Agam's Gecko
Friday, November 25, 2005

ix weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, on October 27, 2001, the New York Times reported that Mohammed Atta had flown to Prague in April of that year, and met there with an Iraqi intelligence official. A year later in October 2002, the Times reported that the Czech President Vaclav Havel had phoned President Bush earlier in the year, telling him that the meeting had never happened. Havel immediately responded through his spokesman that this report was false, that he had never had such a conversation with Bush or any other US official. "It is a fabrication," said Havel's spokesman, "Nothing like this has occurred."

The paper then acknowledged Havel's denial of the conversation, and in the same story conflated his "no factual basis behind the report" as referring to the Atta meeting itself, rather than to the Times' own fabricated report. Two days later, the same paper again cited the bogus phone call story in an editorial, declaring that the meeting "almost certainly never took place." Yet Czech officials continued to affirm that it did, and that they had collected "detailed evidence" of it.

Last week, the Times editorialised that this alleged meeting between the terrorist and Saddam's regime was part of President Bush's "rewriting of history" and based on "a report that was disputed before the war and came from an unreliable drunk." What happened here, and where did this "drunk" come from?

The Czech authorities had been investigating the Atta connection since immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, when their own intelligence agency's source inside the Iraqi embassy in Prague recognised Atta's photo (which was at that time, as we all remember, getting worldwide exposure). This inside-the-embassy source had been tasked with watching the Iraqi official in question, Ahmad al-Ani, because Czech intelligence (known as BIS) were already concerned that he was trying to make contact with foreign-based Arabs to carry out terrorist attacks on behalf of Iraq. The source had witnessed such a meeting on April 9, but being unable to subsequently trace the unidentified man, and believing the risk was too great that al-Ani had already recruited his bomber, BIS recommended that he be expelled from the country. Al-Ani was ordered out on April 19, and returned to Baghdad. Less than five months later, this BIS embassy source recognised Atta's photo as the man he had seen getting into a car with Ahmad al-Ani.

The October 2001 leak to the press by an "anonymous US official" blew the whole BIS investigation out of the water and jeopardised their penetration of the Iraqi embassy. The exposure of the investigation made it much more difficult to acquire confirming evidence, and al-Ani -- by then back in Baghdad -- was vehemently denying having met Atta, or even being in Prague at the time. Here was an information leak which did real damage (certainly a lot more than the revelation of the name of a CIA desk jockey several years later). The Czech authorities and BIS stood by the evidence they had collected and in the reliability of their embassy insider, but were unwilling to get involved in another one of those famous American political leak-fests, and handed the issue off to the CIA to pursue further. Al-Ani was captured in Baghdad after the fall of the regime, and remains in detention there.

So where did this stuff about "unreliable drunk" come from in the current iteration by the NYT? We are simply witnessing the birth of a canard, borne of sloppy journalism and conflated issues which will soon be strong enough to fly on its own. Anybody heard of "Curveball"? This was the codename for an Iraqi informant to the German intelligence service, who purportedly had knowledge of Iraqi training of terrorist cells in biological and chemical weapons, and who US investigators had dismissed as an "alcoholic" and "useless" as a source. Since there was other evidence for Saddam's aid and training for terrorists, and even though "Curveball's" information was much more spectacular, his credibility was not trusted by the Americans. This is the NYT's "unreliable drunk" -- nothing whatsoever to do with the Prague incident.

But it's really quite bizarre to see how short a canard's gestation period is nowadays. Although I'm not positive that the Times was the first to fob off the Atta meeting information onto the alcoholic informant scapegoat, I've seen it in several other news stories in the past week -- and in many more citations by anti-Bush politicians and bloggers by the score. As I understand it from reading Seixon's deconstruction of a recent Richard Clarke appearance on the "Daily Show", the Times provided the insemination last Tuesday the 15th, and Clarke was on with Jon Stewart on Thursday night the 17th. After an opening video collage to make fun of Dick Cheney, and joking together how the VP would always say that Iraq was involved with Sept. 11 (it's the best 'Cheney-ism' says Clarke), and marvelling at how well he could convince everyone about these things without actually, you know, saying them, the former counter-terrorism "czar" came out with this:
CLARKE: He had the best way of picking, you know there's all sorts of intelligence out there, and he picked out the worst reports. So the Mohammad Atta report is from a drunk, literally, we know that.
So there we have it: the "newspaper of record" places this mistake/disinformation (you pick) into an editorial, and two days later an "expert source" of Clarke's (former) stature is repeating it. "...literally, we know that," he coos -- and the fledgling canard takes wing across the ether. Seixon (a Norwegian blogger) has been all over this disinformation campaign stuff lately. There were steaming heaps of this type of BS that he uncovered in a Hardball episode (which I linked last weekend), and he does a terrific job here and here on one of the major purveyors of Dick Cheney canard stockpiles.

By the way, you can watch the (now famous) speech of Mr. Cheney, sans CNN's giant black "X" overlays, right here: [Real Video link]. It's not long, less than 20 minutes and well worth the effort to listen to, considering the amount of crap people have been writing and saying about it. If your player doesn't kick in with that link, find it on C-SPAN's homepage.

Anyway, back to Mohammed Atta in Prague. I have no idea if it really happened or not, but all the polemics about this meeting having been "comprehensively debunked" is nonsense. The Czech authorities are apparently standing by their position that the preponderance of evidence leans heavily in favour of the meeting having taken place, and both they and the FBI had earlier put the probability at around 70%. The BIS source in the Iraqi embassy is sure that it was Atta he saw getting into the car with al-Ani, and BIS also affirms this person as completely reliable. But it hasn't been confirmed 100% (the news media leak probably made that impossible), and over the past four years Mr. Cheney -- who has been asked about it repeatedly -- has always taken great pains to say that it had not been confirmed with certainty. The closest he ever got was to say that it was "mostly confirmed" which seems to agree with the overall "70%" confidence of the professionals. As you'll see if you read Seixon's recent articles, Cheney was very careful with his words, and he said over and over and over again that this was "unconfirmed," that "we just don't know," and that "we've never had confirmation one way or the other."

But why were the Czechs so interested in Ahmad al-Ani, that they were having him watched in the first place? I've been drawing from an article in the Wall Street Journal by investigative reporter Edward Jay Epstein for this, who travelled to Prague recently to speak to Czech government officials and BIS investigators familiar with the case. Ahmad al-Ani was sent by Baghdad to the Prague embassy as a replacement for a man named Jabir Salim, who had defected in December 1998. Epstein writes:
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 of course prompted heightened security for the Radio Free Europe studios, more surveillance around the Square, and BIS penetration of the embassy itself. When Mr. al-Ani arrived in March 1999 as Salim's replacement, he was already being watched. The Czechs became considerably more worried when their assets inside the embassy told them that al-Ani was "attempting to acquire explosives, and contact foreign-based Arabs." After the meeting with the unknown Arab (later identified by an eyewitness "with certainty" as Atta) who subsequently slipped the surveillance, al-Ani was expelled pre-emptively. The joint Czech - American investigations into the Saddam regime's attempts to hire terrorists for attacks on US targets had been going on since Jabir Salim's defection -- almost two years before Bush became president.

It's clear that folks who still say that Saddam had nothing to do with terrorism are simply not paying attention. Or in some cases perhaps, certain people might feel that suicide-homicide bombings against Israeli civilians are in a special category, and for one reason or another don't count as real terrorism. A sick attitude I know, but it does exist. Everyone should know by now that Saddam called for these attacks, advertised for volunteers and paid up to $25,000 US a pop. There are photos showing him presenting the certificates of accomplishment along with the cheques to the families of these "shahids" (it was originally $15,000 US, but he gave them a raise). And even beyond this clear proof that Saddam's Iraq was a terrorist-sponsoring state, the Prague story shows that he used his embassies as a base to plot terror attacks against US targets, and to hire Arab terrorists to carry out his dirty work so it wouldn't be traced to him.

Atta had been known to travel to Prague twice in the year before the supposed meeting with al-Ani. He flew to Prague from Germany on May 30, 2000, spent a short time in the transit lounge, and flew back the same day. Three days later he took a bus to Prague, and flew on to the US the next day. American investigators place him in the US on April 4, 2001 (when he withdrew $8,000 in cash, and checked out of his hotel), and again on April 11. This Telegraph story from December 2001 (and strangely enough, written by the same NYT stringer who would later twist Havel's denial of the Times' fabrication as though it was a denial of the Atta meeting itself) states that "according to the FBI," Atta left the US in early April 2001, travelled to Europe, and (through credit card records) that "he bought a knife at Zurich airport and show him returning to Florida a few days later." An appointment calendar belonging to al-Ani (acquired by BIS from the embassy, probably after the war) had a note for his meeting with a "Hamburg student" in April 2001. Mohammed Atta identified himself as a "Hamburg student" for the purposes of his Czech visa. And Spanish intelligence has identified two Algerians who provided false passports to Atta, perhaps explaining why there's no record of him leaving the US under his own name. More from Edward Epstein on this here and here.

Confirmation of this alleged meeting would certainly do damage to the relentlessly repeated assertion that "Saddam had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks," even though by itself it would not prove his involvement. Even if it's established beyond doubt that the meeting took place, we may never know the substance of it. But it would do fatal damage to the equally relentlessly repeated assertion that "Saddam had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 terrorists." The canard that "Saddam had nothing to do with terrorism" is already dead, though it too is relentlessly repeated in our media. The 1998 Iraqi plot to arrange a truck bomb to blow up Radio Free Europe studios in Prague, the plot to assassinate George H.W. Bush, and Saddam's recruitment of terrorists and payment for their acts have all put the lie to that one long ago. Andrew McCarthy (a former federal prosecutor who worked on the first World Trade Center bombing case) writes in the Corner of a few more items which show both the links themselves, and how the Clinton administration perceived them:
Meanwhile, in 1998 alone, we have $300K going from Iraq to Zawahiri (al Qaeda's number 2); bin Laden's famous February fatwa calling for the murder of all Americans and prominently featuring, as part of the justification, U.S. actions against Iraq; meetings in Iraq between Qaeda members and Iraqi officials in March; meetings in Afghanistan between Iraqi officials and al Qaeda leaders in July; the embassy bombings in August, after which, of all potential targets, the Clinton administration chose to retaliate against al Shifa, believed to be an Iraq/Qaeda joint weapons venture; an Iraqi member of al Qaeda (now held in Guantanamo Bay) traveling with Iraqi Intelligence to Pakistan to plot chemical mortar attacks on the American and British embassies there; and Iraq seeking to recruit Arab terrorists to blow up Radio Free Europe. Oh, and in February 1999, Richard Clarke objected to a suggestion that U-2 flights be used to try to find bin Laden because, if bin Laden learned the walls were closing in, Clarke wrote to Sandy Berger that "old wiley Usama will likely boogie to Baghdad."
A lot more will be coming to light, hopefully soon, that may help some Americans get out of this funk of defeatism so many seem to have adopted. The policy of the Iraq Liberation Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton was correct, and the decision of President Bush to finally carry out this policy following Sept. 11 was the only responsible course of action. Giving Saddam the benefit of the doubt, given his support for terrorism, would have been the height of irresponsibility. More information on the nature of Saddam's regime just might turn the tide, give pause to some of the doom mongers, and make possible the unity which is their most important weapon in the fight against the terrorists. It sure seems that the fearless Iraqi efforts to build their new democracy is nowhere near enough to make Americans proud and united. After the first, and highly inspiring show of democratic determination in the elections of January 30 this year, even a supposedly respectable figure such as Nancy Soderberg (former Clinton administration official) popped out with, "Well, there's still Iran and North Korea, don't forget. There's still hope for the rest of us . . . . There's always hope that this might not work."

Much of this unreleased information I'm talking about may come out of a project now going on in Doha, Qatar. This program is analysing a vast amount of documentation mainly from the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS). Gathered haphazardly after the overthrow of Saddam, some are damaged, many are separated from larger document sets which never made it to Doha, and only comprising that which was ordered saved by unit commanders after the fall of the regime, without much direction or guidance. David Kay, who led the Iraq Survey Group searching for evidence of WMD, told his team to ignore anything not WMD related. As Stephen Hayes reports, "As a consequence, documents describing the regime's training and financing of terrorists were labeled 'No Intelligence Value' and often discarded, according to two sources." So a lot has been lost already, but much remains -- and it's now being examined and catalogued. Hayes, who actually wrote the book on Saddam - al Qaeda connections as well as dozens of other articles in the Weekly Standard and elsewhere, has been trying for two years to get his hands on some of this material -- almost all of which is unclassified. You won't be surprised to read of the bureaucratic obstacles put in his way. After a long period of making Freedom Of Information Act requests and being referred around to various different agencies, he got a break:
Working outside formal Pentagon lines of inquiry, I soon learned more. Many of the documents from Doha had been entered into a database known as HARMONY. HARMONY is a thick stew of reports and findings from a variety of intelligence agencies and military units, and alongside the Iraqi documents were reports from contributing U.S. agencies.
Hayes acquired a list of document titles which seem like they would be extremely interesting, but is no closer to actually getting his hands on any copies of this unclassified information. Here is the list of Iraqi documents, as shown in the above linked article in the Standard:
1. Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) Correspondence to Iraq Embassy in the Philippines and Iraq MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
2. Possible al Qaeda Terror Members in Iraq
3. IIS report on Taliban-Iraq Connections Claims
4. Money Transfers from Iraq to Afghanistan
5. IIS Agent in Bulgaria
6. Iraqi Intel report on Kurdish Activities: Mention of Kurdish Report on al Qaeda--reference to al Qaeda presence in Salman Pak
7. IIS report about the relationship between IIS and the Kurdish Group Jalal Talibani [sic]
8. Iraqi Mukhabarat Structure
9. Locations of Weapons/Ammunition Storage (with map)
10. Iraqi Effort to Cooperate with Saudi Opposition Groups and Individuals
11. Order from Saddam to present $25,000 to Palestinian Suicide Bombers Families
12. IIS reports from Embassy in Paris: Plan to Influence French Stance on U.N. Security Council
13. IIS Importing and Hiding High Tech Computers in Violation of UN
14. IIS request to move persons, documents to private residences
15. Formulas and information about Iraq's Chemical Weapons Agents
16. Denial and Deception of WMD and Killing of POWs
17. 1987 orders by Hussein to use chemical weapons in the Ealisan Basin
18. Ricin research and improvement
19. Personnel file of Saad Mohammad Abd Hammadi al Deliemi
20. Memo from the Arab Liaison Committee: With a list of personnel in need of official documents
21. Fedayeen Saddam Responds to IIS regarding rumors of citizens aiding Afghanistan
22. Document from Uday Hussein regarding Taliban activity
23. Improvised Explosive Devices Plan
24. IIS reports on How French Campaigns are Financed
25. French and German relationships with Iraq
26. IIS reports about Russian Companies--News articles and potential IIS agents
27. IIS plan for 2000 of Europe's Influence of Iraq Strategy
28. IIS plans to infiltrate countries and collect information to help remove sanctions
29. Correspondence from IIS and the stations in Europe
30. Contract for satellite pictures between Russia, France and Iraq: Pictures of Neighboring Countries (Dec. 2002)
31. Chemical Gear for Fedayeen Saddam
32. Memo from the IIS to Hide Information from a U.N. Inspection team (1997)
33. Chemical Agent Purchase Orders (Dec. 2001)
34. Iraq Ministry of Defense Calls for Investigation into why documents related to WMD were found by UN inspection team
35. Correspondence between various Iraq organizations giving instructions to hide chemicals and equipment
36. Correspondence from IIS to MIC regarding information gathered by foreign intelligence satellites on WMD (Dec. 2002)
37. Correspondence from IIS to Iraqi Embassy in Malaysia
38. Cleaning chemical suits and how to hide chemicals
39. IIS plan of what to do during UNSCOM inspections (1996)
40. Secret Meeting with Taliban Group Member and Iraqi Government (Nov. 2000)
One of the documents (#10) was provided to the New York Times last summer, an internal IIS memo. Hayes cites Times reporter Tom Shanker from his story based on the document, which contains much regarding the contacts between Iraqi and Sudanese officials and bin Laden. The Sudanese were the go-betweens, telling Uday Hussein and the director of IIS in 1994 that "bin Laden is willing to meet in Sudan." Bin Laden was then approached after "presidential approval was given." The former head of IIS Directorate 4 met with bin Laden in February, 1995. Hayes also mentions a different IIS document, authenticated by DIA and reported on elsehere by other US media, that the Saddam regime considered bin Laden as an "Iraqi intelligence asset" as far back as 1992, but we don't know what Osama thought about this appellation. The document released to the Times reportedly has bin Laden being uncomfortable with being seen as an Iraqi operative, yet he made requests of the Saddam regime to broadcast anti-Saudi propaganda, and Saddam agreed to do this.

When bin Laden relocated from Sudan to Afghanistan, Saddam was keen to keep up the relationship. Hayes writes:
When bin Laden left Sudan for Afghanistan in May 1996, the Iraqis sought "other channels through which to handle the relationship, in light of his current location." The IIS memo directs that "cooperation between the two organizations should be allowed to develop freely through discussion and agreement."
Wait, did that say "cooperation"? I wonder how that progressed over the next two or three years... [rummage, rummage] ... oh yeah, here it is: Saddam offers bin Laden asylum, February 1999.

Nope, no smoking gun here folks, move along now. All this stuff, much of which was known well before Sept. 11, 2001, is just a lot of coincidence. And those meetings, well they could have been completely innocent -- you know, discussing mutual interests like football and stuff. After all, didn't that high-powered, "blue ribbon" panel, the Sept. 11 Commission assure us that there was no evidence for an "operational relationship" between al Qaeda and Saddam? Of course they did. And didn't the newspapers and talk shows and many politicians immediately translate this for us rubes the next day, telling us that the esteemed commissioners had concluded there was no link between Saddam and al Qaeda whatsoever? That's right, they sure did. And hasn't this particular gloss been drummed into our skulls every day since then, despite a couple of the commissioners immediately asserting that their report had been misrepresented in the media? Right again.

Then we come to the story which broke last August, and which both the Pentagon and the Sept. 11 Omission Commission have done everything in their power to cover up. I did write about it at that time, and it's about to bubble up into the spotlight again -- the Able Danger program. As a brief reminder, this was a secret data-mining operation under the Dept. of Defence tasked with tracing terrorists and terror cells, collecting and connecting information on them mainly derived from open sources. The program was terminated in the final year of the Clinton administration, but not before it had identified Mohammed Atta and several other of the Sept. 11 terrorists in early 2000, according to at least five people who worked on the project.

Lieutenant Colonel Tony Shaffer was the first to come forward publicly. He has since been persecuted and intimidated in a most disgusting manner by officials in the Pentagon, his reputation smeared and his career ruined. The Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled hearings into Able Danger in September, but the Defence Dept. issued orders barring Lt. Col. Shaffer, Navy Captain Scott Phillpott and others from giving testimony. Congressman Kurt Weldon has spearheaded the effort to allow these people to testify publicly, and at last report he has gathered 246 signatures of Congress members on a letter to the department, requesting clearance for them to do so.

It seems that there are figures inside the Pentagon who are worried about what might come out. The esteemed Sept. 11 Commission appears equally averse to having this story told, which is certainly not surprising. Not only did the project members attempt to transfer information to the FBI prior to Sept. 11, only to be stymied by the "Gorelick Wall of Silence" (which barred sharing of information from foreign intel operations with domestic law enforcement), but they also had wind of a terror attack brewing in the port of Aden, Yemen shortly before the bombing of the USS Cole. The Able Danger investigators were "jumping up and down" trying to get this information up the chain of command, but the Cole's captain was never informed: he says if he had had any hint of a risk, he could have easily diverted to another port for refuelling.

The team also tried to tell the Sept. 11 Commission about their work. Lt. Col. Shaffer was interviewed in 2003 by commission staff in Afghanistan where he was then serving, but they decided not to follow up with it and refused Shaffer's request for further briefings. Incidentally, that interview had been conducted by one of Jamie Gorelick's staff, and other commission investigative staff have since said they'd heard nothing about it. Capt. Phillpott briefed the commission staff in July 2004. They wrote him off as "not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation," and because they were only days from sending it to the printer. The accomplishments of the Able Danger project were deemed "historically insignificant," and there is no mention of it in the final report.

I was never very impressed with the members of this commission, many of whom were obviously playing politics and grandstanding, or running interference on behalf of the Clinton administration. The unwillingness to investigate this issue in a decent way appears to fit that view. One of the commissioners ought to have been answering questions rather than asking them, and I mean of course the former Clinton official Jamie Gorelick. The Navy man, John Lehman is the only one who really inspired any confidence at all.

The former Director of the FBI, Louis Freeh last week wrote in an op-ed that he considers the Sept. 11 Commission to deserve a grade "I" for its work -- signifying incomplete. The commission itself has lived on after its final report was delivered over a year ago, in the form of a "9/11 Commission Discourse Project," in which they've weighed in on hurricanes, nuclear weapons and a bunch of other things -- funded by various private foundations. Now that Able Danger public hearings look likely to take place soon, they have decided to disband their discourse project. I'm looking forward to seeing some if not all of them testifying before congressional oversight committees, and for the whole story to come out into the open.

Apparently, much of the 2.5 terabytes of data collected by the Able Danger project were destroyed when it was terminated in 2000. But recent reporting claims that some of it was carried over, and its databases recreated, in a successor project -- and that the information on Mohammed Atta and other Sept. 11 terrorists survived the move. Only time, and an open inquiry will tell. In the meantime, join me in keeping an eye on the Able Danger Blog for the latest progress on this case.

And Never Forget why this is important.

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