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Sources who know Osama bin Laden later claim that his stepmother, Al-Khalifa bin Laden, has a second meeting with her stepson in Afghanistan (her first visit took place in the spring of 1998 (see Spring 1998)). The trip is approved by the Saudi royal family. The Saudis pass the message to him that “‘they wouldn’t crack down on his followers in Saudi Arabia’ as long as he set his sights on targets outside the desert kingdom.” In late 1999, the Saudi government had told the CIA about the upcoming trip, and suggested placing a homing beacon on her luggage. This does not happen—Saudis later claim they weren’t taken seriously, and Americans claim they never received specific information on her travel plans. (Mayer and Szechenyi 11/5/2001; Gellman 12/19/2001)
Kie Fallis, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) terrorism intelligence analyst, later claims that around this time he uncovers an intelligence report about the January 2000 al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000). Public details of his exact knowledge about this summit have been scant, but it suggests at least some information on the summit spreads beyond the CIA and FBI not long after it takes place. But apparently, Fallis, who had been researching terror links between al-Qaeda and Iranian intelligence, learns that US intelligence discovered at the time that Malaysian security officials traced some attendees of the summit to the Iranian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, where they spent the night. Fallis will use this lead along with other leads to suggest a terror warning in late September 2000 (see May 2000-Late September 2000) that he believes might have stopped the USS Cole attack in October 2000 (see October 12, 2000) . (Gertz 8/26/2002)
Around this time, special CIA paramilitary teams begin “working with tribes and warlords in southern Afghanistan” and help “create a significant new network in the region of the Taliban’s greatest strength.” (Ricks 11/18/2001) Journalist Bob Woodward will later report that from 2000 through March 2001, the CIA also deploys paramilitary teams at least five times into Afghanistan to work with the Northern Alliance in the north part of the country. (Woodward 2006, pp. 77-78)
CIA Director George Tenet forms a national security advisory panel that comprises a team of security analysts and is chaired by Admiral David Jeremiah. The panel is, in the words of authors Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, “asked to think the unthinkable.” The State Department’s WMD specialist Robert Gallucci is the official responsible for nuclear issues. Galluccci will comment: “It was all sources, all clearances.… I was the nuclear freak and got briefings set up on the nuclear terrorist thing. Every single scenario was extremely scary and entirely believable. There was lots and lots of intelligence. Put it this way, the US number one enemy was looking more and more like Pakistan.” (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 293)
German investigators finally agree to the CIA’s request to recruit businessman Mamoun Darkazanli as an informant. An agent of the LfV, the Hamburg state intelligence agency, casually approaches Darkazanli and asks him whether he is interested in becoming a spy. Darkazanli replies that he is just a businessman who knows nothing about al-Qaeda or terrorism. The Germans inform the local CIA representative that the approach failed. The CIA agent persists, asking the German agent to continue to try. However, when German agents ask for more information to show Darkazanli they know of his terrorist ties, the CIA fails to give them any information. As it happens, at the end of January 2000, Darkazanli had just met with Barakat Yarkas in Madrid, Spain. (Crewdson 11/17/2002) Darkazanli is a longtime friend and business partner of Yarkas, the most prominent al-Qaeda agent in Spain. Yarkas has long been under surveillance by Spanish intelligence, and they have been sharing that intelligence with the CIA (see August 1998-September 11, 2001). (Rotella 1/14/2003) The meeting included other suspected al-Qaeda figures, and it was monitored by Spanish police. If the CIA is aware of the Madrid meeting, they do not tell the Germans. (Crewdson 11/17/2002) A second LfV attempt to recruit Darkazanli also fails. The CIA then attempts to work with federal German intelligence officials in Berlin to “turn” Darkazanli. Results of that effort are not known. (Crewdson 11/17/2002)
The US intelligence community obtains information suggesting al-Qaeda is planning attacks in specific West Coast areas, possibly involving the assassination of several public officials. (US Congress 7/24/2003) While these attacks do not materialize, this is the same month the CIA learns that two known al-Qaeda operatives have just flown to Los Angeles (see March 5, 2000).
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 ) 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 )
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 ) 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 )
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)
After the CIA learns that 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar has a US visa (see January 2-5, 2000) and 9/11 hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi and a companion have arrived in Los Angeles (see March 5, 2000), operational documents reporting this are accessed by numerous CIA officers, most of whom are in the Counterterrorism Division. (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005 ) In addition, the day after the cable reporting Alhazmi’s arrival in Los Angeles is received, “another overseas CIA station note[s], in a cable to the bin Laden unit at CIA headquarters, that it had ‘read with interest’ the March cable, ‘particularly the information that a member of this group traveled to the US…’” (US Congress 9/20/2002) However, it is unclear what is done with this information as CIA Director George Tenet and Counterterrorist Center Director Cofer Black will later incorrectly testify that nobody read the cable stating Alhazmi had entered the US (see October 17, 2002), so the use to which the information is put is never investigated. In addition, the CIA fails to inform the FBI that Alhazmi has entered the US. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 182)
Les, a doctor from the CIA’s counter-proliferation branch, meets Curveball and takes a blood sample. The blood is analyzed for the presence of antibodies which would indicate if he has ever been exposed to anthrax or any other biological weapons agent. Curveball claims that he was injured in an accident in the fall of 1998 at the Djerf al Nadaf industrial site that killed 12 bio-warfare technicians. His blood test results are inconclusive. The doctor, who does not speak to Curveball at all during the visit, notes that Curveball speaks excellent English even though the Germans, justifying their refusal to allow the CIA to interview him, have told the CIA that Curveball does not speak the language. (Drogin and Goetz 11/20/2005)
The CIA and FBI send a joint investigative team to Sudan to investigate whether that country is a sponsor of terrorism. Sudan again offers to hand over its voluminous files on al-Qaeda (see March 8, 1996-April 1996, April 5, 1997, and February 5, 1998), and the offer is again rejected. (Rose 9/30/2001; Rose 1/2002) The US will finally agree to see the files shortly before 9/11 (see July-August 2001).
A secret CIA report details al-Qaeda’s use of the honey trade to generate income and secretly move weapons, drugs, and operatives around the world. The CIA had been gathering information and monitoring some honey stores for almost two years before the study. Bin Laden is believed to control a number of retail honey shops in various countries, especially in Sudan, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaida and Khalil Deek, an American citizen, are said to be particularly tied to the honey trade. One US official will later say, “The smell and consistency of the honey makes it easy to hide weapons and drugs in the shipments. Inspectors don’t want to inspect that product. It’s too messy.” But although a number of companies dealing in honey are tied to al-Qaeda (and sometimes to Islamic Jihad), the US will not make any move to freeze the assets of these companies until after 9/11. (Miller and Gerth 10/11/2001) Counterterrorism expert Steven Emerson will later claim Deek was “running an underground railroad in the Middle East for terrorists, shuttling them to different countries,” which would fit with his alleged role in the honey network. (Anderson 9/15/2005)
Italian resident Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, who previously informed for the CIA on extremists in Albania (see August 27, 1995 and Shortly After and May 1997-2000), moves from Rome to Milan to live with a close associate of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri (see Before Spring 2000 and Summer 2000). Al-Zawahiri’s associate, Mahmoud Es Sayed, and Nasr arrive in Milan at the same time, and it appears their movements are coordinated. Nasr actually lives in Es Sayed’s apartment and the pair make use of two radical mosques in Milan, the Via Quaranta mosque, which is their headquarters, and the Islamic Cultural Institute (ICI), which is associated with a cell of radical Islamists that works with al-Qaeda and appears to have foreknowledge of 9/11 (see August 12, 2000 and March 2001). The ICI has a reputation as the most radical Islamic center in Italy, was a key supply point for Muslims fighting in Bosnia (see Late 1993-December 14, 1995), and was connected to the first World Trade Center bombing (see Late 1993-1994). Nasr serves as deputy imam at the ICI and preaches anti-US sermons. Italian law enforcement authorities monitor him with bugs in his apartment and through a tap on his phone, finding out that after 9/11 he recruits Muslims to go and fight in Afghanistan. He does not seem to be directly involved in serious illegal activity, but the information the Italians gain helps them monitor other radicals. His relationship with the CIA during his time in Italy is unclear, but in one monitored call after 9/11 he appears to be dissuading another radical from attacking Jews and in another he tells an associate not to carry out a car bombing. (Crewdson and Hundley 7/2/2005; Vidino 2006, pp. 242) The CIA will kidnap Nasr in 2003 (see Noon February 17, 2003).
9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar flies from San Diego to Frankfurt, Germany. (US Congress 9/20/2002) He is accompanied to the airport by another hijacker, Nawaf Alhazmi, and an unnamed associate (see June 10, 2000). Authorities later believe that Almihdhar visits his cousin-in-law Ramzi Bin al-Shibh and other al-Qaeda members in bin al-Shibh’s cell. Since the CIA fails to notify Germany about its suspicions of Almihdhar and bin al-Shibh, both of whom were seen attending the al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia in January, German police fail to monitor them and another chance to uncover the 9/11 plot is missed. (Schrom 10/1/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ) FBI Director Mueller and the congressional inquiry into 9/11 will claim that Almihdhar does not return to the US for over a year (US Congress 9/20/2002; US Congress 9/26/2002) , although it is possible that Almihdhar does return before then. For instance, there are indications Almihdhar attends a flight school in Arizona in early 2001. (Wagner and Zoellner 9/28/2001)
While monitoring foreign terrorists in the US, the FBI listens to calls made by suspects as a part of an operation called Catcher’s Mitt, which is curtailed at this time due to misleading statements by FBI agents. It is never revealed who the targets of the FBI’s surveillance are under this operation, but below are some of the terrorism suspects under investigation in the US at the time:
Imran Mandhai, Shuyeb Mossa Jokhan and Adnan El Shukrijumah in Florida. They are plotting a series of attacks there, but Mandhai and Jokhan are brought in for questioning by the FBI and surveillance of them stops in late spring (see November 2000-Spring 2002 and May 2, 2001);
Another Florida cell connected to Blind Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. The FBI has been investigating it since 1993 (see (October 1993-November 2001));
Al-Qaeda operatives in Denver (see March 2000);
A Boston-based al-Qaeda cell involving Nabil al-Marabh and Raed Hijazi. Cell members provide funding to terrorists, fight abroad, and are involved in document forging (see January 2001, Spring 2001, and Early September 2001);
Fourteen of the hijackers’ associates the FBI investigates before 9/11. The FBI is still investigating four of these people while the hijackers associate with them; (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 169 )
Hamas operatives such as Mohammed Salah in Chicago. Salah invests money in the US and sends it to the occupied territories to fund attacks (see June 9, 1998).
When problems are found with the applications for the wiretap warrants, an investigation is launched (see Summer-October 2000), and new requirements for warrant applications are put in place (see October 2000). From this time well into 2001, the FBI is forced to shut down wiretaps of al-Qaeda-related suspects connected to the 1998 US embassy bombings and Hamas (see March 2001 and April 2001). One source familiar with the case says that about 10 to 20 al-Qaeda related wiretaps have to be shut down and it becomes more difficult to get permission for new FISA wiretaps. Newsweek notes, “The effect [is] to stymie terror surveillance at exactly the moment it was needed most: requests from both Phoenix [with the Ken Williams memo (see July 10, 2001)] and Minneapolis [with Zacarias Moussaoui’s arrest] for wiretaps [will be] turned down [by FBI superiors],” (see August 21, 2001 and August 28, 2001). (Hirsh and Isikoff 5/27/2002) Robert Wright is an FBI agent who led the Vulgar Betrayal investigation looking into allegations that Saudi businessman Yassin al-Qadi helped finance the embassy bombings, and other matters. In late 2002, he will claim to discover evidence that some of the FBI intelligence agents who stalled and obstructed his investigation were the same FBI agents who misrepresented the FISA petitions. (Judicial Watch 9/11/2002)
When 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar leaves the US in June (see June 10, 2000), he flies to Frankfurt, Germany, and then to Oman in the Middle East. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 135 ) From there he returns to his family’s home in Sana’a, Yemen. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 237) His wife and children live at an al-Qaeda communications hub that is run by his father in law, Ahmed al-Hada. The hub is being monitored by the NSA and CIA. Phone calls to and from the hub, including ones made by Almihdhar and other hijackers, are intercepted, rooms in the building are bugged, and spy satellites record visitors (see Late August 1998, Late 1998-Early 2002, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). Based on information gained from monitoring this house, the CIA and local intelligence services mounted a major operation against Almihdhar, other hijackers, and several more al-Qaeda operatives in December 1999 and January 2000, when they were followed around the Middle East and South Asia and monitored during an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, January 2-5, 2000, and January 5-8, 2000). So presumably US intelligence should have been aware of this visit to the hub and who Almihdhar was, but what exactly was known and who may have known it has not been made public. He will return to the hub in February 2001 and stay an unknown length of time (see February 2001).
A CIA informant reveals that a militant group based in Sidon, Lebanon that is affiliated with bin Laden is planning to attack a US naval ship somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, probably off the coast of Lebanon. (Miniter 2003, pp. 215) This is a probable reference to Asbat al-Ansar, the only group that fits such a profile. (US Department of State 5/21/2002) The CIA and Defense Department discount the threat, pointing out the US is not deploying ships near Lebanon. However, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later say he was alarmed by the warning because it showed increased ambitions for al-Qaeda in going after hardened military targets. (Miniter 2003, pp. 215) Al-Qaeda will successfully bomb the USS Cole several months later in Yemen (see October 12, 2000).
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arranges for the FBI assistant legal attaché in Islamabad, Pakistan, to meet a source, later known in a New York Times article as “Omar,” that has substantial information on Osama bin Laden, his operatives and operations. Omar will go on to play a key role in the investigation of the USS Cole bombing, as he will identify Khallad bin Attash, one of the masterminds behind the attack (see November 22-December 16, 2000 and January 4, 2001). However, because the assistant legal attaché cannot speak the source’s language and due to the value of the information Omar has, the CIA is asked to help and he is handled as a joint source. The CIA attempts to prevent the source from working on criminal investigations for the FBI, fearing he may be exposed in court, but these attempts are not successful. (Johnston and Risen 4/11/2004; US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 264-5 ; Wright 7/10/2006 )
Senator Aquilino Pimentel, president of the Philippines Senate, accuses the Philippine government of collusion with the Muslim militant group Abu Sayyaf. He cites research that names two high police officers, Leandro Mendoza and Rodolfo Mendoza, as handlers for Abu Sayyaf informants. He also names Brig. Gen. Guillermo Ruiz, commanding general of the Filipino Marines in the early 1990s, as someone who colluded with the group, even splitting profits from illegal logging with them. Pimentel says, “My information is that the Abu Sayyaf partisans were given military intelligence services IDs, safe-houses, safe-conduct passes, firearms, cell phones and various sorts of financial support.” He accuses officials of manipulating the Abu Sayyaf “in the game of divide and rule as far as the Muslim insurgency is concerned.” He also accuses the CIA of helping to create the Abu Sayyaf, saying, “For what the Abu Sayyaf has become, the CIA must merit our people’s condemnation. The CIA has sired a monster that has caused a lot problems for the country…” He says Abu Sayyaf’s handlers “passed on military equipment and funds from the CIA and its support network…” He claims witnesses have come to him with evidence but are afraid of speaking out publicly. He concludes that “any Filipino who had a hand in the creation, training and equipping of the Abu Sayyaf should be held to account for high treason and other crimes.” (Pimentel 7/31/2000)
The US intelligence community has been monitoring al-Qaeda telephone communications to and from a communications hub in Yemen since the late 1990s (see Late August 1998). The CIA intercepts an al-Qaeda operative say in a monitored phone call that bin Laden is planning a “Hiroshima-type event” against the US. Failed millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam, who is arrested in late 1999 (see December 14, 1999), confirms at the time that al-Qaeda is preparing such an attack. (Risen and Engelberg 10/14/2001; PBS 10/3/2002) This sets off an immediate but unsuccessful search for further evidence. Shortly after 9/11, the New York Times will report that “intelligence officials now acknowledge that they never imagined that Mr. bin Laden’s organization had the ability to kill thousands of people in coordinated attacks on the American homeland. Looking back through the prism of Sept. 11, officials now say that the intercepted message was a telling sign of a drastic shift in the ambitions and global reach of al-Qaeda during the last three years.” (Risen and Engelberg 10/14/2001) There apparently is another intercepted message talking about a “Hiroshima” event in the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001).
Writing in 2004, veteran British intelligence officer Colonel John Hughes-Wilson will note that, at the same time as hijacker pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi are learning to fly at Huffmann Aviation in Venice, Florida (see July 6-December 19, 2000), “A CIA front company called Air Caribe was also operating out of the very same hangar at Venice airport.” He will go on to comment that “this highly curious coincidence must inevitably raise some suspicions of just how much the CIA really did know before 9/11. Was the CIA trying to infiltrate and ‘double’ the US-based al-Qaeda cell, in the hope of using it against Osama bin Laden’s organization in the future?” (Hughes-Wilson 2004, pp. 391) The Air Caribe story is originally broken by investigative reporter Daniel Hopsicker, who will publish a book about Atta’s time in Florida in 2004 (see March 2004).
Zacarias Moussaoui visits Malaysia twice, and stays at the very same condominium where the January 2000 al-Qaeda summit (see January 5-8, 2000) was held. (Fineman and Drogin 2/2/2002; Chandrasekaran 2/3/2002; Ressa 8/30/2002) After that summit, Malaysian intelligence kept watch on the condominium at the request of the CIA. However, the CIA stopped the surveillance before Moussaoui arrived, spoiling a chance to expose the 9/11 plot by monitoring Moussaoui’s later travels (see Between February and September 2000). (Isikoff and Klaidman 6/2/2002) During his stay in Malaysia, Moussaoui tells Jemaah Islamiyah operative Faiz abu Baker Bafana, at whose apartment he stays for one night, that he had had a dream about flying an airplane into the White House, and that when he told bin Laden about this, bin Laden told him to go ahead. They also discuss purchasing ammonium nitrate, and Moussaoui says that Malaysia and Indonesia should be used as a base for financing jihad, but that attacks should be focused against the US. (US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division 3/8/2006; US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division 3/8/2006) While Moussaoui is in Malaysia, Yazid Sufaat, the owner of the condominium, signs letters falsely identifying Moussaoui as a representative of his wife’s company. (Chandrasekaran 2/3/2002; Zakaria 9/20/2002) When Moussaoui is later arrested in the US about one month before the 9/11 attacks, this letter in his possession could have led investigators back to the condominium and the connections with the January 2000 meeting attended by two of the hijackers. (Kelley 1/30/2002) Moussaoui’s belongings also contained phone numbers that could have linked him to Ramzi bin al-Shibh (and his roommate, Mohamed Atta), another participant in the Malaysian meeting (see August 16, 2001). (Associated Press 12/12/2001)
CIA officer Ben Bonk briefs Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush on the threat posed by Islamic extremist groups, telling him that Americans will die in a terrorist attack during the next four years, and to highlight the danger, he shows Bush a mock briefcase bomb he sneaked into the meeting. Bush was recently selected as the Republican Party’s candidate for the 2000 presidential election, and it is traditional for the CIA to provide a wide-ranging intelligence briefing to the Republican and Democratic nominees during a presidential campaign, to prepare them for the responsibilities of the White House. John McLaughlin, acting deputy director of the CIA, has come to Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, to conduct the briefing, along with three other agency officials, including Bonk, deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Three of Bush’s senior advisers—Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Josh Bolten—also attend the briefing.
CIA Officer Says Americans Will Die in a Terrorist Attack - During the final hour of the four-hour session, Bonk briefs Bush on terrorism. He tells Bush: “I can say one thing for sure without any qualification: Sometime in the next four years, Americans will die as a result of a terrorist incident.” (CBS News 9/1/2000; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 198; Eichenwald 2012, pp. 1-3) According to a book by CIA officer John Helgerson, Bonk specifically says that America’s next president will face “a terrorist attack on US soil.” There is then a “discussion of what certain scenarios could look like.” (Helgerson 2013)
CIA Officer Says Islamic Extremists Are the Biggest Danger - Bonk tells Bush that numerous terrorist organizations are on the move, but the most dangerous are the Islamic extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. He says nothing these groups have so far achieved compares to “what lay in store for America and its allies if the terrorists succeeded in their quest for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear weapons, collectively known as CBRN,” according to journalist and author Kurt Eichenwald. Furthermore, Bonk says, “Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, [is] the group most likely to succeed.” It has “the deepest pockets and the most far-flung operational networks.” If al-Qaeda or another terrorist group got its hands on CBRN weapons, Bonk says, that group “would show no hesitation in using the weapons immediately to murder as many Americans as possible.”
Bush Is Shown a Mock Briefcase Bomb - Furthermore, Bonk says that terrorists “could easily slip compact bombs into a crowd without raising suspicion.” To highlight the danger, he has sneaked a mock briefcase bomb into the meeting. Although the device contains no poison gas, it is otherwise a real weapon, built by the CIA based on a design seized from the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which killed 12 commuters in a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995. Bonk let Bush’s Secret Service agents in on what he was doing, so they would allow him to take the mock bomb into the meeting, but Bush knows nothing about it. Bonk had the briefcase on the floor by his chair during the first three hours of the briefing and activated the mock bomb when his time to speak came. He now picks up the briefcase and carries it toward Bush. He pops it open and tilts it forward, so Bush can see the red digits of its electronic timer counting down. “Don’t worry,” Bonk says. “This is harmless. But it is exactly the kind of chemical device that people can bring into a room and kill everybody. And this one would be going off in two minutes.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 198; Eichenwald 2012, pp. 2-3) Bush is apparently unimpressed with the mock bomb. According to Helgerson, “Such show-and-tell devices usually intrigued individuals and groups being briefed, but [Bush] gestured to the effect of ‘Get that out of here’ and wanted to settle down to serious discussion.” (Helgerson 2013, pp. 152)
An unmanned spy plane called the Predator begins flying over Afghanistan, showing incomparably detailed real-time video and photographs of the movements of what appears to be bin Laden and his aides. It flies successfully over Afghanistan 16 times. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) President Clinton is impressed by a two-minute video of bin Laden crossing a street heading toward a mosque inside his Tarnak Farms complex. Bin Laden is surrounded by a team of a dozen armed men creating a professional forward security perimeter as he moves. The Predator has been used since 1996, in the Balkans and Iraq. One Predator crashes on takeoff and another is chased by a fighter, but it apparently identifies bin Laden on three occasions. Its use is stopped in Afghanistan after a few trials, mostly because seasonal winds are picking up. It is agreed to resume the flights in the spring, but the Predator fails to fly over Afghanistan again until after 9/11. (Gellman 12/19/2001; Clarke 2004, pp. 220-21) On September 15, 2001, CIA Director Tenet apparently inaccurately tells President Bush, “The unmanned Predator surveillance aircraft that was now armed with Hellfire missiles had been operating for more than a year out of Uzbekistan to provide real-time video of Afghanistan.” (Balz, Woodward, and Himmelman 1/29/2002)
In September 2000, Luai Sakra enters Germany seeking asylum, using the name “Louia Sakka” (one of several ways his name is transliterated). He moves with his wife and two children to a government asylum dormitory in a small town in central Germany while waiting for a verdict. (Cziesche, Dahlkamp, and Stark 8/15/2005; Agence France-Presse 10/27/2005) After his 2005 arrest in Turkey, Sakra will confess to helping some of the 9/11 hijackers. He will claim to have helped some of the 9/11 hijackers while in Bursa, a city in Turkey 60 miles south of Istanbul (see Late 1999-2000). (Vick 2/20/2006) But he will also say that he knew hijacker Mohamed Atta, which presumably would take place during Sakra’s time in Germany (see Early August 2005). He will warn the Syrian government about the 9/11 attacks one day before they happen (see September 10, 2001) and evidence will suggest he was an informant working for the CIA and other governments (see 2000). He will later admit meeting Assef Shawkat, head of Syrian intelligence, in Germany, but it is not known when this meeting took place. (BBC 11/10/2005) Apparently while still living in Germany, Sakra is indicted in Jordan for allegedly supporting planned attacks around the turn of the millennium (see November 30, 1999). His 2001 Jordanian indictment reads, “Current residence: Germany, on the run.” It is not clear if Jordan communicated with the German government about his whereabouts at this time. He will be convicted in absentia in Jordan in early 2002 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Meanwhile, in Germany he loses his asylum appeal and leaves the country on July 24, 2001. His family flies to Syria around the same time. (Cziesche, Dahlkamp, and Stark 8/15/2005)
A Tunisian militant based in Italy named Sekseka Habib Waddani confesses to Italian police that he has helped run an elaborate arms smuggling ring, but it is unclear whether Italy or the US does anything to stop him. Waddani will be placed on the US Treasury Department’s list of most-wanted militants on August 29, 2002, but this “prompts questions about when the United States learned of Waddani, and whether any action was taken by Italian or US officials after Waddani’s claim that large amounts of weapons were being sold to Islamic terrorists.” When the CIA is asked in 2002 whether it did anything about Waddani, the agency will decline to comment.
Walk In - Waddani just walks in to a police station in Milan in 2000 and discloses the information, which he learned because he was involved when the weapons transited Italy and Switzerland. He approaches the police because he is being blackmailed and needs protection. The weapons smuggling scheme Waddani reports to the Italians initially involved smuggling the arms from Russia to Italy by sea, then to Croatia and on to Bosnia during the war there from 1992 to 1995. Weapons were also supplied to Albanian fighters in Kosovo in 1998. The deals were brokered by Italian and Muslim lawyers in Switzerland, who found buyers there. However, this system is abandoned as too difficult and the weapons—pistols, machine guns, missiles, and grenades—are then shipped through Uzbekistan to Pakistan for use at terrorist training camps in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Companies Involved - Several European companies are involved in moving the arms, including one that handled transactions in Switzerland and is owned by a Pakistani named Haji Agka and two Swiss-based Tunisians, Ahmed and Shoyab Sharifi, and a front named the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center of Lucerne. The two Tunisians are friends of Ahmad Huber, who reportedly facilitates “periodic and regular” weapons shipments and is accused of moving money for Osama bin Laden through the suspect Al Taqwa bank (see November 7, 2001). Huber denies the charges and, although the Italians passed the information on to Switzerland, says neither he nor any of his associates were ever even questioned about it. Waddani will be indicted in October 2001 in Italy, for trafficking in arms, explosives, chemical weapons, identity papers, receiving stolen goods, and illegal immigration. The Treasury Department will also say he is a member of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). (Komisar 9/16/2002)
In October 2000, Congress authorizes a new unit within the Treasury Department called the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center. Its task is to blend the expertise of the Treasury Department, CIA, FBI, and NSA in tracking and disrupting the finances of US-designated terrorist groups. Similar efforts had been tried twice before and fizzled out (see October 21, 1995; Late 1998). However, the unit is still getting organized at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Spurred by the attacks, the unit gets up and running on September 14, 2001. A Treasury spokesperson cites the logistical difficulties of bringing together representatives from different agencies in explaining the delay. (Levin and Meyer 10/15/2001)
Following the attack on the USS Cole (see October 12, 2000), the CIA discusses possible policy changes in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Disappointed by US inaction, Alec Station chief Richard Blee decides “we’ve got to change the rules,” because he thinks al-Qaeda is getting stronger and stronger. This entails enhanced support for the Northern Alliance led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, which is the only credible opposition fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Although some CIA officers still think Alec Station’s staff is “over the top,” both the CIA’s Near East division and Counterterrorist Center chief Cofer Black agree with Blee, and they decide what is needed is aid to enable Massoud to pressure the Taliban, creating the conditions for CIA operations against bin Laden. The list of assistance includes cash to bribe commanders, trucks, helicopters, light arms, ammunition, uniforms, food, and possibly mortars and artillery. The plan will cost between $50 and $150 million, and will include a permanent CIA base in Afghan territory controlled by the Northern Alliance. CIA officers will then be able to accompany Massoud’s men on missions. It takes some time to arrive at these conclusions, which will be formalized into a plan (see December 29, 2000). However, the plan will not be accepted by the outgoing Clinton administration or the incoming Bush administration (see December 20, 2000). (Coll 2004, pp. 539-541; Coll 2/23/2004)
Fahad al-Quso, a Yemeni and known associate of Osama bin Laden, turns himself in to the Yemeni government after some of his relatives are questioned in the wake of the USS Cole bombing (see October 12, 2000). (Wright 7/10/2006 ) He admits that he and one of the two Cole suicide bombers went to Bangkok, Thailand, and gave several thousand dollars to a man known as Khallad, who is identified as one of the masterminds of the Cole bombing. He says the money is to buy a new artificial leg for the one-legged Khallad. The transcript of the interrogation is given to the FBI a month later. FBI agent Ali Soufan sees the transcript and remembers a source he recruited in Afghanistan who spoke of a one-legged man named Khallad who is close to bin Laden. Khallad is his nickname; his real name is Tawfiq bin Attash. A mug shot of bin Attash is sent to this source, who makes a positive identification. Soufan wonders why money was being sent away from the Cole plotters and away from Yemen prior to a major planned attack and speculates that it may mean another al-Qaeda operation is being planned elsewhere. Soufan asks the CIA for information about Khallad and this other attack, which turns out to be 9/11, but the CIA withholds the information (see Late November 2000). Al-Quso will later reveal more to the FBI, leading to more missed opportunities (see Early December 2000). (Wright 2006, pp. 328-329)
In 1999, Kabir Mohabbat, an Afghan-American businessman, had initiated conversations about bin Laden between the US government and the Taliban. According to Mohabbat, the Taliban were ready to hand bin Laden over to a third country, or the International Court of Justice, in exchange for having the US-led sanctions against Afghanistan lifted. (Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament, later confirms that he helps Mohabbat make contact with the US government in 1999.) The initial talks lead to a secret meeting this month between Taliban ministers and US officials in a Frankfurt hotel. Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil reportedly says in the meeting, “You can have him whenever the Americans are ready. Name us a country and we will extradite him.” However, after this face-to-face meeting, further discussions are never held because, Brok believes, a “political decision” has been made by US officials not to continue the negotiations. He does not clarify when he believes such a decision was made. (Reuters 6/5/2004 Sources: Elmar Brok)
In the wake of the USS Cole bombing, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger meets with Defense Secretary William Cohen to discuss a new approach to targeting Osama bin Laden. Berger says: “We’ve been hit many times, and we’ll be hit again. Yet we have no option beyond cruise missiles.” He once again brings up the idea of a “boots on the ground” option—a Delta Force special operation to get bin Laden. A plan is drawn up but the order to execute it is never given. Cohen and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Henry Shelton oppose the plan. By December 21, the CIA reports that it strongly suspects that al-Qaeda was behind the bombing, but fails to definitively make that conclusion. That makes such an attack politically difficult. Says a former senior Clinton aide, “If we had done anything, say, two weeks before the election, we’d be accused of helping [presidential candidate] Al Gore.” (Elliott 8/12/2002; 9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
Based on information obtained during the investigation of the USS Cole bombing (see Late October-Late November 2000), the FBI asks the CIA for information about al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash and a possible al-Qaeda meeting in Southeast Asia in early 2000, but the CIA withholds the information. The request is sent by FBI Director Louis Freeh on behalf of agent Ali Soufan, who is working on the Cole investigation. Soufan began to suspect such a meeting may have taken place when he learned that two of the operatives involved in the bombing had taken money out of Yemen to give to bin Attash in Thailand before the attack (see January 13, 2000), making him think the money may have been intended for a bigger plot. The CIA is highly aware of the January 2000 al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000), which was considered so important that CIA Director George Tenet and other CIA leaders were repeatedly briefed about it (see January 6-9, 2000). The CIA has photos of bin Attash and al-Quso attending the meeting (see January 5-8, 2000 and Shortly After), which took place only a few days before al-Quso’s meeting with bin Attash in Thailand. Yet the CIA does not respond to Soufan’s clearly stated request. Author Lawrence Wright will later comment, “The fact that the CIA withheld information about the mastermind of the Cole bombing and the meeting in Malaysia, when directly asked by the FBI, amount[s] to obstruction of justice in the death of seventeen American sailors [who were killed in the Cole bombing].” Although he was not told one of the 9/11 hijackers had a US visa, Freeh was briefed on the Malaysia summit when it took place (see January 6, 2000), but apparently he does not tell Soufan what he knows, and Soufan remains unaware that any kind of al-Qaeda meeting in Southeast Asia even occurred. (Wright 2006, pp. 328-9; Wright 7/10/2006 )
After talks that last some time, Yemeni authorities agree to provide the FBI team investigating the USS Cole bombing with passport photos of suspects in the attack, including al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash. The photos are provided to lead investigators John O’Neill and Ali Soufan, and Soufan immediately sends bin Attash’s photo to the CIA and to an FBI colleague in Islamabad, Pakistan. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 192; Wright 7/10/2006 ) The FBI colleague is Michael Dorris. (Soufan 2011, pp. 117) The CIA agent is known only as “Chris.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 537) Chris shows the photo to a source, and the source, known only as “Omar,” confirms that the man in the photo is bin Attash. Author Lawrence Wright will comment, “This suggested strongly that al-Qaeda was behind the Cole attack.” However, this does not motivate the US to retaliate against al-Qaeda (see Shortly After October 12, 2000). Around this time, the FBI also learns that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, another al-Qaeda operative involved in the embassy bombings, had a hand in the Cole attack as well (see November-December 2000). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 192; Wright 7/10/2006 )
The US intelligence community considers creating a strategic analysis about terrorism, but none is done before 9/11. The last National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on terrorism was released in 1997 (see 1997). The 9/11 Commission will later say that assessments such as NIEs can “provoke widespread thought and debate [and ] have a major impact on their recipients, often in a wider circle of decision makers.” By late 2000, CIA Director George Tenet recognizes the lack of any recent strategic analysis about al-Qaeda or Islamic militancy in general. He appoints a senior manager, who briefs him in March 2001 about “creating a strategic assessment capability.” The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) establishes a new strategic assessments branch in July 2001 and about ten analysts are slated to work for it. But it takes time to hire the new staff and the first head of this branch reports for work just one day before 9/11. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 342-343) Not only is there no NIE or any other sweeping strategic assessment on al-Qaeda between 1997 and 9/11, but one still will not be completed five years after 9/11. Apparently the US military opposes such an assessment for fear it would reduce the military’s role in counterterrorism efforts (see September 12, 2006).
CIA Director Tenet and other top CIA officials brief President-elect Bush, Vice President-elect Cheney, future National Security Adviser Rice, and other incoming national security officials on al-Qaeda and covert action programs in Afghanistan. Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt recalls conveying that bin Laden is one of the gravest threats to the country. Bush asks whether killing bin Laden would end the problem. Pavitt says he answers that killing bin Laden would have an impact but not stop the threat. The CIA recommends the most important action to combat al-Qaeda is to arm the Predator drone and use it over Afghanistan. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004; Zakaria 3/24/2004) However, while the drone is soon armed, Bush never gives the order to use it in Afghanistan until after 9/11 (see September 4, 2001).
After the attack on the USS Cole, the military not only draws up plans to directly target bin Laden (see November 7, 2000), but also comes up with a larger plan looking at alternatives to assassination. Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, prepared a plan to incorporate military, economic, diplomatic, and political activities to pressure the Taliban to expel bin Laden. A “Phased Campaign Concept” calls for wider-ranging military strikes against the Taliban and other targets, but doesn’t include contingency plans for an invasion of Afghanistan. The concept is briefed to Deputy National Security Adviser Donald Kerrick and other officials in December 2000, but it is never acted on. The military makes no similar plans after Bush’s inauguration, and the CIA’s invasion plans are mostly relied upon when the US invades Afghanistan in October 2001. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004; Johnston and Schmitt 4/4/2004)
In late October 2000, al-Qaeda operative Fahad al-Quso was interrogated by authorities in Yemen, and FBI agent Ali Soufan was able to use that information to discover the identity of one of the USS Cole bombing masterminds, Khallad bin Attash (see Late October-Late November 2000). In early December, while most FBI investigators are having to leave Yemen, Soufan is given the chance to interrogate al-Quso directly. Soufan gets al-Quso to admit that he had met with bin Attash and one of the Cole suicide bombers in Bangkok, Thailand, in January 2000 (see January 13, 2000). Al-Quso admits he gave bin Attash $36,000 and not the $5,000 for medical expenses that al-Quso had claimed when talking to the Yemenis the month before. Al-Quso says they stayed in the Washington Hotel in Bangkok, so Soufan checks telephone records to verify his account. Soufan finds records of phone calls between the hotel and al-Quso’s house in Yemen. They also find calls to both places from a pay phone in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The phone happens to be directly outside the condominium where an al-Qaeda summit was taking place a few days before al-Quso went to Bangkok (see January 5-8, 2000). Soufan asks the CIA for information about bin Attash, but the CIA wrongly claims it knows nothing, and doesn’t even tell Soufan of the Malaysia summit that it had closely monitored (see Late November 2000). (Johnston and Risen 4/11/2004; Wright 2006, pp. 330-331) Meanwhile, FBI head investigator John O’Neill correctly believes that al-Quso is still holding back important information (at the very least, al-Quso is still hiding his participation in the Malaysia summit). However, O’Neill had been kicked out of Yemen by his superiors a week or two before (see October 14-Late November, 2000), and without his influential presence the Yemeni government will not allow any more interrogations. After 9/11, al-Quso will finally admit to meeting with Alhazmi and Almihdhar. One investigator calls the missed opportunity of exposing the 9/11 plot through al-Quso’s connections “mind-boggling.” (Gilmore and Wiser 10/3/2002) In April 2003, al-Quso will escape from a Yemeni prison (see April 11, 2003-March 2004). (Al-Haj 4/11/2003)
After the FBI and CIA obtain a passport photo of al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash (see November 22-December 16, 2000), they are unable to connect him to one of his aliases, Salah Saeed Mohammed bin Yousaf, even though he had submitted an application for a US visa using this alias the year before (see April 3, 1999). Presumably, a search of visa applications would have turned up a photograph similar to the one the US now has of him, allowing the US to connect bin Attash to the alias. However, no such search is made, even though the CIA knows the alias is connected to 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar (see January 8, 2000), who obtained US visas at the same time bin Attash’s application was denied (see April 3-7, 1999). No such search is made even after the CIA connects bin Attash to Alhazmi and Almihdhar under bin Attash’s real name as well in early 2001 (see January 4, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 192-3, 538; US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 248, 267-278 ) The US misses other opportunities to learn more about this alias (see After January 8, 2000 and After August 23, 2001).
The CIA station in Islamabad, Pakistan, writes a cable noting that further connections have been made between 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar and al-Qaeda. This CIA station is already aware that Almihdhar attended an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia in January 2000 (see January 5-8, 2000). Due to these additional connections, the CIA believes that there may be a connection between Almihdhar and the USS Cole bombers and that Almihdhar may have met Fahad al-Quso and Khallad bin Attash, two of the operatives involved in the bombing, in Southeast Asia in January 2000 (see January 13, 2000 and Early December 2000). The station realizes this is important because bin Attash is linked to Osama bin Laden, but also speculates that bin Attash and Almihdhar may be the same person. The reason given for this speculation is that both bin Attash and Almihdhar are in Bangkok, Thailand, at the same time, in the second week of January 2000 (see Mid-Late December 2000). (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 269-270 )
In a memo to President Clinton that is also widely distributed in the US intelligence community, CIA Director George Tenet warns: “The next several weeks will bring an increased risk of attacks on our country’s interests from one or more Middle Eastern terrorist groups… The volume of credible threat reporting has grown significantly in the past few months, particularly concerning plans by Osama bin Laden’s organization for new attacks in Europe and the Middle East.… Our most credible information on bin Laden activity suggests his organization is looking at US facilities in the Middle East, especially the Arabian peninsula, in Turkey and Western Europe. Bin Laden’s network is global however and capable of attacks in other regions, including the United States.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 128-129) Just one day later, Clinton will brief incoming President Bush on the al-Qaeda threat (see December 19, 2000).
Because the CIA thinks 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar and al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash are in the same place at the same time—in Bangkok, Thailand, for a meeting with Fahad al-Quso, an operative involved in the attack of the USS Cole, in January 2000 (see January 5-6, 2000)—and possibly because of the similarity between Almihdhar’s first name Khalid and bin Attash’s nickname Khallad, some officers apparently theorize that bin Attash and Almihdhar may be the same person. However, the FBI is not informed of this. In order to confirm or refute this theory, the CIA station in Islamabad, Pakistan, asks for surveillance photos of an al-Qaeda summit that Almihdhar attended, intending to show the photos to a source who knows bin Attash and has previously identified him in another photo (see November 22-December 16, 2000 and Early January 2001). However, there is no record of this theory being communicated to the FBI, even though the CIA knows bin Attash was involved in the Cole bombing and the FBI is investigating him (see Late October-Late November 2000). Some CIA cables drafted at this time contain information about bin Attash and information not related to bin Attash; CIA officers are instructed to share the information not related to bin Attash with the FBI, but are not instructed to share the information about bin Attash and al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit. The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will later say that if the CIA had told the FBI more about bin Attash around this time, the FBI would have asked for more information about Almihdhar and had a better chance of locating him before 9/11. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 269-270, 278 )
National Security Adviser Sandy Berger asks CIA Director how he would go after al-Qaeda if he were unconstrained by resources and policies. He assigns Cofer Black and the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to develops a plan for the incoming Bush administration. It is dubbed the “Blue Sky Memo.” The CIA presents it to counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke on December 29, 2000. It recommends increased support to anti-Taliban groups and especially a major effort to back Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance, to tie down al-Qaeda personnel before they leave Afghanistan. No action is taken on it in the last few weeks of the Clinton administration; and the new Bush administration does not appear interested in it either. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004; Tenet 2007, pp. 130-131) The National Security Council counterterrorism staff also prepares a strategy paper, incorporating ideas from the Blue Sky Memo. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry Shelton prepares a paper with 13 options for using force against bin Laden. Several of the options describe Special Forces raids to capture or kill bin Laden. But counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later say that when military operations on al-Qaeda were discussed, “the overwhelming message to the White House from the uniformed military leadership was, ‘We don’t want to do this.’” Shelton’s chief of operations will later describe the paper as a tool to “educate” National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Clarke, and others about the “extraordinary complexity” of going ahead with any of the options. The military repeatedly complains that the CIA’s intelligence about bin Laden isn’t good enough while the CIA complains that the military’s intelligence requirements are too demanding. One CIA document notes that there is “lots of desire” for a military strike against bin Laden amongst lower-level US military officials, but “reluctance at the political level.” (Miller 7/25/2003; Coll 2004, pp. 533) One reason for such reluctance is the close ties between the US military and Pakistan. Author Steve Coll will later note, “The Pentagon, especially General Anthony Zinni at Centcom, who remained close to [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf personally, emphasized the benefits of engagement with Pakistan’s generals.” (Coll 2004, pp. 490)
Despite the claims by the Iraqi National Congress, and many Republicans, that the defector commonly known as Curveball (see November 4, 2007) has no connections with the INC (see November 4, 2007), at least some evidence exists to the contrary. Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin, author of the 2007 book Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War, will note both in his book and in an interview that Curveball has an older brother who fled Iraq in 1992, and who joined the INC shortly thereafter. For years, Curveball and his brother had little contact. But in 2001 the brother calls Curveball and tells him that Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the INC, heard that Curveball is in Germany, and that Chalabi wants any information on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that the INC might steer towards US intelligence. Drogin will say that Curveball, who he will describe as “semi-psychotic” by this time, is “sent over the edge” by the phone call. He is convinced that he had been tracked down by the Iraqis who, he feels, want to assassinate him, so at that point he stops cooperating with German intelligence. After the invasion of Iraq, CIA agents will track down Curveball’s mother in Baghdad, where she will tell them about the brother. The agents locate the brother, who is still working for the INC out of a Baghdad location called the Hunting Club. The brother will confirm the phone call. However, Drogin will say, “No one was able to prove—and Chalabi repeatedly, angrily denied—that he had sent Curveball out as a deliberate plant. And the reason that this is credible in this case is that Chalabi did send out numerous people—I think 20 is the number who have been identified—who came out through the Iraqi National Congress, and in almost every case proved to be providing false information of one kind or another. But in every one of those cases, they were handed off directly to the Americans. When the CIA found out about the brother, they totally freaked out because they thought, ‘Oh my God, we’ve been set up, Chalabi really pulled the wool over us on this one.’ But in the end it was determined that it was just another fluke in this case, but one that sent them all going crazy for quite a while.” (Koppelman 10/16/2007) House member John Conyers (D-MI), the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, will note in a November 8, 2005 letter to Chalabi, “[W]e have learned that ‘Curveball’ is, in fact, the brother of one of your top lieutenants within the Iraqi National Congress.” He will request that Chalabi “make yourself available to us to explain the details and reasons for your involvement in the manipulation of intelligence as the Bush Administration pushed for war. It is vital to the integrity of both our democracies that the truth behind these terribly destructive events be known.” It is not clear if, and how, Chalabi will respond to Conyers’s request. (Conyers 11/8/2005) And in 2006, a PBS documentary will quote former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro as saying, “Curveball was a relative of a senior official of the INC, the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmed Chalabi.” (Kirk 6/20/2006) The extent of Curveball’s contact with the INC, and whether or not he was “aimed” at the US to deliberately spread disinformation, is not known.
The heads of the US military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have become frustrated by the lack of CIA disinformation operations to create dissent among the Taliban, and at the very end of the Clinton administration, they begin to develop a Taliban disinformation project of their own, which is to go into effect in 2001. When they are briefed, the Defense Department’s new leaders kill the project. According to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Henry Shelton, “[Defense Secretary] Rumsfeld and Deputy [Defense] Secretary Paul Wolfowitz were against the Joint Staff having the lead on this.” They consider this a distraction from their core military missions. As far as Rumsfeld is concerned, “This terrorism thing was out there, but it didn’t happen today, so maybe it belongs lower on the list… so it gets defused over a long period of time.” (Benjamin 3/30/2004)
MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service, cables the CIA informing the agency that it “is not convinced that Curveball is a wholly reliable source” and that “elements of [his] behavior strike us as typical of… fabricators,” according to a later investigation by the US Senate. The British also note that satellite images taken in 1997 when Curveball was presumably working at Djerf al Nadaf contradict his descriptions of the facility. (Drogin and Goetz 11/20/2005) However, the CIA ignores the British caveat, and after the Bush administration decides to invade Iraq, Curveball’s information is used to bolster the case for war (see February 5, 2003). As reporter Bob Drogin, author of the 2007 book Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War, will say, “[T]he CIA heard what it wanted to hear. It saw what it wanted to see. And it told the president what he wanted to hear. Time and again, intelligence officials discounted contradictory information, filled in gaps, and made up the dots to reach the conclusion they wanted. In part, they were caught up in the climate of fear after 9/11 and felt they couldn’t afford to underestimate a possible threat. In part, there was a clear understanding by late 2002 that we were going to war and it would make no difference, and probably would hurt your career, if you tried to get in the way. But mostly, I think incompetence and poor leadership allowed unconfirmed and unreliable information to move up the chain of command. Those few intelligence officers who tried to raise red flags, or issue warnings, either were ignored or treated like heretics.” (Holland 10/22/2007)
As part of a new US intelligence effort to prevent al-Qaeda getting weapons of mass destruction, “a third-country national working for the CIA” goes into an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan where chemical weapons are possibly being made. The agent takes soil samples, but later analysis does not show any dangerous chemicals. According to counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, the “CIA took pride in the risks the third-country national had run in going to the camp.” (Clarke 2004, pp. 178-179)
The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center completes a report on the bombing of the USS Cole (see October 12, 2000). The report, drafted by CIA officer Clark Shannon, finds that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda are circumstantially tied to the attack. However, the report fails to mention details known to the CIA involving figures later connected to the 9/11 plot. The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will later observe, “The report did not mention [hijacker Khalid Almihdhar’s] visa, [hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi’s] travel to the United States or the Khallad [bin Attash] identification from the Kuala Lumpur photographs” (see January 2-5, 2000, March 5, 2000, and January 4, 2001). (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 283 )
The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center passes a photo of hijacker Khalid Almihdhar and a photo of hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi taken at al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see January 5-8, 2000) to the CIA station in Islamabad, Pakistan. The station is to show the photos to a source, later referred to as “Omar,” to see if he can identify Khalid Almihdhar or al-Qaeda manager Khallad bin Attash, as Omar has previously identified bin Attash in another photo (see November 22-December 16, 2000). According to cables drafted at this time, the overseas station requested the photo of Almihdhar because it thinks that Almihdhar and bin Attash might be the same person (see Mid-Late December 2000). It is unclear why the photo of Alhazmi is also passed at the same time. The CIA has numerous other photos taken at the Malaysia summit as well as video (see January 5, 2000), but these are not passed. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 269-270 )
Yemeni authorities receive photographs of operatives who attended al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit. The exact number of photographs they receive is not known, but they include three photos, of 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and a man who looks like one of their associates, Fahad al-Quso, that are later shown to the FBI (see June 11, 2001). It is unclear who provides the photos to the Yemenis, but the CIA has them and is interested in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen (see October 12, 2000), so presumably they come from the CIA. The photos are highly relevant to the FBI, as they connect extremists known to be involved in the Cole attack to Almihdhar and Alhazmi, but even though the FBI is in charge of the Cole investigation, the CIA continues to withhold the information from the FBI for months (see January 5, 2001 and After, February 1, 2001, Late May, 2001 and August 30, 2001). The Yemenis’ response to the photographs is unknown. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 293 ) The CIA is aware by June 2001 that Almihdhar is the son-in-law of Ahmed al-Hada, a Yemeni extremist who runs a communications hub for Osama bin Laden (see Late August 1998), but it is not known whether they obtain this information now or at some other time. (Wright 2006, pp. 343)
A CIA officer in Islamabad, Pakistan, known only as “Chris” shows a source known as “Omar,” who provides information on al-Qaeda, photographs of future 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi taken at the al-Qaeda Malaysia summit (see January 5-8, 2000). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 537; US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 268-271 ) Omar has previously identified a photo of al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash (see November 22-December 16, 2000) and Chris has been told that bin Attash and Almihdhar might be the same person (see Mid-Late December 2000). Omar says that the photo of Alhazmi, who the CIA apparently does not recognize at this time, actually shows bin Attash. As Omar cannot identify Almihdhar, but says he can identify bin Attash, this indicates Almihdhar and bin Attash are not the same person. The identification causes the CIA to believe that bin Attash attended al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit. Although this belief is based on a mistaken identification, it is actually correct, as bin Attash was present at the summit—the CIA has photos of bin Attash there, but fails to show them to Omar. This identification is important because bin Attash is a known bin Laden operative connected to the USS Cole attack and East African embassy bombings. The CIA also knows that Almihdhar and Alhazmi were at the summit, so this could connect them to the Cole attack. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 268-271 ) An FBI official named Michael Dorris is also at the meeting. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 272 ; Soufan 2011) However, Dorris does not learn of the identification of bin Attash by “Omar.” (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 270-274 )
After an informant identifies a photo of al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash for the CIA, indicating that he was at al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see January 4, 2001), the CIA fails to place him on the US watch list. The identification links bin Attash, who was involved in the attack on the USS Cole, to 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. The CIA has already been informed that Alhazmi entered the US in March 2000, yet once again they fail to watchlist either Alhazmi or Almihdhar. The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will point out, “In January 2001, Khalid Almihdhar was abroad, his visa had expired, and he would have to clear a watch list check before obtaining a new visa to re-enter the United States.” (Meyer 9/22/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 148-150 ) CNN later notes that at this point the CIA, at the very least, “could have put Alhazmi and Almihdhar and all others who attended the [summit] in Malaysia on a watch list to be kept out of this country. It was not done.” (Ensor 6/4/2002) One of bin Attash’s aliases, Salah Saeed Muhammed bin Yousaf, will be placed on the US watch list on August 23, at the same time as Alhazmi and Almihdhar (see August 23, 2001), but US authorities apparently will not be aware that this is actually one of his aliases at that point. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 152 ; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 538; US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 302 )
After an informer later referred to as “Omar” tells the CIA that al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash was at al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see January 4, 2001), the CIA fails to communicate this information to the FBI, even though it is important for the FBI’s investigation of the USS Cole bombing and connects future 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi to the Cole bombers. Omar is a joint FBI/CIA source, but the FBI assistant legal attaché responsible for him, Michael Dorris, will later say he does not know of this identification, and documentation he drafts at this time indicates he is unaware of it. It is unclear why Dorris is unaware of the identification, although he does not speak Omar’s language and may have been out of the room making photocopies when Omar identified bin Attash in a photo of the Malaysia summit for his CIA counterpart. That officer, known only as “Chris,” will later say he has no independent recollection of any particular meeting with Omar.
Comparison with Previous Meeting - However, when Omar previously identified a photo of bin Attash provided by Yemeni authorities on December 16, 2000 (see November 22-December 16, 2000), Chris had him repeat the identification specifically for the benefit of Dorris, and the cable he drafted about the meeting said this clearly. In addition, Dorris will later say that he recalls the specific circumstances of the previous debriefing and would be able to recount them, including the identification of bin Attash in the photograph provided by the Yemenis.
Three Cables Drafted - Chris drafts three cables about the January 4 meeting; one internal cable provides little detail about it, but says bin Attash was identified in one of the photos, a cable to the general US intelligence community fails to mention the identification of bin Attash, as does a third cable, which is sent to the CIA.
CIA Later Makes False Claims - However, according to statements made by CIA officials after 9/11, at this time the CIA thinks that the FBI knows that bin Attash has been identified in the photos. For example, Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center Cofer Black will tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, “[O]ur records establish that the special agents from the FBI’s New York Field Office who were investigating the USS Cole attack reviewed the information about the Kuala Lumpur photo in late January 2001.” However, there is no documentary record of information about the second identification placing bin Attash in Kuala Lumpur with the two hijackers being passed to the FBI at this time. In addition, in July 2001 CIA manager Tom Wilshire will suggest passing this information to the FBI (see July 13, 2001), possibly meaning he thinks it is not passed at this time. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 264-278 ) The CIA will not notify the FBI that Omar identified bin Attash in the photo until August 30, 2001, less than two weeks before 9/11 (see August 30, 2001).
Even before President Bush’s official inauguration, Clinton holdover counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke pushes National Security Adviser Rice and other incoming Bush officials to resume Predator drone flights over Afghanistan (originally carried out in September and October 2000) in an attempt to find and assassinate bin Laden. (Gellman 1/20/2002; CBS News 6/25/2003) On January 10, Rice is shown a video clip of bin Laden filmed by a Predator drone the year before. (Gellman 1/20/2002) Aware of an Air Force plan to arm the Predator, when Clarke outlines a series of steps to take against al-Qaeda on January 25 (see January 25, 2001), one suggestion is to go forward with new Predator drone reconnaissance missions in the spring and use an armed version when it is ready. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004) The original Air Force development plan calls for three years of Predator testing, but Clarke pushes so hard that a Hellfire missile is successfully test fired from a Predator on February 16, 2001. The armed Predator will be fully ready by early June 2001 (see Early June-September 10, 2001). (CBS News 6/25/2003; Mayer 7/28/2003) However, Rice apparently approves the use of the Predator but only as part of a broader strategy against al-Qaeda. Since that strategy will still not be ready before 9/11, the Predator will not be put into use before 9/11. (Bridis and Solomon 6/22/2003)
Although neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz has lost his chance of becoming director of the CIA due to his sexual entanglements with foreign nationals (see Late December 2000), he has not been entirely dismissed from consideration for high positions, and has the support of Vice President Cheney. President Bush, who has insisted that his administration’s officials comply with the highest moral standards, never learns about Wolfowitz’s infidelities. (A letter that Wolfowitz’s wife wrote to Bush about her husband’s affairs was intercepted by Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby. Wolfowitz himself unleashed a group of lawyers on his wife and forced her to sign a non-disclosure agreement to keep quiet about his affairs.) Incoming Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chooses Wolfowitz to be his deputy, blocking incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell’s choice for the position, Richard Armitage, from taking the office (see Late December 2000 and Early January 2001). The Washington Post calls Wolfowitz’s selection “another victory for… Cheney over… Powell.” Rumsfeld knows about Wolfowitz’s sexual liaisons, as do most White House officials, and chooses to remain silent. “Rumsfeld told Wolfowitz to keep it zipped,” a State Department source later says. “He didn’t want any problems. He was basically to run the show and Wolfowitz could come on those terms.” (Unger 2007, pp. 191-192)
A CIA officer in Islamabad, Pakistan, asks Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, to “touch base” with FBI agents investigating the bombing of the USS Cole who are preparing to come to Islamabad to interview a joint FBI/CIA source about the identification of one of the Cole bombers, but the suggested briefing is either never given or lacks a crucial detail. Alec Station is aware that the source, referred to later as “Omar,” has identified al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash as being present at al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see January 4, 2001) and that the FBI agents are going to Islamabad specifically to document another identification of bin Attash by Omar (see November 22-December 16, 2000). The cable from the officer in Islamabad, known only as “Chris,” even notes that Omar is “currently of very high interest to our [FBI] colleagues,” but Alec Station fails to notify the Cole investigators that bin Attash attended the summit in Malaysia. This is important because it connects bin Attash to future 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who also attended the summit (see January 5-8, 2000). (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 275-8 ) Chris will meet the FBI agents in Pakistan, but will also fail to mention the identification of bin Attash at the Malaysia summit to them (see February 1, 2001).
Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke submits a proposal to National Security Adviser Rice and “urgently” asks for a Cabinet-level meeting on the al-Qaeda threat. (Clarke 2004, pp. 230-31) He forwards his December 2000 strategy paper and a copy of his 1998 “Delenda Plan”
(see August 27, 1998). He lays out a proposed agenda for urgent action:
Approve covert assistance to Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
Significantly increase funding for CIA counterterrorism activity. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
Respond to the USS Cole bombing with an attack on al-Qaeda. (The link between al-Qaeda and that bombing had been assumed for months and is confirmed in the media two days later.) According to the Washington Post, “Clarke argue[s] that the camps [are] can’t-miss targets, and they [matter]. The facilities [amount] to conveyor belts for al-Qaeda’s human capital, with raw recruits arriving and trained fighters departing either for front lines against the Northern Alliance, the Afghan rebel coalition, or against American interests somewhere else. The US government had whole libraries of images filmed over Tarnak Qila and its sister camp, Garmabat Ghar, 19 miles farther west. Why watch al-Qaeda train several thousand men a year and then chase them around the world when they left?” No retaliation is taken on these camps until after 9/11. (Gellman 1/20/2002)
Go forward with new Predator drone reconnaissance missions in the spring and use an armed version when it is ready (see January 10-25, 2001). (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
Step up the fight against terrorist fundraising. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
Be aware that al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the US are not just a potential threat, but are a “major threat in being.” Additionally, more attacks have almost certainly been set in motion (see January 25, 2001). (Gellman 1/20/2002) Rice’s response to Clarke’s proposal is that the Cabinet will not address the issue until it has been “framed” at the deputy secretary level. However, this initial deputy meeting is not given high priority and it does not take place until April 2001. (Clarke 2004, pp. 230-31) Henry Shelton, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman until 9/11, says, “The squeaky wheel was Dick Clarke, but he wasn’t at the top of their priority list, so the lights went out for a few months. Dick did a pretty good job because he’s abrasive as hell, but given the [bureaucratic] level he was at” there was no progress. (Benjamin and Simon 2002, pp. 335-36; Benjamin 3/30/2004) Some counterterrorism officials think the new administration responds slowly simply because Clarke’s proposal originally came from the Clinton administration. (Elliott 8/12/2002) For instance, Thomas Maertenson, on the National Security Council in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, says, “They really believed their campaign rhetoric about the Clinton administration. So anything [that administration] did was bad, and the Bushies were not going to repeat it.” (Bumiller and Miller 3/24/2004; Black 3/25/2004) The Bush administration will finally address the gist of Clarke’s plan at a cabinet-level meeting on September 4, 2001, just one week before 9/11 (see September 4, 2001). Clarke will later comment that the plan adopted “on Sept. 4 is basically… what I proposed on Jan. 25. And so the time in between was wasted.”
Future 9/11 hijacker pilot Ziad Jarrah is questioned at Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over suspected radical Islamist links in January of 2000 or 2001. Initial accounts will place the stop in 2001, after Jarrah has received flight training in the US. (Crewdson 12/13/2001; MacVicar and Faraj 8/1/2002; Corbin 2003) However, other accounts will place it a year earlier (see January 30, 2000 and January 30-31, 2000). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 496; Zeman et al. 11/2004; McDermott 2005, pp. 186-7; Crewdson and Zajac 9/28/2005) In the 2001 version, Jarrah has already started flight training and has a US visa, whereas in the 2000 version he merely tells UAE officials of his plans to get a US visa and receive flight training there. (Corbin 2003; History Channel 2004) There is evidence to suggest Jarrah is not in Dubai on January 30, 2001 (see Late November 2000-January 30, 2001). In addition, there is evidence to suggest Jarrah was in Afghanistan in January 2000 (see January 18, 2000). After 9/11, there will be a prolonged debate about the details of Jarrah’s questioning in Dubai (see December 14, 2001-September 28, 2005).
The BBC later reports, “After the elections, [US intelligence] agencies [are] told to ‘back off’ investigating the bin Ladens and Saudi royals, and that anger[s] agents.” This follows previous orders to abandon an investigation of bin Laden relatives in 1996 (see February-September 11, 1996), and difficulties in investigating Saudi royalty. (BBC 11/6/2001) An unnamed “top-level CIA operative” says there is a “major policy shift” at the National Security Agency at this time. Bin Laden could still be investigated, but agents could not look too closely at how he got his money. One specific CIA investigation hampered by this new policy is an investigation in Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan and his Khan Laboratories. Khan is considered the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability. But since the funding for this nuclear program gets traced back to Saudi Arabia, restrictions are placed on the inquiry. (Palast 2002, pp. 99-100) Also in early 2001, FBI agent Robert Wright, attempting to pursue an investigation into Saudi multimillionaire Yassin al-Qadi, is told by FBI superiors, “it’s just better to let sleeping dogs lie”(see January-March 2001). Reporter Greg Palast notes that President Clinton was already hindering investigations by protecting Saudi interests. However, as he puts it, “Where Clinton said, ‘Go slow,’ Bush policymakers said, ‘No go.’ The difference is between closing one eye and closing them both.” (Palast 2002, pp. 102)
Abdul Haq, a famous Afghan leader of the mujaheddin, convinces Robert McFarlane, National Security Adviser under President Ronald Reagan, that Haq and about 50 fellow commanders could lead a force to start a revolt against the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan. However, Haq wants to do this under the authority of Zahir Shah, the popular former king of Afghanistan, whom the US does not support. The CIA fails to give any support to Haq. Says one CIA official to McFarlane a few months later, “We don’t yet have our marching orders concerning US policy; it may be that we will end up dealing with the Taliban.” Haq goes ahead with his plans without US support, and is killed in October (see October 25, 2001). (Marshall 10/28/2001; McFarlane 11/2/2001)
US and German intelligence experts meet in Munich to discuss the information provided by the Iraqi defector code-named “Curveball” (see November 1999). Using satellite imagery, they examine photos of the Djerf al Nadaf site, where Curveball claimed to have been a senior project director for a secret mobile biological weapons laboratory. The photos match with Curveball’s description, except for one detail. According to former CIA official Tyler Drumheller, “If you look at the photos, all the way back to 1998, there was a wall that was built there. Like a cinderblock wall that was built there, that nothing could go through.” The wall stood exactly where Curveball claimed the trucks would go into the warehouse. But CIA analysts convinced of Curveball’s veracity has an explanation: “There was an idea that it could have been a fake wall,” Drumheller recalls. (CBS News 11/4/2007)
AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth all cooperate with the NSA in monitoring US citizens’ phone and Internet communications (see October 2001). Qwest, however, refuses to cooperate (see February 27, 2001). Qwest officials are unsure that it is legal to hand over customer information to the government without court warrants. The firm’s refusal to participate in the program leaves a gaping hole in the NSA’s database, with the NSA only getting partial coverage of US citizens in the West and Northwest. Until recently, AT&T and other phone companies have routinely insisted on court warrants before turning over call data to government agencies, protocols growing out of the historical concerns of the Bell Telephone system for customer service and privacy. Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union will say in 2006 that such insistence on court warrants was a bedrock principle of the Bell systems. “No court order, no customer information—period.” he says. “That’s how it was for decades.” The Bell system was also concerned with following the law, specifically the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits telephone companies from giving out such information without court orders. President Bush and other government officials will later say that his 2002 executive order allowing the NSA to wiretap American phones without warrants (see Early 2002) gives the telephone companies legal cover, but many legal experts and civil liberties groups disagree. After 9/11, the NSA approaches the four companies with offers to pay for US citizens’ call histories and for updates, which would allow the agency to track citizens’ phone habits. Three of the four agree to the NSA proposal, but again Qwest does not. An AT&T spokesman will say in May 2006, “We do not comment on matters of national security, except to say that we only assist law enforcement and government agencies charged with protecting national security in strict accordance with the law.” BellSouth will say that the company “does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority.” Verizon will add that the company acts “in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers’ privacy.” Neither AT&T nor Qwest will comment at all. (Cauley 5/11/2006) The NSA asks Qwest to install monitoring equipment on its “Class 5” switching facilities, which monitor the most localized calls as well as some international traffic. The NSA claims it will only single out foreigners on Qwest’s network. In 2006, a government official will say that the CEO of Qwest, Joe Nacchio, misunderstood what the agency was asking. (Lichtblau, Risen, and Shane 12/16/2007)
Qwest Refuses to Cooperate - In 2006, sources will recall that at the time of the NSA requests, Nacchio is so disturbed by the idea of the NSA wiretapping phones without warrants, and is so unsure of what information would be collected and how it might be used, that he decides the company will not cooperate. The NSA tells Qwest and the other companies that not only would it compile and maintain data on US citizens’ phone habits, but it may well share that information with other US government agencies, including the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the FBI. Indeed, the NSA shares what it calls “product” with other intelligence agencies, and perhaps with other governmental agencies. After Nacchio decides not to comply with the NSA’s request, the agency begins pressuring the firm, accusing it of threatening national security and implying that Qwest might not be eligible for future governmental contracts. When Qwest asks the NSA to take its proposal to the FISA Court (FISC), the agency refuses, making Qwest that much more dubious about the NSA operation, especially when NSA lawyers say they won’t take the proposal to FISC because that court “might not agree with them.” The NSA also refuses to ask for authorization from the attorney general’s office. Nacchio will leave Qwest under fire for allegedly misleading shareholders about the company’s financial prospects, but his successor, Richard Notebaert, continues to refuse to cooperate with the NSA. (Cauley 5/11/2006; USA Today 5/11/2006) Interestingly, by 2004 the Federal Communications Commission will list Qwest and Verizon as essentially the same company. (Federal Communications Commission 12/10/2004)
Other Firms Deny Participation - In May 2006, after USA Today reports on the telecom firms’ participation in the surveillance (see May 11, 2006), both Verizon and BellSouth will deny providing the NSA with data on their customers, though they have previously acknowledged their cooperation (see February 5, 2006). A BellSouth spokesman will say, somewhat ingenuously, “We’re not aware of any database that NSA has, so we’re not aware of our customer information being there at all.” And Verizon conspicuously fails to mention possible data from MCI, the long-distance provider it has recently bought. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will say of the various companies’ participations, “The thing that concerns me is some [companies] said yes and some said no” when asked to participate. “If the government really thought this was legal and necessary, why let some say yes and some say no? It’s either legal and necessary, or it’s not.” (Drinkard 5/16/2006)
Future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar stays at al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Yemen again. His father-in-law Ahmed al-Hada runs the hub in Sana’a, Yemen, where Almihdhar’s wife and other family live. Almihdhar stayed at the hub for around a month in June 2000 (see (Mid-June-Mid-July 2000)) and then traveled around Asia until returning to it now. It is unclear how long he stays, except he goes to Afghanistan for an unknown amount of time and then is in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia in June 2001. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 237) He may travel to Afghanistan via Iran later in February (see February 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 241, 529; Shenon 2008, pp. 370-3) He will fly from Sana’a to Saudi Arabia on May 26, 2001, and probably stays at the hub again while in Sana’a (see (May 26, 2001)). The CIA and NSA have been closely monitoring the hub for years. Phone calls to and from it, including ones made by Almihdhar and other 9/11 hijackers, are intercepted, rooms in the building are bugged, and spy satellites record visitors (see Late August 1998, Late 1998-Early 2002, and Early 2000-Summer 2001). Based on information gained from monitoring this house, the CIA and local intelligence services mounted a major operation against Almihdhar, other 9/11 hijackers, and several more al-Qaeda operatives in December 1999 and January 2000, when they were followed around the Middle East and South Asia and monitored during an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999, January 2-5, 2000, and January 5-8, 2000). So presumably US intelligence should be aware of this visit to the hub and who Almihdhar is, but what exactly is known and who may know it will not be made public.
Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke briefs Vice President Cheney about the al-Qaeda threat. He urges decisive and quick action against al-Qaeda. Cheney soon visits CIA headquarters for more information about al-Qaeda. However, at later high-level meetings Cheney fails to bring up al-Qaeda as a priority issue. (Elliott 8/12/2002; Clarke 2004, pp. 227-30)
The CIA’s bin Laden unit, Alec Station, reduces the FBI’s access to NSA material tracking al-Qaeda members. The FBI had previously used such intercepts to map al-Qaeda’s global network (see Late 1998-Early 2002). The NSA intercepts at least one call from the 9/11 hijackers in the US to an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen after this (see Mid-October 2000-Summer 2001 and (August 2001)), but does not tell the FBI. Authors Joe and Susan Trento will comment that by doing this and withholding the hijackers’ identities from the FBI, “the CIA effectively ended any chance in the months leading up to 9/11 of discovering that [Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi] were actually al-Qaeda agents destined to play major roles in the 9/11 attacks.” The CIA repeatedly fails to tell the FBI what it knows about Alhazmi and Almihdhar (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, January 5, 2001 and After, and June 11, 2001). (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 194) There is a long history of the NSA not wanting other US government agencies to have access to NSA material about al-Qaeda (see December 1996, Late August 1998, Between 1996 and August 1998, and Before September 11, 2001).
Two FBI agents investigating the bombing of the USS Cole interview a source, referred to later as “Omar,” who previously identified a photo of one of the bombers as al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash (see November 22-December 16, 2000). However, a CIA officer present at the interview, known only as “Chris,” fails to add a crucial detail. The interview, which apparently takes place in Pakistan, is held to document the previous identification by Omar of bin Attash, who led the attack on the Cole, based on a photograph provided by Yemeni authorities. Chris is also aware that Omar has identified bin Attash in a surveillance photo taken of al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see January 5-8, 2000 and January 4, 2001). The identification of bin Attash in the photo taken at the summit is important because it connects bin Attash to future 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who were also at the summit, and because it casts light on bin Attash’s interaction with the other Cole bombers. The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will later say it believes “that had the FBI known about the identification of [bin Attash] in the Kuala Lumpur photographs, they would likely have sought information about the other participants in the meeting, including Almihdhar and Alhazmi, which could have increased the FBI’s chances of locating them before the September 11 attacks.” Chris had previously failed to notify the FBI of the identification of bin Attash in the Malaysia summit photo (see January 5, 2001 and After), as had the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see Shortly Before February 1, 2001). (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 275-8 ) Omar is usually handled by Cole case agents Ali Soufan and Steve Bongardt. (Soufan 2011, pp. 120) Presumably, one of them is the lead FBI agent at this interview, although it is not clear which.
CIA director George Tenet testifies to Congress that Iraq possesses no weapons of mass destruction and poses no threat to the United State. He says, “We do not have any direct evidence that Iraq has used the period since [Operation] Desert Fox to reconstitute its WMD programs, although given its past behavior, this type of activity must be regarded as likely.… We assess that since the suspension of [UN] inspections in December of 1998, Baghdad has had the capability to reinitiate both its [chemical and biological weapons] programs… without an inspection monitoring program, however, it is more difficult to determine if Iraq has done so.” He continues, “Moreover, the automated video monitoring systems installed by the UN at known and suspect WMD facilities in Iraq are still not operating. Having lost this on-the-ground access, it is more difficult for the UN or the US to accurately assess the current state of Iraq’s WMD programs.” Rumsfeld also discusses al-Qaeda, calling it "the most immediate and serious threat" to US interests (see February 7, 2001). (Leopold 6/27/2003)
The National Security Agency (NSA) engages in apparently illegal surveillance of US citizens beginning shortly after the inauguration of George W. Bush as president. This will not be revealed to the public until media reports in January 2006, a month after the press revealed that the NSA had engaged in similar illegal wiretaps and surveillance of American citizens after the 9/11 attacks, using those attacks as justification for the surveillance (see December 15, 2005). The former NSA and counterterrorism officials who reveal the pre-9/11 spying will claim that the wiretaps, e-mail monitoring, and Internet surveillance were all “inadvertent,” as NSA computers “unintentionally” intercepted US citizens’ international phone calls and e-mails when the computers flagged keywords. NSA protocol demands that such “inadvertent” surveillance end as soon as NSA analysts realize they are spying on those citizens, and the names of the monitored citizens are supposed to be deleted from the NSA databases. Instead, the NSA is instructed to continue monitoring some citizens that are characterized as “of interest” to White House officials. Those officials include President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say the former NSA and counterterrorism officials. In December 2000, the NSA told the incoming Bush administration that some US citizens are being inadvertently targeted for surveillance, but the names of the citizens are deleted because the law expressly prohibits the NSA from spying on US citizens, US corporations, or even permanent US residents (see December 2000). However, once Bush takes office in January 2001, that practice undergoes a radical change. In the first few months of the administration, President Bush assigns Vice President Cheney to make himself more of a presence at the various US intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, NSA, and DIA. Cheney, along with other officials at the State and Defense Departments, begins making repeated requests to the NSA to reveal the identities of those Americans which had previously been deleted, so that administration officials can more fully understand the context and scope of the intelligence. Such requests are technically legal. But Cheney goes well beyond the law when he requests, as he frequently does, that the NSA continue monitoring specific Americans already caught up in the NSA’s wiretaps and electronic surveillance. A former White House counterterrorism official will later claim that Cheney advised Bush of what he was learning from the NSA. “What’s really disturbing is that some of those people the vice president was curious about were people who worked at the White House or the State Department,” says another former counterterrorism official. “There was a real feeling of paranoia that permeated from the vice president’s office and I don’t think it had anything to do with the threat of terrorism. I can’t say what was contained in those taps that piqued his interest. I just don’t know.” (Leopold 1/17/2006)
During a White House meeting, Bush administration officials discuss new proposals on how to undermine Saddam Hussein. At one point during the meeting, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley tells Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin that the CIA needs to stop bad-mouthing Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi so the Bush administration can work with Chalabi to overthrow the Iraqi government. McLaughlin reportedly makes it clear to Hadley that the agency will not undermine White House efforts to work with Chalabi. Hadley’s pressure on the CIA produces the intended results. Though the CIA will never work directly with Chalabi, the CIA will nonetheless allow the Pentagon to disseminate intelligence reports to other US intelligence agencies based on information from Iraqi defectors supplied by Chalabi’s organization, the Iraqi National Congress. One CIA official later tells author James Risen that the White House message to drop its objections to Chalabi was sent to the CIA “a thousand times, in a thousand different ways.” (Risen 2006, pp. 183-184)
Selig Harrison, a long-time regional expert working at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, says, “the CIA still has close links with the ISI.” Harrison is said to have “extensive contact with the CIA and political leaders in South Asia.” He also claims that the US worked with Pakistan to create the Taliban. (Times of India 3/7/2001) Similarly, in 2000, Ahmed Rashid, longtime regional correspondent for the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph, called the US “Pakistan’s closest ally, with deep links to [Pakistan’s] military and the ISI.” Rashid agrees with Harrison that the US had a role in the creation of the Taliban. (Rashid 9/13/2001)
Taliban envoy Rahmatullah Hashimi meets with reporters, middle-ranking State Department bureaucrats, and private Afghanistan experts in Washington. He carries a gift carpet and a letter from Afghan leader Mullah Omar for President Bush. He discusses turning bin Laden over, but the US wants to be handed bin Laden and the Taliban want to turn him over to some third country. A CIA official later says, “We never heard what they were trying to say. We had no common language. Ours was, ‘Give up bin Laden.’ They were saying, ‘Do something to help us give him up.’… I have no doubts they wanted to get rid of him. He was a pain in the neck.” Others claim the Taliban were never sincere. About 20 more meetings on giving up bin Laden take place up until 9/11, all fruitless. (Washington Post 10/29/2001) Allegedly, Hashimi also proposes that the Taliban would hold bin Laden in one location long enough for the US to locate and kill him. However, this offer is refused. This report, however, comes from Laila Helms, daughter of former CIA director Richard Helms. While it’s interesting that this information came out before 9/11, one must be skeptical, since Helms’ job was public relations for the Taliban. (Fard and Ridgeway 6/6/2001) Hashimi will mention to a reporter in June 2001 that he was in the US for a total of six weeks. (de Borchgrave 6/14/2001) According to one article at the time, Hashimi meets with “several senior officials from the State Department, CIA and National Security Council but also from the non-governmental organization Council on Foreign Relations.” Secretary of State Colin Powell is reportedly irate at the meetings because he had not been informed that high level officials would be meeting with Hashimi in the US. He blames CIA Director George Tenet “having laid on a red carpet for [Mullah] Omar’s adviser.” (Intelligence Newsletter 4/19/2001) Hashimi reportedly directly meets with Tenet. (Marlow 11/19/2001)
After living together in Phoenix since December 2000, 9/11 hijackers Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi move to Falls Church, Virginia, where imam Anwar al-Awlaki preaches. (Fainaru and Ibrahim 9/10/2002; 9/11 Commission 1/26/2004) They live only a few blocks from where two nephews of Osama bin Laden with ties to terrorism go to work (see February-September 11, 1996 and June 1, 2004). They continue to live there off and on until around August. They begin attending the Dar al Hijrah mosque. (Fainaru and Ibrahim 9/10/2002) When they and hijacker Khalid Almihdhar lived in San Diego in early 2000, they attended a mosque there led by al-Awlaki. This imam moved to Falls Church in January 2001, and now the hijackers attend his sermons at the Dar al Hijrah mosque. Some later suspect that al-Awlaki is part of the 9/11 plot because of their similar moves, and other reasons:
The FBI says al-Awlaki had closed door meetings with hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar in 2000 while all three of them were living in San Diego (see February-August 2000). (US Congress 7/24/2003 )
Police later find the phone number of al-Awlaki’s mosque when they search “would-be twentieth hijacker” Ramzi bin al-Shibh’s apartment in Germany. (US Congress 7/24/2003 )
The FBI was investigating al-Awlaki for ties to Islamic militant groups in early 2000 (see June 1999-March 2000).
A neighbor of al-Awlaki later claims that, in the first week of August 2001, al-Awlaki knocked on his door and told him he is leaving for Kuwait: “He came over before he left and told me that something very big was going to happen, and that he had to be out of the country when it happened” (see Early August 2001). (Isikoff and Klaidman 7/28/2003)
US officials will allow al-Awlaki to leave the US twice in 2002, but by 2008 they will conclude that he is linked to al-Qaeda attacks (see Early September 2006-December 2007 and February 27, 2008).
CIA Director George Tenet will claim in his 2007 book that he attempts to get new covert action authorities to fight bin Laden at this time. He says he wants to move from a defensive to offensive posture, but needs policy backing at a higher level to do it. He meets with Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and gives him a list of expanded authorities the CIA is seeking to go after bin Laden. The authorities would permit the CIA or its partners to kill bin Laden without trying to capture him first. Tenet claims that he tells Hadley, “I’m giving you this draft now, but first, you guys need to figure out what your policy is.” The next day, Mary McCarthy, a CIA officer serving as National Security Council (NSC) senior director, calls Tenet’s chief of staff and asks the CIA to take the draft back. She says something to the effect, “If you formally transmit these to the NSC, the clock will be ticking (to take action), and we don’t want the clock to tick just now.” Tenet withdraws the draft. (Tenet 2007, pp. 143-144) A deputy cabinet level meeting in July 2001 discusses the idea, but no action results (see July 13, 2001). The authorities will be granted a few days after 9/11. (Tenet 2007, pp. 154)
Senior Bush administration officials begin to meet once a month to discuss Pakistan’s nuclear program. The officials are CIA Director George Tenet, his deputy John McLaughlin, Secretary of State Colin Powell, his deputy Richard Armitage, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, and Robert Joseph, the National Security Council non-proliferation director. The participants at the meetings discuss what Pakistan is doing, including the fact that North Korea is a client of Pakistan, Pakistan is still doing nuclear business with Iran, it has offered to sell nuclear weapons to Iraq, and there are rumors of a deal between it and Libya. The meetings are arranged by Tenet and, according to Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation Robert Einhorn: “A very small number of people got involved. Any names added to the list had to be sanctioned personally by Tenet.” The group receives intelligence about Khan’s network derived from tracking flights and meetings, as well as intercepting letters and phone calls. “The CIA guys would grudgingly come over to share anything new with us policy types,” Einhorn will say. “State was always making the case to roll up the network now, to stop it doing more damage. The CIA would make a plausible case to keep watching, let the network run so eventually we could pick it up by the roots, not just lop off the tentacles. We’d debate and always decide to continue following. The policy people were nervous about leaving it too long.” Some of Einhorn’s colleagues accuse the CIA of being “addicted” to collecting information, although senior CIA analysts think they have a better understanding of the issues and should be allowed to decide. Einhorn will add that he goes to Armitage for get support for rolling up the network, but Armitage simply refers him to Joseph and nothing is done before Einhorn leaves the administration in September 2001. Authors Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark will comment: “The Bush administration was not interested in acting on Pakistan, or had no idea of how to act. They were far more interested in eliminating Pakistan’s clients: Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea.” (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 303-304)
The Washington Post reports on major improvements of the CIA’s intelligence gathering capability “in recent years.” A new program called Oasis uses “automated speech recognition” technology to turn audio feeds into formatted, searchable text. It can distinguish one voice from another and differentiates “speaker 1” from “speaker 2” in transcripts. Software called Fluent performs “cross lingual” searches, translates difficult languages like Chinese and Japanese (apparently such software is much better than similar publicly available software), and even automatically assesses the contextual importance. Other new software can turn a suspect’s “life story into a three-dimensional diagram of linked phone calls, bank deposits and plane trips,” while still other software can efficiently and quickly process vast amounts of video, audio, and written data. (Loeb 3/26/2001) However, the government will later report that a number of messages about the 9/11 attacks, such as one stating “tomorrow is the zero hour,” are not translated until after 9/11 because analysts were “too swamped.” (ABC News 6/7/2002)
The CIA issues repeated warnings that al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida may be planning an attack for the near future. One report cites a source indicating an attack on Israel, Saudi Arabia, or India. At this time, the CIA believes Zubaida was a major figure in the Millennium plots (see May 30, 2001). Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke relays these reports to National Security Adviser Rice. She is also briefed on Zubaida’s activities and the CIA’s efforts to locate him. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 255; US District Court of Eastern Virginia 5/4/2006, pp. 1 )
British cameraman Peter Jouvenal is reporting on Afghanistan at this time and using a young Afghan known only as “Ahmed” to run errands. Ahmed also has a job running errands for Osama bin Laden at the same time. Jouvenal will later recount that Ahmed was helping bin Laden by “meeting people in Pakistan and taking them across the border, taking messages around for Osama, buying his food, taking messages to the Internet and logging on and receiving, printing, sending.” Ahmed buys bin Laden’s meals most every day. But Jouvenal says that “somewhere on the line Ahmed tied up with the CIA” and decided that working for bin Laden was too dangerous. Ahmed asks Jouvenal for help to get a visa for himself and his family to defect to the US, which Ahmed eventually gets. He also tells Jouvenal that al-Qaeda is planning to hijack an airplane in the US in an attempt to get Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman released from prison. (Bergen 2006, pp. 287-289) There are some similarities between Ahmed’s case and the case of “Max” who leaves Afghanistan around the same time and warns of a hijacking, but there are differences as well (see March-April 2001). It is not known if they are the same person. Regardless, Ahmed’s case contradicts CIA assertions that they never had any asserts close to bin Laden. It is not known why the CIA did not use Ahmed to track bin Laden’s location or poison his food. One month later the White House will be warned of the hijacking plot, but it is unknown if this came from Ahmed or other sources (see May 23, 2001).
A CIA informer who is aware of Zacarias Moussaoui’s connection to terrorism and met him in Azerbaijan in 1997 (see 1997) shares some information on him with the CIA. However, the informer is not aware of Moussaoui’s real name and knows him under an alias, “Abu Khalid al-Francia.” An intelligence official will indicate in 2002 that the source reports on Moussaoui under this name. However, CIA director George Tenet, writing in 2007, will say that the informer only reports on Moussaoui as “al Francia.” One of Moussaoui’s known aliases in 2001 is Abu Khalid al-Sahrawi, similar to the name the source knows him under, but when Moussaoui is arrested in the US (see August 16, 2001) the CIA apparently does not realize that Abu Khalid al-Francia is Moussaoui. (MSNBC 12/11/2001; Solomon 6/4/2002; Tenet 2007, pp. 201)
The CIA writes at least 15 reports (only seven of which have been identified; see, e.g., June 20, 2001, June 30, 2001, September 2004-September 2006, November 24, 2001, December 15, 2001, June 14, 2001, April 10, 2001) about Iraq’s interest in purchasing 7075-T6 aluminum tubes. Several of the assessments are distributed only to high-level policy makers, including President Bush, and are not sent to other intelligence agencies for peer review. According to a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigation, all the assessments rely on the same evidence and they all fail to note that the opinions of leading centrifuge experts at the Energy Department conflict with the CIA’s view. (US Congress 7/7/2004, pp. 59; Barstow, Broad, and Gerth 10/3/2004)
Ali Soufan, a lead investigator into the bombing of the USS Cole, again requests information from the CIA about leads turned up by the investigation. He made a similar request in late 2000, but got no reply (see Late November 2000). After learning that some of the bombers made calls between one of their houses in Yemen, the Washington Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, where some of them stayed, and a payphone in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (see (January 5-8, 2000) and Early December 2000), Soufan sends an official teletype with the request for information and also a photo of al-Qaeda manager Khallad bin Attash. The CIA is well aware that there was an al-Qaeda summit at a condominium near the payphone in Kuala Lumpur (see January 5-8, 2000), and in fact considered it so important that CIA Director George Tenet and other CIA leaders were repeatedly briefed about it (see January 6-9, 2000). (Johnston and Risen 4/11/2004; Wright 2006, pp. 330-331; Wright 7/10/2006 ) The CIA even has photos from the Malaysia summit of al-Quso standing next to hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, and other photos of bin Attash standing next to Almihdhar. (Klaidman, Isikoff, and Hosenball 9/20/2001 ) However, the CIA does not share any of what they know with Soufan, and Soufan continues to remain unaware the Malaysia summit even took place. Author Lawrence Wright will later comment, “If the CIA had responded to Soufan by supplying him with the intelligence he requested, the FBI would have learned of the Malaysia summit and of the connection to Almihdhar and Alhazmi. The bureau would have learned—as the [CIA] already knew—that the al-Qaeda operatives were in America and had been there for more than a year. Because there was a preexisting indictment for bin Laden in New York, and Almihdhar and Alhazmi were his associates, the bureau already had the authority to follow the suspects, wiretap their apartment, intercept their communications, clone their computer, investigate their contacts—all the essential steps that might have prevented 9/11.” (Wright 2006, pp. 330-331)
CIA case officer Valerie Plame Wilson (see 1997), returning to duty from maternity leave and now going by her married name, is one of two officers assigned to the Iraq desk of the counterproliferation division (CPD). Plame Wilson’s job involves extensive covert operational responsibility. She supervises and coordinates NOCs (nonofficial covered officers) in several areas of the globe, helping plan and execute operations to recruit Iraqi nationals as CIA assets, focusing on graduate students, scientists, and businessmen, hoping to find information about Iraq’s secretive quest for unconventional weapons parts and technologies. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Plame Wilson is made the chief of operations of the Iraq branch of CPD. That branch is renamed the “Joint Task Force on Iraq,” or JTFI. (Wilson 2007, pp. 365-366)
CIA managers Gary Schroen, of the Near East division, and Richard Blee, responsible for Alec Station, the agency’s bin Laden unit, meet Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud in Paris, France. (Coll 2004, pp. 560) Massoud, who is in Europe to address the European Parliament (see April 6, 2001), tells Schroen and Blee “that his own intelligence had learned of al-Qaeda’s intention to perform a terrorist act against the United States that would be vastly greater than the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa.” (Wright 2006, pp. 337) Declassified Defense Intelligence Agency documents from November 2001 will say that Massoud has gained “limited knowledge… regarding the intentions of [al-Qaeda] to perform a terrorist act against the US on a scale larger than the 1998 bombing of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.” They will further point out he may have been assassinated two days before 9/11 (see September 9, 2001) because he “began to warn the West.” (PakTribune (Islamabad) 9/13/2003; Agence France-Presse 9/14/2003) Blee hands Massoud a briefcase full of cash. (Zeman et al. 11/2004) Schroen and Blee assure Massoud that, although he has been visited less by the CIA recently, they are still interested in working with him, and they will continue to make regular payments of several hundred thousand dollars each month. Commenting on the military situation in Afghanistan, Massoud says his defenses will hold for now, but the Northern Alliance is doing badly and no longer has the strength to counterattack. (Coll 2004, pp. 561-2)
Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, has been trying to get aid from the US but his people are only allowed to meet with low level US officials. In an attempt to get his message across, he addresses the European Parliament: “If President Bush doesn’t help us, these terrorists will damage the US and Europe very soon.” (Islam 4/7/2001; Elliott 8/12/2002) A classified US intelligence document states, “Massoud’s intelligence staff is aware that the attack against the US will be on a scale larger than the 1998 embassy bombings, which killed over two hundred people and injured thousands (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998).” (Defense Intelligence Agency 11/21/2001 ) Massoud also meets privately with some CIA officials while in Europe (see Early April 2001). He tells them that his guerrilla war against the Taliban is faltering and unless the US gives a significant amount of aid, the Taliban will conquer all of Afghanistan. No more aid is forthcoming. (Coll 2/23/2004)
In a column exploring the idea of US-led regime change in Iraq and advocating the support of Iraqi opposition groups to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland calls Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi (see 1992-1996) “a dedicated advocate of democracy” in Iraq. (Hoagland lauds Chalabi’s advanced college degrees, his success as a Jordanian banker (see August 2, 1989), and what he calls Chalabi’s exposure of the CIA’s “gross failures” in Iraq (see (1994)). Hoagland decries “15 years of failed US policy toward Saddam,” and writes that Chalabi is a fine choice to lead Iraq in the place of Hussein. “Mr. Chalabi is a dedicated advocate of democracy who does fight against enormous military odds and deep religious and social divisions in the Arab world,” he writes. Lambasting those in the CIA and State Department who are determined to prove that Chalabi is a fraud (see January 1996), Hoagland writes, “A policy review dedicated to trashing him and other exiles is a shameful and self-defeating way to begin anew on Iraq. It is a phony way to argue that nothing can or should be done to oust the predatory psychopath who holds Iraq hostage.” (Hoagland 4/9/2001; Unger 2007, pp. 206)
A classified intelligence report, based primarily on the work of junior CIA analyst Joe T., concludes that the 7075-T6 aluminum tubes sought by Iraq from China (see 2000) “have little use other than for a uranium enrichment program.” But the report also notes that “using aluminum tubes in a centrifuge effort would be inefficient and a step backward from the specialty steel machines Iraq was poised to mass produce at the onset of the Gulf War.” The report is passed on to the White House. (US Congress 7/7/2004; Barstow, Broad, and Gerth 10/3/2004)
The Bush administration finally has its first Deputy Secretary-level meeting on terrorism. (Elliott 8/12/2002) According to counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, he advocates that the Northern Alliance needs to be supported in the war against the Taliban, and the Predator drone flights need to resume over Afghanistan so bin Laden can be targeted. (Clarke 2004, pp. 231) Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says the focus on al-Qaeda is wrong. He states, “I just don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden,” and “Who cares about a little terrorist in Afghanistan?” Wolfowitz insists the focus should be Iraqi-sponsored terrorism instead. He claims the 1993 attack on the WTC must have been done with help from Iraq, and rejects the CIA’s assertion that there has been no Iraqi-sponsored terrorism against the US since 1993 (see April 30, 2001). (A spokesperson for Wolfowitz later calls Clarke’s account a “fabrication.”) (Clarke 2004, pp. 30, 231; Isikoff and Thomas 3/22/2004) Wolfowitz repeats these sentiments immediately after 9/11 and tries to argue that the US should attack Iraq. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage agrees with Clarke that al-Qaeda is an important threat. Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, chairing the meeting, brokers a compromise between Wolfowitz and the others. The group agrees to hold additional meetings focusing on al-Qaeda first (in June and July), but then later look at other terrorism, including any Iraqi terrorism. (Clarke 2004, pp. 30, 231-32) Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin also attend the hour-long meeting. (Elliott 8/12/2002)
US intelligence obtains information that al-Qaeda is planning to infiltrate the US from Canada and carry out an operation using high explosives. The report does not say exactly where, when, or how an attack might occur. Two months later, the information is shared with the FBI, the INS, the US Customs Service, and the State Department, and it will be shared with President Bush in August. (US Congress 9/18/2002; Priest and Eggen 9/19/2002) This information could come from captured al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam, who warns around this month that al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida has been seeking Canadian passports as part of a plot to attack the US, possibly by planting explosives in several US cities (see May 30, 2001 and May 2001). (Jiwa 4/3/2002)
The Washington Post will later report, “In May 2001, the CIA learned supporters of bin Laden were planning to infiltrate the United States; that seven were on their way to the United States, Canada and Britain; that his key operatives ‘were disappearing while others were preparing for martyrdom,’ and that bin Laden associates ‘were planning attacks in the United States with explosives.’” (US Congress 9/18/2002; Priest and Eggen 9/19/2002) This information may be related to a warning given by captured al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam this month that al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida is seeking Canadian passports for himself and five other top militants in order to plant explosives in US cities (see May 30, 2001 and May 2001). (Jiwa 4/3/2002) It is not known if the seven traveling to the US, Canada, and Britain refer to any of the 9/11 hijackers, but 11 of the hijackers travel to the US in May and June (see April 23-June 29, 2001), stopping in Britain along the way (see January-June 2001). Investigators will later say that they are not sure if the aliases Zubaida wanted on the Canadian passports could have been used by some of the 9/11 hijackers. (Jiwa 4/3/2002)
Tom Wilshire, a former deputy chief of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is detailed to the FBI to help with its counterterrorism work. Wilshire was involved in the failure to watchlist 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar during the al-Qaeda Malaysia summit (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000), and will also be involved in the failed search for them in the summer of 2001 (see May 15, 2001, Late May, 2001, and July 13, 2001), as well as the failure to obtain a search warrant for Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 24, 2001). He acts as the CIA’s chief intelligence representative to Michael Rolince, head of the Bureau’s International Terrorism Operations Section. His primary role is apparently to help the FBI exploit information for intelligence purposes. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 282-348 )
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a former covert operative and Navy Seal, travels to India on a publicized tour while CIA Director Tenet makes a quiet visit to Pakistan to meet with President Pervez Musharraf. Armitage has long and deep Pakistani intelligence connections (as well as a role in the Iran-Contra affair). While in Pakistan, Tenet, in what was described as “an unusually long meeting,” also secretly meets with his Pakistani counterpart, ISI Director Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed. (Raman 5/22/2001) According to a senior ISI officer in 2006, Tenet urges Mahmood to trade information on Osama bin Laden. However, Mahmood does not cooperate. (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 309, 520)
“Massoud,” a 22-year-old Afghan, tells ABC News that al-Qaeda is “planning to hijack aircraft as a means of attacking the West,” according to journalist Edward Girardet. Girardet will write in a 2011 book that “ABC never used this information because of pressure brought about by a certain intelligence agency, presumably the CIA.” Massoud is employed by journalist Peter Jouvenal as a “runner” between Kabul and Pakistan, as a “means of tracking potential stories for the BBC, CNN, and other networks.” Jouvenal is Girardet’s source for Massoud’s story. Massoud also claims to work for the Pakistani ISI, the CIA, and al-Qaeda. He travels with Jouvenal to meet ABC in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as part of an effort to get asylum. (Girardet 2011, pp. 333)
Michael Frost Beckner, the creator of a forthcoming CBS drama series about the CIA, writes a 9/11-like storyline for an episode of his show in which Osama bin Laden has three American aircraft hijacked. (Archerd 11/20/2001) The series, which is scheduled to begin airing in late September, is called The Agency and will show the CIA tackling problems of national security, taking on villains such as Arab terrorists and Colombian drug dealers. (Campbell 9/6/2001; Patterson 10/5/2001; Hunter 10/31/2001) Beckner will later tell Variety magazine that, this month, he writes an episode of The Agency “in which bin Laden had three US planes hijacked.” He will apparently provide no further details of the storyline. Variety will report, “Needless to say, the script was never completed.” (Archerd 11/20/2001) Beckner will also reveal that a number of the storylines for the first series of The Agency were suggested to him by Chase Brandon, the CIA’s entertainment liaison officer. (Jenkins 2012, pp. 65-66) Whether the storyline about bin Laden organizing plane hijackings was suggested by Brandon is unknown. Furthermore, Beckner will say that he has “done a lot of back and forth with the CIA” in his career as a writer, and explain that the agency “would let in anyone, including a little writer like me, to hear that al-Qaeda and bin Laden are going to attack us.” (Hollywood, Health and Society 4/2/2002 ) The CIA is in fact cooperating extensively with the producers of The Agency, such as by vetting scripts and allowing filming at CIA headquarters. (Taubman 8/26/2001) The pilot episode of the show, which Beckner writes, will feature a storyline in which bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist group plots to blow up a department store in London (see September 27, 2001). (Salamon 9/29/2001; Hollywood, Health and Society 4/2/2002 ) And another episode, also written by Beckner, will be based around a planned terrorist attack in the US using anthrax (see October 18, 2001). (Adalian 10/16/2001; Jenkins 2012, pp. 66)
John Walker Lindh, a young Caucasian man from California who has converted to Islam, travels to Peshawar, Pakistan, in an attempt to fight for Islamic causes. He had been studying the Koran for about six months elsewhere in Pakistan, but otherwise had no particularly special training, qualifications, or connections. Within days, he is accepted into al-Qaeda and sent to the Al Farooq training camp in Afghanistan. Seven other US citizens are already training there (see April-August 2001). He inadvertently learns details of the 9/11 attacks. In June, he is told by an instructor that “bin Laden had sent forth some fifty people to carry out twenty suicide terrorist operations against the United States and Israel.” He learns that the 9/11 plot is to consist of five attacks, not the four that actually occur. The other fifteen operations are to take place later. He is asked if he wants to participate in a suicide mission, but declines. (Mahoney 2003, pp. 162, 216; Bamford 2004, pp. 234-36)
News of Upcoming Attacks Are Widespread in Camps - Although Lindh does not tell this information to any US officials, the fact that he learns this much so quickly is indicative of how widely news of the upcoming attacks are spreading in the al-Qaeda training camps. For instance, early 2001, bin Laden gave a speech at one of the camps talking about an attack on the US that would kill thousands (see Early 2001). In the summer, bin Laden specifically urges trainees to pray for the success of an upcoming attack involving 20 martyrs (see Summer 2001). By July, a source will tell the CIA that (see July 2001)
What Could an Informant in the Camps Learn? - Author James Bamford comments, “The decision to keep CIA employees at arm’s length from [al-Qaeda] was a serious mistake. At the same moment the CIA was convinced al-Qaeda was impenetrable, a number of American citizens were secretly joining al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—and being welcomed with open arms.” (Bamford 2004, pp. 161)
Some 9/11 hijackers work out at various gyms, presumably getting in shape for the hijacking. Ziad Jarrah appears to train intensively from May to August, and Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi also take exercising very seriously. (Serrano and Dahlburg 9/20/2001; Golden, Mos, and Yardley 9/23/2001) However, these three are presumably pilots who would need the training the least. For instance, Jarrah’s trainer says, “If he wasn’t one of the pilots, he would have done quite well in thwarting the passengers from attacking.” (Serrano and Dahlburg 9/20/2001) From September 2-6, Flight 77 hijackers Hani Hanjour, Majed Moqed, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi show up several times at a Gold’s Gym in Greenbelt, Maryland, signing the register with their real names and paying in cash. According to a Gold’s regional manager, they “seemed not to really know what they were doing” when using the weight machines. (Masters, Smith, and Shear 9/19/2001; Serrano and Dahlburg 9/20/2001; Crary 9/21/2001; Frank 9/23/2001) Three others—Waleed Alshehri, Wail Alshehri and Satam Al Suqami— “simply clustered around a small circuit of machines, never asking for help and, according to a trainer, never pushing any weights. ‘You know, I don’t actually remember them ever doing anything… They would just stand around and watch people.’” (Golden, Mos, and Yardley 9/23/2001) Those three also had a one month membership in Florida—whether they ever actually worked out there is unknown. (Serrano and Dahlburg 9/20/2001)
Tom Wilshire, a former deputy chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit currently detailed to the FBI, accesses a number of cables about travel by 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi in 2000 (see March 5, 2000), but fails to draw the FBI’s attention to this or ask the INS whether they are still in the US. The cables report on Khalid Almihdhar’s travel to Malaysia in January 2000, his US visa, al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit, and Alhazmi’s travel from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Bangkok, Thailand, with another person, and then to Los Angeles. Wilshire had previously blocked a notification to the FBI that Almihdhar had a US visa (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000). He writes to another CIA analyst about the travel (see May 15, 2001), but does not alert the FBI to the fact Alhazmi came to the US. Neither does he check with the INS to see whether Alhazmi and Almihdhar are in the country. When one of his colleagues finds these cables in late August, she will immediately check with the INS and become alarmed when she is told they are in the US (see August 21-22, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 266-8, 537; US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 283 ) The 9/11 Commission will explain his failure to alert the FBI by saying he was focused on a possible terrorist attack in Malaysia: “Despite the US links evident in this traffic, [Wilshire] made no effort to determine whether any of these individuals was in the United States. He did not raise the possibility with his FBI counterpart. He was focused on Malaysia.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 268)
Tom Wilshire, a former deputy chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit on attachment to the FBI, sends a request to CIA headquarters for the surveillance photos of the January 2000 al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000). Three days later, Wilshire will explain the reason for his interest in an e-mail to a CIA analyst, writing, “I’m interested because Khalid Almihdhar’s two companions also were couriers of a sort, who traveled between [the Far East] and Los Angeles at the same time ([H]azmi and [S]alah).” Hazmi refers to future 9/11 hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi and Salah Said is the alias al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash traveled under during the summit. Apparently, Wilshire will receive the photos. Toward the end of May, a CIA analyst will contact a specialist working at FBI headquarters about the photographs. The CIA wants the FBI analyst to review the photographs and determine if a person who had carried money to Southeast Asia for bin Attash in January 2000 could be identified. The CIA will fail to tell the FBI analyst anything about Almihdhar or Alhazmi. Around the same time, the CIA analyst will receive an e-mail mentioning Alhazmi’s travel to the US. These two analysts will travel to New York the next month and again the CIA analyst will fail to divulge what he knows. (US Congress 7/24/2003 ; US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 283 )
CIA manager Tom Wilshire recommends that an officer be assigned to review information about al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit, to see if there are any connections between it and the attack against the USS Cole. The task is assigned to Margaret Gillespie, an agent on loan from the FBI. Author Lawrence Wright will comment: “[B]ut [Wilshire] did not reveal that some of the participants might be in the United States. More important, he conveyed none of the urgency reflected in [an e-mail he sent his superiors around this time]; he told [Gillespie] that she should examine the material in her free time. She didn’t get around to it until the end of July.” Perhaps partially due to the request’s lack of urgency, it seemingly takes Gillespie three months to work out what Wilshire already knows: that some of the 9/11 hijackers have entered the US. One reason is that a database search conducted by Gillespie is incomplete (see (Late May-Early June)). However, Gillespie will alert one of Wilshire’s associates at the FBI to the men’s presence in the US in late August (see August 21-22, 2001). (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 297-8 ; Wright 7/10/2006 )
Tom Wilshire, a CIA officer detailed to the FBI, discusses three photographs of al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see January 5-8, 2000) with CIA analyst Clark Shannon. Based on an identification by a source inside al-Qaeda, one of the photos is thought to show al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash, who was involved in the bombing of the USS Cole (see January 4, 2001). However, Wilshire tells Shannon that he does not see bin Attash in any of the photos and that he is “missing something” or “someone saw something that wasn’t there.” Wilshire is correct—the photo actually shows 9/11 hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi not bin Attash, but it is unclear why Wilshire would think this; he has apparently not read the cable stating the source identified the man in the photo as bin Attash, but he is aware that bin Attash has been identified in the photo. The three photos will later be passed to the FBI and shown to investigators working on the bombing of the USS Cole (see Mid-May 2001, Late May, 2001, and June 11, 2001). (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 284-5 )
Although three surveillance photographs of al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit are passed to the FBI at this time (see Late May, 2001 and June 11, 2001), another key photograph the CIA has of the meeting is withheld by CIA officers Clark Shannon and Tom Wilshire. The key photograph shows al-Qaeda logistics manager Khallad bin Attash, who commanded the attack on the USS Cole (see October 12, 2000). Author Lawrence Wright will later comment: “Thanks to [FBI agent Ali] Soufan’s interrogation of [USS Cole bomber Fahad al-Quso], the Cole investigators had an active file on Khallad and were preparing to indict him. Knowledge of that fourth photo would likely have prompted [FBI manager John] O’Neill to demand that the CIA turn over all information relating to Khallad and his associates. By withholding the picture of Khallad attending the meeting with the future hijackers [Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi], the CIA may in effect have allowed the September 11th plot to proceed.” (Wright 7/10/2006 ) The CIA also has video and even more photos of the meeting (see January 5, 2000 and January 5-8, 2000 and Shortly After), but these are not shared either, and it is unclear how aware Wilshire and Shannon are of this additional material.
Margaret Gillespie, an FBI agent detailed to the CIA who has been asked to research the connection between al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit and the bombing of the USS Cole, checks a CIA database and finds some NSA information about 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi and their travel to an al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that was monitored by the US. The database she uses is Intelink, which only has information the CIA makes available to other intelligence agencies. However, she does not also examine the CIA’s Hercules database. It is unclear why she does not do so and whether, as an FBI agent, she has access to it. If she did access it, she would have a complete picture of the CIA’s knowledge of Almihdhar and Alhazmi and would know Almihdhar had a US visa and Alhazmi had traveled to the US (see January 2-5, 2000 and March 5, 2000). As Gillespie is only working this line of inquiry in her free time, she does not put together the information contained in the Hercules system until late August (see August 21-22, 2001). (Wright 2006, pp. 340, 425)
Tom Wilshire, a CIA officer on loan to the FBI, obtains three photographs from the surveillance of al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see January 5-8, 2000), and passes them to Dina Corsi, an agent with the FBI’s bin Laden unit. Corsi learned of the photographs’ existence following a discussion with CIA officer Clark Shannon. Although Wilshire does not have a “substantive conversation” with Corsi about the photos, he does identify hijacker Khalid Almihdhar in one of them, and says Almihdhar traveled from Sana’a, Yemen, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and then Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early January 2000. However, Wilshire omits to mention that Almihdhar has a US visa, his associate hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi has traveled to the US, or another associate, Khallad bin Attash, has been identified in the photos. He also does not say why the photos were taken. Author Lawrence Wright will later say the photos are passed because Wilshire wants to know what the FBI knows. The CIA says it thinks the photos may show Fahad al-Quso, an al-Qaeda operative involved in the USS Cole bombing. Corsi understands that the photos are “not formally passed” to the FBI, but are only for limited use at a forthcoming meeting. Therefore, only limited information about them is provided at the meeting, causing a disagreement (see June 11, 2001). However, Wilshire will later say that Corsi could give the photos to the FBI, but the FBI could not then give them to a foreign government (note: the photos had been provided to a foreign government five months previously, so this restriction is meaningless). (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 286-7, 293-4 ; Wright 7/10/2006 ) Other pictures of the summit are available to the CIA, and there is even video footage (see February 2000 and Mid-May 2001), but these are not shared with the FBI or widely discussed.
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