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Context of 'January 1996: Squad Uniting Prosecutors and FBI Agents Begins Focusing on Bin Laden'

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Jack Cloonan.Jack Cloonan. [Source: PBS]The Justice Department directs an existing unit called Squad I-49 to begin building a legal case against bin Laden. This unit is unusual because it combines prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, who have been working on bin Laden related cases, with the FBI’s New York office, which was the FBI branch office that dealt the most with bin Laden -related intelligence. Patrick Fitzgerald effectively directs I-49 as the lead prosecutor. FBI agent Dan Coleman becomes a key member while simultaneously representing the FBI at Alec Station, the CIA’s new bin Laden unit (February 1996) where he has access to the CIA’s vast informational database. (Lance 2006, pp. 218-219) The other initial members of I-49 are: Louis Napoli, John Anticev, Mike Anticev, Richard Karniewicz, Jack Cloonan, Carl Summerlin, Kevin Cruise, Mary Deborah Doran, and supervisor Tom Lang. All are FBI agents except for Napoli and Summerlin, a New York police detective and a New York state trooper, respectively. The unit will end up working closely with FBI agent John O’Neill, who heads the New York FBI office. Unlike the CIA’s Alec Station, which is focused solely on bin Laden, I-49 has to work on other Middle East -related issues. For much of the next year or so, most members will work on the July 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, because it crashed near New York and is suspected to have been carried out by Middle Eastern militants (July 17, 1996-September 1996). However, in years to come, I-49 will grow considerably and focus more on bin Laden. (Wright 2006, pp. 240-241) After 9/11, the “wall” between intelligence collection and criminal prosecution will often be cited for the failure to stop the 9/11 attacks. But as author Peter Lance will later note, “Little more than ten months after the issuance of Jamie Gorelick’s ‘wall memo,’ Fitzgerald and company were apparently disregarding her mandate that criminal investigation should be segregated from intelligence threat prevention. Squad I-49… was actively working both jobs.” Thanks to Coleman’s involvement in both I-49 and the CIA’s Alec Station, I-49 effectively avoids the so-called “wall” problem. (Lance 2006, pp. 220)

The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center creates a special unit focusing specifically on bin Laden. It is informally called Alec Station. About 10 to 15 individuals are assigned to the unit initially. This grows to about 35 to 40 by 9/11. (US Congress 9/18/2002) The unit is set up “largely because of evidence linking [bin Laden] to the 1993 bombing of the WTC.” (Gellman 10/3/2001) Newsweek will comment after 9/11, “With the Cold War over, the Mafia in retreat, and the drug war unwinnable, the CIA and FBI were eager to have a new foe to fight.… Historical rivals, the spies and G-men were finally learning to work together. But they didn’t necessarily share secrets with the alphabet soup of other enforcement and intelligence agencies, like Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and they remained aloof from the Pentagon. And no amount of good will or money could bridge a fundamental divide between intelligence and law enforcement. Spies prefer to watch and wait; cops want to get their man.” (Hosenball 10/1/2001) Michael Scheuer will lead the unit until 1999. He will later become a vocal critic of the US government’s efforts to combat terrorism. He later recalls that while bin Laden is mostly thought of merely as a terrorist financier at this time, “we had run across bin Laden in a lot of different places, not personally but in terms of his influence, either through rhetoric, through audiotapes, through passports, through money-he seemed to turn up everywhere. So when we [created the unit], the first responsibility was to find out if he was a threat.” (Zeman et al. 11/2004) By the start of 1997, the unit will conclude bin Laden is a serious threat (see Early 1997).

TWA Flight 800 crashes off the coast of Long Island, New York, killing the 230 people on board. The cause of the crash is debated for a long time afterward, and terrorism is considered a possibility. With this accident in mind, President Clinton requests, and Congress approves, over $1 billion in counterterrorism-related funding in September 1996. (Clarke 2004, pp. 130)

Mary Jo White.Mary Jo White. [Source: CNN]Mary Jo White, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which handles a lot of terrorism investigations, complains about the “wall” procedures regulating the passage of intelligence information to US attorneys and criminal agents at the FBI. The rules were recently formalized (see July 19, 1995), but she says that the 1995 procedures are building “unnecessary and counterproductive walls that inhibit rather than promote our ultimate objectives [and that] we must face the reality that the way we are proceeding now is inherently and in actuality very dangerous.” Following her complaints, an exception is created for the Southern District of New York Attorneys’ Office. The office works with the FBI’s I-49 squad, which handles international terrorism matters (see January 1996 and Late 1998-Early 2002). The FBI can now notify this office of evidence of a crime directly, without consulting the Justice Department. Once this is done, the office would then contact two units in the Justice Department, the Criminal Division and the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 29 pdf file)

The FBI’s New York field office, which specializes in international terrorism and houses the I-49 squad that focuses on Osama bin Laden (see January 1996), receives information from the NSA about a wiretap on the phone of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar. The information concerns travel by Almihdhar, fellow alleged hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi, and other operatives to an al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, Shortly Before December 29, 1999, and January 5-8, 2000), but the office, like the rest of the FBI, is not told Almihdhar has a US visa (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000). However, the New York office apparently does not realize it has this information and when investigators become aware of its importance in June 2001 they will conduct a running argument with FBI headquarters and the CIA over whether they can receive it again (see June 11, 2001). (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 293 pdf file)

The Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR), which helps obtain warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), discovers errors in several al-Qaeda related FISA applications under a counterterrorist program called “Catcher’s Mitt.” The OIPR verbally notifies the FISA Court of the errors, which are mostly in affidavits submitted by supervisory special agents at field offices. Then, in September and October 2000, the OIPR submits two pleadings to the court regarding approximately 75-100 applications with errors starting in July 1997. Many of the errors concern misleading statements about the nature of collaboration between criminal and intelligence agents. Most of these applications stated that the FBI New York field office, where the I-49 squad focusing on al-Qaeda was based (see January 1996 and Late 1998-Early 2002), had separate teams of agents handling criminal and intelligence investigations. But in actual fact the I-49 agents intermingled with criminal agents working on intelligence cases and intelligence agents working on criminal cases. Therefore, contrary to what the FISA Court has been told, agents working on a criminal investigation have had unrestricted access to information from a parallel intelligence investigation—a violation of the so-called “wall,” the set of bureaucratic procedures designed to separate criminal and intelligence investigations (see July 19, 1995). (Hirsh and Isikoff 5/27/2002; Isikoff and Thomas 3/29/2004; US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 36-37 pdf file) The information about al-Qaeda in these cases is also shared with assistant US attorneys without FISA permission being sought or granted first. Other errors include the FBI director wrongly asserting that the target of a FISA application was not under criminal investigation, omissions of material facts about a prior relationship between the FBI and a target, and an interview of a target by an assistant US attorney. (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court 5/17/2002) This leads the FISA Court to impose new requirements regarding the “wall” (see October 2000). Similar problems will be found in FISA applications for surveillance of Hamas operatives (see March 2001).

FBI agent Ken Williams.FBI agent Ken Williams. [Source: FBI]Phoenix, Arizona, FBI agent Ken Williams sends a memorandum warning about suspicious activities involving a group of Middle Eastern men taking flight training lessons in Arizona. The memo is titled: “Zakaria Mustapha Soubra; IT-OTHER (Islamic Army of the Caucasus),” because it focuses on Zakaria Soubra, a Lebanese flight student in Prescott, Arizona, and his connection with a terror group in Chechnya that has ties to al-Qaeda. It is subtitled: “Osama bin Laden and Al-Muhjiroun supporters attending civil aviation universities/colleges in Arizona.” (Behar 5/22/2002; House 7/24/2003) Williams’ memo is based on an investigation of Sorba that Williams had begun in 2000 (see April 2000), but he had trouble pursuing because of the low priority the Arizona FBI office gave terror investigations (see April 2000-June 2001). Additionally, Williams had been alerted to suspicions about radical militants and aircraft at least three other times (see October 1996; 1998; November 1999-August 2001). In the memo, Williams does the following:
bullet Names nine other suspect students from Pakistan, India, Kenya, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. (Schrom 10/1/2002) Hijacker Hani Hanjour, attending flight school in Arizona in early 2001 and probably continuing into the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001), is not one of the students, but, as explained below, it seems two of the students know him. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file; Smith 7/25/2003)
bullet Notes that he interviewed some of these students, and heard some of them make hostile comments about the US. Additionally, he noticed that they were suspiciously well informed about security measures at US airports. (Schrom 10/1/2002)
bullet Notes an increasing, “inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” taking flight lessons in Arizona. (Schrom 10/1/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file)
bullet Suspects that some of the ten people he has investigated are connected to al-Qaeda. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file) One person on the list, Ghassan al Sharbi, will be arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002). Al Sharbi attended a flight school in Prescott, Arizona. He also apparently attended the training camps in Afghanistan and swore loyalty to bin Laden in the summer of 2001. He apparently knows Hani Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). He also is the roommate of Soubra, the main target of the memo. (Krikorian 1/24/2003; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 521)
bullet Discovers that one of them was communicating through an intermediary with Abu Zubaida. This apparently is a reference to Hamed al Sulami, who had been telephoning a Saudi imam known to be Zubaida’s spiritual advisor. Al Sulami is an acquaintance of Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). (Mercury News (San Jose) 5/23/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 520-521, 529)
bullet Discusses connections between several of the students and a radical group called Al-Muhajiroun. (Mercury News (San Jose) 5/23/2002) This group supported bin Laden, and issued a fatwa, or call to arms, that included airports on a list of acceptable terror targets. (Solomon 5/22/2002) Soubra, the main focus of the memo, is a member of Al-Muhajiroun and an outspoken radical. He met with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of Al-Muhajiroun in Britain, and started an Arizona chapter of the organization. After 9/11, some US officials will suspect that Soubra has ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He will be held two years, then deported to Lebanon in 2004. (Connell 10/28/2001; Krikorian 1/24/2003; Wagner 5/2/2004; Sherman 11/2004) Though Williams doesn’t include it in his memo, in the summer of 1998, Bakri publicized a fax sent by bin Laden to him that listed al-Qaeda’s four objectives in fighting the US. The first objective was “bring down their airliners.” (see Summer 1998). (Connell 10/28/2001)
bullet Warns of a possible “effort by Osama bin Laden to send students to the US to attend civil aviation universities and colleges” (Behar 5/22/2002) , so they can later hijack aircraft. (Schrom 10/1/2002)
bullet Recommends that the “FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities and colleges around the country. FBI field offices with these types of schools in their area should establish appropriate liaison. FBI [headquarters] should discuss this matter with other elements of the US intelligence community and task the community for any information that supports Phoenix’s suspicions.” (House 7/24/2003) (The FBI has already done this, but because of poor FBI communications, Williams is not aware of the report.)
bullet Recommends that the FBI ask the State Department to provide visa data on flight school students from Middle Eastern countries, which will facilitate FBI tracking efforts. (Risen 5/4/2002)
The memo is addressed to the following FBI Agents:
bullet Dave Frasca, chief of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters;
bullet Elizabeth Harvey Matson, Mark Connor and Fred Stremmel, Intelligence Operations Specialists in the RFU;
bullet Rod Middleton, acting chief of the Usama bin Laden Unit (UBLU);
bullet Jennifer Maitner, an Intelligence Operations Specialist in the UBLU;
bullet Jack Cloonan, an agent on the New York FBI’s bin Laden unit, the I-49 squad; (see January 1996 and Spring 2000).
bullet Michael S. Butsch, an agent on another New York FBI squad dealing with other Sunni terrorists. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 7/10/2001 pdf file; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file)
However, the memo is not uploaded into the FBI’s information system until the end of the month and is apparently not received by all these people (see July 27, 2001 and after). Williams also shares some concerns with the CIA (see (July 27, 2001)). (Mercury News (San Jose) 5/23/2002) One anonymous government official who has seen the memo says, “This was as actionable a memo as could have been written by anyone.” (Insight 5/27/2002) However, the memo is merely marked “routine,” rather than “urgent.” It is generally ignored, not shared with other FBI offices, and the recommendations are not taken. One colleague in New York replies at the time that the memo is “speculative and not very significant.” (Schrom 10/1/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file) Williams is unaware of many FBI investigations and leads that could have given weight to his memo. Authorities later claim that Williams was only pursuing a hunch, but one familiar with classified information says, “This was not a vague hunch. He was doing a case on these guys.” (Mercury News (San Jose) 5/23/2002)

I-49, a squad of FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors that began focusing on bin Laden in 1996 (see January 1996), is upset that the NSA is not sharing its monitoring of the phone calls of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). The squad builds their own antenna in Madagascar specifically to intercept KSM’s calls. (Wright 2006, pp. 344) It has not been revealed when this antenna was built or what was learned from this surveillance. However, there have been media reports that the NSA monitored some phone calls between KSM and Mohamed Atta in the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001). Further, US intelligence monitored a call between KSM and Atta a day before 9/11 that was the final go-ahead for the attacks (see September 10, 2001). So presumably the I-49 squad should have known about these calls as well if this antenna did what it was designed to do.

Patrick J. Fitzgerald is confirmed as US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, centering in Chicago. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL—no relation to Patrick Fitzgerald) nominated Fitzgerald for the position because he felt Fitzgerald, a native New Yorker and veteran prosecutor with no ties to Chicago, would be less likely to become corrupted by what he thought to be the “Chicago Democrat machine.” Fitzgerald had come highly recommended by, among others, Louis Freeh, then the director of the FBI. White House political chief Karl Rove later says that he did not oppose Fitzgerald’s nomination, though he was somewhat disturbed by Senator Fitzgerald’s insistence on the nomination. Rove will recall: “Senator Fitzgerald’s attitude was: ‘I’m not going to submit multiple names. I will take only one name, and this is all that is going to be acceptable.’ And we asked him to submit multiple names, and we also asked him to think about people from within the districts. Our predilection was to have people from within the district selected. We thought it, you know, encouraged a civic-minded attitude among lawyers. It made certain that you had some fresh blood that would flow in. If you pick people from outside the district, they tend to be career prosecutors. And Senator Fitzgerald was particularly unimpressed by this. He said that, in Chicago, the politics in Chicago were such that no US Attorney from Chicago could exist without being subverted by the political influence peddlers in Chicago, that they would be bought off by the big law firms and the Chicago Democrat machine. And so he was going to only provide us one name for each, the Northern District and the Southern District. Following my very effective telephone conversation with him, he responded by going out and announcing to the press that the president was nominating his two names from the Northern and Southern Districts.” Rove will say that he did not oppose Fitzgerald’s nomination, and it would not have been proper for him to do so: “That wasn’t mine—once that conversation was over, it wasn’t mine to have an opinion. I believe the president has a right to appoint. And that means that senators have, by tradition, the right to recommend. But they are usurping a presidential right when they go out and name the nominee before the president has even had a chance to evaluate multiple names and settle on who he wants and do the necessary staff work to arrive at it. Fortunately, Senator Fitzgerald recommended two good names, and both of them worked out. But it was an unusual process that involved, in my opinion, a congressional usurpation of a presidential power.” Senator Fitzgerald will later say that Rove told him the selection of Patrick Fitzgerald “ticked off the [Illinois Republican] base,” a statement Rove will call “inaccurate.… I chalk it up to an overactive imagination.” Rove will go on to imply, without directly saying, that US Attorney Fitzgerald prosecutes Governor George Ryan (R-IL) as something of a political favor to Senator Fitzgerald, as the governor and the senator are political rivals within the Illinois Republican Party. Experienced in prosecuting high-profile terrorism cases (see January 1996), Fitzgerald will go on to chair the terrorism subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (AGAC) and later become special counsel for the Lewis Libby leak investigation (see December 30, 2003). (Frankel 12/11/2008; Rove 7/7/2009 pdf file)

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