By DOUGLAS JEHL
The New York Times
July 9, 2004
WASHINGTON, July 8 - George J. Tenet, the departing director of central intelligence, has told Congress that the C.I.A. is "increasingly skeptical" that a Sept. 11 hijacker, Mohamed Atta, met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001, an assessment very different in tone from continuing assertions by Vice President Dick Cheney that such a meeting might have taken place.
In a letter, sent to Congress on July 1, Mr. Tenet said Mr. Atta "would have been unlikely to undertake the substantial risk of contacting any Iraqi official" at such a date, when the Sept. 11 plot was well under way.
The statement, the most complete public assessment by the agency on the issue, was sent to the Senate Armed Services Committee in response to a question posed by the committee's ranking Democrat, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, at a hearing on March 9. It was made public by Senator Levin on Thursday, as Mr. Tenet bid farewell to his colleagues at a ceremony at the agency's headquarters. He leaves his post this weekend.
Within the Bush administration, Mr. Cheney has been the most vigorous proponent of the theory that Iraq and Al Qaeda had a cooperative relationship before the Sept. 11 attacks. He has cited the assertion that Mr. Atta met with Ahmed al-Ani, an Iraqi intelligence officer, just five months before the attacks as possible evidence of such cooperation.
A staff report released June 16 by the presidential commission investigating the attacks concluded that there was no evidence of such a collaborative relationship. But in a television interview the next day, Mr. Cheney argued that the report of the meeting, from the Czech intelligence service, had "never been proven - it's never been refuted."
Mr. Tenet's statement began, "Although we cannot rule it out, we are increasingly skeptical that such a meeting occurred.''
A spokesman for Mr. Cheney, Kevin Kellems, said the vice president had learned about Mr. Tenet's response on Thursday. Mr. Kellems noted that Mr. Tenet had told Congress on Feb. 24, in reference to a possible meeting between Mr. Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer, "We can't prove that one way or another.''
Mr. Kellems said Mr. Cheney's public statements had "reflected the evolving judgment of the intelligence community, as briefed to him by the Central Intelligence Agency.''
The C.I.A. has long expressed skepticism about the idea that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated to carry out the Sept. 11 attacks. In Congressional testimony in March, Mr. Tenet said he had privately intervened on several occasions to correct public misstatements on intelligence by Mr. Cheney and others, including a claim by the vice president in January that trailers found in Iraq were still believed to be biological weapons factories.
In his June 17 interview, on CNBC, Mr. Cheney described himself as a skeptic about the idea of a meeting. But he did not mention the idea that intelligence officials believed such a meeting would have been unlikely.
"We have never been able to prove that there was a connection there on 9/11," Mr. Cheney said at the time. "The one thing we had is the Iraq - the Czech intelligence service report saying that Mohamed Atta had met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official at the embassy on April 9, 2001. That's never been proven - it's never been refuted."
Mr. Tenet's statement was written after the Sept. 11 commission published its staff report, which said there was no evidence that such a meeting had taken place, and pointed to other evidence, including Mr. Atta's cellphone records, to cast doubt on the idea that any meeting had occurred.
In a written statement on Thursday, Senator Levin, a leading critic of the administration's pre-war intelligence, said the C.I.A. statement "demonstrates that it was the administration, not the C.I.A, that exaggerated the relations between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda." Senator Levin and other Democrats plan to reiterate that theme on Friday, when the Senate Intelligence Committee issues a report on prewar intelligence that will include sharp criticism of the C.I.A. but will sidestep the question of how the Bush administration used that intelligence to make the case for war.
Mr. Tenet's farewell on Thursday, at a bittersweet ceremony at C.I.A. headquarters, came seven years to the week after he took over as director of central intelligence. Mr. Tenet, 51, has been a hero to many intelligence officials, who credit him with restoring budgets and morale, but he leaves as his and other intelligence-gathering agencies are facing more criticism than at any time in nearly three decades.
The retirement ceremony was closed to journalists but a transcript of Mr. Tenet's remarks released by the agency included a pre-emptive defense against the critics.
"In the end, the American people will weigh and assess our record where intelligence has done well and where we have fallen short," Mr. Tenet said. "And, aware of the difficulties and limitations we face, they will honor and recognize your service. My only wish is that those whose job it is to help us do better show the same balance and care in recognizing how far we have come, in how bold you have been, in what the full balance sheet says."
Mr. Tenet and his top deputy, John McLaughlin, used their remarks both to call attention to what they regard as the agency's recent successes, including progress in winnowing the ranks of Al Qaeda's senior leadership since the Sept. 11 attacks, and to underscore the magnitude of the challenges at hand.
Mr. McLaughlin is to take over as acting director on Sunday, the day Mr. Tenet's resignation takes effect. President Bush appears to be moving toward appointing a permanent successor this summer, and Mr. Tenet offered a strong endorsement of his deputy, whom he called "a brilliant, caring leader."
Sunday is the seventh anniversary of Mr. Tenet's swearing in, a tenure second in length only to that of Allen Dulles, who held the job under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Mr. Tenet has said he is stepping down for personal reasons, and in particular to spend more time with his family, including his only son, who will be a high school senior next year and who was in second grade when his father began work at the C.I.A. in 1995, as deputy director.