On today's episode of Meet the Press (Sunday, September 10, 2006), Tim Russert interviewed Vice President Cheney. In the interview, Russert took issue with the fact that the Vice President once stated on his show that it was "pretty well confirmed" that Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague in April 2001.
Here's the craftiness by Russert: Mr. Cheney made the "pretty well confirmed" remark in a December 9, 2001, appearance, over four-and-a-half years ago. Russert failed to inform his audience this morning when the remark was originally made. In addition, in three following appearances on Meet the Press (3/02, 9/02, and 9/03), when the Vice President breached the topic of the Atta-Prague allegation, he essentially told Russert that he "[didn't] know" if the visit occurred, that it was "unconfirmed," and that intelligence had been unable "to nail down a close tie between the al-Qaida organization and Saddam Hussein." The Vice President's stance on the issue was certainly modified from the one he originally aired in 2001.
In fact, in the very last appearance that the Vice President made on Meet the Press (in September 2003), Mr. Cheney specifically told Russert that "we just don't know" if such a meeting ever happened. And in his September 2002 appearance, the Vice President said almost the opposite of it being "pretty well confirmed"; he said the meeting was "unconfirmed"! Yet this morning Russert harked back to the original 2001 appearance over four-and-a-half years ago to try and hammer the Vice President for the "pretty well confirmed" words. Fairness, anyone? Not at all.
With links to the transcripts, here's the Vice President speaking on the issue in his three previous appearances on Meet the Press. Again, all three took place after his December 2001 appearance in which he made the "pretty well confirmed" remark.
1. Mr. Cheney on Meet the Press, 9/14/03 (emphasis mine):
VICE PRES. CHENEY: With respect to 9/11, of course you've had the story that's been publicly out there: The Czechs alleged that Mohamed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack. But we've never been able to develop any more of that yet, either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don't know.
2. Mr. Cheney on Meet the Press, 9/8/02 (emphasis mine):
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I want to be very careful about how I say this. I’m not here today to make a specific allegation that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11. I can’t say that. On the other hand, since we did that interview, new information has come to light. And we spent time looking at that relationship between Iraq, on the one hand, and the al-Qaeda organization on the other. And there has been reporting that suggests that there have been a number of contacts over the years. We’ve seen in connection with the hijackers, of course, Mohamed Atta, who was the lead hijacker, did apparently travel to Prague on a number of occasions. And on at least one occasion, we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center. The debates about, you know, was he there or wasn’t he there, again, it’s the intelligence business.
RUSSERT: What does the CIA say about that and the president?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: It’s credible. But, you know, I think a way to put it would be it’s unconfirmed at this point. We’ve got...
RUSSERT: Anything else?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: There is - again, I want to separate out 9/11, from the other relationships between Iraq and the al-Qaeda organization ...
3. Mr. Cheney on Meet the Press, 3/24/02 (emphasis mine):
VICE PRES. CHENEY: [on Iraq] ... With respect to the connections to al-Qaida, we haven't been able to pin down any connection there. I read this report with interest after our interview last fall. We discovered, and it's since been public, the allegation that one of the lead hijackers, Mohamed Atta, had, in fact, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague, but we've not been able yet from our perspective to nail down a close tie between the al-Qaida organization and Saddam Hussein. We'll continue to look for it.
As you can see, as he learned more information on the matter, the Vice President significantly modified his position on the Atta-Prague issue since he uttered the "pretty well confirmed" words in December 2001. Yet Russert twice referenced those words on the show today (see transcript below).
(By the way, those who scream that the Bush administration was bent on finding a 9/11 - Saddam link ever since September 11 should take note of what Vice President Cheney said to Russert only five days after 9/11/2001 on Meet the Press:
RUSSERT: Do we have any evidence linking Saddam Hussein or Iraqis to this operation? [Sept. 11 attacks]
VICE PRES. CHENEY: No.
Pretty clear, isn't it?)
TRANSCRIPT, Meet the Press, September 10, 2006:
RUSSERT: And now we have the Select Committee on Intelligence coming out with a report on Friday, it says here, “A declassified report released [Friday] by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that U.S. intelligence analysts were strongly disputing the alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda while senior Bush administration officials were publicly asserting those links to justify invading Iraq.”
You said here that it was pretty well confirmed that Atta may have had a meeting in Prague, that that was credible. All the while, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee in January and in June and in September, the CIA was saying that wasn’t the case. And then the president...
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, let me, let me—on that—well, go ahead.
RUSSERT: No, go ahead.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: No, I want a, I want a chance to jump on that.
RUSSERT: OK, but, but you said it was pretty well confirmed that it was credible and now the Senate Intelligence Committee says not true, the CIA was waving you off.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: No --
RUSSERT: Any suggestion there was a meeting with Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers, with Iraqi officials?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: (unintelligible) The sequence, Tim, was, when you and I talked that morning, we had not received any reporting with respect to Mohamed Atta going to Prague. Just a few days after you and I did that show, the CIA, CIA produced an intelligence report from the Czech Intelligence Service that said Mohammad Atta, leader of the hijackers, had been in Prague in April of ‘01 and had met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Prague. That was the first report we had that he’d been to Prague and met with Iraqis. Later on, some period of time after that, the CIA produced another report based on a photographer—on a photograph that was taken in Prague of a man they claim 70 percent probability was Mohammad Atta on another occasion. This was the reporting we received from the CIA when I responded to your question and said it had been pretty well confirmed that he’d been in Prague. The—later on, they were unable to confirm it. Later on, they backed off of it.
But what I told you was exactly what we were receiving at the time. It never said, and I don’t believe I ever said, specifically, that it linked the Iraqis to 9/11. It specifically said he had been in Prague, Mohamed Atta had been in Prague and we didn’t know...
RUSSERT: And the meeting with Atta did not occur?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Uh. We don’t know. I mean, we’ve never been able to, to, to link it, and the FBI and CIA have worked it aggressively. I would say, at this point, nobody has been able to confirm ...
"Pretty well conformed"? Yes, it's pretty well confirmed that Russert set out to besmirch the Vice President.
(RELATED READING: Much of the detailed reporting on the Atta-Prague issue has come from a man named Edward Jay Epstein. The most recent article I found from him on this issue is from November 2005, "Atta in Prague? An Iraqi prisoner holds the answer to this 9/11 mystery." The bottom line: "[L]ike many other intelligence cases that become politicized, the Prague connection, and all that led up to it, [has been] consigned to a murky limbo.")