NYT: Iraqi agent denies ever meeting Muhammad Atta

It's incredible this story has been kept around for so long considering the lack of evidence, but it seems that there is a new nail in the coffin of the alleged Iraqi intelligence-Muhammad Atta Prague meeting. The New York Times' excellent intelligence correspondent, James Risen, reported today that the Iraqi agent who was supposed to have been at the meeting, Ahmed Khalil Al Ani (under US custody since July) has told his American interrogators that the meeting never happened, as had Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubayda beforehand. This also confirms the analysis given from the beginning by the CIA and the FBI, which was at odds with what other members of the intelligence community wanted to believe.

That put the intelligence agencies at odds with hard-liners at the Pentagon and the White House, who came to believe that C.I.A. analysts had ignored evidence that proved links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Eventually, the Prague meeting became a central element in a battle between the C.I.A. and the administration's hawks over prewar intelligence.

Since American forces toppled the Hussein government and the United States gained access to captured Iraqi officials and Iraqi files, the C.I.A. has not yet uncovered evidence that has altered its prewar assessment concerning the connections between Mr. Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, officials said.

American intelligence officials say they believe there were contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the 1990's, but there is no proof that they ever conducted joint operations.

Senior operatives of Al Qaeda who have been captured by the United States since Sept. 11 have also denied any alliance between the organization and Mr. Hussein.


It's good that the NYT is giving this story its due. I remember buying a copy of the Times in May 2002 and being dismayed that a CIA denial that a meeting ever took place was buried in a 100-word article on page 14. The story reporting the administration's allegation of Saddam-Osama ties, and the Prague meeting, must have been front page news -- but they buried the denial.

This new evidence will no doubt be ignored by those who continue to want to link Saddam's Iraq with Al Qaeda, as the Weekly Standard did recently with "Case Closed", a story essentially peddling a Douglas Feith memo that contained no new information. But that was quickly debunked here and here.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.