The 850-page congressional report on September 11 intelligence failures says that a key terrorist organizer may have met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in the months before the attack.
Mohamed Atta, one of the pilots of the two hijacked jets that hit the World Trade Center, “may have traveled” to Prague to meet an Iraqi intelligence officer, the report said, quoting CIA Director George Tenet.
Whether Atta and Iraqi intelligence officer Ahmed al-Ani met in the Czech capital remains one of the mysteries of the September 11 plot.
A senior U.S. official said yesterday that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies differ on whether the meeting occurred.
The reported meeting has been cited by some officials as a link between the al Qaeda terrorist network and Iraqi intelligence.
Intelligence officials who are part of the Pentagon’s Iraq Survey Group are searching Iraq for any information that could establish connections between al Qaeda and the Iraqi intelligence service, including information about any meeting between Atta and al-Ani.
“We haven’t ruled out the possibility of [the meeting] happening,” a senior U.S. official said yesterday. “But we have no evidence to demonstrate conclusively that it did.”
The Czech government notified the State Department in October 2001 that its domestic security service, known by the acronym BIS, had monitored a meeting in Prague between Atta and al-Ani in April 2001 — five months before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
The Czechs said they had obtained the information from an informant who identified Atta from a photograph.
A Czech Embassy spokesman was unavailable yesterday. A Czech diplomat said he had no new information on the case.
In the congressional report, the joint inquiry said Atta traveled to the Czech Republic in June 2000 on his way back to the United States after a meeting with al Qaeda conspirators in Germany.
Later, the report states that CIA’s Mr. Tenet told the committee: “Atta may also have traveled outside of the U.S. in early April 2001 to meet an Iraqi intelligence officer, although we are still working to corroborate this.”
According to the report, “Atta may have traveled under an unknown alias: the CIA has been unable to establish that he left the United States or entered Europe in April under his true name or any known alias.”
The U.S. official said yesterday that the FBI is more skeptical than the CIA that the meeting took place.
“The FBI says Atta was in the United States a day or two on either side of the Prague meeting date,” making it very difficult for him to have had the meeting, the official said.
Eleanor Hill, the Joint Inquiry staff director, said yesterday the brief reference to the Prague meeting was all that was released in the unclassified report.
She declined to comment when asked whether there were more details on the meeting in the 28-page section that was withheld from publication that identifies “foreign sources of support” for the September 11 plot.
Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said last year he took issue with U.S. press reports that the meeting did not take place. “I believe the counterintelligence services more than journalists,” Mr. Gross told a Prague newspaper.
Mr. Gross told reporters last year that Atta visited Prague twice in 2000 and then met al-Ani, who was expelled from the country on April 22, 2001, for intelligence activities.
U.S. officials said Czech intelligence is 70 percent certain the meeting took place at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague.
The Bush administration made no reference to any Prague meeting in the months leading up to the U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
The intelligence community released information indicating that an al Qaeda “associate,” Abu Zarqawi, ran a terrorist training camp in northern Iraq with the support of Iraqi intelligence.