July 18th, 2005

End Anonymous Evidence

Congressman Robin Hayes (R-NC)Last month Rep. Robin Hayes, vicechair of the House subcommittee on terrorism, declared that Saddam Hussein was “very much involved in 9/11.” Hayes claimed that he has access to evidence few others do. Told no investigation has ever implicated Baghdad in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the congressman responded, “I’m sorry, but you must have looked in the wrong places.”

Let’s take another look. Shortly after 9/11, a U.S. official leaked to the Associated Press that “the United States has received information from a foreign intelligence service that Mohamed Atta,” the ringleader of the 9/11 gang, “met earlier this year in Europe with an Iraqi intelligence agent.” As the story unfolded over the next month, the world learned that in early April 2001, Atta had allegedly rendezvoused with Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, a vice consul in Iraq’s embassy in Prague but actually a spymaster. The meeting would have been Atta’s second time in the Czech capital in less than a year, having passed through the city’s airport en route from Germany to New Jersey in June 2000, and was the sole evidence tying Saddam to 9/11.

On one hand, the Czech domestic intelligence service, who by virtue of proximity had the best data, held that the rendezvous happened. It was certainly plausible, since before communist Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, Iraq had been a major buyer of Czechoslovak arms. Additionally, according to Richard Perle, then the chair of the Defense Policy Board, an influential advisory group to the Pentagon, operations like 9/11 “are not planned in caves; they’re planned in offices by people who have secretaries and support staffs and research and communications and technology.” Finally, as James Woolsey, who visited England to investigate the case on behalf of the Justice Department, contends, even with all the ambiguity, the evidence was “about as clear as these things get.”

On the other hand, counters Daniel Benjamin, the director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 1998-1999, it is “very difficult to hide serious ties” between a regime and a terrorist client. For in collaborating, “they negotiate over targets, finances, materiel, and tactics.” Similarly, the apparatuses of bureaucracy—including employees who will swap secrets for cash—afford ample opportunity for spying on governments. This is why state sponsors, like Libya vis-à-vis the 1998 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, and Iran vis-à-vis the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers, have historically left ample trails.

And yet the only Iraqi trail pertaining to 9/11 was one meeting in Prague, during a month for which neither the F.B.I. nor C.I.A. could uncover any visa, airline or financial records showing that Mohamed Atta had left or reentered the U.S. (Their research placed him in Florida two days before the meeting.) Second, all the evidence rested on the uncorroborated allegation of a single informant, who could produce neither any audio nor visual recordings. Third, no one could verify what Atta and Ani had discussed—for instance, whether Atta requested help or updated Ani on his progress. Accordingly, as Cheney told Tim Russert in September 2003. “[W]e’ve never been able to . . . confirm[] [the meeting] or discredit[] it. We just don’t know.”

Of course, circumstantiality is not a basis—or even a partial basis, really—for taking a country to war. After all, the burden of proof always falls on he who asserts a positive. In the 16 months between 9/11 and the Iraq war, despite considerable efforts, hawks failed to meet this burden. Consequently, neither of the administration’s two most publicized arguments for the war—the State of the Union address (1/28/03) and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the U.N. Security Council (2/5/03)—even mentioned Prague. And lest we misconstrue the subtext, on January 31—seven weeks before the war began—Newsweek asked the President specifically about a 9/11 connection to Iraq, to which Bush replied, “I cannot make that claim.” Eight months later, in September 2003, Bush repeated, “We’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th.”

Moreover, in July 2003, U.S. troops arrested Ani in Iraq. The Iraqi denied ever meeting Atta, a denial that officials found credible. Also in July, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence declassified the much-delayed report of their Joint Inquiry into 9/11. Tellingly, nowhere in 858 pages does the report mention Iraq’s purported involvement in our day of infamy. Finally, a year later, the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that “[t]he available evidence does not support the original Czech report of an Atta-Ani meeting.” The report added that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh both denied that any Atta-Ani meeting occurred.

Still, Rep. Hayes persists. The “evidence is clear,” he told CNN. In fact, it is illusory. And at a time when the American people increasingly mistrust journalists for their reliance on anonymous sources, isn’t it time we turn the same scrutiny to politicians who rely on anonymous evidence?

Unpublished Notes

In a 10,500-word article in a recent issue of the Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn charge those who dismiss the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship as having “an acute case of denial”: “We know from these IIS documents that beginning in 1992 the former Iraqi regime regarded bin Laden as an Iraqi Intelligence asset. We know from IIS documents that the former Iraqi regime provided safe haven and financial support to an Iraqi who has admitted to mixing the chemicals for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. We know from IIS documents that Saddam Hussein agreed to Osama bin Laden’s request to broadcast anti-Saudi propaganda on Iraqi state-run television. We know from IIS documents that a “trusted confidante” of bin Laden stayed for more than two weeks at a posh Baghdad hotel as the guest of the Iraqi Intelligence Service.”

But ex post facto evidence cannot be a casus belli.

“[T]he Free World is not interested in epistemological debates over what constitutes a connection. We are not engaged in a court case, or a classroom debate. We are fighting a war.” [1]

[1] Claudia Rosett, “Saddam and al Qaeda,” Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2005.

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