Off the Record

Since last fall, when Czech officials first told reporters-and, according to published reports, members of the Bush administration-about a meeting between Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi agent in the Czech Republic, New York Times Op-Ed columnist William Safire has been on a one-man mission to link the hand of Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Beginning in his Nov. 12, 2001, column, Mr. Safire described the supposed meeting between Mr. Atta and Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani as the “undisputed fact connecting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to to the attacks.”

In subsequent columns, Mr. Safire continued to hammer the point home, citing background sources at government intelligence agencies and defending the Atta-Iraq claim against its doubters.

And there have been doubters. Since the initial October report of Mr. Atta’s alleged visit to the Czech Republic, reporters for news organizations-including The Times and Newsweek -have seriously questioned whether an actual meeting took place. Reporters said that no tangible evidence seemed to place Mr. Atta with Mr. Ani at the time of the alleged meeting. They began to question whether the person Mr. Ani met was someone who merely looked like Mr. Atta.

The Times ‘ own skepticism reached a high point this Oct. 21, when reporter James Risen wrote an article headlined “The View From Prague: Prague Discounts an Iraqi Meeting.”

In his piece, Mr. Risen reported that Czech President Vaclav Havel in a phone call “has quietly told the White House he has concluded that there is no evidence to confirm earlier reports that Mohamed Atta, the leader in the Sept. 11 attacks, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague just months before the attacks on New York and Washington, according to Czech officials.”

However, Mr. Risen’s article ran without a statement from either the Bush administration or Mr. Havel. That caused some second-guessing within the Times newsroom, especially considering the piece itself was about second-guessing. Said one Times source: “When you’re aiming to write the definitive story on such a disputed incident, you’d want Havel on the record-and he’s not a hard guy to get.

“It really makes you wonder,” the source continued, “whether or not we’re being careful enough to avoid looking like we’re pushing the kind of agendas we’ve been accused of doing.”

Pretty soon, however, a reaction from Mr. Havel came. On Oct. 23, Times stringer Peter Green reported that a spokesperson for President Havel denied Mr. Risen’s claim, saying: “The president did not call the White House about this. The president never spoke with any American government official about Atta, not with Bush, not with anyone else.”

But the same day that Mr. Havel’s denial ran in the paper, The Times published an editorial titled: “The Illusory Prague Connection.” Citing Mr. Risen’s story, the editorial argued against the United States going to war under “false pretenses.” It did not mention the paper’s own report of Mr. Havel’s denial.

The disconnect between the Oct. 23 Times editorial and the paper’s reporting that same day prompted some critics to howl, including conservative author and Weblogger Edward Jay Epstein, whose work Mr. Safire cited in his Nov. 12, 2001, column. “As it turned out,” Mr. Epstein wrote, “the scoop itself, and not the meeting, was the fabrication.”

On Oct. 31, Mr. Safire himself entered the fray, writing: “I suspect that the coterie around President Havel-the great former dissident we all admire-despises the prime minister, the interior minister and the Czech intelligence agencies. In Havel’s name, that weakening coterie misled a fine reporter and lashed out at the rest of the government’s officials by making them out to be publicity hounds of war.”

But even if Mr. Havel hadn’t called the White House to say he was dubious about the Atta meeting, it didn’t mean he thought such a meeting occurred. As Mr. Green’s Oct. 23 article pointed out in its second paragraph, a spokesman for the Czech president “said Mr. Havel was still certain there was no factual basis behind the report that Mr. Atta met an Iraqi diplomat, Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, here in April 2001. In an interview last month, Mr. Havel told The Times that he knew of no proof that the two men had met. ‘I definitely wasn’t at this meeting,’ Mr. Havel said with a laugh.”

While he jumped on his denial of a phone call to the White House, Mr. Safire didn’t mention the report of Mr. Havel’s continued doubt in his Oct. 31 column. That prompted some at The Times to wonder if the columnist was only picking out pieces of information that agreed with his own stance. “Safire’s been trying to push a view that’s been consistently disproven in the news pages,” one Times source said.

Messrs. Safire and Risen did not return calls seeking comment. A Times spokesperson said the paper stood by the reporting of both stories. As for the Times Oct. 23 editorial, the paper’s editorial-page editor, Gail Collins, said: “The [Oct. 21] story hasn’t been retracted, and our editorial was based on the paper’s reporting.”

As for Mr. Safire’s assertion that Czech officials had taken Mr. Risen in, Ms. Collins said: “Everyone knows we do not hinder or edit the columnists. Their voices are their own voices.”

Of course, it’s tough to separate the debate over Mr. Atta’s meeting from the growing ideological divide over U.S. action in Iraq. Proponents of a military invasion have questioned the motivations of those who doubt the encounter, believing their skepticism was designed to cool momentum for military action. Those opposed to a U.S. invasion have asked if the Atta meeting was simply an easy thing for pro-invasion voices to point to-a way of justifying a war with Iraq as revenge.

But has the Atta meeting’s importance in the war debate been overstated? Some journalists now believe that parties on both sides of the debate have moved on to other discussions.

“For the longest time, it [the Atta meeting] was used as the one and only piece of hard evidence,” one Pentagon correspondent said. “Over the past several months, they [civilian Pentagon officials] dropped it. They know they don’t have the smoking gun. They basically stopped making the connection between Sept. 11 and Iraq and have turned to more general connections between Al Qaeda and Iraq.”

James Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs , said that the alleged Atta meeting’s importance-mainly in riling up the support of the American public-had passed.

“The emphasis has now shifted to the U.N. as a source of legitimacy,” Mr. Hoge said. “As long as we can prove Iraq’s involvement with weapons of mass destruction, we’re going to get a resolution we can live with and go forward. You don’t need the rest of this stuff.”

Call it The Truth About Arthur . On Oct. 30, New York Times Company chairman and New York Times publisher Arthur D. Sulzberger Jr. jetted to Paris to try and romance back the staff of the International Herald Tribune .

Only a week had passed since the Times Company gobbled up the Herald Tribune for itself, ending a 35-year partnership with The Washington Post . Staffers at the Herald Tribune fumed, believing that the Times Co. had manhandled its former partner and forced the sale. They also worried about being shut down-and replaced with an international edition of The Times .

But according to sources present at the publisher’s meeting, Mr. Sulzberger-who was accompanied by top Times Company executives Russell T. Lewis and Michael Golden-brought no bad news to the City of Lights. He told the group he hoped to put color on the front page. More importantly, Mr. Sulzberger said he didn’t plan any changes in the staff … as long as the new single-ownership Herald Tribune started to make a profit.

Spokespeople for the Times Company and Herald Tribune executive editor David Ignatius both declined to comment.

But sources at The Times remained pessimistic about the paper’s long-term future. Sources there believe that The Times would like to move forward with an international edition eventually-leaving the Herald Tribune ‘s status in doubt.

There are optimists, however. Washington Post ombudsman and former Herald Tribune executive editor Michael Getler felt the paper could meet Mr. Sulzberger’s profitability demands.

“It’s very feasible,” Mr. Getler said. “It should be profitable. For a number of years, it was profitable. For an international newspaper, these past two years have been exceptionally difficult, because they’re faced with recessions in the United States, Europe and Japan.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for The Times to want a profit,” Mr. Getler continued. ” The Times has always expected all of their properties to be profitable-including the Herald Tribune .”

Danielle Crittenden, start your Hotmail! National Review editor Rich Lowry has hired former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum to write a regular back-page column for the magazine and contribute a Weblog for the magazine’s online site.

Back in February, Mr. Frum-a former editorial-page editor at The Wall Street Journal -left his post with the administration under unusual circumstances. Around the same time that Mr. Frum left his job, Slate ‘s Timothy Noah disclosed that Mr. Frum’s wife, writer Danielle Crittenden, had written to friends in an e-mail: “I realize this is very ‘Washington’ of me to mention, but my husband is responsible for the ‘axis of evil’ segment of Tuesday’s State of the Union address.”

The disclosure led some-most notably CNN’s Robert Novak-to question whether Mr. Frum had actually quit, or had been pushed out by a red-faced Republican administration.

Since his departure, Mr. Frum’s been working on his book The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush , due out in January.

When asked about the “axis of evil” incident by Off the Record, Mr. Frum demurred, saying: “I can’t lift the curtain about what’s going to be in the book.”

As for the Review job, he said: “I hope I’m coming back to it with new insights and understanding.”

Recently, three prominent sports columnists-Rick Reilly and Steve Rushin from Sports Illustrated and Steve Serby from the New York Post -introduced fancy new mug shots to go along with their columns.

Messrs. Reilly and Rushin went casual, shedding their power suits and ties for Friday office wear. The toothy Mr. Reilly now sports a sweater vest and rolled-up shirt. Mr. Rushin, too, has a sweater, and sits with his legs crossed Indian-style, looking a little like Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann.

As for the white-haired Mr. Serby, he’s dropped his smart-ass, smug scowl for a … smile.

We called in the experts-Glenn O’Brien, who pens GQ ‘s “Style Guy” column each month, and Esquire creative fashion director Stefano Tonchi-to evaluate the columnists’ new looks.

“When were these replaced?” Mr. Tonchi said of the Sports Illustrated scribes. “It looks like something that could have happened five years ago, in terms of style. They basically went from a Brooks Brothers–Paul Stuart look into a Banana Republic or more like a J. Crew kind of attitude.”

“You can hear the photographer or the publicist saying, ‘More casual! More relaxed! Like you are at home!’” Mr. Tonchi said.

Mr. O’Brien thought Mr. Reilly looked “more aggressive and less bemused” in his new photo, and said Mr. Rushin seemed “a little bit more manly in the new one.”

“He looks a little twinkly in the old one,” Mr. O’Brien said. “He definitely looks more of a sports guy than in the old one.”

As for Mr. Rushin’s pretzel legs, Mr. O’Brien said: “It’s kind of odd for a contributor to show [his] body. I guess he must not like his face.”

And Mr. Serby’s happy-guy makeover?

“I like the old picture,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I guess I was attached to it. It reminds me of when [former Jets quarterback] Richard Todd punched him in the face. But I guess everybody has to age sometime.

“It’s a hard thing when you have a picture on a column,” Mr. O’Brien continued. “I think Cindy Adams is the role model-she never changes. I don’t think you have to change. Steve Serby could have stayed 38 forever.”

Finally, some late-breaking vagina news. Sources at Elle magazine said that Gilles Bensimon, the magazine’s publication director-and ex-husband of supermodel Elle Macpherson-has been irking members of the staff by insisting that the magazine do a piece on vaginas with a photograph included for the January issue.

Sources said that Mr. Bensimon gave the order as Elle ‘s editor in chief, Roberta Myers, was out on maternity leave. Sources said that after staffers came up with a conceptual think-piece about the subject, Mr. Bensimon suggested that the story had to be more service-oriented, one that dealt with, among other things, “smell” and “taste.” ( Burp! ) As the piece goes to press, people at Elle have started to wonder about newsstand repercussions.

“This just shows the ongoing struggle between the sensibilities of an older French man,” one Elle source said, “and young American women editors.”

Mr. Bensimon, when reached by Off the Record, said the piece was a sort of history of feminine care, um, down there-from the Romans and the Greeks to the “Brazilian” and denied ever saying it should deal with “smell” or “taste.”

Asked about possibly offending people, Mr. Bensimon said, “The opening picture doesn’t reveal anything and the illustrations we use are from museums. I don’t see anything offensive …. It’s a good story. It’s not a vagina story. It’s more of a bikini story, I would say.”