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Context of '1998: Diplomatic Passports Help Stifle FBI Investigation into Bin Laden Family'

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During Michael Scheuer’s time as head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit Alec Station from 1996 to 1999 (see February 1996 and June 1999), the unit has conflicts with other parts of the US intelligence community. Scheuer has an angry and dogmatic style that sometimes alienates people.
Conflict with Counterterrorism 'Tsar' Clarke - Scheuer and Richard Clarke, the US counterterrorism “tsar,” do not get along, even though both are among the first people in government to take the Osama bin Laden threat seriously. Clarke can also be abrasive. One former CIA insider will later say, “I can say that, among individuals that I tend to trust, Clarke was regarded as more serious about terrorism in the 1990s than just about anybody else in the US government, but he was a truly painful individual to work with.” Clarke will later similarly criticize Scheuer, saying: “Throwing tantrums and everything doesn’t help.… [You shouldn’t be] so dysfunctional within your agency that you’re making it harder to get something done.” And Scheuer will later criticize Clarke, saying: “[He] was an interferer of the first level, in terms of talking about things that he knew nothing about and killing them.… He was always playing the FBI off against us or us against the NSA.”
Conflict with the FBI - The bin Laden unit does not get along with some FBI agents assigned to it as well. From the very start, some FBI officials, including bin Laden expert John O’Neill, resist cooperating with the unit. CIA official John MacGaffin will later claim, “O’Neill just fought it and fought it [cooperating with Alec Station].” O’Neill and Scheuer “were at each other’s throats.” On one occasion an FBI agent at the bin Laden unit is caught hiding CIA files inside his shirt to take them back to O’Neill. Scheuer will also claim that the FBI rarely follows up leads the bin Laden unit sends it. Furthermore, the FBI never shares information. “I bet we sent 700 or 800 requests for information to the FBI, and we never got an answer to any of them,” Scheuer says.
Conflicts with CIA Higher-Ups - The bin Laden unit also has conflicts with others within the CIA, including powerful superiors. An incident in 1996 leads to a breakdown of trust between Scheuer and his superiors (see 1996). John MacGaffin, who is a top CIA official for clandestine operations at the time, will later say of Scheuer, “He’s a good guy, [but] he’s an angry guy.”
Situation Improves after Scheuer - In June 1999, Richard Blee replaces Scheuer as head of the bin Laden unit, and he will stay involved in the bin Laden issue until after 9/11 (see December 9, 2001). Vanity Fair will later comment that Blee “was just as heated up over bin Laden as Scheuer had been, but obviously less likely to cause the kind of friction that would discomfit the [CIA director].” [Vanity Fair, 11/2004]

Entity Tags: John MacGaffin, Alec Station, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Richard Blee, Richard A. Clarke, John O’Neill, Michael Scheuer, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

By the start of 1997, Alec Station, the CIA unit created the year before to focus entirely on bin Laden (see February 1996), is certain that bin Laden is not just a financier but an organizer of terrorist activity. It is aware bin Laden is conducting an extensive effort to get and use a nuclear weapon (see Late 1996). It knows that al-Qaeda has a military committee planning operations against US interests worldwide. However, although this information is disseminated in many reports, the unit’s sense of alarm about bin Laden isn’t widely shared or understood within the intelligence and policy communities. Employees in the unit feel their zeal attracts ridicule from their peers. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004] Some higher-ups begin to deride the unit as hysterical doomsayers, and refer to the unit as “The Manson Family.” Michael Scheuer, head of the unit until 1999, has an abrasive style. He and counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke do not get along and do not work well together. Scheuer also does not get along with John O’Neill, the FBI’s most knowledgeable agent regarding bin Laden. The FBI and Alec Station rarely share information, and at one point an FBI agent is caught stuffing some of the unit’s files under his shirt to take back to O’Neill. [Vanity Fair, 11/2004]

Entity Tags: John O’Neill, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alec Station, Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, Richard A. Clarke, Al-Qaeda, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Michael Scheuer, the head of the CIA Counter Terrorism Center’s special unit focusing on bin Laden from 1996 to 1999 (see February 1996), later will claim that before 9/11 members of the bin Laden family in the US are nearly completely off limits to US law enforcement. Author Douglas Farah, a former longtime Washington Post reporter, later will write that “All the bin Ladens living in the United States were granted Saudi diplomatic passports in 1996.… In 1998, when the FBI’s New York office actually sought to investigate some of the bin Laden family’s activities in this country because of suspicions of ties to terrorism, the State Department forced them to shut down the entire operation. Because the bin Laden’s were ‘diplomats’ and as such enjoyed diplomatic immunity, making such investigations illegal.” Scheuer will comment about the 1998 investigation, “My counterparts at the FBI questioned one of the bin Ladens. But then the State Department received a complaint from a law firm, and there was a huge uproar. We were shocked to find out that the bin Ladens in the United States had diplomatic passports, and that we weren’t allowed to talk to them.” Scheuer believes that these unusual diplomatic privileges may help explain how the bin Ladens will be able to depart so quickly just after 9/11 (see September 13, 2001; September 14-19, 2001). Farah later says he interviewed Scheuer about this and claims to have found a second source to verify the information. [Farah, 12/5/2004; Der Spiegel (Hamburg), 6/6/2005] The issue of diplomatic passports for the bin Laden family has generally not been reported in the US media, although a 2005 New Yorker article will mention in passing that in 1996, “the State Department stymied a joint effort by the CIA and the FBI to question one of bin Laden’s cousins in America, because he had a diplomatic passport, which protects the holder from US law enforcement.” [New Yorker, 2/8/2005] This is a probable reference to the 1996 investigation of Abdullah Awad bin Laden (although he is bin Laden’s nephew, not cousin (see February-September 11, 1996)). It is unclear what connection there may be, if any, between that investigation and this 1998 investigation.

Entity Tags: Bin Laden Family, Michael Scheuer, Douglas Farah, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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