Who Knew? The unanswered questions of 9/11

The following article is from the In These Times magazine looking at the Congress joint intelligence inquiry and what it revealed. You can see the original article at http://www.inthesetimes.com/comments.php?id=340_0_1_0_C1.

Who Knew? The unanswered questions of 9/11
By Seth Ackerman
In These Times
September 3, 2003

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.

Why Were Hijackers Left Off the Watchlist?

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.

Who Was Watching? Who Was Stalling?

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."