- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

U.S. intelligence officials say they have not seen evidence from the Czech government to confirm reports accepted by the State Department that a key al Qaeda terrorist met with an Iraqi agent in Prague five months before September 11.

The clandestine meeting between Mohamed Atta identified as the organizer of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center and Iraqi diplomat Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani was held in April 2001, according to Czech government officials.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies, which before September 11 conducted almost no surveillance of Iraqi intelligence agents, are not backing Prague's claims, which were first disclosed to the State Department in October.

The differences on the meeting have triggered a dispute within the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment over Iraqi government involvement in terrorism and support for al Qaeda.

The Prague newspaper Lidove Noviny, quoting a Czech counterintelligence source, reported June 8 that the Czech security service is "70 percent certain" Atta met the Iraqi intelligence official who was working covertly as a diplomat.

The service based its intelligence on a recruited agent who identified Atta from a photograph after September 11. The agent said he met both Atta and al-Ani in the Iraqi Embassy in Prague but was not 100 percent confident about the identities of the men, the newspaper reported.

Some U.S. intelligence and defense officials cite the meeting as a key sign of Iraqi government support to the al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people.

One U.S. official with access to sensitive intelligence reports said reports linking Iraq's government to the terrorists behind September 11 are compelling.

Those in the U.S. intelligence community who oppose the Bush administration's hard-line policy toward Iraq have sought to dismiss intelligence on the Iraqi connection to September 11.

"There is no evidence of Atta having traveled to Europe during that period," a senior U.S. intelligence official said. "The FBI hasn't been able to come up with any such travel [record] and also there are no financial records or credit-card receipts, and thus no evidence of him being in Prague at the time."

However, other reports indicate Atta "passed through" Prague in 2000, the senior official said.

One reason intelligence officials have been unable to connect Atta to the April 2001 meeting is that other travel by the 19 al Qaeda hijackers was done using "true names and true passports," the senior official said.

"This [April 2001 meeting] would be an exception if he were there," he said.

Doubts within the U.S. intelligence community about the Atta meeting with al-Ani were first reported in April by Newsweek magazine, which suggested that reports of the meeting were a "phantom link" between al Qaeda and Iraq.

The senior U.S. intelligence official said analysts have not dismissed the meeting completely. The lack of evidence does not mean it didn't take place.

"We're kind of agnostic on it," the senior official said.

"We know [Atta] passed through Prague a year earlier, but we aren't able to confirm this particular visit, or, if it did occur, what the specific significance was. At the time, planning was far advanced" for September 11.

Regarding the Czech government officials' comments that the meeting took place,, the U.S. intelligence official said Prague "has yet to provide us with evidence he was there."

Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross was the first to state publicly that the meeting took place.

Responding to news reports that sought to debunk the meeting, Mr. Gross told the Czech daily Pravo in December that the two men had met.

"According to my information, and mainly according to the information of the Czech [Security Intelligence Service], the source of our original stand, there is no reason to change anything in the original stand," Mr. Gross said.

The minister said Atta visited Prague twice in 2000 and then met al-Ani, who was expelled from the country on April 22, 2001, for intelligence activities.

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