by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
national security analysts looked at the poll data on Americans' perceptions linking the Sept. 11 attacks and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein earlier this month, they were startled.
Two-thirds of the 1,513 respondents queried by the Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press said they believe that "Saddam Hussein helped the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks" on New York and the Pentagon.
The number is slightly higher than the 62 percent who said they support taking military action "to end Saddam Hussein's rule."
"The Pew results indicate that the imputation of an Iraq-9/11 link strongly resonates with a majority of Americans," noted Lee Feinstein, a senior fellow at the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which co-commissioned the study.
This is despite the fact that, "most analysts inside and outside government have disputed the suggestion of a direct link, and earlier suggestions by administration officials asserting such a link have been muted," Feinstein said.
Indeed, despite strong pressure from the administration of President George W Bush -- so strong that critics charge that it amounts to an effort to "politicize" intelligence -- U.S. spy agencies appear unanimous that evidence linking Baghdad with the Sept. 11 attacks, or any attacks against western targets since 1993, is simply non-existent.
So, apart from the fact that Saddam Hussein has been systematically demonised in the U.S. media since his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, where does this notion come from?
The only piece of evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and the attacks was an account that first surfaced within nine days of the attacks.
According to early press reports, the leader of the 19 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, met in Prague -- between Apr. 8 and Apr. 11, 2001 -- with an alleged Iraqi spy, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, who was expelled by the Czech authorities shortly afterward.
In October, senior Czech officials, notably Interior Minister Stanislav Gross and later Prime Minister Milos Zeman, confirmed that such a meeting had taken place.
Those confirmations were seized on as pure gold by the hawks in the administration and the neo-conservative opinion-shapers outside it who have played such an important role in mobilizing public support for war against Iraq.
"The undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks is this," wrote New York Times columnist William Safire in November. "Mohammed Atta, who died at the controls of an airliner-missile, flew from Florida to Prague to meet on April 8 of this year with Ahmed Ani, the Iraqi consul."
Although U.S. intelligence officials quietly insisted that they had no evidence of such a meeting, Safire, who has since written half a dozen articles defending the Czech report, and his fellow hawks clearly understood that a link between Sept. 11 and Baghdad would provide the 'cassus belli' (cause for war) against Iraq.
"A Must Meeting for the Attack-Iraq Crowd," noted the headline by Washington Post columnist Robert Novak in May.
Now, however, it appears that no such meeting took place.
Czech officials told western correspondents in Prague last weekend that President Vaclav Havel advised the White House earlier this year to disregard the earlier Czech report because both he and senior intelligence officials considered it unreliable.
The Bush administration has offered no substantive reaction to the repudiation of the Czech report carried on the front page of the 'New York Times' Monday.
The administration has recently insisted that it has evidence of other links between Baghdad and al-Qaeda, but those other supposed connections do not tie Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Nonetheless, even if the allegation of the meeting is now dropped, it appears that it has served its purpose in linking Hussein with Sept. 11 in the public mind.
In the year since the attacks, the alleged Prague meeting was cited more than 530 times in articles that appeared in major U.S. newspapers since the attacks. Perhaps more important, due to the fact most Americans get their world news from television, the story was cited another 230 times on network news and in talk shows over the same period.
The meeting became a staple of the neo-conservative media offensive over the last year.
It has been repeatedly stated as fact on the editorial pages of the 'Wall Street Journal', and in coverage by right-wing magazines, notably 'The Weekly Standard' and 'The National Review.'
Besides Safire, the most outspoken proponents of the link have featured former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief James Woolsey, 'Washington Post' columnists Michael Kelly and James Hoagland, and the head of the Center for Security Policy, Frank Gaffney.
Also in this group is the chairman of the Pentagon's own Defense Policy Board (DPB), Richard Perle, who sent Woolsey to Europe within 10 days of the attacks to seek out evidence, and DPB member Kenneth Adelman.
The failure of the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to confirm the meeting has provoked undisguised contempt from the believers, who from the outset charged that the agencies were inept, lazy or politically disinclined to "connect the dots."
Thus, in May, Woolsey complained that the doubters were talking anonymously. "Why? They have their policy agenda, which is to limit the president's options," he charged.
Asked just two weeks ago in a Cable News Network interview to respond to CIA and FBI insistence that they have never seen corroborating evidence about the Prague link, Perle simply responded, "They're wrong."
Perle, in Prague for a Trilateral Commission meeting last weekend, was informed personally that Czech intelligence no longer believes the Atta meeting took place, according to United Press International.
While Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted from the outset that he had seen no evidence of the Prague meeting, the hawks around Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld actively pushed the theory behind the scenes.
Rumsfeld and Cheney have been more circumspect, at least in public.
Asked by Novak in May whether he believed Atta met with al-Ani in Prague, Rumsfeld replied, "I don't know whether he did or didn't," then changed the subject to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Asked a similar question a month ago, Cheney, reportedly particularly frustrated by the intelligence agencies' failure to prove the link, was positively coy. "Well, I want to be very careful about how I say this. I'm not here today to make a specific allegation that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11. I can't say that," he said.
"We've seen in connection with the hijackers, of course, Mohammed Atta, who was the lead hijacker, 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 a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center," he added.
"The debates about, you know, was he there or wasn't he there, again, it's the intelligence business," Cheney said.
The New York Times account does not make clear when Havel informed the White House of the results of his own investigation into the matter.
October 24 2002 (http://albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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