As reported in "Gunning for Saddam," Czech officials announced in October 2001 they had evidence that Mohammed Atta--the alleged Al Qaeda ringleader of the September 11th plot--had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer the previous spring. Immediately the news was seized upon by proponents of toppling Saddam Hussein.
But, by the spring of 2002, the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection was being dismissed in news articles in The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time and The New York Times. The reports quoted administration officials and CIA and FBI analysts--almost all unnamed--who said that on closer scrutiny, "there was no evidence Atta left or returned to the U.S. at the time he was supposed to be in Prague." FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III went on the record at a San Francisco meeting in April 2001 saying the evidence wasn't there: "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..."
But a Prague connection linking Al Qaeda and Iraq remains very much alive for New York Times columnist William Safire, among others. Within the week that media reports were discrediting the story, Safire--a hardliner on U.S-Iraq policy--fired off a column (5/9/02) laying out how the reports were part of a campaign by Bush administration officials to shoot down a troublesome story that would force the U.S. to act against Hussein. Safire chastised U.S officials who refused to be named in the news accounts, and quoted a reported statement by the Czech interior minister who says his intelligence chief stands by their evidence of a meeting between Atta and an Iraqi agent.
Safire concluded his column by noting he can play the unnamed source game too, citing a conversation with a "senior Bush administration official" who told him: "...we're still in the process of pursuing [the allegation of the Prague meeting] and sorting out the timing and venue. There's no doubt Atta was in Prague in 2000, and a subsequent meeting is at least plausible."
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