Features » September 3, 2003
The unanswered questions of 9/11
On July 24, Congress’ joint intelligence panel finally released a declassified version of its inquiry into the 9/11 attacks. Described variously in the next day’s press reports as “scathing,” “damning,” “harshly critical,” and an “indictment” of White House secrecy, the report detailed a stunning series of failures by the CIA and FBI that led to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
No one in the early post-9/11 months, when the panel was born, could have predicted how damaging its findings would eventually prove. Although the committee was established in defiance of the White House—President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney each personally asked Tom Daschle to limit any investigation to the regular intelligence committees—its work got off to an uninspiring start. Its first staff director, Britt Snider, resigned in April 2002 as committee members squabbled over the scope of the investigation. Expectations for the probe were low.
But the investigation was transformed a month before its first hearings were set to begin. In May 2002, a string of explosive leaks ignited a public debate over the government’s handling of the 9/11 attacks and made the performance of the intelligence agencies a political issue. CBS reporter David Martin revealed that weeks before the attacks, the CIA had warned Bush personally of Osama Bin Laden’s intent to use hijacked planes as missiles. That followed the damaging exposure by The Associated Press’s John Solomon of a pre-9/11 FBI memo from an officer in Phoenix warning of suspicious Middle Eastern men training at flight schools—a warning that went unheeded.
The disclosures rocked the administration. “BUSH KNEW,” blared the May 16, 2002 cover of the Murdoch-owned New York Post. A front-page headline in the Washington Post warned, “An Image of Invincibility Is Shaken by Disclosures.” Even worse for Bush, the news set off an interagency war of press leaks over who was to blame for the mishaps, with each embarrassing leak from the CIA provoking a defensive counter-leak from the FBI. The result of the battle, which wore on through the summer, was political misery for the White House.
By September 2002, Bush was forced to accept the one thing he had been desperately hoping to avoid: an independent blue-ribbon commission into the 9/11 attacks. The commission, as Newsweek put it, may turn out to be “the most far-reaching and explosive government inquiry in decades.” Bush agreed to it only after a series of contentious White House meetings with families of 9/11 victims who were outraged over the summer’s disclosures. Faced with this powerful new political force, the administration saw no way out. “There was a freight train coming down the tracks,” one White House official said. The resulting National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, formally established in late 2002, will not release its final report until May 27, 2004.
In the meantime, the 858-page report of the congressional inquiry is the fullest official accounting to date of what went wrong with the government’s handling of the 9/11 plot. The picture that emerges from its pages (and from information that didn’t make it between its covers) entirely contradicts the administration’s initial portrayal of how 9/11 happened: that a group of quietly efficient attackers slipped unnoticed into the United States and blended into an anonymous, open society, leaving the authorities no chance to pick up their trail—what Seymour Hersh, citing a former FBI counterintelligence official, has labeled “the superman scenario.” Bush himself encapsulated this view two weeks after the attacks when he said: “These terrorists had burrowed in our country for over two years. They were well organized. They were well planned. They struck in a way that was unimaginable.”
In reality, Hersh quotes a top CIA official as saying, the plotters “violated a fundamental rule of clandestine operations.” Instead of “working independently and maintaining rigid communications security, the terrorists, as late as last summer, apparently mingled openly and had not yet decided which flights to target. The planning for September 11th appears to have been far more ad hoc than was at first assumed.”
Moreover, the hijackers did not fly under the radar of the intelligence agencies. The agencies, it turns out, did in fact manage to spot—and even monitor—several several of the 9/11 hijackers before they carried out the attacks, in some cases long before. Yet for reasons that so far remain a mystery, counterterrorism officials at FBI headquarters and the CIA consistently dropped the ball when it came to apprehending them—sometimes acting in ways that ran counter to standard practice, at times to the bafflement and anger of their colleagues.
It’s a point that was underlined during a revealing exchange that took place at a recent meeting between senior FBI agents and relatives of 9/11 victims. At the meeting, Kristen Breitweiser, a widow of one of the dead, posed a question: “How is it that a few hours after the attacks, the nation is brought to its knees, and miraculously FBI agents showed up at Embry-Riddle flight school in Florida where some of the terrorists trained?”
“We got lucky,” was the reply, according to an account of the meeting by Gail Sheehy in the New York Observer.
Breitweiser then asked how the FBI had known exactly which Portland, Maine ATM machine would turn up a videotape of Mohammed Atta, the terrorist ringleader. “The agent got some facts confused, then changed his story,” Sheehy reports. Finally, he asked Breitweiser: “What are you getting at?”
“I think you had open investigations before September 11 on some of the people responsible for the terrorist attacks,” she said.
“We did not,” insisted the agent.
Yet that is exactly what the evidence unearthed by the congressional investigators points to. If at one time it seemed as if catching the hijackers prior to the attacks would have been like finding a needle in a haystack—how could anyone have pinpointed 19 covert terrorists among 290 million Americans?—now the right question seems to be how the FBI and CIA failed to catch the terrorists when they were right under their noses.
A key section of the congressional report tells the puzzling story of a pair of Saudi hijackers who settled in San Diego almost two years before the attacks. Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were two of the terrorists aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. In the report’s judgment, their story represents “perhaps the intelligence community’s best chance to unravel the September 11 plot.”
The tale begins in late 1999, when counterterrorism agents working round-the-clock in preparation for the Millennium celebrations got wind that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, who had been connected to the 1998 East Africa bombings, were planning a trip to Malaysia. According to a CIA officer who testified to the committee, “a kind of tuning fork buzzed” when he and his colleagues heard the news. The CIA arranged for Malaysian intelligence to monitor the pair once they landed in Kuala Lumpur on January 5, 2000. Their behavior, CIA Director George Tenet testified, “was consistent with clandestine activity.”
In Kuala Lumpur, the two men attended a high-level al-Qaeda meeting at the home of Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian chemist with ties to the bin Laden network. Photographs of the gathering were taken secretly by Malaysian intelligence and transmitted back to CIA headquarters. By that time, the CIA had obtained a copy of al-Mihdhar’s Saudi passport, giving the agency his full name, passport number, birth date and other details. The passport showed that al-Mihdhar had a visa, issued at the U.S. consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, giving him the right to enter the United States at any time until the visa expired in April 2000.
Yet no action was taken to warn U.S. customs officials. According to Tenet, “We had at that point the level of detail needed to watchlist [al-Mihdhar]—that is, to nominate him to State Department for refusal of entry into the US or to deny him another visa. Our officers remained focused on the surveillance operation and did not do so.”
It got worse. In March, CIA headquarters received a cable from one of its own overseas stations informing them that shortly after attending the Malaysia meeting, al-Hazmi had boarded a plane and flown to Los Angeles, entering the United States on January 15, 2000. A message addressed to the CIA’s bin Laden unit from a different station noted “with interest” the fact that “a member of this group traveled to the U.S. following his visit to Kuala Lumpur.”
Despite the fact that al-Hazmi was already regarded as a “terrorist operative” by the intelligence agencies, again no action was taken—even though only three months earlier, CIA headquarters had sent a cable to all its bases reminding officers of the importance of watch-listing potential terrorists: Information on suspects need only “raise a reasonable suspicion that the individual is a possible terrorist,” the reminder said.
It was in January 2001, while investigating the USS Cole bombing, that the CIA managed to identify one of the Malaysian plotters captured on film as Khallad bin Attash, a mastermind behind the Cole attack. “This was the first time that CIA could definitively place al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar with a known al-Qaeda operative,” Tenet testified. In May, a CIA counterterrorism officer investigating the Cole case put in a request to dig up the year-old surveillance photos of the Malaysia meeting. He explained in an e-mail that he was interested “because Khalid al-Mihdhar’s two companions also were couriers of a sort, who traveled between [the Far East] and Los Angeles at the same time.” In other words, as the congressional report explains, “information about al-Hazmi’s travel to the United States began to attract attention at CIA at least as early as May 18, 2001”—four months before the World Trade Center attacks.
All along, al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were living openly in the San Diego area, using their real names on their California driver’s licenses and rental agreements. Even more shocking, they had befriended and moved in with a prominent local Muslim leader, Abdussattar Shaikh, who, unbeknownst to them, was a long-time undercover FBI counterterrorism informant in regular contact with a terrorism case officer in the bureau’s San Diego office. According to Newsweek, it was such a close encounter that “on one occasion the [FBI] case agent called up the informant and was told he couldn’t talk because ‘Khalid’—a reference to al-Mihdhar—was in the room.”
The congressional investigators who prepared the report asked to talk to Shaikh, but, they explained, “the [Bush] Administration and the FBI have objected to the Joint Inquiry’s request to interview the informant and have refused to serve a Committee subpoena and notice of deposition.”
Another associate of the hijackers was Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national living in San Diego. Al-Bayoumi, who fled the country shortly before 9/11, assisted al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi on various occasions. He co-signed their lease and paid their first month’s rent and security deposit. According to the congressional report, al-Bayoumi “had access to seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia.” In recent months, he has become the focus of intense scrutiny in Washington over his suspected links to Saudi intelligence.
On the day of his first meeting with the hijackers, at a Los Angeles restaurant, al-Bayoumi stopped by the Saudi consulate for a closed-door chat. Some law enforcement officials, according to Newsweek, believe he met there with Fahad al Thumairy, a member of the consulate’s Islamic and Culture Affairs Section, who was later expelled from the United States for suspected links to terrorism. The congressional report cites the FBI’s “best source” in San Diego as saying that al-Bayoumi “must be an intelligence officer for Saudi Arabia or another foreign power.” A senior FBI official went further, telling Newsweek: “We firmly believed that he had knowledge [of the 9/11 plot], and that his meeting with [the hijackers] that day was more than coincidence.”
It was only on August 23, 2001—three weeks before 9/11—that CIA officers reviewing their files on the year-and-a-half old Malaysia meeting made a decision to try to track down the Saudi militants. An alert was sent out to the FBI and other agencies to find the “bin Laden-related individuals” al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar. The search failed.
Allegations that another key hijacker, Mohammed Atta, was being watched by authorities before 9/11 went unaddressed by the congressional panel. On September 24, 2001, the German newsmagazine Focus reported that Atta, the suspected terrorist ringleader, was under FBI surveillance while he was living in Hamburg during the months before he moved to the United States. Sourced to German police investigators, Focus reported that from January to May 2000, “U.S. agents followed him around the greater Frankfurt area and noted that he made purchases at numerous different drugstores and apothecaries and amassed a substantial amount of chemicals that could be used to construct a bomb.” The German Staatschutz, or state security police, were not informed.
Like 9/11 widow Kristen Breitweiser, a German official quoted by Focus was struck by the FBI’s amazingly detailed knowledge of Atta’s history in the days immediately after 9/11: “Security experts are still dumbfounded, as they were at the time, by the speed with which the FBI was able to make a presentation to [German investigators] laying out the extremely conspiratorial connections between Atta and his alleged Hamburg accomplices. ‘It was like all they had to do was push a button,’ said one insider. ‘It was as if the Americans had already amassed scads of information long before in their database about the perpetrator.’”
Particularly strange is that Atta received approval for his visa from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin on May 18, 2000, exactly when, as Focus put it, “his designated agent from the US secret service was observing his suspicious chemical buying.” Focus quoted a Staatschutz official who declared: “It can no longer be ruled out that the Americans kept their eye on Atta after his entry into the United States.”
Perhaps that’s not so far-fetched. On June 6, 2002 Knight Ridder revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was monitoring Mohammed Atta’s phone calls while he was in the United States, and translated several conversations between Atta and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks who was apprehended in Pakistan last March. Some U.S. officials said the NSA failed to share the information with other intelligence agencies, though one official told Knight Ridder it was “simply not true” that the information was collected and not shared.
Not only are these episodes staggering intelligence failures in their own right, they also illustrate how crucial the FBI’s mishandling of a third case turned out to be—that of Zacarias Moussaoui, the supposed “20th hijacker.” A French citizen of Moroccan descent, Moussaoui was arrested on immigration charges a month before 9/11 after a flight-school instructor in Minnesota, alarmed by his suspicious behavior and large cash payments, called the FBI. John Rosengren, the flight school’s director of operations, feared that Moussaoui “could have been a hijacker who could have tried to take an airplane filled with passengers,” according to the New York Times. “There was discussion of how much fuel was on board a 747-400 and how much damage that could cause if it hit anything.”
According to a now-famous whistle-blowing memo from FBI agent Coleen Rowley, the agent who responded to the call “identified [Moussaoui] as a terrorist threat from a very early point.” These suspicions, she wrote, “quickly ripened into probable cause, which, at the latest, occurred within days of Moussaoui’s arrest when the French Intelligence Service confirmed his affiliations with radical fundamentalist Islamic groups and activities connected to Osama bin Laden.”
The agents became “desperate” to search Moussaoui’s personal computer and other belongings. To do this, they needed permission from FBI headquarters to request a search warrant from a judge. Had they been granted a warrant before 9/11, they would have found a treasure trove of evidence. A notebook belonging to Moussaoui contained the phone number of Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, the former roommate of Mohammed Atta in Hamburg. Just two weeks before the arrest, Bin al-Shibh had wired money to Moussaoui and twice in the previous year he had wired money to yet another hijacker, Marwan al-Shehhi, in Florida. Agents also would have found a letter from bin Laden operative Yazid Sufaat, whose Kuala Lumpur apartment had been the venue for the January 2000 al-Qaeda meeting attended by al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar.
But the Minneapolis agents never got their search warrant. “Key FBI [headquarters] personnel,” according to Rowley, “continued to, almost inexplicably, throw up roadblocks and undermine Minneapolis’ by-now desperate efforts to obtain a FISA search warrant, long after the French intelligence service provided its information and probable cause became clear.”
One FBI supervisor in Washington, Rowley says, “seemed to have been consistently, almost deliberately thwarting the Minneapolis FBI agents’ efforts.” He and other officials “brought up almost ridiculous questions in their apparent efforts to undermine the probable cause.” And at one point the official “deliberately further undercut” the search warrant effort by omitting key intelligence information about Moussaoui from a warrant request while “making several changes in the wording of the information”—all of which made it unlikely that the warrant would be approved. One Minneapolis agent described Washington’s actions as “setting this up for failure.”
To obtain a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the FBI must show, according to former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, that a suspect is “a member of or connected to a terrorist organization, that there was reason to believe that he was actively engaged in the aims of that terrorist organization.” In off-the-record interviews with reporters, FBI officials in Washington denied that the information from France linked Moussaoui to bin Laden. They claim the data connected Moussaoui only with Islamic rebels in Chechnya, who don’t figure on the official U.S. list of “terrorist” groups.
But in a pathbreaking investigative report, CBS reporter Scott Pelley traveled to Paris, where he spoke with “a number of sources inside French intelligence” who insisted that France “had reason to connect Moussaoui to the organization of Osama bin Laden.” French agents had monitored Moussaoui’ s trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan; they believed he met with Abu Jaffa, a top aide to Osama bin Laden; and Moussaoui’s name had been placed on a French terrorist watch list. In the words of top French terrorism judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, “we gave [the FBI] everything we had.”
According to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, on the morning of 9/11, as aides rushed over to George Tenet’s table at the St. Regis Hotel restaurant to tell him the news of the World Trade Center strike, the CIA director was overheard to say: “I wonder if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.”
“Almost everyone’s first question was ‘Why? Why would an FBI agent(s) deliberately sabotage a case?’” Rowley wrote in a footnote to her memo. “Jokes were actually made,” she added in an eye-catching aside, “that that the key FBIHQ personnel had to be spies or moles, like Robert Hanssen, who were actually working for Osama bin Laden to have so undercut Minneapolis’ effort.”
Rowley assumed that careerism, timidity, and bureaucratic inertia at FBI headquarters had simply gotten the better of crime-fighting instincts. So far, that has also been the gist of most of the speculation in the press.
But some have alleged that other factors were at work. Several cases from recent years have come to light in which FBI agents complained of being held back by superiors from investigating Islamic extremist groups. In each instance, it was alleged that high-ranking officials acted out of concern that these inquiries could lead back to America’s closest Arab ally: Saudi Arabia.
“All the answers, everything needed to dismantle Osama bin Laden’s organization can be found in Saudi Arabia,” John O’Neill, the FBI’s former top bin Laden investigator, said shortly before his death in the World Trade Center. O’Neill explicitly referred to interference from US policymakers concerned about U.S.-Saudi relations. He “complained that the F.B.I. was not free to act in international terror investigations because the State Department kept interfering,” according to a New York Times account of O’ Neill’s interview with French journalist Jean-Charles Brisard shortly before his death. O’Neill “explains the failure in one word: oil.”
Last year, the Washington Times reported that in in the mid-’90s, the Clinton administration had “shut down” an investigation of Islamic charities operating in the United States, “concerned that a public probe would expose Saudi Arabia’s suspected ties to a global money-laundering operation.” Citing law enforcement authorities and others, the Times reported that “the State Department pressed federal officials to pull agents off the previously undisclosed probe after the charities were targeted in the diversion of cash to groups that fund terrorism.”
In October 2001, in The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reported on the 1994 defection of a Saudi diplomat in the United States. “He brought with him, according to his New York lawyer, Michael J. Wildes, some fourteen thousand internal government documents” including “evidence that the Saudis had given financial and technical support to Hamas, the extremist Islamic group whose target is Israel.”
Wildes held a meeting at his office with two F.B.I. agents and an Assistant United States Attorney. “We gave them a sampling of the documents and put them on the table,” Wildes told Hersh. “But the agents refused to accept them.” In an interview on BBC’s Newsnight, Wildes said that the FBI agents wanted to accept the documents, but had been forbidden from doing so by higher-ups.
The BBC’s Greg Palast said that a “high-placed member of a U.S. intelligence agency” told him that “while there’s always been constraints on investigating Saudis, under George Bush it’s gotten much worse. After the elections, the agencies were told to ‘back off’ investigating the Bin Ladens and Saudi royals, and that angered agents.” The official added that “since September 11th the policy has been reversed.”
On orders of the Bush administration, a 28-page section dealing with suspected Saudi ties to the 9/11 plot was blacked out of the declassified version of the congressional report. Bush claimed that declassifying the information “would reveal sources and methods” and “help the enemy.” But Sen. Bob Graham, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, decried the redactions. “In my judgment there is compelling evidence that a foreign government provided direct support through officials and agents of that government to some of the September 11 hijackers,” Graham said. Sen. Chuck Schumer went further: “There seems to be a systematic strategy of coddling and cover-up when it comes to the Saudis.”
Of course, it may well turn out that all such suspicions about the government’s motives are misplaced. Many of the facts about the mishandling of the 9/11 case are perfectly consistent with old-fashioned bungling and incompetence—albeit incredible bungling and staggering incompetence. Somehow it ought to be possible to steer a middle course between wild speculation and cynical whitewash. At both extremes, credulity is a danger. If one thing is certain history keeps surprising us with how venal our national security state can be.
What’s needed now is more evidence. That blue-ribbon panel has its work cut out for it.
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Seth Ackerman is a contributing writer to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Research assistance was provided by In These Times intern Daniel Morris.