A former Iraqi intelligence officer who was said to have met with the suspected leader of the Sept. 11 attacks has told US interrogators the meeting never happened, according to US officials familiar with classified intelligence reports on the matter.
Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, the former intelligence officer, was taken into custody by the US in July. Under questioning he has said that he did not meet with Mohamed Atta in Prague in the Czech Republic, according to the officials, who have reviewed classified debriefing reports based on the interrogations.
US officials caution that Ani may have been lying to US interrogators, but the only other person reported to have attended the meeting was Atta, who died in the crash of his hijacked plane into the World Trade Center.
Reports that an Iraqi spy had met with Atta in Prague first circulated soon after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, but they have been in dispute ever since.
Czech government officials initially confirmed the reports, even as the CIA and the FBI said they could not corroborate them. Conservatives both inside and out of the Bush administration, arguing for war with Iraq, pointed to the reports as evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that planned the Sept. 11 attacks.
Possible contacts between Atta and Ani seemed to offer the clearest potential connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda at a time when the Bush administration was arguing that invading Iraq was part of its campaign against terrorism.
But the CIA and FBI eventually concluded that the meeting probably did not take place, and that there was no hard evidence that Saddam's government was involved in the Sept. 11 plot.
That put the intelligence agencies at odds with hard-liners at the Pentagon and the White House, who came to believe that CIA 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 CIA and the administration's hawks over prewar intelligence.
Abu Zubaydah, one of the highest-ranking al-Qaeda leaders in US custody, told the CIA that bin Laden rejected the idea of working with Saddam, a secular leader whom bin Laden considered corrupt and irredeemable, according to a classified intelligence report from September last year obtained by The New York Times.
Al-Qaeda's leadership "viewed the Iraqis, particularly the military and security services, as corrupt, irreligious and hypocritical in that they succumb to Western vices while concurrently remaining at war with the US," the report says, summarizing Zubaydah's statements.