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Context of 'December 11, 1999: Watch List Importance Is Stressed but Procedures Are Not Followed'

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The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center sends a cable reminding all its personnel about various reporting obligations. The cable clearly states that it is important to share information so suspected members of US-designated terrorist groups can be placed on watch lists. The US keeps a number of watch lists; the most important one, TIPOFF, contains about 61,000 names of suspected terrorists by 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 9/22/2002; Knight Ridder, 1/27/2004] The list is checked whenever someone enters or leaves the US. “The threshold for adding a name to TIPOFF is low,” and even a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is connected with a US-designated terrorist group warrants being added to the database. [US Congress, 9/20/2002] Within a month, two future hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, will be identified as al-Qaeda operatives (see December 29, 1999), but the cable’s instructions will not be followed for them. The CIA will initially tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry that no such guidelines existed, and CIA Director Tenet will fail to mention the cable in his testimony to the Inquiry. [New York Times, 5/15/2003; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Khalid Almihdhar, George J. Tenet, 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, Nawaf Alhazmi, Counterterrorist Center, TIPOFF

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

After being prompted by CIA colleagues in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to provide information about what happened to future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar and al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash after they flew from Malaysia to Thailand on January 8, 2000 (see January 8, 2000 and (February 25, 2000)), the CIA station in Bangkok, Thailand, sends out a cable saying that Alhazmi arrived in the US from Thailand with an apparently unnamed companion on January 15 (see January 15, 2000). This information was received from Thai intelligence, which watchlisted Almihdhar and Alhazmi after being asked to do so by the CIA (see January 13, 2000 and January 15, 2000). [New York Times, 10/17/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 181, 502]
Companion - The companion to whom the cable refers is presumably Almihdhar. According to later testimony of a senior FBI official, the CIA learns the companion is Almihdhar at this time: “In March 2000, the CIA received information concerning the entry of Almihdhar and Alhazmi into the United States.” [US Congress, 9/20/2002] The CIA disputes this, however. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file] If the companion the cable refers to is Almihdhar, then it is unclear why he would not be named, as the NSA has been intercepting his calls for at least a year (see Early 1999), he was under CIA surveillance earlier in January (see January 5-8, 2000), he is known to have a US visa (see January 2-5, 2000), he is associated with Alhazmi (see January 8-9, 2000), and this cable is prompted by another cable specifically asking where Almihdhar is (see February 11, 2000).
Missed Opportunity - Later, CIA officials, including CIA Director George Tenet and Counterterrorist Center Director Cofer Black, will admit that this was one of the missed opportunities to watchlist the hijackers. Black will say: “I think that month we watchlisted about 150 people. [The watchlisting] should have been done. It wasn’t.” Almihdhar and Alhazmi will not be added to the US watchlist until August 2001 (see August 23, 2001). [New York Times, 10/17/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file]
Unclear Who Reads Cable - Although Tenet will tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry that nobody at CIA headquarters reads this cable at this time (see October 17, 2002), the CIA’s inspector general will conclude that “numerous” officers access this cable and others about Almihdhar. [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria District, 3/28/2006 pdf file] These officers are not named, but Tom Wilshire, the CIA’s deputy unit chief in charge of monitoring the two men at this time, will access it in May 2001 at the same time as he accesses other cables about Almihdhar from early 2000 (see May 15, 2001). The 9/11 Commission will say that the cables are “reexamined” at this time, suggesting that Wilshire may have read them before. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 267, 537] Wilshire certainly did access at least two of the cables in January 2000, indicating he may read the cable about the arrival of Alhazmi and the unnamed companion in the US in March 2000. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 240, 282 pdf file]
FBI Not Informed - The knowledge that Alhazmi has entered the US will be disseminated throughout the CIA, but not to the FBI or other US intelligence agencies (see March 6, 2000 and After). When asked about the failure by the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, Wilshire will be unable to explain it, saying: “It’s very difficult to understand what happened with that cable when it came in. I do not know exactly why it was missed. It would appear that it was missed completely.” [US Congress, 9/20/2002]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Nawaf Alhazmi, CIA Bangkok Station, 9/11 Commission, 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, Alec Station, Tom Wilshire, Khalid Almihdhar, Malaysian Secret Service

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

At some unspecified time after when Flight 93 crashed, CIA Director George Tenet receives the passenger lists for the hijacked planes. He is currently in the CIA’s printing plant, after having evacuated the agency’s headquarters building (see (9:50 a.m.-10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). An analyst from the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) has raced across to the plant with the list, and says, “Some of these guys on one of the planes are the ones we’ve been looking for in the last few weeks.” He specifically points at the names Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi (two of the alleged Flight 77 hijackers). According to Tenet, this is “the first time we had absolute proof of what I had been virtually certain of from the moment I heard about the attacks: we were in the middle of an al-Qaeda plot.” Tenet will later say that after the CTC had first “requested passenger lists from the planes that had been turned into weapons that morning… the initial response from some parts of the bureaucracy (which parts since mercifully forgotten) was that the manifests could not be shared with CIA. There were privacy issues involved.” They were only obtained after some “gentle reasoning, and a few four-letter words.” [Tenet, 2007, pp. 167] The agency that provided these lists to the CTC may have been the Customs Office of Intelligence. According to Robert Bonner, the commissioner-designate of US Customs, “through an evaluation of data related to the passengers manifest for the four terrorist hijacked aircraft, Customs Office of Intelligence was able to identify the likely terrorist hijackers. Within 45 minutes of the attacks, Customs forwarded the passenger lists with the names of the victims and 19 probable hijackers to the FBI and the intelligence community” (see (11:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004] Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will claim he was told as early as 9:59 a.m. that the FBI had received the passenger manifests from the airlines (see (9:59 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Clarke, 2004, pp. 13-14]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, George J. Tenet

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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