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Context of 'September 4, 2001: Mueller Takes Over as FBI Director; Criticized for BCCI Investigation'

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US Justice Department headquarters.US Justice Department headquarters. [Source: GlobeXplorer]Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) stumbles across the criminality of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) while investigating international drug trafficking as part of a congressional oversight committee. He soon starts a vigorous congressional investigation of BCCI, and New York district attorney Robert Morgenthau launches a vigorous investigation as well. (Tolchin 7/29/1991) However, Kerry’s and Morgenthau’s investigations are consistently stifled. Kerry will later say that, “with the key exception of the Federal Reserve, there was almost [no]… information or cooperation provided by other government agencies.” (US Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations 12/1992) Kerry will later conclude that the Justice Department in particular went to great lengths to block his and Morgenthau’s investigations “through a variety of mechanisms, ranging from not making witnesses available, to not returning phone calls, to claiming that every aspect of the case was under investigation in a period when little, if anything was being done.” After the Bank of England shuts down BCCI in July 1991 (see July 5, 1991), making big headlines, Under Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller takes over Justice Department efforts on BCCI and assigns many new attorneys to the case. But Kerry will ultimately conclude that the indictments the Justice Department brings forth against BCCI after that time were narrower and less detailed than those of Morgenthau’s, and often seemed to be in response to what Morgenthau was doing. (US Congress 12/1992) Kerry submits his report on BCCI in December 1992, and after that investigations into BCCI peter out. President Bush will appoint Mueller to be director of the FBI shortly before 9/11 (see September 4, 2001).

A Time magazine cover story on BCCI.A Time magazine cover story on BCCI. [Source: Time Magazine]The Bank of England shuts down Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the largest Islamic bank in the world. Based in Pakistan, this bank financed numerous militant organizations and laundered money generated by illicit drug trafficking and other illegal activities, including arms trafficking. Bin Laden and many other militants had accounts there (see July 1991). (Ehrenfeld 9/30/2001) One money-laundering expert later claims, “BCCI did dirty work for every major terrorist service in the world.” (Pasternak and Braun 1/20/2002) Regulators shut down BCCI offices in dozens of countries and seize about $2 billion of the bank’s $20 billion in assets. BCCI is the seventh largest bank in the world. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), owns 77% of the bank at the time of its closing. He and the UAE government will end up losing about $8 billion. About 1.4 million people had deposits in the bank and will end up losing most of their money. (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 98-99) American and British governments were aware of its activities yet allowed the bank to operate for years. The Pakistani ISI had major connections to the bank. (Ehrenfeld 9/30/2001) The Bank of England is forced to close BCCI largely because of outside pressure. Beginning in February 1991, the mainstream media began reporting on BCCI’s criminal activities as more and more whistleblowers came forward. (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 95) However, as later State Department reports indicate, Pakistan remains a major drug trafficking and money-laundering center despite the bank’s closing. (Ehrenfeld 9/30/2001) Most of the bank’s top officials will escape prosecution, and remnants of the bank will continue operating in some countries under new names (see August 1991). A French intelligence report in 2001 will suggest the that Osama bin Laden will later build his financial network on the ruins of the BCCI network, oftentimes using former BCCI officials (see October 10, 2001). (Farah 2/17/2002)

Louis Freeh, FBI Director since September 1993 (see September 1993), unexpectedly announces his resignation. He will continue to serve until June 25. Assistant Director Thomas Pickard will serve as acting director until Robert Mueller will take over in early September 2001 (see September 4, 2001). (BBC 5/1/2001) The BBC reports, “Mr. Freeh did not give specific reasons for his decision to leave, but he had been the target of criticism following the arrest in February [2001] of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent accused of working for Moscow for more than 15 years.” (BBC 7/5/2001)

Robert Mueller assumes the job of FBI Director. He had been nominated for the job in July 2001 after Louis Freeh’s unexpected and sudden resignation (see May 1, 2001). Thomas Pickard was interim director for three months. Mueller held a variety of jobs in the Justice Department for over a decade prior to his nomination. Most notably, he led Justice Department investigations into the 1991 collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) (see July 5, 1991) and the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. (BBC 7/5/2001; CNN 9/5/2001) Mueller was heavily criticized for his role in the BCCI investigation (see February 1988-December 1992). For instance, a bipartisan Congressional BCCI investigation led by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Hank Brown (R-CO) stated, “Unfortunately, as time has passed it has become increasingly clear that the Justice Department did indeed make critical errors in its handling of BCCI… and moreover masked inactivity in prosecuting and investigating the bank by advising critics that matters pertaining to BCCI were ‘under investigation,’ when in fact they were not” and also “[hindered] other legitimate investigative efforts, and [failed] to admit that it had made any of these mistakes.” (US Congress 12/1992) Mueller himself noted in 1991 that there was an “appearance of, one, foot-dragging; two, perhaps a cover-up,” but denied the cover-up claims. A Wall Street Journal editorial notes that “Even George W. Bush bumped up against the outer fringes of the BCCI crowd during his tenure with Harken Energy and in his friendship with Texas entrepreneur James Bath,” and opines, “On general principles, our view is that it would be a mistake to appoint as FBI head anyone who had any role in the failed BCCI probe. Too many important questions remain unanswered…” (Wall Street Journal 6/26/2001)

Michael Rolince.Michael Rolince. [Source: US Army]FBI Director Robert Mueller is alerted to the crash at the World Trade Center during his daily briefing with his senior staff, but he does not initially realize the incident is a terrorist attack. Every morning since Mueller took over as FBI director, just one week ago (see September 4, 2001), the bureau’s leaders have gathered to bring him up to date on their most important investigations. (New Yorker 9/24/2001; Graff 2011, pp. 314-315) The briefing today is taking place in the Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC), on the fifth floor of the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC. (9/11 Commission 1/21/2004 pdf file) All of the bureau’s assistant directors are in attendance. (New Yorker 9/24/2001) This morning, the counterterrorism team, headed by Michael Rolince, is giving a presentation on the investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, in October 2000 (see October 12, 2000). (Graff 2011, pp. 314-315) Meanwhile, FBI Deputy Director Thomas Pickard, who is in his office at the headquarters, is alerted to what happened in New York by his secretary, who comes in and tells him a plane has just hit the WTC. He turns on the television and sees the coverage of the incident. He then calls Mueller’s secretary and instructs them to get the director out of the SIOC so Mueller can join him in his office. (9/11 Commission 1/21/2004 pdf file) Someone, presumably the secretary, therefore interrupts the briefing in the SIOC and tells its participants about the crash in New York. Mueller apparently does not initially realize a terrorist attack has occurred. “How could a plane not see the tower? It’s so clear out today,” he says. (Graff 2011, pp. 315) He heads to Pickard’s office and enters it at around 9:00 a.m. (9/11 Commission 1/21/2004 pdf file) Some of the other officials at the briefing will subsequently also head to Pickard’s office and they will see the second crash on television there (see (Shortly After 9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (New Yorker 9/24/2001; Graff 2011, pp. 315)

Dale Watson, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, activates the Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC) at FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, from where the bureau will coordinate its response to the terrorist attacks. Watson learned about the first hijacked plane crashing into the World Trade Center during a briefing in the SIOC attended by the FBI’s assistant directors and Robert Mueller, the bureau’s director (see Shortly After 8:48 a.m. September 11, 2001). Mueller and some of the other officials at the briefing, presumably including Watson, subsequently headed to the office of FBI Deputy Director Thomas Pickard. There, Mueller, Pickard, and the other officials saw the second hijacked plane crashing into the WTC on television (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). It then became clear to them that this was a terrorist attack.
Deputy Director Says the FBI Needs to Open Its Operations Center - Mueller asks Pickard what they should do in response to the incident and Pickard says they need to open the SIOC. (New Yorker 9/24/2001; 9/11 Commission 1/21/2004 pdf file) According to the US government’s Interagency Domestic Terrorism Concept of Operations Plan, “Upon determination of a credible threat,” FBI headquarters is required to activate the SIOC, “to coordinate and manage the national level support to a terrorism incident.” (US Government 1/2001) Following this protocol, Watson goes to his office and activates the SIOC for crisis mode. (New Yorker 9/24/2001)
Director Goes to the Operations Center to Manage the Crisis - Mueller and Pickard go to the SIOC to manage the FBI’s response to the attacks. Pickard isolates Mueller in a conference room, restricting access to him so he is better able to stay focused on the decisions ahead. Mueller only took over as FBI director a week ago (see September 4, 2001) and Pickard will later comment, “I was worried that there was going to be this string of people running into the room with news or questions and [Mueller] would be standing there asking them who they were.” (Kessler 2002, pp. 420; Graff 2011, pp. 314-316) Meanwhile, a live communications link is established that allows them to listen in as Pentagon and FAA air traffic controllers track suspicious aircraft. (Cloud, Cohen, and Boston 10/5/2001)
Many Other Officials Go to the Operations Center - Other senior officials and FBI agents also begin pouring into the center, along with representatives from numerous other government agencies, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FAA, the NSA, and the Secret Service. Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff will head to the center, as will Attorney General John Ashcroft, who arrives there early in the afternoon (see (Between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). The SIOC will become “the place to be to get information and so everyone wanted to be there,” Ashcroft will comment. (Kessler 2002, pp. 5, 421; 9/11 Commission 12/17/2003 pdf file)
Center Is Designed for Dealing with Crises - The SIOC, which opened in 1998 and cost $20 million to build, covers 40,000 square feet on the fifth floor of the FBI headquarters building. (CNN 11/20/1998) It is “a heavily fortified cluster of offices surrounded by video screens and banks of computer terminals,” according to the New York Times. (Shenon and Johnston 11/2/2001) It can function as a 24-hour watch post, a crisis management center, and an information processing center. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 1/18/2004) It operates around the clock, with at least eight staffers on duty at any one time. It is capable of managing up to five crises at a time and is designed to accommodate up to 450 members of staff during major emergencies. (CNN 11/20/1998; New Yorker 9/24/2001)
Center Is Built to Survive Attacks - The center is fortified so those in it can survive a bombing or other kind of attack. (Shenon and Johnston 11/2/2001) It has no windows to the street outside and is shielded to prevent electronic signals from entering or leaving it. (CNN 11/20/1998; Kessler 2002, pp. 421) Its 225 computer terminals have access to three types of local area networks: the regular FBI network that can connect to the networks of outside agencies; a classified network that operates at the top-secret level; and an even more highly classified Special Compartmented Information network. (McGee 10/14/2001; Federal Bureau of Investigation 1/18/2004) The many computers and video screens in the center can display broadcasts from US television channels and also TV channels from other countries. (CNN 11/20/1998)
Center Will Become the 'Nerve Center' of the FBI's Investigation - By the end of the week, the SIOC will be “the headquarters of the government’s response” to today’s attacks, according to journalist and author Garrett Graff. As many as 500 people from 56 different agencies will be working in it. (Kessler 2002, pp. 421; Baker 7/1/2002; Graff 2011, pp. 317) It will become “the nerve center” of the FBI’s investigation of the attacks, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Cloud, Cohen, and Boston 10/5/2001)


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