Originally published at Newsweek by Jeff Stein on 6/19/15
Updated | Mark Rossini, a former FBI special agent at the center of an enduring mystery related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, says he is “appalled” by the newly declassified statements by former CIA Director George Tenet defending the spy agency’s efforts to detect and stop the plot.
Rossini, who was assigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) at the time of the attacks, has long maintained that the U.S. government has covered up secret relations between the spy agency and Saudi individuals who may have abetted the plot. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a failed effort to crash into the U.S. Capitol, were Saudis.
A heavily redacted 2005 CIA inspector general’s report, parts of which had previously been released, was further declassified earlier this month. It found that agency investigators “encountered no evidence” that the government of Saudi Arabia “knowingly and willingly supported” Al-Qaeda terrorists. It added that some CIA officers had “speculated” that “dissident sympathizers within the government” may have supported Osama bin Laden but that “the reporting was too sparse to determine with any accuracy such support.”
Over 30 pages relating to Saudi Arabia in the report were blacked out. The Obama administration has also refused to declassify 28 pages dealing with Saudi connections to the hijackers in a joint congressional probe of the attacks.
As has been previously reported, Rossini and another FBI agent assigned to the CTC, Doug Miller, say they learned in January 2000 that one of the future hijackers, an Al-Qaeda operative by the name of Khalid al-Mihdhar, had a multi-entry visa to enter the U.S. By mid-summer of 2001, the CIA was repeatedly warning President George W. Bush and other White House officials that an Al-Qaeda attack was imminent. But Miller and Rossini say when they attempted to warn FBI headquarters that al-Mihdhar could be loose in the U.S., a CIA supervisor ordered them to remain silent.
Rossini says he is “deeply concerned” by how the agency continues to suppress information related to contacts between the CIA and Saudi Arabia, particularly when the spy agency is declassifying other portions of documents to show that it did everything possible to thwart the September 11, 2001 plot.
“There would have not been a 9/11 if Doug’s CIR [Central Intelligence Report] on al-Mihdhar was sent,” he told Newsweek in an email. “Period. End of story.
“The total lack of accountability, nor a desire to drill down on the truth as to why Doug’s memo was not sent,” he added, “is the reason why the 28 pages pertaining to the Saudis have been blocked” from release.
In 2005, Tenet, the CIA director at the time of the attacks, angrily refuted the judgment of then-CIA Inspector General John Helgerson who said Tenet did not do enough to stop the Al-Qaeda plot.
“Your report challenges my professionalism, diligence and skill in leading the men and women of U.S. intelligence in countering terrorism,” Tenet wrote to Helgerson in another heavily redacted document released June 12. “I did everything I could to inform, warn and motivate action to prevent harm. Your report does not fairly or accurately portray my actions, or the heroic work of the men and women of the Intelligence Community.”
Rossini claims still-classified documents would “show a pattern of financial assistance, and moreover, the CIA’s role to try and recruit al-Mihdhar.” He says he was “convinced” of that and believes “there is no other explanation” for the CIA refusing to release further information.
The New Yorker put out this 15 minute documentary: The Agent
A former CIA field operative who worked at the CTC in 2001 told Newsweek earlier this year that Rossini’s theory had merit. “I find that kind of hard to believe, that [al-Mihdhar] would be a valid source,” says the former operative, who spent 25 years handling spies in some of the world’s most dangerous places, including the Middle East. “But then again, the folks that were making a lot of calls at the time there were junior analysts, who had zero general experience and absolutely zero on-the-ground operational experience or any kind of operational training.”
The analysts had begun to take intelligence collection initiatives beyond their skill level, usually by developing their own confidential “sources” in Middle East spy services, says the former operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss such a sensitive issue. So it is entirely reasonable, the former operative says, that an intelligence analyst at the CTC was trying to develop al-Mihdhar as a source through Saudi contacts.
“I don’t think they ever personally talked to anybody” in the field, the former operative added. “They probably got a source through liaison. So their source [on the hijackers] might have been someone in the Saudi service who said they are talking to somebody, or someone in the Jordanian service who said he was talking to someone. As far I was concerned, they were a bunch of lying pieces of shit. So they could’ve done that.”
Rossini and his colleague, Miller, following the CTC’s strict rules on secrecy, say they kept silent for years about their thwarted effort to warn FBI headquarters about al-Mihdhar, providing critics with ammunition to cast doubt on their story. But in a Newsweek interview, a former FBI colleague has now come forward publicly for the first time to buttress their version of events.
James Bernazzani, who took charge of the FBI contingent at the CTC in Langley, Virginia, soon after 9/11 attacks, recalled an encounter with Rossini. “Mark walks into my office one day at Langley and says, ‘Something’s been really bothering me.’ He tells me the whole story” about how he and Miller had been prohibited from telling anyone about the likely presence of at least one Al-Qaeda terrorist, al-Mihdhar, in the U.S. the previous July, Bernazzani says.
“I said, Mark, if it ain’t on paper, it never happened. He said, ‘I got it.’ After a few minutes he came back and showed it to me.” Miller, as it turned out, had made a copy of the warning cable he had prepared for FBI headquarters.
“I looked at it and I said, ‘Holy friggin’ shit,’” Bernazzani recalls. “I said, ‘This would’ve stopped this thing.’ I called up Assistant Director Pat D’Amuro,” who was in charge of the FBI’s investigation into the 9/11 attacks. “I said I needed to see him right away. He said, ‘This better be worth it.’ I assured him it was. I drove straight to FBI headquarters. It took me only about 15 minutes to get there. I probably set some speed records.”
Bernazzani, who retired in 2008 with a Presidential Award for Meritorious Service, says D’Amuro “looks at it, he looks at me, and he says, ‘I’ll take care of it.’”
Bernazzani returned to CIA headquarters. “I told Mark it was done, it was in the right hands,” Bernazzani says. Later, when congressional investigators came looking for documents related to the 9/11 attacks, “the FBI couldn’t find it in their computers,” he says. “If they did, they didn’t tell me.”
D’Amuro, now managing director of 930 Capital Management in New York, did not immediately respond to request for comment.
All these years later, “What Mark said is true,” Bernazzani says. “It did happen” as Rossini told it.
As for why CIA analysts at the CTC allegedly ordered Rossini and Miller not to tell the FBI about Al-Qaeda terrorists at large in the U.S., Bernazzani can only theorize. “It was a classic example of analysts owning information,” he says. “Operators share information. Some analysts tended to think of information as none of your business.”
Rossini is more blunt. “They ran a clandestine op in the U.S., and they didn’t want the bureau involved in it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said FBI agents Rossini and Miller learned about al-Mihdhar’s multiple visas to America in the summer of 2001. It was in January 2000 when they learned of his visas.
Who is Rich Blee?