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Context of 'Spring 2004: FBI Director Conducts Charm Offensive against 9/11 Commission to Save Bureau'

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Abdussattar Shaikh.
Abdussattar Shaikh. [Source: courtesy Daniel Hopsicker]While future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar live in the house of an FBI informant, Abdussattar Shaikh, the asset continues to have contact with his FBI handler. The handler, Steven Butler, later claims that during the summer, Shaikh mentions the names “Nawaf” and “Khalid” in passing and says that they are renting rooms from him. [Newsweek, 9/9/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 51 pdf file; Associated Press, 7/25/2003; 9/11 Commission, 4/23/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 220] In early media reports after 9/11, the two will be said to have moved in around September 2000, but the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will imply that Shaikh lied about this, and they moved in much earlier. Alhazmi stays until December (see December 12, 2000-March 2001); Almihdhar appears to be mostly out of the US after June (see June 10, 2000). [San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/16/2001; Wall Street Journal, 9/17/2001; South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 9/28/2001; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 157 pdf file] On one occasion, Shaikh tells Butler on the phone he cannot talk because Khalid is in the room. [Newsweek, 9/9/2002]
Shaikh Refuses to Reveal Hijackers' Last Names Despite Suspicious Contacts - Shaikh tells Butler Alhazmi and Almihdhar are good, religious Muslims who are legally in the US to visit and attend school. Butler asks Shaikh for their last names, but Shaikh refuses to provide them. Butler is not told that they are pursuing flight training. Shaikh tells Butler that they are apolitical and have done nothing to arouse suspicion. However, according to the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, he later admits that Alhazmi has “contacts with at least four individuals [he] knew were of interest to the FBI and about whom [he] had previously reported to the FBI.” Three of these four people are being actively investigated at the time the hijackers are there. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 51 pdf file] The report will mention Osama Mustafa as one, and Shaikh will admit that suspected Saudi agent Omar al-Bayoumi was a friend. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 51 pdf file; Los Angeles Times, 7/25/2003] Alhazmi and Shaikh will remain in contact after Alhazmi leaves San Diego in December. Alhazmi will call Shaikh to tell him he intends to take flying lessons in Arizona and that Almihdhar has returned to Yemen. He also will e-mail Shaikh three times; one of the e-mails is signed “Smer,” an apparent attempt to conceal his identity, which Shaikh later says he finds strange. However, Alhazmi will not reply to e-mails Shaikh sends him in February and March of 2001. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223]
Best Chance to Stop the 9/11 Plot? - The FBI will later conclude that Shaikh is not involved in the 9/11 plot, but it has serious doubts about his credibility. After 9/11 he will give inaccurate information and has an “inconclusive” polygraph examination about his foreknowledge of the 9/11 attack. The FBI will believe he had contact with another of the 9/11 hijackers, Hani Hanjour, but claimed not to recognize him. There will be other “significant inconsistencies” in Shaikh’s statements about the hijackers, including when he first met them and his later meetings with them. The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will conclude that had the asset’s contacts with the hijackers been capitalized upon, it “would have given the San Diego FBI field office perhaps the US intelligence community’s best chance to unravel the September 11 plot.” [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 51 pdf file] The FBI will try to prevent Butler and Shaikh from testifying before the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry in October 2002. Butler will end up testifying (see October 9, 2002), but Shaikh will not (see October 5, 2002). [Washington Post, 10/11/2002]

Entity Tags: Hani Hanjour, Khalid Almihdhar, Omar al-Bayoumi, Osama (“Sam”) Mustafa, Nawaf Alhazmi, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Steven Butler, Abdussattar Shaikh

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI agent Ken Williams.FBI agent Ken Williams. [Source: FBI]Phoenix, Arizona, FBI agent Ken Williams sends a memorandum warning about suspicious activities involving a group of Middle Eastern men taking flight training lessons in Arizona. The memo is titled: “Zakaria Mustapha Soubra; IT-OTHER (Islamic Army of the Caucasus),” because it focuses on Zakaria Soubra, a Lebanese flight student in Prescott, Arizona, and his connection with a terror group in Chechnya that has ties to al-Qaeda. It is subtitled: “Osama bin Laden and Al-Muhjiroun supporters attending civil aviation universities/colleges in Arizona.” [Fortune, 5/22/2002; Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] Williams’ memo is based on an investigation of Sorba that Williams had begun in 2000 (see April 2000), but he had trouble pursuing because of the low priority the Arizona FBI office gave terror investigations (see April 2000-June 2001). Additionally, Williams had been alerted to suspicions about radical militants and aircraft at least three other times (see October 1996; 1998; November 1999-August 2001). In the memo, Williams does the following:
bullet Names nine other suspect students from Pakistan, India, Kenya, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] Hijacker Hani Hanjour, attending flight school in Arizona in early 2001 and probably continuing into the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001), is not one of the students, but, as explained below, it seems two of the students know him. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file; Washington Post, 7/25/2003]
bullet Notes that he interviewed some of these students, and heard some of them make hostile comments about the US. Additionally, he noticed that they were suspiciously well informed about security measures at US airports. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
bullet Notes an increasing, “inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” taking flight lessons in Arizona. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file]
bullet Suspects that some of the ten people he has investigated are connected to al-Qaeda. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] One person on the list, Ghassan al Sharbi, will be arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002). Al Sharbi attended a flight school in Prescott, Arizona. He also apparently attended the training camps in Afghanistan and swore loyalty to bin Laden in the summer of 2001. He apparently knows Hani Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). He also is the roommate of Soubra, the main target of the memo. [Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521]
bullet Discovers that one of them was communicating through an intermediary with Abu Zubaida. This apparently is a reference to Hamed al Sulami, who had been telephoning a Saudi imam known to be Zubaida’s spiritual advisor. Al Sulami is an acquaintance of Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 520-521, 529]
bullet Discusses connections between several of the students and a radical group called Al-Muhajiroun. [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002] This group supported bin Laden, and issued a fatwa, or call to arms, that included airports on a list of acceptable terror targets. [Associated Press, 5/22/2002] Soubra, the main focus of the memo, is a member of Al-Muhajiroun and an outspoken radical. He met with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of Al-Muhajiroun in Britain, and started an Arizona chapter of the organization. After 9/11, some US officials will suspect that Soubra has ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He will be held two years, then deported to Lebanon in 2004. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001; Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; Arizona Republic, 5/2/2004; Arizona Monthly, 11/2004] Though Williams doesn’t include it in his memo, in the summer of 1998, Bakri publicized a fax sent by bin Laden to him that listed al-Qaeda’s four objectives in fighting the US. The first objective was “bring down their airliners.” (see Summer 1998). [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001]
bullet Warns of a possible “effort by Osama bin Laden to send students to the US to attend civil aviation universities and colleges” [Fortune, 5/22/2002] , so they can later hijack aircraft. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
bullet Recommends that the “FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities and colleges around the country. FBI field offices with these types of schools in their area should establish appropriate liaison. FBI [headquarters] should discuss this matter with other elements of the US intelligence community and task the community for any information that supports Phoenix’s suspicions.” [Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] (The FBI has already done this, but because of poor FBI communications, Williams is not aware of the report.)
bullet Recommends that the FBI ask the State Department to provide visa data on flight school students from Middle Eastern countries, which will facilitate FBI tracking efforts. [New York Times, 5/4/2002]
The memo is addressed to the following FBI Agents:
bullet Dave Frasca, chief of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters;
bullet Elizabeth Harvey Matson, Mark Connor and Fred Stremmel, Intelligence Operations Specialists in the RFU;
bullet Rod Middleton, acting chief of the Usama bin Laden Unit (UBLU);
bullet Jennifer Maitner, an Intelligence Operations Specialist in the UBLU;
bullet Jack Cloonan, an agent on the New York FBI’s bin Laden unit, the I-49 squad; (see January 1996 and Spring 2000).
bullet Michael S. Butsch, an agent on another New York FBI squad dealing with other Sunni terrorists. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7/10/2001 pdf file; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file]
However, the memo is not uploaded into the FBI’s information system until the end of the month and is apparently not received by all these people (see July 27, 2001 and after). Williams also shares some concerns with the CIA (see (July 27, 2001)). [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002] One anonymous government official who has seen the memo says, “This was as actionable a memo as could have been written by anyone.” [Insight, 5/27/2002] However, the memo is merely marked “routine,” rather than “urgent.” It is generally ignored, not shared with other FBI offices, and the recommendations are not taken. One colleague in New York replies at the time that the memo is “speculative and not very significant.” [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] Williams is unaware of many FBI investigations and leads that could have given weight to his memo. Authorities later claim that Williams was only pursuing a hunch, but one familiar with classified information says, “This was not a vague hunch. He was doing a case on these guys.” [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002]

Entity Tags: Jennifer Maitner, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fred Stremmel, Ghassan al Sharbi, Hani Hanjour, I-49, Jack Cloonan, Elizabeth Matson, Islamic Army of the Caucasus, David Frasca, Michael Butsch, Al-Muhajiroun, Zakaria Mustapha Soubra, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, Al-Qaeda, Rod Middleton, Osama bin Laden, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Mark Connor, Ken Williams, Abu Zubaida

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A letter that Zacarias Moussaoui had in his possession when he was arrested. It is signed by Yazid Sufaat, whose apartment was used for a 9/11 planning meeting in January 2000 that was monitored by the authorities.A letter that Zacarias Moussaoui had in his possession when he was arrested. It is signed by Yazid Sufaat, whose apartment was used for a 9/11 planning meeting in January 2000 that was monitored by the authorities. [Source: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division] (click image to enlarge)After Zacarias Moussaoui is arrested, the FBI wishes to search his possessions (see August 16, 2001 and August 23-27, 2001). According to a presentation made by FBI agent Aaron Zebley at Moussaoui’s trial, the belongings are sufficient to potentially connect Moussaoui to eleven of the 9/11 hijackers: Mohamed Atta, Marwan Alshehhi, Ziad Jarrah, Hani Hanjour, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, Fayez Banihammad, Ahmed Alhaznawi, Hamza Alghamdi, Satam Al Suqami, and Waleed Alshehri. The connections would be made, for example, through Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who spoke with Moussaoui on the telephone and wired him money (see July 29, 2001-August 3, 2001), and who was linked to three of the hijacker pilots from their time in Germany together (see November 1, 1998-February 2001). Bin al-Shibh also received money from Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who was connected to hijacker Fayez Ahmed Banihammad (see June 25, 2001). [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006] Moussaoui’s notebook contained two recognizable control numbers for the Western Union wire transfers from bin al-Shibh and, according to McClatchy newspapers, a check on these numbers “would probably have uncovered other wires in the preceding days” to bin al-Shibh from al-Hawsawi. [McClatchy Newspapers, 9/11/2007] The discovery of the eleven hijackers could potentially have led to the discovery of some or all of the remaining eight plot members, as they were brothers (Wail and Waleed Alshehri, Nawaf and Salem Alhazmi), opened bank accounts together (see May 1-July 18, 2001 and June 27-August 23, 2001), lived together (see March 2001-September 1, 2001), obtained identity documents together (see April 12-September 7, 2001 and August 1-2, 2001), arrived in the US together (see April 23-June 29, 2001), and booked tickets on the same four flights on 9/11 (see August 25-September 5, 2001).

Entity Tags: Saeed Alghamdi, Salem Alhazmi, Satam Al Suqami, Waleed Alshehri, Zacarias Moussaoui, Ziad Jarrah, Wail Alshehri, Mohand Alshehri, Nawaf Alhazmi, Marwan Alshehhi, Ahmed Alhaznawi, Ahmed Alghamdi, Mohamed Atta, Fayez Ahmed Banihammad, Abdulaziz Alomari, Hani Hanjour, Hamza Alghamdi, Ahmed Alnami, Majed Moqed, Khalid Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI is initially reluctant to provide documents to the 9/11 Commission team investigating possible links between hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi on the one hand and some Saudi government officials on the other.
Investigators' Attitude - The investigators, Michael Jacobson, Raj De, and Hyon Kim, have come to believe that, in author Philip Shenon’s words, there could be “few innocent explanations for why so many Saudis and other Arab men living in Southern California had come forward to help the two hijackers—to help them find a home, to set up bank accounts, to travel.” Jacobson previously worked on the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry and formed the opinion then that FBI officials had tried to hide much of the evidence in its files linked to Almihdhar and Alhazmi.
FBI Drags Its Feet - At first, according to Shenon, the FBI “is as uncooperative with the 9/11 Commission as it had been in the Congressional investigation” and is “painfully slow to meet the Commission’s initial request for documents and interviews.” The three investigators want a formal protest to be made over the foot-dragging, but realize their team leader, Dietrich Snell, will not make one, due to what they perceive to be overcaution on his part. Therefore, they approach 9/11 commissioner and former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick and she then contacts FBI Director Robert Mueller, warning him he will lose the Commission’s goodwill if he does not start co-operating. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 184-185] In the spring of 2004, Mueller will launch a charm offensive against the Commission and will make significant efforts to comply with its requests (see Spring 2004).

Entity Tags: Hyon Kim, 9/11 Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Jamie Gorelick, Dietrich Snell, Michael Jacobson, Robert S. Mueller III, Raj De

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

FBI Director Robert Mueller launches a charm offensive to win over the 9/11 Commission and ensure that its recommendations are favorable to the bureau.
Commission Initially Favored Break-Up - The attempt is greatly needed, as the Commission initially has an unfavorable view of the FBI due to its very public failings before 9/11: the Phoenix memo (see July 10, 2001), the fact that two of the hijackers lived with an FBI counterterrorism informer (see May 10-Mid-December 2000), and the failure to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 16, 2001). Commissioner John Lehman will say that at the start of the investigation he thought “it was a no-brainer that we should go to an MI5,” the British domestic intelligence service, which would entail taking counterterrorism away from the bureau.
Lobbying Campaign - Author Philip Shenon will say that the campaign against the commissioners “could not have been more aggressive,” because Mueller was “in their faces, literally.” Mueller says he will open his schedule to them at a moment’s notice and returns their calls within minutes. He pays so much attention to the commissioners that some of them begin to regard it as harassment and chairman Tom Kean tells his secretaries to turn away Mueller’s repeated invitations for a meal. Mueller even opens the FBI’s investigatory files to the Commission, giving its investigators unrestricted access to a special FBI building housing the files. He also gets Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of MI5, to meet the commissioners and intercede for the bureau.
Contrast with CIA - The campaign succeeds and the Commission is convinced to leave the FBI intact. This is partially due to the perceived difference between Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet, who the Commission suspects of telling it a string of lies (see July 2, 2004). Commissioner Slade Gorton will say, “Mueller was a guy who came in new and was trying to do something different, as opposed to Tenet.” Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton will also say that the Commission recommended changing the CIA by establishing the position of director of national intelligence. It is therefore better to leave the FBI alone because “the system can only stand so much change.”
Change Partially Motivated by Fear - This change of mind is also partially motivated by the commissioners’ fear of the bureau. Shenon will comment: “Mueller… was also aware of how much fear the FBI continued to inspire among Washington’s powerful and how, even after 9/11, that fear dampened public criticism. Members of congress… shrank at the thought of attacking the FBI.… For many on Capitol Hill, there was always the assumption that there was an embarrassing FBI file somewhere with your name on it, ready to be leaked at just the right moment. More than one member of the 9/11 Commission admitted privately that they had joked—and worried—among themselves about the danger of being a little too publicly critical of the bureau.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 364-368]

Entity Tags: John Lehman, 9/11 Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, Eliza Manningham-Buller, Philip Shenon, Slade Gorton, Lee Hamilton

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission arranges for a final interview of CIA Director George Tenet. The Commission’s staff thinks of the interview as a “final test of Tenet’s credibility,” because they believe that both he and other CIA managers have not been telling them the full truth (see Before January 14, 2004 and January 22, 2004). In particular they want to ask him about a memorandum of notification that enabled the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden, but was not acted on (see December 24, 1998).
What Memo? - When the Commission’s Executive Director Philip Zelikow says he wants to talk about the memo, Tenet, who spent a long time revising for his sessions with the Commission (see Before January 22, 2004), replies, “What are you referring to?” Zelikow explains about the memo, but Tenet says, “I’m not sure what we’re talking about.” He then says he remembers an early draft of the memo, which did not authorize the CIA to kill bin Laden. Zelikow explains that the draft Tenet is referring to is an early version of the memo, and that a later version, apparently requested by Tenet himself, allowed the CIA to kill bin Laden. Zelikow has not been able to bring the memo with him, because it is so highly classified, and Tenet still does not remember, saying, “Well, as I say, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Disbelief - Author Philip Shenon will write: “Zelikow and [Commission staffer Alexis] Albion looked at each other across the table in disbelief. It was the last straw with Tenet, the final bit of proof they needed to demonstrate that Tenet simply could not tell the truth to the Commission.” Zelikow will later say that he concluded Tenet’s memory lapses were not genuine, but that “George had decided not to share information on any topic unless we already had documentary proof, and then he would add as little as possible to the record.”
False Denial - However, Tenet will deny this was the case, and say he could not remember the authorization to kill bin Laden because he had been on holiday when it was signed and transmitted to Afghanistan. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 359-360] However, the 9/11 Commission will state that this memo was “given to Tenet.” In addition, the 9/11 Commission Report calls the message in which the instructions were communicated to the assets in Afghanistan that were to kill bin Laden “CIA cable, message from the DCI.” DCI stands for director of central intelligence, Tenet’s official job title. Therefore, Tenet very probably did know about it. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 132, 485]

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, George J. Tenet, Philip Zelikow, Central Intelligence Agency, Alexis Albion

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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