WASHINGTON -- Seated next to Donald Rumsfeld last Tuesday as he drank coffee at the Pentagon with reporters in the Godfrey Sperling group, I asked the secretary of defense to confirm or deny whether suicide hijacker Mohammed Atta met an Iraqi secret service operative in Prague and then returned to the U.S. to die in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "I don't know whether he did or didn't," Rumsfeld replied.
In those eight words, the defense chief confirmed published reports that there is no evidence placing the presumed leader of the terrorist attacks in the Czech capital, with or without Iraqi spymaster Ahmed al-Ani. His alleged presence in Prague is the solitary piece of evidence that could link Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime to the carnage at the World Trade Center.
Rumsfeld followed his terse response to my Atta question with an explanation of why it really doesn't matter. A connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, he made clear, is not necessary to justify U.S. military action against Iraq to remove Saddam from power. The cause for war is alleged development of weapons of mass destruction by the Baghdad regime.
Why, then, do ardent attack-Iraq advocates outside the government -- William Safire, Kenneth Adelman, James Wolsey -- cling to the reality of the imagined meeting in Prague? Because President Bush will be alone in the world if he orders the attack on Iraq without a casus belli tied to Sept. 11.
It is impossible to prove whether Atta was or was not in Prague in April 2001 as first claimed last October by Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, but these are the facts: Atta definitely did not travel under his own name back and forth from the Czech Republic. The 9/11 terrorists always traveled in the open. For Atta to have used an assumed name would be a radically different method of operation. The sole evidence for the Prague meeting is the word of Czech officials, who are now divided and confused.
The CIA does not want to be dragged into public debate with New York Times columnist Safire, and its officials insist that "we don't have a dog in that fight." In truth, however, cool-headed analysts at Langley see no evidence whatever of the Prague meeting and in their gut believe it did not take place.
Is there evidence of any other Iraqi connection to 9/11? "I don't discuss intelligence information," Rumsfeld replied. In fact, there is none. Responding to my question whether it made any difference to U.S. policy on Iraq, he said, "I don't know how to answer it." He then depicted terrorist nations -- "Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, I suppose North Korea" -- working together to develop weapons of mass destruction. This could mean the death of "potentially hundreds of thousands of people."
Responding to another reporter's question, Rumsfeld asserted "the nuclear weapon . . . is somewhat more difficult to develop, maintain and use than, for example, biological weapons," adding, "I would elevate the biological risk." Indeed, nobody in the U.S. government takes seriously statements by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his recent visit to Washington that Iraq can deliver a nuclear bomb here in a suitcase.
Whether the Iraqis possess biological capability is unknown and debatable. Former U.N. arms inspector Scott Ritter contends Iraq's biowar factories and their equipment were destroyed. Without "acquisition of a large amount of new technology," Ritter has said, "I don't see Iraq being able to do high quality production on a large scale of bioweapons." While Ritter's detractors are many, his allegations never have been contradicted.
There is justifiable belief in the White House, the Pentagon and even the State Department that the world -- not to mention Iraq -- will be better and safer without Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. But that does not justify to the world the overthrowing of a government.
That is why ace reporter Bill Safire writes column after column insisting that the Prague meeting took place. That is also why national security expert Ken Adelman insisted April 29 on CNN's "Crossfire" that Atta "went 7,000 miles to meet with one of the Iraq intelligence officers in Prague." Even if it never happened, the meeting is essential to justify a U.S. attack on Iraq.