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Context of 'July 18, 2002: FBI Official Says Bin Laden ‘Probably’ Dead'

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Following a government-wide review of intelligence operations, a major reorganization of the FBI is approved by the Clinton administration. The Bureau’s National Security Division is split into two new divisions, the counterterrorism division and the counterintelligence division. The change is the outcome of an interagency review of US counterintelligence involving the FBI, the CIA, and the Department of Defense. The new counterterrorism division will focus on preventing attacks rather than merely investigating them after the fact. Soon upon taking office, Dale Watson, the new division’s head, will order all field offices to become more engaged in counterterrorism by recruiting informants, hiring more Arabic translators, and establishing a joint terrorism task force with local police departments modeled after the unit created in New York in the 1980s. However, a 2001 evaluation report of these efforts will find them insufficient (see Summer 2001). [New York Times, 6/26/1999; BBC News, 11/12/1999; New York Times, 12/30/2001]

Entity Tags: Counterterrorism Division (FBI), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Dale Watson

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

FBI Director Louis Freeh and other top FBI officials are briefed about the ongoing al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000) as part of their regular daily update. They are told the CIA is in the lead and that the CIA promises to let the FBI know if an FBI angle to the case develops. But they are not told that the CIA has just found out that one of the participants, Khalid Almihdhar, has a US visa. [9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004] It is unclear who the other top FBI officials that are briefed are. However, Dale Watson, the assistant director of the counterterrorism division, and Thomas Pickard, the FBI’s deputy director at this time and its acting director in the summer of 2001, will also learn of the summit by July 2001, although it is unclear exactly when they are informed (see July 12, 2001). [Pickard, 6/24/2004] According to Vanity Fair, Richard Blee, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, “provided surveillance updates for [the CIA’s] top officers, the FBI, and the White House” while the summit is in progress. [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] One FBI official familiar with the case will later complain: “[The CIA] purposely hid [Almihdhar] from the FBI, purposely refused to tell the bureau.… The thing was, they didn’t want John O’Neill and the FBI running over their case. And that’s why September 11 happened.… They have blood on their hands.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 224] Jack Cloonan, an FBI agent in the I-49 squad that focuses on al-Qaeda, will later say: “If that information [got] disseminated, would it have had an impact on the events of 9/11? I’m telling you that it would have.” [ABC News, 5/10/2004]

Entity Tags: Richard Blee, Louis J. Freeh, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Jack Cloonan, John O’Neill, Central Intelligence Agency, Counterterrorism Division (FBI), Khalid Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI Executive Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Dale Watson says he thinks Osama bin Laden is “probably” dead. According to the BBC, this is “thought to be the first time a senior US law enforcement official has publicly offered an opinion on whether bin Laden… is dead or alive.” “Is [bin Laden] alive or is he dead?” Watson says at a law enforcement conference in Washington, DC. “I am not really sure of the answer.… I personally think he is probably not with us anymore but I have no evidence to support that.” The BBC will add that “Watson’s comments suggest that the FBI, at least, has no firsthand information that confirms bin Laden is still alive.” However, other US officials tell the Associated Press they are surprised by Watson’s remarks, as the US administration’s official position remains that it does not know where bin Laden is, or whether he is still alive. [BBC, 7/18/2002]

Entity Tags: Dale Watson, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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