By Kevin Fenton
Although the story of the CIA’s actions in the run-up to 9/11 is complicated, at a fairly early point in any examination of them it becomes clear the agency committed multiple failures, and that these failures enabled the attacks to go forward. The key issue that remains in dispute ten years on is whether these “failures” were deliberate or simply the product of overwork and incompetence. Making an informed judgment means taking the time to look at all the failures, put them in order, and analyze what it all means.
Perhaps the most comprehensible problem is the scope of the CIA’s failings. There was not one error by some lowly neophyte, but a massive string of failures. As Tom Wilshire, one of the key CIA officials involved in the withholding of the information commented to the Congressional Inquiry, “[E]very place that something could have gone wrong in this over a year and a half, it went wrong. All the processes that had been put in place, all the safeguards, everything else, they failed at every possible opportunity. Nothing went right.”
In addition, some of the failures were extremely serious. For example, the alleged failure by Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, to inform CIA Director George Tenet that Flight 77 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar was in the country in August 2001 is simply beyond comprehension. Added to this, the failures were committed by a small group of intelligence officers, centered on Wilshire and his boss Richard Blee, and focused on a few al-Qaeda operatives, in particular Almihdhar and his partner Nawaf Alhazmi. Finally, one of the officers who withheld information has admitted this publicly, and a second reportedly in private, and some surviving documents
contradict the “incompetence excuse.”
The story of the CIA’s pre-9/11 failings starts in late December 1999, when the NSA intercepted an al-Qaeda communication, apparently between Almihdhar and bin Laden associate Khallad bin Attash, who is currently in Gitmo. One end of the call was at al-Qaeda’s operations hub in Yemen, which the NSA had been monitoring for some time. The communication showed that a group of al-Qaeda operatives would soon be travelling to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The NSA told the CIA and FBI.
The CIA tracked Almihdhar from Yemen to a stopover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where a photocopy of his passport was made. US officials discovered he had a US visa, issued several months earlier and due to expire in April 2000. This information was reported to the various CIA stations involved in the tracking operation and to Alec Station at CIA headquarters on January 5, 2000.
An FBI detailee named Doug Miller read the relevant cables from the field and drafted a message to the FBI to telling them Almihdhar had a US visa. The FBI is a domestically focused organization, so without the US visa Almihdhar was just a foreign terrorist abroad, and not of much concern to it. It was the US visa that would have made Almihdhar significant to the Bureau. A female CIA officer who we will call “Michael” then told Miller not to send the cable yet, saying Wilshire wanted to hold off on it–no one below Wilshire had authority to release such information to the FBI.
A few hours after she blocked Miller’s cable to the FBI, Michael sent out a cable stating that the FBI had been informed of Almihdhar’s visa information. This was not true, and Michael must have known this at the time.
You will not find this episode in the main text of the 9/11 Commission report. Despite its obvious importance, the commission relegated it to a small-type endnote, number 44 to chapter 6.
Miller turned to a fellow FBI detailee, Mark Rossini, who went to Michael to ask what was happening. According to Rossini, Michael said that the FBI was not going to get the information until the CIA wanted it to and that the next al-Qaeda attack was going to be in Southeast Asia.
In addition, according to several CIA officers interviewed by the Agency’s inspector general, it was standard practice to confirm the Bureau had received such information. This was not done.
Around a week later, Miller sent an e-mail to Wilshire asking whether he could send the message to the FBI now. He received no reply.
After 9/11, investigators were unable to find Miller’s draft cable for nearly two and a half years and the people involved allegedly forgot all about it. It was discovered in early 2004, necessitating they relevant officials be interviewed again. However, they still claimed to have no recollection.
Rossini began to talk more freely about what happened to Lawrence Wright for his 2006 book The Looming Tower, which has an unnamed CIA official tell Miller “This is not a matter for the FBI.” However, Rossini then left the Bureau in disgrace and gave a full account of what happened to author James Bamford and journalist Jeff Stein in 2008. According to Rossini, there was nothing wrong with his memory when interviewed by investigators; he simply chose to lie under pressure from the CIA. Rossini also says there was a minder in the room during the interview, a depressingly typical occurrence for the post-9/11 investigations.
On the same day Miller’s cable was blocked, a CIA officer on loan to the FBI who we will call “Robert” briefed two FBI colleagues on what the CIA knew about the Malaysia meeting. Robert told the two FBI agents pretty much everything the CIA knew except the one key thing the Bureau needed to make it sit up and take notice–that Almihdhar had a US visa. Robert then told another CIA officer on loan to the Bureau there was no need to brief the FBI about Malaysia because he had already done so, ensuring this officer would not let slip the Almihdhar visa information.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, the CIA and a local Malaysian intelligence service were following Almihdhar, Alhazmi and their contacts around. Numerous photos were taken, the attendees at the meeting were videoed on the first day, the operatives went out to use computers at an internet cafe, and intelligence officials then examined the computers. However, an attempt to bug the meeting allegedly failed.
The full list of the attendees is not known. However, in addition to Almihdhar and Alhazmi, we do know that two leading radicals, bin Attash and Hambali, a leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, were present, along with several other lower-level militants. According to counterterrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna and a Pentagon document about Hambali, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohamed was also there. If true, this would make the CIA’s failure to exploit the meeting all the more bizarre–the Agency was actively looking to rendition him to New York for trial at this time due to his involvement in the 1995 Bojinka plot to blow up multiple airliners.
On January 8, Almihdhar, Alhazmi and bin Attash left Kuala Lumpur for Bangkok, Thailand. The CIA claims it lost them at this point, failing to get men to the airport in time to follow them. This claim needs to be taken with a pinch of salt–bin Attash was monitored in Malaysia making a call to the Washington Hotel in Bangkok, where the three men ended up staying, so it would not be too hard to find them there.
Something strange happened at Alec Station on January 12 and 14. Four days after the three men had left Kuala Lumpur, Wilshire’s boss Blee briefed his superiors, presumably including Counterterrorist Center chief Cofer Black and CIA Director George Tenet, about what was happening. He falsely claimed the surveillance in Malaysia was ongoing. Two days later, he gave another false briefing, saying that the meeting had broken up and, again falsely, that the attendees were still being tracked.
This is a puzzle. It is hard to believe that Blee, who managed only a couple of dozen officers, could be so ignorant of the various cables sent and received about the travel to Bangkok. So why did he misinform his superiors? Was he genuinely misleading them? Or had they told him they wanted no paper trail linking them to what was happening?
On January 15, Alec Station dropped the matter entirely, even allegedly failing to write up a full report on the matter. However, in February a foreign intelligence service made an offer to help with Almihdhar, an offer mentioned in the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry Report, but not the 9/11 Commission Report. The reply that came stated that no help was needed because the CIA was in the middle of an investigation “to determine what the subject is up to.” This is a key document, as it contradicts the claim Alec Station had forgotten all about the two men at the time.
Also in February, a CIA station (almost certainly the one in Kuala Lumpur) prodded Bangkok station about Almihdhar. What had happened to him? Bangkok was silent for some time, then replied they did not know, and would have difficulty finding out. As Thailand had watchlisted Almihdhar and Alhazmi at the CIA’s request in mid-January, it almost certainly did know, or could get the information with a simple phone call. A couple of weeks later, Bangkok got round to replying in a cable also sent to Alec Station: it said Alhazmi had taken a flight to Los Angeles on January 15 with a companion, who was not named but who was in fact Almihdhar. The non-naming of the companion was totally bizarre, the March 5 cable was drafted in response to a query about Almihdhar and Bangkok must have known his name, so why omit it?
Alec Station did nothing with this cable, which was yet another opportunity to watchlist the two men and inform the FBI. This was not the last time such failures were committed.
How the two main inquiries, by the two Congressional intelligence committees and the 9/11 Commission handled the March 5 cable is instructive. The 9/11 Commission report just glosses over it in a couple of lines. The Congressional Inquiry, however, realized just how important it was and zeroed in. Tenet was asked about this publicly under oath by Senator Carl Levin and Tenet … well, he was less than a hundred per cent truthful. In response to the questioning he claimed, “I know that nobody read that cable,” and then repeated the assertion twice. In actual fact, as the public learned five years later, at least 50 people at the CIA had read the cable. It is hard to believe that Tenet, who must have prepared thoroughly for such an important appearance before Congress, thought what he was saying was accurate. So the simple question is: what was he trying to cover up?
Part two of this series will focus on the bombing of the USS Cole and the CIA’s continuing failure to share information with the FBI.
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Kevin Fenton is the author of Disconnecting the Dots: How CIA and FBI Officials Helped Enable 9/11 and Evaded Government Investigations.