Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Mystery of Prague

Was the putative Prague Connection an invention of the Bush Administration– or was it the product of an incomplete intelligence operation?
To sort out the confusion , I met earlier this November 11 in Prague with Jiri Ruzek, the chief at the time of Czech counterintelligence service(BIS), Ruzek, a professional intelligence officer, is in a position to know what happened, He personally oversaw the investigation of Iraq’s alleged covert activities that began, with full American collaboration, nearly two years before Bush became President and resulted, some five months before the 9-11 attack, in the expulsion the Iraqi intelligence officer to have met with Atta, Ahmad al-Ani. I also spoke with ex-Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, who headed the Intelligence Committee to whom Ruzek reported, and to Ambassador Hynek Kmonicek, who, as deputy foreign minister at the time, handled the al-Ani expulsion for the foreign ministry. According to them, here is how the the Prague connection developed.

The proximite cause for the BIS’ interest in al-Ani was a sensational revelation made by Jabir Salim, the Iraqi consul who defected in Prague in December 1998. He said in his dbriefings that the Mukharabit, Iraq intelligence service, had given him $150,000 and tasked him with job of carrying out a covert action against an American target in the Czech Republic, using a free-lance terrorist to blow up the headquarters of Radio Free Europe in Weneclas Square in the heart of Prague. This intelligence about state-sponsored terrorism was taken very seiously by both America and the Czech Republic. The US, for its part, doubled security at the Radio Free Europe facility, and began its own counter-survellience, including photographing suspicious individuals in Weneclas Square. The BIS did what counterintelligence service do in such circumstances: they sought to penerate the Iraq Embassy by recruiting Arabic-speaking employees familiar with its operations.

Al-Ani was Salim’s replacement at the Iraq Embassy. Soon after he arrived in March 1999 , he was picked up by US countersurvellence cameras. The interest in him intesified after the BIS’ learned from its penetration of the Iraq Embassy that he was attempting to acquire explosives and contact foreign-based Arabs. Then, on April 9th 2001, the BIS’ source in the Embassy reported that al-Ani had gotten into a car with an unknown foreign Arab. After al-Ani’s car managed to elude BIS survellience, concern mounted that he was in the process of recruiting his bomber, and, since the BIS could not find the ystery Arab, Ruzek decided to act pre-emptovely. He recommended to Foreign Minister Kavan that al-Ani be immediately expelled from the Czech Republic, and, accepting it. al-Ani was given only 48 hours to get out of Prague on April 19t.h– and he returned to Baghdad.

On September 11th, Atta’s picture was shown on Czech TV, and the next day, the BIS’s source in the Iraq embassy dropped a bomb shell. He told his BIS case officer that he recognized Atta as the Arab who got in the car with Al-Ani on April 9th. Ruzek immediately relayed the secret information to Washington through the CIA liaison. The FBI sent to Prague an interrogation team, which after questioning and testing the source, concluded that there was a 70 percent liklihood that he was not intentionally lying and sincerely believed that he saw Atta with al-Ani. The issue remained whether he had mistaken someone who resembled Atta. Meanwhile, records were found showing that Atta had applied for a Czech visa in Germany in 2000, and made at least one previous trip to Prague.
Less than a week after Ruzek shared the BIS’ secret information with American intelligence, it was leaked. The Associated Press reported "A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States has received information from a foreign intelligence service that Mohamed Atta, a hijacker aboard one of the planes that slammed into the World Trade Center, met earlier this year in Europe with an Iraqi intelligence agent," and CBS named with al-Ani as the person meeting with Atta in Prague. Ruzek was furious. He consider what he had passed on to the FBI to be unevaluated raw intelligence, and the disclosure of it not only riskedt compromising the BIS’s penetration in the Iraq embassy but it greatly reduced the chances of confirming it. In Baghdad, al-Ani, through an Iraqi spokesman, denied he ever met Atta. In Prague, Czech government officials, who had not been fully briefed, added to the confusion. The Prime Minister,. Milos Zeeman , wrongly assuming that the meeting had been confirmed, stated on CNN, for example, that Atta and al-Ani had met to discuss Radio free Europe, not 9-11 attack.

Meanwhile, the pressures on Ruzek mounted. Richard Armitage, Powell’s deputy at the State Department, complained to Prime Minister Zeeman that Ruzek was not cooperating in resolving the case, eben though Ruzek had extended unprecedented access to the FBI and CIA, including allowing their representatives to sit on the task force reviewing the case. He was also warned by a colleague in German intelligence that could be entangled in a heated Hawk-Dove struggke over Iraq. He decided that if this was an American game, he did not want part of it. So he threw the ball back in the CIA’s court, by taking the position that if al-Ani did meet Atta for a nefarious purpose, it would have been not on his own initiaive but as a representative of the Iraqi Mukharabit. The answer was not it Prague, but in Iraq’sa ntelligence files, and the the CIA and FBI would have to use their own intelligence capabilities to obtain further informatuion about al-Ani’s assignment, and brief. That more oe less cocluded the Czech role in the investigation.

. The FBI had by this time established that Atta checked out of the Diplomat Inn in Virginia Beach and cashed a check for $8,000 from a SunTrust account on April 4, 2001 and was seen again in Florida on April 11, 2001. But it could not account for his movements during this period (or how he used that money), though there wa no record of Atta using his passport to travel outside the United States. The CIA also drew a blank. CIA director George Tenet testified on June 18, 2002 before a Joint Committee of Congress : "Atta allegedly traveled outside the US in early April 2001 to meet with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, we are still working to confirm or deny this allegation. It is possible that Atta traveled under an unknown alias since we have been unable to establish that Atta left the US or entered Europe in April 2001 under his true name or any known aliases." When Al-Ani was captured in Baghdad in 2003, he told the CIA that he was not even Prague at the time of the meeting. Although Ruzek termed Al-Ani’s claim of being elsewhere "pure nonsense," the CIA had evidently found it could go no further with the vexing case. Tenet, on March 9,2004, told a closed session of the Senate Armed Service Committee, "Although we cannot rule it out, we are increasingly skeptical such a meeting occurred."

Prior to 911, when the investigation al-Ani’s activities was iniatated, both the CIA and the BIS took deadly serious the allegation of state-sponsored terrorism directed against Radio Free Europe, Both agencies cooperated in attempting to thwart it, and accepted the information furnished by the BIS’ penetration agent as reliable enough to expel al-Ani. After 9-11, with Iraq now on the Bush administration’s agenda, the subject of state-sponsored terrorism became a political hot potato, as Ruzek learned, that could easily burn who touched it. So hot that if the CIA even questioned al-Ani about the instruction he had concerning blowing up Radio Free Europe, it never disclosed the answers to the BIS. So, like many other intelligence cases that become politicized, the Prague Connection, and all that led up to it, was consigned to a murky limbo.