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Once They Were Sweathearts

Dick Cheney, the New York Times and the Myth of the Iraq Connection to 9/11

by DENNIS HANS

Fans of romance are disheartened to see Vice President Dick Cheney lash out at his long-time sweetie pie, the New York Times, for allegedly distorting the findings of the 9-11 Commission to make it appear that it had contradicted statements by Cheney and his boss about the relationship between Saddam’s Iraq and al Qaeda.

It seemed like only yesterday that Cheney and the Times strolled hand in hand.

Harken back to the summer of 2002. In August, Cheney delivered a scary speech about Saddam’s programs for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. A couple weeks later, on Sept. 8, New York Times reporters Judith Miller and Michael Gordon wrote a lurid (and now discredited) tale about aluminum tubes and other things that gave credence to Cheney’s warning. That very morning, Cheney popped up on Meet the Press and cited the Times story as further evidence of Saddam’s nuclear obsession!

“There’s a story in the New York Times this morning — this is — I don’t — and I want to attribute the Times,” said Cheney. “I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge.”

Yes, in 2002 Cheney and the Times were quite the item.

But if you had been paying close attention, you already knew that. Cheney and the Times first got together in 2001 — on the very story that’s at the heart of the current spat: the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, and in particular, Iraq’s connection to 9-11.

In the past few days Cheney has been trashed in the media — particularly what passes for the “liberal” media — over an exchange in a June 17, 2004 interview with CNBC’s Gloria Borger. Have a listen:

Borger: Well, let’s get to Mohamed Atta for a minute because you mentioned him as well. You have said in the past that it was, quote, "pretty well confirmed."

Cheney: No, I never said that.

Borger: OK.

Cheney: I never said that.

Borger: I think that is…

Cheney: Absolutely not. What I said was the Czech intelligence service reported after 9/11 that Atta had been in Prague on April 9 of 2001, where he allegedly met with an Iraqi intelligence official. We have never been able to confirm that nor have we been able to knock it down, we just don’t know.

Alas, as many have now pointed out, Cheney did say what Borger said he had said. Here’s his reply to Tim Russert on the Dec. 9, 2001 Meet the Press: “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.”

If only Cheney had added, “I know the meeting has been confirmed because the New York Times said so.” Why didn’t he? This is pure speculation, but my guess is that back in 2001 Cheney simply wasn’t ready to announce to the world that he and the Times were sweethearts.

Six weeks before Cheney’s interview with Russert, in the Oct. 27, 2001 New York Times, the headline declared: “Czechs Confirm Iraqi Agent Met With Terror Ringleader.”

Alas, there was one slight problem with the headline and the story, which escaped the editors and the learning-disabled reporters, Patrick Tyler and John Tagliabue: the Czechs didn’t “confirm” squat. Rather, they SAID they had confirmed the meeting. That’s a huge difference, one that would be obvious to a competent cub reporter — but not to reporters and editors cut from the same gullible and/or servile cloth as Judith Miller and Michael Gordon.

Littered throughout the article are variations on the word “confirmed,” but with nary a hint to the reader that nothing resembling confirmation had been presented by the Czechs — no audio or video recordings; no eyewitnesses, credible or otherwise; no visa or airline records indicating Atta was in Prague when the purported meeting took place. U.S. and other investigators had already turned up solid, tangible evidence of Atta’s travels within the U.S. and around the globe, but neither they nor the Czechs had yet to produce (and still haven’t) a paper trail for Atta entering or exiting Prague in April 2001.

Nevertheless, the Times reporters referred to the “official confirmation” and “today’s confirmation.” They also wrote, “The Czech authorities confirmed the meeting at a time of spirited debate in the Bush administration over whether to extend the antiterrorism military campaign now under way in Afghanistan to Iraq at some point in the future.”

So why did the Czechs “confirm” on Oct. 26 what they had previously denied? Tyler and Tagliabue took off their “reporter” hats and put on their “analyst” hats: “It was unclear what prompted them to revise their conclusions, although it seemed possible that American officials, concerned about the political implications of Iraqi involvement in terror attacks, had put pressure on the Czechs to keep quiet.”
That may be the silliest sentence the Times has ever published. The reporters were suggesting that the Czechs had succumbed to U.S. pressure in the weeks they were denying a meeting had occurred, but then mustered the courage to resist the pressure and go public on Oct. 26 with their (empty) proclamation of “confirmation.”

To fully appreciate the daftness of Tyler and Tagliabue’s reasoning, bear in mind that back on Oct. 20 Tagliabue had reported at length on the Czechs’ inability to confirm the swirling allegations of the meeting — and the advice they had received from “Washington.”
“Czech officials,” wrote Tagliabue, “say they do not believe that Mohamed Atta, suspected of having led the attack on the World Trade Center, met with any Iraqi officials during a brief stop he made in Prague last year. The officials said they had been asked by Washington to comb their records to determine whether Mr. Atta met with an Iraqi diplomat or agent here. They said they had told the United States they found no evidence of any such meeting.”

Given the sequence — the Czechs at first deny, then confirm — and given the absence of tangible evidence when they did “confirm,” one might wonder if the Czechs’ “confirmation,” rather than the earlier denials, was the product of pressure (or bribes, cajoling or begging) from U.S. officials or Prague-based CIA personnel. Not Tyler and Tagliabue.

In any event, the Oct. 27, 2001 story — and the failure of Tyler and Tagliabue to express skepticism or require the Czechs to put up or shut up — played a key role in creating the myth of the “Prague Connection.” It allowed proponents of the Connection to either pretend or genuinely believe that the meeting definitely took place, which provided them the basis to speculate that Atta may have discussed the planned attacks with an Iraqi agent, and if Atta did, then there was a good chance that Saddam was aware of — and maybe in on — the 9-11 attacks.

Thus, the Times enabled Cheney, Richard Perle, James Woolsey, Frank Gaffney, its own William Safire and other pundits and talking heads to spread this myth, which partly explains why as late as August 2003, 69 percent of the American people thought that Saddam was “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to have been “personally involved” in the 9-11 terrorist attacks (according to this Washington Post poll).
The Times was not the only enabler. Consider the case of the bird-brained Buffalo blowhard, Tim Russert.

Back on Dec. 9, 2001, Cheney didn’t offer his “pretty well confirmed” comment out of the blue. He was responding to a question that Russert prefaced with quotes. First, Russert reminded Cheney that on Sept. 16, “five days after the attack on our country, I asked you whether there was any evidence that Iraq was involved in the attack and you said no. Since that time, a couple articles have appeared which I want to get you to react to.” Next, Russert read from two articles, the first of which was the Times Oct. 27 story. (According to the transcript, Russert didn’t mention the Times. A tape of the show would reveal if the quote and the source was displayed on the screen as Russert read it.) Russert’s standards are revealed by the fact that he thought it important to share with viewers the second quote, from a warmonger with little credibility on Iraq (James Woolsey) published at a place with even less credibility (the oped page of the Wall Street Journal). As for the Times article, Russert read the lead sentence:

"The Czech interior minister said today that an Iraqi intelligence officer met with Mohammed Atta, one of the ringleaders of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, just five months before the synchronized hijackings and mass killings were carried out."

Next, Russert recited Woolsey’s reckless ramblings about what Iraqi defectors and other sources had to say about an alleged Baghdad training camp for terrorist hijackers. Russert then asked Cheney, “Do you still believe there’s no evidence that Iraq was involved in September 11?”

Why do I call Russert “the bird-brained Buffalo blowhard”? He interviewed Cheney on December 9. The Times story appeared October 27. The Czechs didn’t produce any evidence in October. Nor in November. Nor in the first nine days of December. A person billing himself as a “journalist” might have begun to get curious. Not Li’l Russ. Not the chip off of Big Russ’s block.

Consider CNBC’s (and U.S. News and World Report’s) Borger. She had Cheney’s 2001 quote, yet when he denied that he had said what Borger KNEW he said, she let it slide. Granted, her spinelessness in 2004 played no role in spreading the Prague Connection fable in 2001-03, but it is indicative of her, well, spinelessness.

In my view, people like Borger, Russert, Tyler and Tagliabue have important media jobs not in spite of their incompetence and servility but BECAUSE of those qualities, which never go out of style. There’s always a place in the corporate media for “journalists” who know how to stay on the good side of powerful people who have the blessing of the permanent Washington establishment.

But what of our love birds — Cheney and the Times — and their fractured nest? I do hope they stop this awful sniping. They’ve been good for each other for far too long to simply walk away. It’s not too late to rekindle the relationship that has served them (though maybe not the country) so very well.

DENNIS HANS is a freelance writer who has taught American Foreign Policy at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and a host of places online. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu