debunking Atta Prague meeting
Bush administration relied on false report to build case for invasion; Levin repeats call for full declassification
Thursday, December 11, 2014
WASHINGTON – Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, today plans to introduce into the Congressional Record important new information about how Bush administration officials misled the nation in advance of the Iraq War, and called on CIA Director John Brennan to fully declassify an important 2003 CIA cable.
Levin will introduce a letter he received from CIA Director John Brennan, declassifying for the first time some details of a March 2003 CIA cable warning the Bush administration against references to the allegation that Mohammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, had met before the attacks in Prague, Czech Republic, with an Iraqi intelligence officer. He also introduced a translated excerpt from a book by the former head of Czech counterintelligence, describing U.S. pressure to confirm that the meeting took place. In fact, no such meeting occurred. And he called on Brennan to fully declassify the CIA cable.
Following is Levin’s Senate floor speech on the matter, as prepared for delivery:
Mr. President, I want to speak for a few moments about one of the most significant events in my 36 years as United States Senator, the war in Iraq. I want to speak about important historical records crucial to our understanding of why we went to war against Iraq in 2003. I want to enter into the public record recent revelations not yet made public. And I make one more public call for a key document to be made fully public.
I will begin by renewing a request to the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan. It is a request I have also made to his predecessors: I ask Director Brennan to declassify fully a March 13, 2003 CIA cable debunking the contention that 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official named Ahmad al-Ani.
Earlier this year, Director Brennan wrote to me, refusing, as did his predecessors, to fully declassify the CIA cable. But in his letter to me he makes public for the first time a few lines from that document. While this is a significant addition to the public record, and I will discuss that in a moment, it is still not the full cable, and I am calling on him to declassify and release the full cable.
Now, in order to understand why I am making that request, we need to return to early 2003.
On March 6, 2003, just two weeks before U.S. troops would cross the Iraqi border, President Bush held a prime-time televised press conference. In that press conference he mentioned the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks eight times, often in the same breath as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. There was a concerted campaign on the part of the Bush administration to connect Iraq in the public mind with the horror of the Sept. 11 attacks. That campaign succeeded. According to public polls in the week before the Iraq war, half or more of Americans believed Saddam was directly involved in the attacks. One poll taken in September 2003, six months after we invaded Iraq, found that nearly 70 percent of Americans believed it likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Americans who believed in a link between Iraq and 9/11 overwhelmingly supported the idea of invading Iraq. Of course, connections between Saddam and 9/11 or al Qaeda were fiction.
America’s intelligence community was pressed to participate in the administration’s media campaign. Just a week after the President’s prime-time press conference, on March 13, 2003, CIA field staff sent a cable to CIA headquarters, responding to a request for information about a report that Mohammad Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackings, had met in 2001 with an Iraqi intelligence official in the Czech capital of Prague. In stark terms, this CIA cable from the field warned against U.S. government officials citing the report of the alleged Prague meeting.
Yet the notion of such a meeting was a centerpiece of the administration’s campaign to create an impression in the public mind that Saddam was in league with the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. On multiple occasions, including national television appearances, Vice President Dick Cheney cited reports of the meeting, at one point calling it “pretty well confirmed.” Officials from Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, who set up a sort of rogue intelligence analysis operation, briefed senior officials with a presentation citing the Prague meeting as a “known contact” between Iraq and al Qaida.
Now, why am I bringing up a CIA cable from more than a decade ago? Isn’t this old, well-covered terrain? No, it isn’t. This is about giving the American people a full account of the march to war as new information becomes available. It is about trying to hold leaders who misled the public accountable. It is about warning future leaders of this nation that they must not commit our sons and daughters to battle on the basis of false statements.
Mr. President, there is no more grave decision for a nation to make than the decision to go to war. And there is no more important issue for every member of Congress than the decision to authorize the use of military force. A decision to authorize force is a decision to unleash the might of our armed forces – the strongest military on the planet. It commits the men and women of our armed forces to fight, and perhaps to die, on the battlefield. The decision to go to war must be careful, considered, and based on the facts.
Such careful consideration was tragically absent in the march to war in Iraq.
Here is what the Vice President said on December 9, 2001, in an interview on “Meet the Press:” “It’s been pretty well confirmed that he [Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April, several months before the attack.”
Far from “pretty well confirmed,” there was almost no evidence that such a meeting took place. Just a single unsubstantiated report, from a single source, and a mountain of information indicating there was no such meeting, including the fact that travel and other records indicated that Atta was almost certainly in the United States at the time of the purported meeting in Prague.
It was highly irresponsible for the Vice President to make that claim. Calling a single, unconfirmed report from a single source “pretty well confirmed,” as he did on Dec. 9, 2001, was a reckless statement to make on such a grave topic as war, in the face of overwhelming doubt that such a meeting occurred.
Yet Vice President Cheney’s reckless statements continued, even as evidence mounted that there was no Prague meeting. In September 2002, he said Atta “did apparently travel to Prague on a number of occasions. And on at least one occasion, we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official.”
The Vice President made those statements in the face of a then-classified June 2002 CIA assessment that said the alleged meeting was “not verified,” called the information about it “contradictory,” and described assessments of Iraqi cooperation with al Qaida terror plots as “speculative.”