Senior Czech intelligence officials have told their American counterparts that they now have "no confidence" in their earlier report of direct meetings in Prague between Mohammed Atta, leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers and an Iraqi diplomat stationed in Prague who has since been expelled for "activities inconsistent with his diplomatic status."
"Quite simply, we think the source for this story may have invented the meeting that he reported. We can find no corroborative evidence for the meeting and the source has real credibility problems " a high-ranking source close to Czech intelligence told UPI Sunday.
The initial report of the meeting in June 2000 claimed that Atta had met Ahmad al-Ani, an Iraqi intelligence official based in Prague under diplomatic cover, whose movements were being routinely monitored by BIS, the Czech intelligence service. The report also suggested that the Iraqi was probably the source of $100,000 that Atta suddenly obtained to finance the U.S. leg of the terror mission.
The report went on to claim that Atta returned to Prague on April 9 last year on a three-day mission to see al-Ani once more, just two weeks before the majority of the hijack team left Saudi Arabia for the United States. The report was then publicly confirmed by Czech Interior Minister Stanislas Gross, on the basis of the initial assessment of the BIS.
The nearest to a smoking gun connecting Iraq to al Qaida, the Czech report was taken very seriously in Washington, in the face of growing skepticism at the Central Intelligence Agency.
But other influential figures in Washington, including former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle pursued their own inquiries using their own sources, and have now also been told by high-ranking Czech sources that they no longer stand by the initial report. Perle, in Prague this weekend for a meeting of the Trilateral Commission, was told in person Sunday that the BIS now doubts that any such meeting between Atta and al-Ani in fact took place.
The question of the Czech meeting, and whether it ever happened, is just one aspect of a growing dispute within the George W. Bush administration, with officials close to the White House leaping to conclusions while the CIA remains skeptical. There is a separate argument over Iraq's attempt to smuggle a consignment of specialized aluminium tubes, cited by President Bush as a sign that Iraq was building a gas centrifuge systém to create weapons-grade uranium.
CIA experts doubt whether the tubes in question were suitable for the supposed task, and believe they were intended instead for use in missile engines, still a clear violation of Iraqi commitments to the United Nations, but not necessarily proof of nuclear intent.
"One of the most dangerous things in this business is to start believing a report simply because it fits with your preconceptions and confirms what you always wanted to believe," a Czech intelligence source told UPI.