Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaks to reporters in the briefing room at the Pentagon on Oct. 26, 2006 in Arlington, Va.
Mark Wilson/Getty

Rumsfeld’s slippery memory

Updated

In the Errol Morris documentary “The Unknown Known,” released this week, Donald Rumsfeld summarily dismisses the idea that the American public might have been misled into believing that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the 9/11 terror attacks. “I don’t remember anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that, nor do I recall anyone believing that,” he tells Morris.

But a newly unearthed document reveals just how tenaciously Rumsfeld himself clung to the idea. Confronted by briefers that there was zero evidence to support the claim that lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had secretly met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague prior to the attack, Rumsfeld pushed back: How did they know that Atta wasn’t wearing a “blonde wig” or some other disguise when the supposed meeting took place?

The Rachel Maddow Show, 4/3/14, 10:53 PM ET

Is America ready for honesty about Iraq?

Errol Morris, Oscar-winning filmmaker talks with Rachel Maddow about his new documentary “The Unknown Known,” examining Donald Rumsfeld’s perspective on the war in Iraq, and the rewriting of history by former Bush staffers.
Rumsfeld floating the bizarre “Atta in a blonde wig” theory isn’t in the Morris film. It’s found instead in a seven-page document obtained from the National Archives for the documentary Hubris, aired last year on the Rachel Maddow Show and based on the book David Corn and I wrote on the selling of the Iraq War. The document — an internal memo written for the 9/11 commission — was turned over too late to use in the film, but it contains new details on just how thoroughly the commission debunked the idea of an Atta-Iraqi connection, a false claim that was repeatedly made by Vice President Dick Cheney on national television and, directly contrary to Rumsfeld’s blithe assertions in the film, aggressively pushed in the fall of 2002 by his top deputies. 

The notion originated on September 13, 2001, two days after the terror attacks, when Czech intelligence reported that one of its sources had “possibly relevant information”: He claimed to have seen Atta meeting with Iraqi diplomat Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al Ani at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague at about 11 in the morning on April 9 of that year. It was a “single source” report with, at that point, no corroboration. But soon enough, Cheney was endorsing the Czech report to the world. “It’s been pretty well confirmed that [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,” the vice president told NBC’s Tim Russert on Meet the Press on Dec. 9, 2001.

The report continued to receive currency inside Rumsfeld’s Defense Department throughout the next year, as the Bush administration began building its case for an invasion of Iraq. Then-Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith prepared a slide show briefing on supposed Iraq connections to al Qaeda that he gave to Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet and top White House officials in the summer and fall of 2002. One of the slides purports to summarize “known Iraq-al Qaeda contacts,” including this listing under 2001: “Prague IIS Chief al- Ani meets with Mohammed Atta in April.”

But according to the 9/11 commission memo, U.S. and Czech investigators were methodically undermining the source’s claim of any such contact. The FBI discovered from telephone call records that Atta was in Virginia Beach, Va., on April 4, 2001, and in Florida on April 11. The Czechs poured through airplane and border records “for anyone who looked slightly Arab” as well as surveillance photos of “all of the individuals” at the Iraq Embassy the morning of April 9. While they appear to have come up with three possible candidates, “it was very clear that none of the three was actually Atta,” reads the memo.

“The bottom line is that there is not a single piece of paper or hard evidence that Atta was in the Czech Republic during that time frame,” says the 9/11 commission memo, written by staff investigator Michael Jacobson. “There are no visa records, airplane tickets, or other source reporting supporting the source’s contention.” The Jacobson memo formed the basis for the public conclusion found on p. 229 of the 9/11 commission report that “the available evidence does not support the original Czech report of an Atta-Ani meeting.” But Rumsfeld apparently could not take “no evidence” for an answer. After all, as he famously said, “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”

“When they were briefing Secretary Rumsfeld on their investigation, he asked how they knew that Atta was wearing a blond [sic] wig or in disguise?” reads the Jacobson memo. Faced with this off-the- wall hypothetical from the country’s highest defense official, the secretary’s briefer, whose name is whited out, relented. The briefer “acknowledged that they could not be sure and that is one of the reasons that they cannot definitively rule out that such a meeting occurred.”

There was much else Rumsfeld and other senior Bush administration officials said during this period that perpetuated the public notion that there might have been some sort of Iraqi connection to al Qaeda and, hence, a Saddam hidden hand in the terror attacks. On Sept. 26, Rumsfeld said there was “reliable reporting” of “possible chemical and biological agent training” of al Qaeda operatives. The next day, he called evidence of Saddam-al Qaeda ties to be “bullet proof.” As Hubris revealed, this was based largely on the claims of a former al Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who the CIA rendered to Egyptian security services and brutally interrogated — only to later recant his story after he was returned to U.S. custody.

In the Morris film, Rumsfeld brushes aside the idea that the American public might have been confused about an Iraqi tie to 9/11 based on what he and his fellow Bush administration colleagues had publicly said. “Oh, I don’t think so,” replies Rumsfeld. “It was very clear that the direct planning for 9/11 was done by Osama bin Laden’s people, al Qaeda, and in Afghanistan. I don’t think the American people were confused about that.”

As Morris suggests and the new 9/11 commission memo shows, the real confusion here may be Rumsfeld’s apparently slippery memory of what really happened in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.  

Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Iraq and September 11th

Rumsfeld's slippery memory

Updated