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Powell Pushed Prague Connection Before Cheney Did

Powell Pushed Prague Connection Before Cheney Did


By Dennis Hans

Although Vice President Dick Cheney is the Bush administration official most often criticized for suggesting that Saddam Hussein may have played a part in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell was the first senior U.S. official to (falsely) confirm that an Iraqi intelligence agent met 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta in Prague a mere five months before the attacks.

Yes, on Dec. 9, 2001 Cheney told Meet the Press host Tim Russert that the meeting was “pretty well confirmed.” But a week earlier Powell told virtually the same tale to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. The only difference is that Powell confirmed at least two meetings. “Certainly, these meetings took place,” he said.

That will come as news to Powell’s devoted former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, who is very protective of his former boss and President George W. Bush, and highly critical of what he calls the “Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal” that supposedly is to blame for most of the foreign-policy bad stuff that has transpired the past several years.

Wilkerson, a Republican, testified at the “Oversight Hearing on Pre-War Intelligence Relating to Iraq,” ( http://democrats.senate.gov/dpc/dpc-hearing.cfm?A=33) held June 26 by the Senate Democratic Policy Group, whose chairman is Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. (Although the questioners were less than impressive, I do recommend the testimony of Joseph Cirincione and Paul Pillar.) In his prepared statement, Wilkerson chronicled the several days he spent at CIA headquarters helping to put together the presentation Powell would soon (Feb. 5, 2003) make at the United Nations, and how Powell repeatedly overruled Stephen Hadley and others who wanted him to include the Atta meeting in Prague in the section on Saddam’s terror links:

“In the rehearsal and discussion sessions at Langley, the give and take was mostly the Secretary of State trying to eliminate unubstantiated and/or unhelpful material and others from the White House trying to keep that material in, or add more. One such incident occurred several times and the final time it occurred provided an example of the Secretary's growing frustration. Repeatedly, the OVP [Office of the Vice President] or NSC staff personnel tried to insert into the presentation the alleged meeting in Prague between al-Qaeda operative and 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and Iraqi intelligence personnel. Repeatedly, Secretary Powell eliminated it based on the DCI's [Tenet’s] refusal to corroborate it. Finally, at one of the last Langley rehearsals, Secretary Powell was stopped in mid-presentation by deputy national security advisor Steve Hadley and asked what had happened to the paragraph describing the meeting in Prague. Secretary Powell fixed Hadley with a firm stare and said with some pique, ‘We took it out, Steve — and it's staying out.’"

(For PDF versions of the prepared statements of Wilkerson and the other witnesses, as well as a transcript of the hearing itself, click here: http://democrats.senate.gov/dpc/dpc-hearing.cfm?A=33.)

Well, better late than never. Of course, if Powell had been the tower of integrity of Wilkerson’s imagination, he would have given the U.N. and the world-wide audience the unvarnished truth about that “meeting.” He would have said that, as far as the Bush administration knew, (1) there was no such meeting, (2) there had never been any confirmed evidence of such a meeting, and (3) he deeply regretted the role that he and other senior officials played in planting a false impression in the minds of so many.

That implanting by Powell and others helped to build and sustain public support for an invasion of Iraq and the ensuing occupation. An October 2002 poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that (as paraphrased by the Reuters newswire) “66 percent believed [Saddam] was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.” ( http://www.democraticunderground.com/articles/02/10/19_grifter.html) A Washington Post poll conducted ten months later (August 2003) found that 69 percent of Americans thought that Saddam was “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to have been “personally involved” in the 9/11 attacks ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A32862-2003Sep5?language=printer).

We’ve often seen replays of Cheney’s Dec. 9, 2001 statement on NBC: “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.” ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/polls/9-11_saddam_quotes.html) http://www.whitehouse.gov/vicepresident/news-speeches/speeches/vp20011209.html

Often, the replay excludes the cautionary words Cheney spoke immediatedly after the quoted passage: “Now, what the purpose of that was, what transpired between them, we simply don't know at this point. But that's clearly an avenue that we want to pursue.”

That was the first time Cheney publicly presented the Prague meeting as a “pretty well confirmed” fact. Beating him to the punch by seven days was Powell, who went Cheney one better by confirming “meetings” — that is, two or more — between Atta and a Prague-based Iraqi agent.

Here’s Powell’s exchange with Wolf Blitzer

( http://www.state.gov/secretary/former/powell/remarks/2001/dec/6613.htm)on CNN’s “Late Edition,” Dec. 2, 2001:

QUESTION: As you know, some former government officials and perhaps some within the government are saying there are some strong signs that the Iraqis were connected to the September 11 terrorist attack, specifically the meetings in Prague between Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader, and Iraqi intelligence, an Iraqi intelligence agent.

As far as you're concerned, was there a connection there?

SECRETARY POWELL: Certainly, these meetings took place. But there has not yet been a body of evidence come forward that suggests we can make the kind of connection that is suggested, that it had something to do with September 11. But we have not stopped trying to find any connection that might exist between any country and what happened on September 11.

QUESTION: So you are still open-minded on that?

SECRETARY POWELL: Absolutely. [end of transcript excerpt]

Why, it’s almost as if Cheney had borrowed Powell’s talking points to prep for his own interview on NBC one week hence — taking care, of course, to cut the number of “confirmed” meetings to one so he wouldn’t seem as outlandish as the secretary of state.

Powell’s professed certainty about these “meetings,” even with the qualification, a la Cheney, that he didn’t know what was discussed, must have been music to the ears of the invade-Iraq crowd inside and outside the administration. Like the earlier and equally bogus “confirmation” by Czech officials ( http://www.democraticunderground.com/articles/04/06/24_times.html),who wisely kept from journalists the evidence that supposedly justified their confirmation claim, Powell provided the war hawks ample justification to presume that, at a minimum, there was a good chance Iraqi intelligence — and thus Saddam — knew about the upcoming 9/11 attacks and may even have been al Qaeda’s partner-in-crime.

If you were a right-wing kook like William Safire, Fred Barnes or Scooter Libby, or a grassy-knoll neocon like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, James Woolsey (Clinton’s first CIA director — thanks, Bill), Frank Gaffney, Ken “Cakewalk” Adelman or Richard Perle, and you heard Powell — who you regard as a spineless moderate and far-too-reluctant warrior — say that Atta definitely met with an Iraqi intelligence officer at least twice, wouldn’t you take that to the bank? Wouldn’t you also consider it reasonable to presume that Atta at least apprised the Iraqi of al Qaeda’s plans? I would.

Here are a few questions for Powell:

What was the nature of the supposed proof that led you to describe the “meetings” as established facts? Given that the evidence you had or were shown or were told about did not constitute proof, why did you pretend otherwise? On how many occasions in the weeks and months after your appearance on CNN did you learn additional details about the weakness of the evidence? At any point prior to your U.N. presentation did you become convinced that the meeting or meetings never took place? When it first became clear that your Dec. 2001 certitude was wildly inappropriate, why didn’t you promptly and publicly correct the record, so that misled Americans would know that there was no proof of even a single meeting, and that the “evidence” was weak and getting weaker?

One hates to disillusion Wilkerson, but it appears that even as late as February 2003 his hero was perfectly content to allow the Bush team — for which he was the star player — to continue to benefit from the misguided belief of many Americans that there was indeed a meeting (or meetings) in Prague, so long as Powell no longer had to peddle that particular tale himself.

*************

Bio: Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq war he published the prescient essays “Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His ‘Techniques of Deceit’ ( http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/print.html?path=HL0302/S00061.htm), “The Disinformation Age” ( http://democraticunderground.com/articles/03/03/04_age.html), and “An Open Letter to the U.N. About Colin Powell” ( http://commondreams.org/views03/0204-07.htm). Read more of his work at dennishans.blogspot.com; contact him at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.

©2006 by Dennis Hans

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