It was recently asserted here (again) that the links to Saddam and terrorism are "murky". While it is strange to me that there is even such a thing as a "let's make sure to give Saddam the benefit of the doubt" crowd, I found this William Safire article to be useful in further clarifying the case:
Two blockbuster magazine articles last week revealed evidence that Saddam's spy agency and top Qaeda operatives certainly were in frequent contact for a decade, and that there is renewed reason to suspect an Iraqi spymaster in Prague may have helped finance the 9/11 attacks.
On weeklystandard.com, you can find chunks of a 16-page letter by Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, responding to a Senate Intelligence Committee request for evidence of Saddam-bin Laden collaboration. Fifty specific instances from C.I.A., N.S.A., F.B.I. and Pentagon files are described, many from "sensitive reporting" never made public.
The Defense Department acknowledged the Oct. 27 letter included a classified annex of "raw reports or products" of U.S. intelligence agencies on "the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," cautioning that it "drew no conclusions." But with so much connective tissue exposed "” some the result of "custodial interviews" of prisoners "” the burden of proof has shifted to those still grimly in denial.
Remember how anti-liberation politicians and journalists pooh-poohed Colin Powell's February 2003 speech to the U.N. about the presence in Iraq of a Qaeda associate, identified in this space as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Powell's assertion had this "sensitive reporting" basis: "As of Oct. 2002 al Zarqawi was setting up sleeper cells in Baghdad to be activated in case of a U.S. occupation of the city."
Deniers derogate as "cherry picking" Feith's intelligence summary available to senators: "The Czech counterintelligence service reported that the Sept. 11 hijacker [Mohamed] Atta met with the former Iraqi intelligence chief in Prague, al Ani, on several occasions. During one of those meetings, al Ani ordered the IIS [Iraq Intelligence Service] finance officer to issue Atta funds from IIS financial holdings in the Prague office."
If true, that would implicate Saddam's regime in the murder of 3,000 Americans. Though the C.I.A. can confirm two Atta trips to Prague, in 1994 and 2000, it cannot confirm the two other visits the Czechs reported, including one on April 9, 2001, with Saddam's top European agent, al-Ani, then vice consul in Prague. C.I.A. chief George Tenet testified that the meeting reported by the Czech service was "possible," but the F.B.I. floated hints that car rental records showed Atta to be traveling between Virginia and Florida that week.
Enter the writer Edward Jay Epstein in the liberal online journal Slate: "All these reports attributed to the FBI were, as it turns out, erroneous. There were no car rental records in Virginia, Florida, or anywhere else in April 2001 for Mohamed Atta, since he had not yet obtained his Florida license." You cannot rent a car without a driver's license.
Epstein went to Prague this month to interview Czech officials who want to cooperate with the U.S. to get to the bottom of the Atta-Iraqi story but have been stiffed by the F.B.I., whose bureaucracy is sensitive to charges of failed surveillance. Read his detailed Slate report and subsequent commentary on edwardjayepstein.com.
Since July, al-Ani has been in U.S. Department of Justice custody and I wonder how effectively he is being interrogated. Have we learned the whereabouts of his Prague and Baghdad aides and secretaries, and taken their testimony? Have we asked M.I.5 to let us speak to Jabir Salim, his Prague station-chief predecessor, who defected to Britain and may know which employees and which banks could transfer $100,000 to an account accessible to Atta?
Did al-Ani order any payment to "the student from Hamburg" or his co-conspirators, as Czech intelligence believes, and did the paymaster carry out the order? To what superior in Baghdad did al-Ani report, and who worked most closely with him, and are they in custody and do their stories jibe? What have we offered al-Ani, in protection or immunity or plea bargain, to turn state's evidence?
F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller is duty-bound to examine the full transcript of the interrogation to see how seriously this is being pursued; same with Senate Intelligence. I'd also assign new agents to follow up leads in Prague.
Intrepid journalists will ultimately bring the full story of the Saddam-bin Laden connection to light. In the meantime, the F.B.I. should stop treating 9/11 as a cold case.