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Context of 'August 28, 2001: Cole Agent Argues with FBI Headquarters over Search for 9/11 Hijacker Almihdhar'

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Following a meeting at which FBI agents investigating the attack on the USS Cole were shown pictures of operatives who attended al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit, including 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, but were not given all the relevant information (see June 11, 2001), deputy head of the investigation Steve Bongardt continues to ask for the material, but FBI headquarters fails to provide it. Bongardt apparently has “heated telephone conversations and e-mail exchanges” with FBI headquarters agent Dina Corsi over the passage of the information. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 291, 294 pdf file] Bongardt will tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, “I’ve had several conversations with the analyst [Corsi] after that, because we would talk on other matters, and almost every time I would ask her, ‘What’s the story with the Almihdhar information, when is it going to get passed, do we have anything yet, when is it going to get passed,’ and each time I was told that the information had not been passed yet. And the sense I got from here, based on our conversations, was that she was trying as hard as she could to get the information passed or at least the ability to tell us about the information.” [US Congress, 9/20/2002] But in fact Corsi does not appear to take any steps towards having the information passed to the Cole investigators for two and a half months after the meeting. Part of the relevant information is from a wiretap on Almihdhar’s phone (see Shortly Before December 29, 1999) and, due to measures related to the “wall,” the NSA general counsel has to approve its passage to criminal agents. Corsi finally asks the NSA to approve passage of the information on August 27; the NSA immediately agrees, but Corsi continues to withhold the information from Bongardt (see August 27-28, 2001). The other part of the information consists of photos of the two hijackers in Malaysia with other extremists (see January 5-8, 2000). Corsi will later say she “probably” has follow up conversations about passing the photographs with the two CIA officers, Tom Wilshire and Clark Shannon, who gave them to her (see Late May, 2001), but these alleged conversations do not result in the photos being passed to Bongardt, even though Wilshire will later say that, as far as he was concerned at this point, they could be distributed through the FBI. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 294 pdf file] After Corsi is told that Almihdhar is in the US (see August 21-22, 2001), this information is made available to intelligence investigators at the FBI (see August 28, 2001), but not to the team investigating the Cole bombing (see August 28, 2001).

Entity Tags: Dina Corsi, FBI Headquarters, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Steve Bongardt

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI headquarters agent Dina Corsi writes to Tom Wilshire, a CIA manager detailed to the FBI, and tells him that the search for 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar will be conducted as an intelligence investigation (see August 23, 2001 and August 29, 2001). She also says that she is surer now that Almihdhar is connected to the bombing of the USS Cole, writing, “I am still looking at intel, but I think we have more of a definitive connection to the Cole here than we thought.” Even though Corsi thinks Almihdhar is tied to the Cole bombing, she will oppose the search for him being conducted as part of the criminal investigation and insist that it be part of an intelligence investigation (see August 28, 2001 and August 28, 2001). [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 304 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Usama bin Laden Unit (FBI), Khalid Almihdhar, Dina Corsi, Tom Wilshire, FBI Headquarters

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The NSA’s representative to the FBI asks the NSA for permission to pass intelligence information about 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi to FBI criminal agents investigating the bombing of the USS Cole and permission is granted the same day, but FBI headquarters does not forward this information to the Cole investigators. The request is made on behalf of FBI headquarters agent Dina Corsi, but Corsi does not want the agents to launch a criminal investigation to find Almihdhar in the US—she believes the information will be useful to them because of Almihdhar’s connection to the Cole bombing. The information identifies Almihdhar as an “Islamic extremist” and says that he traveled to Kuala Lumpur, where he met an associate named Nawaf (see January 5-8, 2000). This links Almihdhar to the Cole bombing because the FBI thinks one of the bombers, Fahad al-Quso, may have traveled to Kuala Lumpur at the same time as Almihdhar. Although the 9/11 Commission will say that Corsi “had permission to share the information” with the Cole investigators, she apparently does not do so, even though it is clear from conversations they have around this time that they want it (see August 28, 2001, and August 28, 2001, August 28-29, 2001, and August 29, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 271, 539; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 276-7, 283, 286, 294, 304 pdf file; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Nawaf Alhazmi, Usama bin Laden Unit (FBI), National Security Agency, FBI Headquarters, Fahad al-Quso, Dina Corsi, Khalid Almihdhar, FBI New York Field Office

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI New York agent Steve Bongardt, FBI headquarters agent Dina Corsi, and acting FBI Osama bin Laden unit head Rod Middleton, who is Corsi’s supervisor, discuss whether the search for future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar should be an intelligence or criminal investigation. Bongardt argues that the search should be a criminal investigation because of Almihdhar’s connection to the bombing of the USS Cole and because more agents could be assigned to a criminal investigation. (Note: the office only has one rookie intelligence agent available.) He also says a criminal investigation would have better tools, such as grand jury subpoenas, which are faster and easier to obtain than the tools in an intelligence investigation. Corsi and Middleton say that the “wall” prevents the intelligence information necessary for the case being shared with criminal investigators, so the search must be an intelligence investigation. (Note: Corsi and Middleton are wrong (see August 29, 2001).) Bongardt is unhappy with this and requests an opinion from the Justice Department’s national security law unit (see August 28-29, 2001). [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 307 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Usama bin Laden Unit (FBI), Rod Middleton, Dina Corsi, Steve Bongardt, FBI New York Field Office, FBI Headquarters, Khalid Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI headquarters agents Dina Corsi and Rod Middleton contact Justice Department lawyer Sherry Sabol to ask her opinion on the search for 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, but Sabol will later say that Corsi misrepresents her advice to other agents. Corsi contacts Sabol, an attorney at the national security law unit, to ask her about legal restrictions on the search for Almihdhar, because of an argument she has had with New York agent Steve Bongardt about whether the search should be an intelligence or criminal investigation (see August 28, 2001 and August 28, 2001). Corsi will later tell Bongardt that Sabol told her that the information needed for the investigation cannot be passed on to criminal agents at the FBI, only intelligence agents, and that if Almihdhar is located, a criminal agent cannot be present at an interview. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 307-8 pdf file] Corsi’s understanding of the issue is wrong, and the “wall,” which restricted the passage of some intelligence information to criminal agents at the FBI, does not prevent the information in question being shared with criminal agents (see August 29, 2001). The 9/11 Commission will comment that Corsi “appears to have misunderstood the complex rules that could apply to the situation.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 271] In addition, Sabol will later insist that her advice was very different than what Corsi claims it is. She will deny saying a criminal agent could not interview Almihdhar, arguing that she would not have given such inaccurate advice. She will also say the caveat on the intelligence information from the NSA would not have stopped criminal agents getting involved and, in any case, the NSA would have waived the caveat if asked. (Note: the NSA did so at Corsi’s request just one day earlier (see August 27-28, 2001), but presumably Corsi does not tell Sabol this.) [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 271] Larry Parkinson, the FBI’s general counsel at this time, will later say there was no legal bar to a criminal agent being present at an interview and that he would be shocked if Sabol had actually told Corsi this. [9/11 Commission, 2/24/2004] Furthermore, Corsi apparently does not tell Sabol that Almihdhar is in the US illegally. The illegal entry is a crime and means criminal FBI agents can search for him (see August 29, 2001).

Entity Tags: Steve Bongardt, Sherry Sabol, Usama bin Laden Unit (FBI), Larry Parkinson, Khalid Almihdhar, Dina Corsi, FBI Headquarters, FBI New York Field Office, National Security Law Unit, Rod Middleton

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

According to author Lawrence Wright, on this day there is a conference call between FBI field agent Steve Bongardt, FBI headquarters agent Dina Corsi, and a CIA supervisor at Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, who tells Bongardt to stand down in the search for future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar. Corsi and Bongardt have been arguing over whether the search for Almihdhar in the US should be a criminal or intelligence investigation (see August 28, 2001 and August 28, 2001), and the CIA supervisor apparently sides with Corsi, saying the search should be an intelligence investigation, and so Bongardt, a criminal agent, cannot be involved in it. Bongardt is angry with this and remarks, “If this guy [Almihdhar] is in the country, it’s not because he’s going to f___ing Disneyland!” [Wright, 2006, pp. 353-4] However, there will be no mention of this conversation in the 9/11 Commission Report or the Justice Department’s report into the FBI’s performance before 9/11. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 271; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 306-7 pdf file] According to the Justice Department report, there is a similar conference call between Bongardt, Corsi, and her supervisor at the FBI around this time (see August 28, 2001). It is possible Wright is confusing the supervisor of the CIA’s bin Laden unit with the supervisor of the FBI’s bin Laden unit, meaning that the CIA supervisor is not involved in this argument.

Entity Tags: Steve Bongardt, Alec Station, Khalid Almihdhar, Central Intelligence Agency, FBI New York Field Office, Dina Corsi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI opens an intelligence investigation to find future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, despite protests from the FBI New York field office that FBI headquarters has wrongly insisted on an intelligence investigation, when a criminal investigation would be more appropriate and have a better chance of finding him. The Justice Department’s office of inspector general will later conclude that “the designation of the Almihdhar matter as an intelligence investigation, as opposed to a criminal investigation, undermined the priority of any effort to locate Almihdhar.” Upon learning of the decision, Steve Bongardt, an investigator working on the USS Cole bombing investigation, writes to headquarters agent Dina Corsi to express his frustration. He points out that she is unable to produce any solid documentary evidence to support her view of the “wall,” a mechanism that restricts the passage of some intelligence information to criminal agents at the FBI (see Early 1980s and July 19, 1995), and that her interpretation of the “wall” is at odds with the purpose for which it was established. He adds: “Whatever has happened to this—someday someone will die—and wall or not—the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain ‘problems.’ Let’s hope the [Justice Department’s] National Security Law Unit will stand behind their decisions then, especially since the biggest threat to us now, UBL [Osama bin Laden], is getting the most ‘protection.’” [US Congress, 9/20/2002; New York Times, 9/21/2002; US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 307-9 pdf file; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 pdf file] Both the Justice Department’s office of inspector general and the 9/11 Commission will later back Bongardt and say the investigation should have been a criminal investigation, as the “wall” procedures did not apply. The inspector general will comment that Bongardt “was correct that the wall had been created to deal with the handling of only [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] information and that there was no legal barrier to a criminal agent being present for an interview with Almihdhar if it occurred in the intelligence investigation.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 351 pdf file] The 9/11 Commission will remark that Corsi “misunderstood” the wall and that, “Simply put, there was no legal reason why the information [Corsi] possessed could not have been shared with [Bongardt].” It will conclude: “It is now clear that everyone involved was confused about the rules governing the sharing and use of information gathered in intelligence channels. Because Almihdhar was being sought for his possible connection to or knowledge of the Cole bombing, he could be investigated or tracked under the existing Cole criminal case. No new criminal case was needed for the criminal agent to begin searching for [him]. And as the NSA had approved the passage of its information to the criminal agent, he could have conducted a search using all available information. As a result of this confusion, the criminal agents who were knowledgeable about al-Qaeda and experienced with criminal investigative techniques, including finding suspects and possible criminal charges, were thus excluded from the search.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 271, 539]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Steve Bongardt, Usama bin Laden Unit (FBI), Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), National Commision on Terrorist Attacks, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Dina Corsi, FBI Headquarters, Khalid Almihdhar, FBI New York Field Office

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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