U.S. Agencies Doubt Terrorist Atta's Meeting in Prague; Czechs Say September 11 Organizer Contacted Iraqi Spy in April 2001.(NATION)

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Gertz, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

U.S. intelligence officials say they have not seen evidence from the Czech government to confirm reports accepted by the State Department that a key al Qaeda terrorist met with an Iraqi agent in Prague five months before September 11.

The clandestine meeting between Mohamed Atta - identified as the organizer of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center - and Iraqi diplomat Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani was held in April 2001, according to Czech government officials.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies, which before September 11 conducted almost no surveillance of Iraqi intelligence agents, are not backing Prague's claims, which were first disclosed to the State Department in October.

The differences on the meeting have triggered a dispute within the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment over Iraqi government involvement in terrorism and support for al Qaeda.

The Prague newspaper Lidove Noviny, quoting a Czech counterintelligence source, reported June 8 that the Czech security service is "70 percent certain" Atta met the Iraqi intelligence official who was working covertly as a diplomat.

The service based its intelligence on a recruited agent who identified Atta from a photograph after September 11. The agent said he met both Atta and al-Ani in the Iraqi Embassy in Prague but was not 100 percent confident about the identities of the men, the newspaper reported.

Some U.S. intelligence and defense officials cite the meeting as a key sign of Iraqi government support to the al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people.

One U.S. official with access to sensitive intelligence reports said reports linking Iraq's government to the terrorists behind September 11 are compelling.

Those in the U.S. intelligence community who oppose the Bush administration's hard-line policy toward Iraq have sought to dismiss intelligence on the Iraqi connection to September 11.

"There is no evidence of Atta having traveled to Europe during that period," a senior U.S. intelligence official said. …