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Context of 'July 26, 2000: FBI Official Tells Congress the Threat of Terrorism in the US Is Low'

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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


Terry Turchie.
Terry Turchie. [Source: FBI]Freeh’s FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Terry Turchie, testifying before a classified meeting of a House of Representatives committee, says, “FBI investigation and analysis indicates that the threat of terrorism in the United States is low.” Summarizing the terrorist threat, he fails to mention al-Qaeda or Islamic militants of any kind, and instead considers the “serious terrorist threat” to be coming from “animal-rights and environmental extremists” and “right-wing groups.” In December 2000, the FBI will tell Congress that the threat of terrorists targeting US aviation is low (see December 2000). In contradiction to this, Louis Freeh, FBI Director from 1993 to early 2001, will testify after 9/11 that “Before the end of 1999, the FBI and the intelligence community clearly understood the foreign-based al-Qaeda threat regarding targets within the United States. Congress and the Executive were fully briefed as to this threat analysis…” [US Congress, 7/26/2000; US Congress, 10/8/2002]

Entity Tags: US Congress, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Terry Turchie, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The FBI and FAA jointly publish the yearly National Intelligence Estimate report mandated by Congress. It reads, “FBI investigations confirm domestic and international terrorist groups operating within the US but do not suggest evidence of plans to target domestic civil aviation. Terrorist activity within the US has focused primarily on fundraising, recruiting new members, and disseminating propaganda. While international terrorists have conducted attacks on US soil, these acts represent anomalies in their traditional targeting which focuses on US interests overseas.” This differs from assessments in previous years that suggested there were groups targeting domestic aviation. The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will conclude that assessment is “relatively low… notwithstanding historical intelligence information to the contrary.” [US Congress, 9/18/2002]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

John O’Neill.
John O’Neill. [Source: FBI]An article in the New York Times reveals that the FBI has launched an internal investigation of John O’Neill, one of its most senior counterterrorism officials, for losing a briefcase that contained highly classified information. [New York Times, 8/19/2001] O’Neill, special agent in charge of the FBI’s national security division in New York, had his briefcase, which contained his division’s annual field office report, stolen when he left it unattended during a conference in Orlando, Florida, in July 2000 (see July 2000). The briefcase was found a few hours later with the report still in it. [Wright, 2006, pp. 317; Graff, 2011, pp. 260] However, the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility immediately launched an investigation to determine whether any criminal charges should be brought against O’Neill. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 281] That investigation recently ended with a decision not to prosecute, but the FBI’s internal affairs unit subsequently began an investigation to determine whether O’Neill had violated FBI rules. According to the Times: “FBI officials were alarmed, in part, because of the sensitivity of the documents involved, including details about the bureau’s counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations. One document contained highly sensitive information about an FBI source.” [New York Times, 8/19/2001]
Story Appears Timed to Stop O'Neill Getting a Job on the NSC - The New Yorker will later comment that the leaking of the details of the FBI investigation to the Times “seemed to be timed to destroy O’Neill’s chance of being confirmed for [a National Security Council] job.” The leak was “somebody being pretty vicious to John,” Thomas Pickard, acting FBI director, will say. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002]
Several Officials Will Be Suspected of Being the Article's Source - A number of people will be suspected of leaking the details of the investigation to the Times. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 347] O’Neill will suspect Pickard. The acting director “was out to get John for a long time and John never really knew why,” Valerie James, O’Neill’s longtime girlfriend, will say. Pickard will deny being the leaker, though, when O’Neill confronts him about the issue. [PBS, 10/3/2002] Other possible sources of the leak, according to journalist and author Murray Weiss, include Dale Watson, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division; Barbara Bodine, the US ambassador to Yemen; and Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 347]
O'Neill Has Overseen Major Terrorism Investigations - O’Neill’s job is among the most powerful in the FBI, and O’Neill has overseen cases such as the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 (see October 12, 2000). [New York Times, 8/19/2001] He is the FBI’s “most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists,” according to the New Yorker. But he will retire from the FBI on August 22 and take up a new job as head of security at the World Trade Center a day later (see August 22, 2001 and August 23, 2001). [New Yorker, 1/14/2002; Weiss, 2003, pp. 349-350]

Entity Tags: Valerie James, John O’Neill, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of Professional Responsibility, Barbara Bodine, Dale Watson, Thomas Pickard, Richard A. Clarke

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The FBI searches the home that once belonged to convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (see December 23, 1997 and May 26, 2004) and finds explosive materials related to the 1995 bombing (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995). The bureau acts on a tip that it missed evidence in its search a decade earlier (see 3:15 p.m. and After, April 21-22, 1995). Blasting caps and other explosive materials were concealed in a crawl space of the Herington, Kansas, home, buried under about a foot of rock, dirt, and gravel, an area not searched in the 1995 investigation. FBI agent Gary Johnson says, “[T]he information so far indicates the items have been there since prior to the Oklahoma City bombing.” Nichols’s lawyer, Brian Hermanson, says the discovery is either a hoax or evidence of a major failure by the FBI: “They were there often. It’s surprising. I would think they would have done their job and found everything that was there. But I’m still suspicious that it could be something planted there. The house was empty for several years.” [Associated Press, 4/2/2005] Reportedly, Nichols has admitted conspiring to build the bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (see November 30, 2004).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Brian Hermanson, Terry Lynn Nichols, Gary Johnson

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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