the chief of the B.I.S., the Czech domestic intelligence service; and a government spokeswoman swiftly added that Zeman was merely suggesting one of multiple hypotheses.[15] Three weeks later, the Czech president, Vaclav Havel, informed interviewer Larry King that his government was “seventy percent sure” the meeting occurred.[16]

None of this fazed classified-information virtuoso William Safire, who in his New York Times column in November proclaimed that the rendezvous was an “undisputed fact.”[17] Likewise, first on 60 Minutes II two days later, then on Meet the Press with Tim Russert in December, Vice President Richard Cheney declared the meeting was “pretty well confirmed.”[18] But a week later, several theories developed that indicated a case of mistaken identity. Some believed that Ani was a low-ranking diplomat with the same name as a more important Iraqi intelligence agent. Others thought Atta strongly resembled a used car dealer from Nuremberg—Atta went to college in Hamburg—with whom Ani often met. Still others conjectured that the Mohammed Atta who sojourned to Prague in April was not the hijacker but a Pakistani of the same name. “Interviews with Iraqi defectors, Czech officials, and people who knew the Iraqi diplomat,” the Times wrote, “have only deepened the mystery surrounding Mr. Atta’s travels through central Europe.”[19]

On December 17, the day after the Times article, Jiri Kolar announced that there were no documents showing Atta had visited Prague in 2001.[20] In February, despite misgivings from some of their colleagues, “senior American intelligence officials” concluded otherwise.[21] Then a consensus emerged. In his Washington Post column in March, International Herald Tribune executive editor, David Ignatius, referred to “senior European officials” who believed the Saddam-Osama relationship was “somewhere between ‘slim’ and ‘none.’”[22] In April, Newsweek reported that “a few months ago, the Czechs quietly acknowledged that they may have been mistaken about the whole thing. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials now believe that Atta wasn’t even in Prague at the time the Czechs claimed.”[23] In May, Time magazine labeled the connection “discredited,”[24] and the Post and Times quoted a senior Bush administration official who concurred.[25]

In August, the Los Angeles Times noted that “the C.I.A. and F.B.I. concluded months ago that they had no hard evidence.”[26] In September, Cheney told Tim Russert, “I want to be very careful about how I say this. . . . I think a way to put it would be it’s unconfirmed at this point.”[27] In October, United Press International reported that “[s]enior Czech intelligence officials . . . now have ‘no confidence’ in their earlier report” validating the meeting. “We can find no corroborative evidence . . . and the source has real credibility problems,” said “a high-ranking source close to Czech intelligence.”[28] The New York Times added that “Czech officials who have investigated the case now say that Mr. Zeman and Mr. Gross spoke without adequately vetting the information or waiting for the Czech internal security service to substantiate the initial reports.”[29] “Through extensive interviews with key Czech figures, [the Prague connection] emerges as a complex . . . tale of political infighting among Czech leaders and feuding between rival intelligence services, topped off by a series of simple blunders and overheated statements.”[30] In this way, when President Havel notified Washington earlier in the year that the meeting could not be substantiated, he did so discreetly, to avoid publicly embarrassing other prominent officials who had validated the meeting.[31]

Of course, two days later, the Times quoted Havel’s spokesman that “The president never spoke with any American government official about Atta, not with Bush, not with anyone else.”[32] Interior Minister Gross and Deputy Foreign Minister Hynek Kmonicek (who had since become ambassador to the United Nations), insisted that such second-guessing was unfounded.[33] “I do not have the slightest information that anything is wrong in the details I obtained from the B.I.S counterintelligence. I trust the B.I.S. more than journalists,” Gross sniffed.[34] This too remained the position of the White House, Pentagon and National Security Council.[35]


So, on one hand, the B.I.S., who by virtue of proximity had the best data, held that the rendezvous happened. At the least this assumption was reasonable, since before 1993, when Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the communist country had maintained close ties with the Arab world, especially with rogue states such as Iran and Iraq, who were major buyers of Czechoslovak arms.[36] Additionally, according to James Woolsey, who visited England to investigate the case on behalf of the Justice Department, even with all the ambiguity, the evidence was “about as clear as these things get.”[37]

Moreover, contends Richard Perle, then the chair of the Defense Policy Board, an influential advisory group to the Pentagon, operations like 9/11 “are not planned in caves; they’re planned in offices by people who have secretaries and support staffs and research and communications and technology.”[38] Espionage analyst Edward Jay Epstein concurs. Only states have embassies protected by diplomatic immunity, by which they can transfer weapons via courier planes, which by treaty cannot be searched. Only states have consulates to issue travel documents underhandedly. Only states have banks via which they can transfer money virtually untraceably. And only states have internal security services to threaten relatives of prospective agents. “No freelance group has such resources.”[39]

“But it is very difficult to hide serious ties between a government and a terrorist group,” counters Daniel Benjamin, director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 1998-1999. For in collaborating, “they negotiate over targets, finances, materiel, and tactics.”[40] And while terrorists make espionage arduous, the aforementioned bureaucratic apparatuses—including employees who will swap secrets for cash—make spying on governments relatively unproblematic. This is why state sponsors, including the Iraqis, working with terrorists usually leave extensive trails

Yet the only Iraqi trail pertaining to 9/11 was one meeting in Prague in April 2001, a month for which neither the F.B.I. nor C.I.A. could not uncover any visa, airline or financial records showing that the Iraqi participant, Atta, had left or reentered the U.S. (Their research placed him in Florida two days before the meeting.)[41] Second, the entire evidence for the rendezvous rested on the uncorroborated allegation of a single informant, or “watcher.”[42] Third, without any audio or video recordings or any papers, no one could verify what Atta and Ani had discussed—for instance, whether Atta asked for help or updated Ani on his progress. Accordingly, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted to Bob Novak in May 2002, “I just don’t know” whether the connection is genuine or not.[43] As Ed Epstein affirmed eight months into the war, “[T]he jigsaw puzzle remains incomplete.”[44]

But circumstantiality is not a basis for waging a war. This is, after all, not an abstract discussion. Rather, because the onus rests always with those who assert a positive, it is incumbent on those asserting collaboration to complete the jigsaw puzzle, to substantiate their extrapolations beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, in the sixteen months between 9/11 and the Iraq war, hawks went to extraordinary lengths to entangle Saddam in the murder of 3,000 Americans.[45] Despite pressure to do otherwise,[46] they came up chagriningly short, such that—neither of the administration’s two most public presentations for the war—Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech and, eight days later, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the U.N. Security Council—even mentioned Prague.[47]

[1] Dana Priest and Walter Pincus, “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” Washington Post, February 13, 2003; “Bin Laden Tape: Text,” B.B.C. News Online, February 12, 2003.

[2] Edward Jay Epstein, “Saddam and Osama,” March 31, 2002, in Edward Jay Epstein and Daniel Benjamin, “Saddam and Terrorism,” Slate, March 31, 2003-April 2, 2003.

[3] “Bin Laden Tape: Text,” B.B.C., February 12, 2003.

[4] R. James Woolsey, “Blood Bath,” New Republic Online, September 13, 2001. The print version appeared under the same title in the New Republic’s September 24 issue.

[5] Karen Gullo, “Criminal Charges Filed in Probe,” Associated Press Online, September 18, 2001.

See also Paul Kelso, Nick Hopkins, John Hooper and Richard Norton-Taylor, “F.B.I. Believes Plotters Planned to Seize Six Airliners for Attack,” Guardian (London), September 19, 2001. ; John Donnelly and Bryan Bender, “Hijacking Suspect Said to Have Met with Agent,” Boston Globe, September 19, 2001. ; David Ensor, “U.S. Casts a Wary Eye toward Iraq,” CNN.com, September 19, 2001.

[6] See for instance Peter Finn and Charles Lane, “Will Gives a Window into Suspect’s Mind,” Washington Post, October 6, 2001. ; Stephen Engelberg and Matthew Purdy, “Countless Questions, a Few Answers,” New York Times, October 7, 2001.

Curiously, Newsweek initially stated that Atta met not with Ani but with Farouk Hijazi, Iraq’s ambassador to Turkey. Evan Thomas, “Cracking the Terror Code,” Newsweek, October 15, 2001.

[7] Patrick E. Tyler with John Tagliabue, “Czechs Confirm Iraqi Agent Met with Terror Ringleader,” New York Times, October 27, 2001. ; Peter Green and Ben Fenton, “Prague Confirms Hijack Leader Met Iraqi Agent,” Telegraph (U.K.), October 27, 2001.

According to the Czech deputy foreign minister, Hynek Kmonicek, who ordered Ani’s expulsion, “I told the Iraqi chief of mission [in Prague] that [Ani] was involved in activities which endanger the security of the Czech Republic.” As quoted in Michael Isikoff with Warren Getler, “Hard Questions about an Iraqi Connection,” Newsweek, October 29, 2001.

[8] According to the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes—quoting from top secret, sixteen-page memo, dated October 27, 2003, from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith, to the chair and vicechair of the Senate Intelligence Committee—Atta had also visited Prague in December 1994 and October 1999. Stephen F. Hayes, “Case Closed,” Weekly Standard, November 24, 2003.

(Hayes explores the bin-Laden-Baghdad relationship further in his 2004 book, The Connection: How Al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America [HarperCollins]).

On the heels of Hayes’s article, however, the Department of Defense issued a statement labeling “inaccurate” reports of “new information” regarding Iraqi-Qaeda contacts. “DOD Statement on News Reports of Al Qaeda and Iraq Connections,” United States Department of Defense, November 15, 2003.

Newsweek similarly took the Feith memo to task. Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, “Case Decidedly Not Closed,” Newsweek Web, November 19, 2003.

Nonetheless, as of the eve of the war, the mainstream press—my and the American public’s sole source for this information—corroborated neither the ’94 nor ‘99 meeting.

[9] Robert Novak, “No Evidence against Iraq,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 15, 2001.

[10] Gross first made this statement on October 12. “Police Investigating Whether Atta Ran Business in Czech Republic,” Czech News Agency (CTK), October 12, 2001.

[11] John Tagliabue, “No Evidence Suspect Met Iraqi in Prague,” New York Times, October 20, 2001.

[12] “Czechs Confirm Suspected Hijacker Met Iraqi,” CNN.com, October 27, 2001.

[13] Patrick E. Tyler with John Tagliabue, “Czechs Confirm Iraqi Agent Met with Terror Ringleader,” New York Times, October 27, 2001.

[14] As quoted in “Czech PM: Atta Considered Prague Attack,” CNN.com, November 9, 2001. ; Alan Sipress, “Czech Leader: Atta Plotted Radio Free Europe Attack,” Washington Post, November 10, 2001, p. A20; Brian Whitmore, “Atta Role; Anti-U.S. Plot in Prague Detailed,” Boston Globe, November 10, 2001.

[15] “Zemans [sic] Words about Atta one of Hypotheses—Intermin, BIS,” Czech News Agency (CTK), November 9, 2001; “Czech Government Plays down Comments over Radio Strike Plan,” Agence France-Presse, November 10, 2001.

[16] Vaclav Havel, Interview, Larry King Weekend, CNN.com, December 2, 2001 [taped November 27, 2001].

On November 18, National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told Tim Russert, “I don’t want to comment on” the Prague connection. Condoleezza Rice, Interview, Meet the Press with Tim Russert, N.B.C. News Transcripts, November 18, 2001.

[17] William Safire, “Prague Connection,” New York Times, November 12, 2001.

See also William Safire, “Protecting Saddam,” New York Times, March 18, 2002; William Safire, “Mr. Atta Goes To Prague,” New York Times, May 9, 2002; William Safire, “Missing Links Found,” New York Times, November 24, 2003.

[18] Richard Cheney, Interview, 60 Minutes II, November 14, 2001. ; Richard Cheney, Interview, Meet the Press with Tim Russert, December 9, 2001.

[19] Chris Hedges with Donald G. McNeil Jr., “New Clue Fails to Explain Iraq Role in Sept. 11 Attack,” New York Times, December 16, 2001.

[20] Peter Green, “Iraq Link To Sept. 11 Attack and Anthrax Is Ruled Out,” Daily Telegraph (London), December 18, 2001.

[21] James Risen, “Terror Acts by Baghdad Have Waned, U.S. Aides Say,” New York Times, February 6, 2002.

[22] David Ignatius, “Dubious Iraqi Link,” Washington Post, March 15, 2002.

Interestingly, on March 19, Tenet testified at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee; when asked about the Prague connection, he replied, “I’d like to do all of this in closed session.” George Tenet, Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Federal News Service, March 19, 2002.

[23] Michael Isikoff, “The Phantom Link To Iraq,” Newsweek Web, April 28, 2002. The print and slightly shorter version of this online exclusive appeared under the same title in Newsweek’s May 6, 2002, issue, p. 36.

[24] Daniel Eisenberg, “’We’re Taking Him Out,” Time, May 13, 2002.

[25] “U.S. Drops Last Link of Iraq To 9/11,” New York Times, May 2, 2002; Walter Pincus, “No Link between Hijacker, Iraq Found, U.S. Says,” Washington Post, May 1, 2002.

[26] Bob Drogin, Paul Richter and Doyle McManus, “U.S. Returns To Theory of Iraqi Link To Sept. 11,” Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2002.

Indeed, they had so concluded, first on background to the press and in closed committee hearings, then publicly.

For instance, in a speech on April 19 to the Commonwealth Club of California, F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller outlined the extent of his agency’s 9/11 investigation: “We ran down literally hundreds of thousands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on, from flight reservations to car rentals to bank accounts.” Robert S. Mueller III, “Partnership and Prevention: The F.B.I.’s Role in Homeland Security,” Commonwealth Club of California, April 19, 2002.

Similarly, on June 18 (though not unclassified until October 17), George Tenet told the congressional Joint Inquiry on 9/11 that the C.I.A. was “still working to confirm or deny this allegation . . . We have been unable to establish that Atta left the U.S. or entered Europe in April 2001 under his true name or any known aliases.” George J. Tenet, Prepared Testimony, Unclassified, Joint Inquiry into Terrorist Attacks against the United States, June 18, 2002. [Check format.]

[27] Richard Cheney, Interview, Meet the Press with Tim Russert, N.B.C. News Transcripts, September 8, 2002.

[28] Martin Walker, “Czechs Retract Terror Link,” United Press International, October 20, 2002.

[29] James Risen, “Prague Discounts an Iraqi Meeting,” New York Times, October 21, 2002.

[30] James Risen, “How Politics and Rivalries Fed Suspicions of a Meeting,” New York Times, October 21, 2002.

[31] James Risen, “Prague Discounts an Iraqi Meeting,” New York Times, October 21, 2002.

[32] Peter S. Green, “Havel Denies Telephoning U.S. on Iraq Meeting,” New York Times, October 23, 2002.

[33] “The meeting took place,” Kmonicek told the Prague Post (Czech Republic). Frank Griffiths, “U.N. Envoy Confirms Terrorist Meeting,” Prague Post (Czech Republic), June 5, 2002.

[34] As quoted in “Gross Insists on Meeting between Atta and Iraqi Diplomat Here,” Czech News Agency (CTK), April 29, 2002; “Hijacker ‘Did Not Meet Iraqi Agent,’” B.B.C. News, May 1, 2002.

[35] James Risen and David Johnston, “Split at C.I.A. and F.B.I. on Iraqi Ties to Al Qaeda,” New York Times, February 2, 2003.

[36] James Pitkin, “Czechs: Hijacker Met with Iraqi Spy,” Prague Post (Czech Republic), May 8, 2002.

[37] As quoted in Bill Keller, “The Sunshine Warrior,” New York Times Magazine, September 22, 2002.

[38] Richard Perle et al., “Defense Policy,” National Interest, November 2001. [Check format.]

[39] Edward Jay Epstein, “Al Qaeda, Pawn of Nations,” April 2, 2003, in Edward Jay Epstein and Daniel Benjamin, “Saddam and Terrorism,” Slate, March 31, 2003-April 2, 2003.

[40] Daniel Benjamin, “A Prague Orgy,” April 2, 2003, in Edward Jay Epstein and Daniel Benjamin, “Saddam and Terrorism,” Slate, March 31, 2003-April 2, 2003.

[41] Michael Isikoff, “The Phantom Link To Iraq,” Newsweek, May 6, 2002, p. 36; Romesh Ratnesar, “Iraq and Al-Qaeda: Is There a Link?,” Time, September 2, 2002.

[42] Michael Isikoff, “Looking for a Link,” Newsweek, August 19, 2002; James Risen, “Prague Discounts an Iraqi Meeting,” New York Times, October 21, 2002. ; Brian Whitmore, “Hijacker-Iraqi Meeting Disputed Differing Reports on Whether Prague Encounter Occurred,” Boston Globe, October 23, 2002.

[43] Robert Novak, “On Atta, Prague and Iraq,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 13, 2002.

In September 2003, Cheney told Tim Russert the same. “[W]e’ve never been able to . . . confirm[] it or discredit[] it. We just don’t know.” Richard Cheney, Interview, Meet the Press with Tim Russert, September 14, 2003.

[44] Edward Jay Epstein, “Prague Revisited,” Slate, November 19, 2003.

[45] For instance, Rumsfeld asked the C.I.A. on ten separate occasions to investigate Iraqi links to 9/11. Daniel Eisenberg, “’We’re Taking Him Out,” Time, May 13, 2002.

[46] For instance, Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, urged Powell’s speechwriters to mention the Prague connection in his U.N. address. Dana Priest and Glenn Kessler, “Iraq, 9/11 Still Linked by Cheney,” Washington Post, September 29, 2003.

[47] On July 2, 2003, almost four months into the war, U.S. forces arrested Ani in Iraq. “Iraq Notebook,” Seattle Times, July 9, 2003; Vernon Loeb and John Mintz, “Iraqi Who Might Have Met with 9/11 Hijacker Is Captured,” Washington Post, July 9, 2003. ; “Iraqi, Possibly Tied To 9/11, Is Captured,” New York Times, July 9, 2003.

Ani denied meeting Atta. Dana Priest and Glenn Kessler, “Iraq, 9/11 Still Linked by Cheney,” Washington Post, September 29, 2003; Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, “Case Decidedly Not Closed,” Newsweek Web, November 19, 2003.

Also in July, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence declassified the much-delayed report of their joint inquiry into 9/11. Unfortunately, nowhere in its 858 pages does the report address Iraq’s purported involvement in the day of infamy.

A year later, the 9/11 Commission Report concluded: “[T]here are no U.S. records indicating that Atta departed the country [U.S.] during this period [April 6, 9, 10, 11]. Czech officials have reviewed their flight and border records as well for any indication that Atta was in the Czech Republic in April 2001, including records of anyone crossing the border who even looked Arab. They have also reviewed pictures from the area near the Iraqi embassy and have not discovered photos of anyone who looked like Atta. No evidence has been found that Atta was in the Czech Republic in April 2001. . . .

“These findings cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that Atta was in Prague on April 9, 2001. He could have used an alias to travel and a passport under that alias, but this would be an exception to his practice of using his true name while traveling (as he did in January and would in July when he took his next overseas trip). The F.B.I. and C.I.A. have uncovered no evidence that Atta held any fraudulent passports.

“K[halid]S[haikh]M[ohammed] and [Ramzi] Binalshibh both deny that an Atta-Ani meeting occurred. . . .

“The available evidence does not support the original Czech report of an Atta-Ani meeting [in April 2001].

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 228-229.
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