THE BLOG
04/08/2008 10:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Douglas Feith and William Safire Transformed an Elvis Sighting Into a Case for War

By 9/12 Mohammed Atta's face and story had been broadcast across the globe. The Egyptian-born al Qaeda hijacker had lived in Hamburg for three years prior to June 2, 2000, when he took a bus to Prague and then boarded a plane the next day for Newark, New Jersey. During the 15 months that followed, Atta traveled along circuitous routes within and outside of the United States, until the September morning when he flew a 767 into One World Trade Center.

Soon thereafter, Czech intelligence heard from a paid informant, a local resident of Middle Eastern descent, who claimed that he recognized Atta's face on TV. The informant said he observed Atta talking with an Iraqi diplomat and suspected spy, Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani, earlier that year in Prague.

To this day, there is no other evidence suggesting that Atta was in Prague during 2001. (The fact that some Czech intelligence officers still believe the informant's story is not evidence.) But right away, unnamed sources began piling on that single source's uncorroborated remembrance. In days following our 9/11 trauma, these differing reports contributed to an overall sense of unease. Today, those other stories -- each with a different twist on the details -- sound as phony as an Elvis sighting.

Those stories represented a key part of Douglas Feith's fraudulent case for war. Before Feith gave his notorious briefing to the White House -- the contents of which he concealed from the intelligence community -- his friends in the media conducted a massive disinformation campaign to promote the imagined Prague sighting. Ground zero for the campaign was the op-ed page of The New York Times, under William Safire's byline. In each of his seven columns below, Safire asserted that an uncorroborated allegation was solid fact, and he smeared those who suggested otherwise. Here's an accounting of the journalistic counterpart to Douglas Feith.

A Foundation of Suspicious and Contradictory Stories

Laying the groundwork for Safire's first column, published on October 22, 2001, were a series of allegations from unnamed or dubious sources, which tended to contradict one another. But in the first weeks following 9/11, no one was scrutinizing the allegations carefully.

September 20, 2001
Bush Grapples With Iraq's Possible Ties to Attacks, The Wall Street Journal

"U.S. officials say they are still examining a report that Mohamed Atta, a suspected hijacker on the airliner that struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, met with an Iraqi intelligence agent, evidently in Prague."

September 23, 2001
Army alert by Saddam points to Iraqi role, The Sunday Telegraph

"Since the attacks, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that the Iraqi leader had been providing al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, with funding, logistical back-up and advanced weapons training. His operations reached a "frantic pace" in the past few months, according to Western intelligence officials...The CIA also claims to have proof that bin Laden aides were in contact with Iraqi intelligence in the days before the New York outrage."

September 26, 2001
A Broader Campaign: Saddam Was Involved, The Wall Street Journal

"One of the terrorist hijackers, Mohamed Atta, met Iraqi agents in Prague in June 2000, according to Iraqi opposition sources who reported the meeting to U.S. authorities...Were U.S authorities unaware of the connection between bin Laden and the Iraqi regime? Not at all. News of such cooperation surfaced in U.S. circles very soon after the secret rendezvous based on information provided by dissident groups and informants. The meeting has since been reported on...But as former CIA chief James Woolsey says 'whether perpetrated by bin Laden and his associates or by others, [the attacks] were sponsored, supported, and perhaps even ordered by Saddam Hussein.'"

October 5, 2001
Iraq 'Helped Atta'; Fight for freedom; Terror in America, The Sun

"SUICIDE hijacker Mohammed Atta was handed fake passports by Iraqi intelligence agents, the CIA believes...A Czech official said: "This is not an isolated occasion where Iraqi intelligence agents were seen to be meeting with people in Prague. It is not disputed that Atta met an Iraqi agent on this occasion or perhaps on previous occasions. Atta was tailed by Czech agents at Prague airport. It is believed Iraq may have prepared bogus passports for all 19 hijackers."

October 8, 2001
INC CLAIMS SADDAM LINKED TO BIN LADEN NETWORK, Radio Free Europe

"The Iraq National Congress (INC) has linked Osama bin Laden's network with Iraq, according to a release by the INC. In December 1998 Faruq Hijazi, a senior Iraqi intelligence official, traveled to Kandahar tomeet bin Laden personally. He was accompanied by a group of Iraqi intelligence officers."

October 12, 2001
Czech leader denies Atta meetings in Prague, Reuters News

"Atta spent a day in the Czech Republic in transit at Prague's Ruzyne airport, but neither before nor after was he in the Czech Republic," Zeman told a joint press conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. "There's no reason to assume that his stay had any connection with the attacks on September 11."


October 12, 2001
Former CIA director exploring ties to Hussein, Knight Ridder News Service

"Senior Pentagon officials who want to expand the war against terrorism to Iraq authorized a trip to Great Britain last month by former CIA Director James Woolsey in search of evidence that Saddam Hussein played a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials said...The one-time CIA chief acted with the blessing of senior Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, said current and former U.S. officials."


October 14, 2001
US hawks accuse Iraq over anthrax - Five more test positive in Florida, The Observer

"AMERICAN investigators probing anthrax outbreaks in Florida and New York believe they have all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack - and have named Iraq as prime suspect as the source of the deadly spores...Last autumn Mohamed Atta is said by US intelligence officials to have met in Prague an agent from Iraqi intelligence."


October 16, 2001 Egyptians say anthrax spores gained by terrorist in Prague, CTK (Ceska Tiskova Kancelar).

LONDON, Oct 16 (CTK) - "The Egyptian government believes that one of the September 11 suicide terrorists, Muhammad Atta, received deadly spores of anthrax from an Iraqi diplomat when they met in Prague, the British daily The Guardian writes today."

Needless to say, all of those unsubstantiated allegations from unnamed sources turned up nothing.

Safire's Columns Set Up the Premise Feith's Notorious Slide Presentation

In his seven columns touting purported Atta sighting as a verifiable fact, Safire unleashed his vitriol on skeptics.
1. October 22, 2001

"What about a connection between Osama bin Laden and Iraq's Saddam Hussein? Because the Scowcroft set at the National Security Council is still in denial about its blunder a decade ago that permitted Saddam to stay in power, the C.I.A. professes to see no collaboration in Baghdad....

"[Consider] what is known... this summer's observed contacts of Al Qaeda's suicide-hijacker Mohammed Atta with Iraqi spies under diplomatic cover in Prague.

"...it is absurd to claim -- in the face of what we already know -- that Iraq is not an active collaborator with, harborer of, and source of sophisticated training and unconventional weaponry for bin Laden's world terror network."


2. November 12, 2001

"The undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks is this: Mohamed Atta...flew from Florida to Prague to meet on April 8 of this year with Ahmed al-Ani, the Iraqi consul."


3. March 18, 2002

"Soviet propagandists used to touch up photographs to remove the face of a Kremlin official who had fallen from favor, making him a ''nonperson.''

"The same disinformation technique is now being used to wipe out the fact of a meeting in Prague in April, 2001..."


4. May 9, 2002

"A misdirection is in play in the CIA's all-out attempt to discredit an account of a suspicious meeting in Prague a year ago..."

"If the report proves accurate, a connection would exist between al-Qaida's murder of 3,000 Americans and Iraq's Saddam. That would clearly be a casus belli, calling for our immediate military response, separate from the need to stop a demonstrated mass killer from acquiring nuclear and germ weapons. Accordingly, high CIA and Justice officials -- worried about exposure of the agency's inability to conduct covert operations -- desperately want Atta's Saddam connection to be disbelieved."

5. August 22, 2002

"The C.I.A. has even stopped discrediting reports from Czech intelligence about a different point of Qaeda-Saddam contact: the meeting between the Sept. 11 hijackers' leader, Mohamed Atta, and a top Saddam spymaster in Prague."

Summer of 2002 - Feith Echoes Safire's Lies to The White House, and Hides His Actions From the CIA

Senator Carl Levin publicly identified Feith's dishonest actions on July 8, 2004.

In the summer of 2002, Under Secretary Feith prepared several versions of a classified
briefing on the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship. The briefing was given first to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, then to Director Tenet and the CIA in August, and finally to the staffs of the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the National Security Council (NSC) in September. The version of the briefing given to Vice President Cheney's staff included several slides that were not included in the version given to the CIA.

"One of those slides, which has since been declassified at my request and is attached, was
critical of the way the Intelligence Community was assessing the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship. Under Secretary Feith has acknowledged to Armed Services Committee staff that he added two other two slides which concerned the Atta meeting issue, and which were not part of the briefing given to the CIA."

One slide in Feith's presentation addresses "Fundamental Problems with How Intelligence Community is Assessing Information." Since Iraq and Al Qaida have a motive to hide their relationship, contends Feith, "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." It's a pithy little aphorism that only makes sense if you are a paranoid crackpot.


Perpetuating the Fraud Post-Invasion

After Bush declared, "Mission Accomplished," the news media began to notice that the case for war was a sham, Safire and other neocon acolytes began resuscitating the bogus story about the Atta meeting in Prague. Safire also made a point of defending Feith.

6. November 24, 2003

"Two blockbuster magazine articles last week revealed evidence that Saddam's spy agency and top Qaeda operatives certainly were in frequent contact for a decade, and that there is renewed reason to suspect an Iraqi spymaster in Prague may have helped finance the 9/11 attacks.
"Deniers derogate as ''cherry picking' Feith's intelligence summary available to senators: ''The Czech counterintelligence service reported that the Sept. 11 hijacker [Mohamed] Atta met with the former Iraqi intelligence chief in Prague, al Ani, on several occasions.'"

7. June 21, 2004

"'Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie'' went the Times headline.''Al Qaeda-Hussein Link Is Dismissed' front-paged The Washington Post. The A.P. led with the thrilling words "Bluntly contradicting the Bush Administration, the commission. . . .' This understandably caused my editorial-page colleagues to draw the conclusion that ''there was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. . . .''
"All wrong. The basis for the hoo-ha was not a judgment of the panel of commissioners appointed to investigate the 9/11 attacks...
"What can the commission do now to regain its nonpartisan credibility?

Like Feith, Safire kept shifting around facts and pronouns like some elaborate three card monte in order to give the illusion that "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." But at the end of the day, Safire and Feith seemed to have "proof" of only one thing, that pathological fabricators are relentless.