http://www.nationalreview.com/mccarthy/mccarthy200406010821.asp June 01, 2004, 8:21 a.m. Iraq & Militant Islam Saddams al Qaeda links were a worthy rationale for toppling his regime. We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." President George W. Bush, September 20, 2001 Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime indisputably harbored terrorists and supported terrorism. Under the Bush Doctrine that won resounding bipartisan assent in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and that remains as worthy today as it was back then, that should have been more than enough to justify deposing Saddam, even if there had not been ample evidence of and decisive consensus about his intentions and wherewithal regarding weapons of mass destruction. DROPPED LINK: PIGHEADED SILENCE Yet, although there should be few, if any, matters more important to national security than boring into the linkage between Iraq and militant Islamic terror, the very idea of linkage has been discredited. Thanks to a withering campaign waged by ideological opponents of U.S. military operations against Iraq led by the mainstream media, partisans such as former Clinton counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, and disgruntled factions of the so-called intelligence community whose anonymous carping to sympathetic journalists has now reached a fever pitch conventional wisdom now holds that secular Saddam could not conceivably have collaborated with Osama bin Laden's jihadist network. It is, however, pigheaded blindness masquerading as wisdom. There are abundant strands of connection. It is, moreover, breathtakingly irresponsible for the press generally, and for an intelligence community purportedly dedicated to securing America from further attacks, to be ignoring or dismissing countless salient questions, rather than moving heaven and earth to answer them. There is good reason to think we have convicted several terrorists in this country on less proof than already exists regarding Saddam's Iraq. What's more, these linkage questions are not going away. That is largely because some praiseworthy journalism is not going to let them. Most significant is the assiduous detective work of The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, who has been investigating and writing about the links for months. Hayes's new book, The Connection, is being released today. It comprehensively lays out a mosaic of operational ties, and questions that Americans, far from brushing aside, should be demanding answers to. Further, the Wall Street Journal is on the case with vital new information, as are other investigative journalists such as Edward Jay Epstein. The issues they are raising may ultimately shape the legacy of the Iraq war, illustrating, in a way the Bush administration has abysmally failed to, that overthrowing Saddam's regime was a logical and worthy progression in the war against militant Islam. THE ATTA CONNECTION Of the utmost urgency are indications, continuing to emerge, that Iraq forged operational ties with al Qaeda, sought to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States, and may in fact have had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. The focus of this evidence is the Iraqi Intelligence Service and its apparent ties with not one but at least three leaders of the suicide hijacking plot: Mohammed Atta, Khalid al-Midhar, and Nawaf al-Hazmi. The Atta connection has been downplayed for months by the mainstream media, which has used a simple tactic, found on page one of the defense-lawyer playbook, that has repeatedly served the Iraq/Qaeda naysayers: viz., cull from an entire subject of investigation one isolated piece of equivocal evidence, suggest that this piece is representative of the entire subject, and thus debunk the subject just because the piece is not a 100-percent lock. Of course, if this facile method of determining truth were followed in law enforcement or intelligence circles, most crime would never be solved and most threats would never be identified. Happily, that is not the case, but the approach, regrettably, plays effectively in the bumper-sticker-talking-points worlds of television news and ideology-driven "reporting." In the instant case, the subject is whether Mohammed Atta had terrorist ties to the Iraqi regime, and the isolated piece of evidence concerns the narrow question whether Atta actually had a meeting in Prague on April 8, 2001 (i.e., a mere seven months before the 9/11 attacks), with an Iraqi intelligence officer named Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. As recently as last week, Newsweek in its gleeful piece about Ahmed Chalabi's seeming fall from grace (presented, naturally, as a straight news story) summarily pronounced that although Chalabi had "hyped a story, often cited by the neocons, about" the secret Prague meeting, "[a]fter months of investigation, the CIA and FBI determined that the meeting had never taken place." Not so fast. First of all, much as Newsweek would clearly like it to be the case, Chalabi is not remotely the source of information about Atta's alarming activities in Prague. More to the point, the CIA and FBI have not concluded that the meeting did not take place. Far from it. Indeed, the most that can be said is that (a) they are unable to say with certainty that the meeting happened, and (b) because they have some hotel and banking records showing that Atta was in the U.S. during parts of April 2001, but have unearthed no records showing Atta traveled overseas during that time frame, some investigators infer that the meeting probably did not happen. In point of fact, however, there is a powerful circumstantial case which has grown only stronger that the meeting not only did happen but must have involved anti-American terrorism. Further, the agencies cannot account for Atta's whereabouts day-by-day. Not only would they have to be able to do this to disprove the meeting, but the holes in their reconstruction of Atta's movements actually bolster the likelihood that he journeyed to Prague at the critical time. Substantial credit for our knowledge of all this must go to Edward Jay Epstein, who has closely followed the investigation since its inception. A little background. The skepticism about the Prague meeting owes to some misunderstandings and some energetic efforts to cast doubt on it. The commonly accepted version of events is this: a witness on the outskirts of Prague happened to see al-Ani, the Iraqi agent, meeting with a young Arabic-looking male on April 8, 2001; the thin reed for claiming this Arabic male and Atta are one and the same is this witness, whose identification, made only after Atta's picture became a staple of sensational news coverage after 9/11, is thus highly suspect; the Czechs, so the story goes, came ultimately to doubt the veracity of the identification; the witness recanted it; and finally, according to James Risen of the New York Times (which, of course, is obsessively opposed to American military action in Iraq), Czech President Vaclav Havel called President Bush to inform the U.S. that, on further consideration, the meeting had not happened. But there is far more to the story, the Czechs have not walked away from the identification, the witness has not recanted, and Havel's spokesman has expressly stated that the Times reporting was "a fabrication." (See Epstein's report here.) To begin with, by April 2001, the Czechs had profound reason to be worried about al-Ani and any Arabs he might meet with (more on that momentarily). The Czech Republic, though, does not have the vast resources of the U.S. government; it is not as feasible for the Czechs to commit the numerous police it would take to do round-the-clock surveillance on most investigative subjects. Thus, they take the more economical step of employing "watchers" civilians stationed at obvious places like restaurants and hotels who make observations and report them to government handlers. It was one of these watchers who observed al-Ani's meeting with the young Arabic male on April 8, 2001. Experts and defense counsel will tell you that eyewitness-identification evidence is notoriously suspect. And they have a point if we are talking about, say, a lay witness who has the misfortune of being at a bank when it is robbed and gets a fleeting glimpse of the robber he is then asked to identify weeks or months later. As any experienced investigator will counter, however, there is a vast difference between the reliability of an untrained layperson in such circumstances and that of an agent or covert operative whose very job is to make and retain observations. In this instance, the "watcher" is far more analogous to a government agent than an untrained lay person, and thus the identification would be entitled to far more weight even if there weren't abundant other reasons to believe the Arabic male was Atta. But there are. As Epstein has recently reported, Czech intelligence ultimately conducted a surreptitious search at the Iraqi embassy that turned up al-Ani's appointment calendar. It indicated that the person he had a scheduled meeting with on that day was a "Hamburg student." As is by now well known, Atta led al Qaeda's Hamburg cell in Germany, and he was for a time enrolled as a student at Hamburg-Harburg Technical University. Significantly, moreover, it turns out that Atta had prior contacts with the Czech Republic, and had in 2000 right as he was about to head to the U.S. to execute the 9/11 plot obtained a Czech visa, on the application for which he identified himself as a "Hamburg student." Furthermore, the U.S. cannot account for Atta's whereabouts on April 8, 2001. What is known, Epstein reports, is that on April 4, 2001, Atta checked out of the Diplomat Inn in Virginia Beach. He was not seen again by any American witness for a week. In addition, whatever he was doing at that point like, say, traveling overseas must have required funding because, on April 4, he cashed a check for $8,000 from a SunTrust account, according to the FBI. Access to cash, of course, would make travel expenditures less traceable. On that score, contrary to what one would glean from the Newsweek and Times accounts, Epstein reports that as recently as February 24, 2004, CIA Director George Tenet acknowledged in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the CIA had not discounted the Prague meeting. That concession echoes Tenet's testimony on June 18, 2002, during which, regarding the Prague meeting, he stated that it was "possible that Atta traveled under an unknown alias since we have been unable to establish that Atta left the US or entered Europe in April 2001 under his true name or any known aliases." In the interim, as Epstein notes, we now know not only of the "Hamburg student" entry in al-Ani's calendar but also of the investigation by Spanish intelligence, which determined that both Atta and Ramzi bin al-Shibh (his al Qaeda Hamburg-cell associate) acquired false passports from a pair of Algerians named Khaled Madani and Moussa Laoua. And, it must be observed, nothing says these were the cell's only sources for phony travel documents. Remember now: We are talking about national security, which involves protecting American lives; we are not talking about building a criminal indictment so to bring the dear departed Saddam regime and Atta to court. Even if there were absolutely no other evidence of the Prague meeting than the Czech eyewitness identification corroborated by the appointment calendar, the inability to account for Atta's whereabouts on April 8, and the means he appears to have had to travel, that would be reason enough, for national-security purposes, to assume an Iraqi tie to Atta. This is a critical point, crossing into the worldview of counterterrorism Clinton-style i.e., the so-called "law enforcement approach" to terrorism that Senator Kerry has suggested he would revive if he were elected, and that, maddeningly, remains the sclerotic mindset in swaths of our intelligence community.