WASHINGTON — Shortly after Sept. 11, a story surfaced, attributed to the Czech minister of interior, that suicide hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi undercover agent in Prague five months earlier in April 2001. This was the only alleged link of the Al Qaeda terrorists to Saddam Hussein that has been discovered.
Intensive investigation of Mr. Atta's movements failed to produce corroboration. Indeed, intelligence agencies found some indication that during the April period in question Atta had visited Virginia Beach, Va., possibly to case US Navy installations.
Now, although the FBI and CIA remain dubious, the tenuous Prague connection is enjoying a revival of interest in the White House. According to The Los Angeles Times, the FBI has been reviewing Atta's travel and telephone records with "renewed vigor" as one of its "more urgent" priorities.
There is good reason for the preoccupation with finding an Iraqi connection. As the administration edges closer and closer to military engagement, it badly needs a casus belli (roughly translated, smoking gun) as a justification for an act of war. The White House is facing pressures, from Congress and the public, to seek congressional endorsement, as President Bush senior did before going to war with Iraq in 1991. It cannot, as things stand, cite an act of naked aggression like the occupation of Kuwait.
But if the president can establish with some degree of credibility that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 conspiracy, that could provide a way to finesse the issue of congressional authorization.
Within days after Sept. 11, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the president to use force against nations that he determined had aided the terrorist attacks. The resolution stipulated that this authorization would fulfill the requirements of the War Powers Resolution. That puts a premium on connecting Iraq to Sept. 11.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a news conference, without elaborating, that Iraq had "a relationship" with Al Qaeda. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who held two intensive days of hearings last week, said on television that he knows of no evidence that Iraq was connected to the terrorist attacks.
But the joint resolution gives the president wide latitude to determine which countries have aided and harbored terrorists. The administration clearly is trying its darndest to pin an Al Qaeda label on Saddam Hussein.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.