Profile: Counterterrorism Division (FBI)
Counterterrorism Division (FBI) was a participant or observer in the following events:
Following a government-wide review of intelligence operations, a major reorganization of the FBI is approved by the Clinton administration. The Bureau’s National Security Division is split into two new divisions, the counterterrorism division and the counterintelligence division. The change is the outcome of an interagency review of US counterintelligence involving the FBI, the CIA, and the Department of Defense. The new counterterrorism division will focus on preventing attacks rather than merely investigating them after the fact. Soon upon taking office, Dale Watson, the new division’s head, will order all field offices to become more engaged in counterterrorism by recruiting informants, hiring more Arabic translators, and establishing a joint terrorism task force with local police departments modeled after the unit created in New York in the 1980s. However, a 2001 evaluation report of these efforts will find them insufficient (see Summer 2001). [New York Times, 6/26/1999; BBC News, 11/12/1999; New York Times, 12/30/2001]
FBI Director Louis Freeh and other top FBI officials are briefed about the ongoing al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000) as part of their regular daily update. They are told the CIA is in the lead and that the CIA promises to let the FBI know if an FBI angle to the case develops. But they are not told that the CIA has just found out that one of the participants, Khalid Almihdhar, has a US visa. [9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004] It is unclear who the other top FBI officials that are briefed are. However, Dale Watson, the assistant director of the counterterrorism division, and Thomas Pickard, the FBI’s deputy director at this time and its acting director in the summer of 2001, will also learn of the summit by July 2001, although it is unclear exactly when they are informed (see July 12, 2001). [Pickard, 6/24/2004] According to Vanity Fair, Richard Blee, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, “provided surveillance updates for [the CIA’s] top officers, the FBI, and the White House” while the summit is in progress. [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] One FBI official familiar with the case will later complain: “[The CIA] purposely hid [Almihdhar] from the FBI, purposely refused to tell the bureau.… The thing was, they didn’t want John O’Neill and the FBI running over their case. And that’s why September 11 happened.… They have blood on their hands.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 224] Jack Cloonan, an FBI agent in the I-49 squad that focuses on al-Qaeda, will later say: “If that information [got] disseminated, would it have had an impact on the events of 9/11? I’m telling you that it would have.” [ABC News, 5/10/2004]
Attorney General John Ashcroft sends a letter to department heads telling them the Justice Department’s new agenda. He cites seven goals, but counterterrorism is not one of them. Yet just one day earlier, he testified before Congress and said of counterterrorism, “The Department of Justice has no higher priority.” [New York Times, 2/28/2002] Dale Watson, head of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, will later recall nearly falling out of his chair when he sees counterterrorism not mentioned as a goal. [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004] Watson goes to see FBI Deputy Director Thomas Pickard and asks him, “Did you see this?” in what author Philip Shenon will describe as a “disgusted tone.” Pickard finds it hard to believe that Ashcroft’s office had accidentally left terrorism off the list, due to the focus on it elsewhere in the government. “If he didn’t think about it, his staff should have,” Pickard will recall thinking. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 246] In August, a strategic plan will be distributed, listing the same seven goals and 36 objectives. Thirteen objectives are highlighted, but the single objective relating to counterterrorism is not highlighted. [New York Times, 2/28/2002]
During this time, President Bush and other top White House officials are given a series of Presidential Daily Briefings relating to an al-Qaeda attack (see January 20-September 10, 2001). The exact contents of these briefings remain classified, but according to the 9/11 Commission they consistently predict upcoming attacks that will occur “on a catastrophic level, indicating that they would cause the world to be in turmoil, consisting of possible multiple—but not necessarily simultaneous—attacks.” CIA Director Tenet later will recall that he feels President Bush and other officials grasp the urgency of what they are being told. [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004] But Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin later states that he feels a great tension, peaking these months, between the Bush administration’s apparent misunderstanding of terrorism issues and his sense of great urgency. McLaughlin and others are frustrated when inexperienced Bush officials question the validity of certain intelligence findings. Two CIA officials even consider resigning in protest (see Summer 2001). [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004] Dale Watson, head of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, wishes he had “500 analysts looking at Osama bin Laden threat information instead of two.” [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004]
The New York Times will later report that, according to senior government officials, “A top secret report warned top officials of the FBI in the months before Sept. 11 that the bureau faced significant terrorist threats from Middle Eastern groups like al-Qaeda but lacked enough resources to meet the threat.” The internal assessment finds that virtually every major FBI field office is undermanned for evaluating and dealing with the threat from groups like al-Qaeda. The report gives detailed recommendations and proposes spending increases to address the problem. [New York Times, 6/1/2002] The report is the result of “MAXCAP 05,” short for maximum feasible capability, an evaluation effort launched by Dale Watson, the head of the new counterterrorism division created in 1999 (see December 1999), to identify the FBI’s weaknesses in counterterrorism and remedy them by 2005. It is presented to Robert Mueller upon his appointment as FBI director in early September. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 78-79; Zegart, 2007, pp. 142] The report will not be made public. [New York Times, 6/27/2007] However, in August 2001, acting FBI Director Tom Pickard meets Attorney General John Ashcroft to ask for supplemental funding for counterterrorism, but his request is turned down. On September 10, 2001, Ashcroft rejects a proposed $58 million increase in FBI counterterrorism funding for the next year’s budget (see September 10, 2001).
The FBI’s Counterterrorism Division issues a warning of possible al-Qaeda attacks to law enforcement agencies called “Potential Anti-US Attacks.” It states: “[T]here are threats to be worried about overseas. While we cannot foresee attacks domestically, we cannot rule them out.” It further states, “[T]he FBI has no information indicating a credible threat of terrorist attack in the United States.” It asks law enforcement agencies to “exercise vigilance” and “report suspicious activities” to the FBI. Two weeks later, acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard has a conference call with all field office heads mentioning the heightened threat (see July 19, 2001). However, FBI personnel later fail to recall any heightened sense of threat from summer 2001. Only those in the New York field office take any action or will recall this later. [CNN, 3/2002; 9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004]
[Source: FBI]At a conference on domestic terrorism held in Washington, DC (see July 10-11, 2001), Assistant FBI Director Dale Watson, the head of the Counterterrorism Division, warns that a significant terrorist attack is likely on US soil. He says, “I’m not a gloom-and-doom-type person. But I will tell you this. [We are] headed for an incident inside the United States.” This quote appears in a Reuters news story about the conference, entitled, “Terrorist Attack on US Soil Predicted.” Apparently paraphasing Watson, the Reuters article reports, “The FBI predicts terrorists will launch a major attack on American interests abroad every year for the next five years and thinks an attack using a weapon of mass destruction is likely at home.” The article also says that the number one threat is “from exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.” Attorney General John Ashcroft also speaks at the conference about security measures for upcoming public events such as the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City (see July 11, 2001). [National Governors Association, 7/10/2001 ; Reuters, 7/12/2001; Newsday, 4/10/2004]
9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta receives $100,000 from accounts in Pakistan. The money is transferred to two of his accounts in Florida. [Fox News, 10/2/2001; Associated Press, 10/2/2001; US Congress, 10/3/2001; CNN, 10/6/2001; CNN, 10/8/2001] This will later be reported in various media. For example, ABC News will say that federal authorities track “more than $100,000 from banks in Pakistan to two banks in Florida to accounts held by suspected hijack ringleader Mohamed Atta.” [ABC News, 9/30/2001] Law enforcement sources will tell CNN, “[T]he wire transfers from Pakistan were sent to Atta through two banks in Florida.” [CNN, 10/1/2001] One of the hijackers’ financiers, the Pakistan-based Omar Saeed Sheikh, is said to wire Atta around $100,000 in August (see Early August 2001). The transfers from Pakistan will be disclosed a few weeks after 9/11 but will then fade from view (see September 30-October 7, 2001), until 2003 when John S. Pistole, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, tells the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs that the FBI has traced the origin of funding for 9/11 back to accounts in Pakistan (see July 31, 2003). However, in 2004 the 9/11 Commission will fail to mention any funding coming directly from Pakistan (see Late-September 2001-August 2004).
Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke is told in private by Dale Watson, the head of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division: “We got the passenger manifests from the airlines. We recognize some names, Dick. They’re al-Qaeda.” Clarke asks, “How the f_ck did they get on board then?” Watson replies: “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, friend. CIA forgot to tell us about them.” As they are talking about this, they see the first WTC tower collapse on television. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 13-14] Some hijacker names, including Mohamed Atta’s, were identified on a reservations computer over an hour earlier (see (Shortly After 8:32 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
Khalil bin Laden at the Orlando, Florida, airport, about to be flown out of the country in the days after 9/11. [Source: Lions Gate Films]Following a secret flight inside the US that is in violation of a national private airplane flight ban, members of the bin Laden family and Saudi royalty quietly depart the US. The flights are only publicly acknowledged after all the Saudis have left. [Boston Globe, 9/21/2001; New York Times, 9/30/2001] About 140 Saudis, including around 24 members of the bin Laden family, are passengers in these flights. The identities of most of these passengers are not known. However, some of the passengers include:
The son of the Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan. Sultan is sued in August 2002 for alleged complicity in the 9/11 plot. [Tampa Tribune, 10/5/2001] He is alleged to have contributed at least $6 million since 1994 to four charities that finance al-Qaeda. [Vanity Fair, 10/2003]
Khalil bin Laden. He has been investigated by the Brazilian government for possible terrorist connections. [Vanity Fair, 10/2003]
Abdullah bin Laden and Omar bin Laden, cousins of bin Laden. Abdullah was the US director of the Muslim charity World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY). The governments of India, Pakistan, Philippines, and Bosnia have all accused WAMY of funding terrorism. These two relatives were investigated by the FBI in 1996 (see February-September 11, 1996) in a case involving espionage, murder, and national security. Their case is reopened on September 19, right after they leave the country. [Vanity Fair, 10/2003] Remarkably, four of the 9/11 hijackers briefly lived in the town of Falls Church, Virginia, three blocks from the WAMY office headed by Abdullah bin Laden. [BBC, 11/6/2001]
Saleh Ibn Abdul Rahman Hussayen. He is a prominent Saudi official who was in the same hotel as three of the hijackers the night before 9/11. He leaves on one of the first flights to Saudi Arabia before the FBI can properly interview him about this. [Washington Post, 10/2/2003]
Akberali Moawalla. A Pakistani and business partner of Osama’s brother Yeslam bin Laden. In 2000, a transfer of over $250 million was made from a bank account belonging jointly to Moawalla and Osama bin Laden (see 2000). [Washington Post, 7/22/2004]
There is a later dispute regarding how thoroughly the Saudis are interviewed before they leave and who approves the flights. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke says he agrees to the flights after the FBI assures him none of those on board has connections to terrorism and that it is “a conscious decision with complete review at the highest levels of the State Department and the FBI and the White House.” [US Congress, 9/3/2003] Clarke says the decision to approve the flights “didn’t get any higher than me.” [Hill, 5/18/2004] According to Vanity Fair, both the FBI and the State Department “deny playing any role whatsoever in the episode.” However, Dale Watson, the head of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, says the Saudis on the planes “[are] identified, but they [are] not subject to serious interviews or interrogations” before they leave. [Vanity Fair, 10/2003] An FBI spokesperson says the bin Laden relatives are only interviewed by the FBI “at the airport, as they [are] about to leave.” [National Review, 9/11/2002] There are claims that some passengers are not interviewed by the FBI at all. [Vanity Fair, 10/2003] Abdullah bin Laden, who stays in the US, says that even a month after 9/11, his only contact with the FBI is a brief phone call. [Boston Globe, 9/21/2001; New Yorker, 11/5/2001] The FBI official responsible for coordinating with Clarke is Assistant Director Michael Rolince, who is in charge of the Bureau’s International Terrorism Operations Section and assumes responsibility for the Saudi flights. Rolince decides that the Saudis can leave after their faces are matched to their passport photos and their names are run through various databases, including some watch lists, to check the FBI has no derogatory information about them.” [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 196-197, 209 ] Numerous experts are surprised that the bin Ladens are not interviewed more extensively before leaving, pointing out that interviewing the relatives of suspects is standard investigative procedure. [National Review, 9/11/2002; Vanity Fair, 10/2003] MSNBC claims that “members of the Saudi royal family met frequently with bin Laden—both before and after 9/11” [MSNBC, 9/5/2003] , and many Saudi royals and bin Laden relatives are being sued for their alleged role in 9/11. The Boston Globe opines that the flights occur “too soon after 9/11 for the FBI even to know what questions to ask, much less to decide conclusively that each Saudi [royal] and bin Laden relative [deserve] an ‘all clear,’ never to be available for questions again.” [Boston Globe, 9/30/2003] Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) says of the secret flights: “This is just another example of our country coddling the Saudis and giving them special privileges that others would never get. It’s almost as if we didn’t want to find out what links existed.” [New York Times, 9/4/2003] Judicial Watch will disclose FBI documents that say, “Osama bin Laden may have chartered one of the Saudi flights.” [Judicial Watch, 6/20/2007]
Entity Tags: Abdullah bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Omar bin Laden, Bin Laden Family, Dale Watson, Charles Schumer, Michael Rolince, Richard A. Clarke, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Counterterrorism Division (FBI), Osama bin Laden, World Assembly of Muslim Youth, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, US Department of State, Khalil bin Laden, Saleh Ibn Abdul Rahman Hussayen
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline
A few weeks after the attacks, US investigators say the hijackers appeared to have spent about $500,000 while in the US. An official says, “This was not a low-budget operation. There is quite a bit of money coming in, and they are spending quite a bit of money.” [Washington Post, 9/29/2001; Guardian, 10/1/2001; Washington Post, 10/7/2001] In a detailed analysis published in the summer of 2002, the FBI will again report that the hijackers had access to a total of $500,000 to $600,000, of which $325,000 flowed through their SunTrust accounts. [New York Times, 7/10/2002; CNN, 7/10/2002 Sources: Dennis Lormel] The same figure is provided by John S. Pistole, FBI Assistant Director, Counterterrorism Division, when he testifies before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. “[T]he 9/11 hijackers utilized slightly over $300,000 through formal banking channels to facilitate their time in the US. We assess they used another $200-300,000 in cash to pay for living expenses.” [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 133 ] However, officials later back away from this figure and in August 2004 the 9/11 Commission says that the hijackers’ spending in the US was only “more than $270,000.” [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 143 ] In addition, the number of bank accounts the hijackers are said to have opened varies. Shortly after the attacks, investigators believe they had about a dozen accounts at US banks. In July 2002, Dennis Lormel, chief of the FBI unit investigating the money behind the attacks, tells the New York Times they had 35 accounts, including 14 with the SunTrust Bank. [Washington Post, 10/7/2001; New York Times, 7/10/2002 Sources: Dennis Lormel] However, a year after the attacks, FBI Director Robert Mueller tells the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, “In total, the hijackers opened 24 bank accounts at four different US banks.” [US Congress, 9/26/2002] Not only is Mueller’s assertion contradicted by Lormel’s previous statement, but it is also demonstrably false, as the hijackers had at least 25 US bank accounts with at least 6 different banks (SunTrust Bank, Hudson United Bank, Dime Savings Bank, First National Bank of Florida, Bank of America, and First Union National Bank) (see February 4, 2000, June 28-July 7, 2000, Early September 2000, May 1-July 18, 2001, and June 27-August 23, 2001). [US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia; Alexandria Division, 7/31/2006, pp. 19 ] The 9/11 Commission’s Report and its Terrorist Financing Monograph focus on some of the transfers made to the hijackers (see January 15, 2000-August 2001, June 13-September 25, 2000, June 29, 2000-September 18, 2000, and December 5, 2000), but ignore others (see June 2000-August 2001, May 2001, Early August-August 22, 2001, Summer 2001 and before, and Late August-Early September 2001). Neither the report nor the monograph gives the total number of bank accounts the hijackers opened. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004; 9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004 ] In addition, the identities of the hijackers’ financiers reportedly change over time (see September 24, 2001-December 26, 2002).
John Pistole. [Source: Marshall Center]John S. Pistole, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, testifies before a Congressional committee. He states the 9/11 investigation “has traced the origin of the funding of 9/11 back to financial accounts in Pakistan, where high-ranking and well-known al-Qaeda operatives played a major role in moving the money forward, eventually into the hands of the hijackers located in the US.” [US Congress, 7/31/2003] Pistole does not reveal any further details, but in India it is noted that this is consistent with previous reports that Saeed Sheikh and ISI Director Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed were behind the funding of 9/11. [Times of India, 8/1/2003; Pioneer, 8/7/2003] However, the FBI will tell the 9/11 Commission that when Pistole used the word “accounts”, he did not mean actual accounts with a bank, merely that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was based in Pakistan, handled the money. [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 144 ]
John E. Lewis of the FBI’s counterterrorism division tells the Senate Judiciary Committee of an “upswing in violent rhetoric and tactics” among ecoterrorists (see 1970s), and says that in recent years two specific organizations, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF—see 1976) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF—see 1997), “have become the most active criminal extremist elements in the United States.” [Anti-Defamation League, 2005]
FBI director Robert Mueller orders a criminal probe into FBI officials who used misleading “exigent letters”—letters used in lieu of National Security Letters (NSLs) that demand information on an emergency basis—to acquire thousands of US citizens’ phone records. Mueller tells civil liberties groups of the probe, which focuses on the activities of the Communications Analysis Unit (CAU). The probe could result in criminal prosecutions for misuse of Patriot Act investigative tools. NSLs are powerful subpoenas that can be issued by FBI supervisors without court supervisions, and have played central roles in previous allegations of misuse (see February 2005). The probe is investigating incidents where CAU officials wrote “exigent letters” to telecommunications firms requesting immediate wiretaps and promising that court warrants would be forthcoming—but the warrants had never been applied for and were never issued. Some FBI employees have already been granted immunity in return for their testimony. NSLs are routinely used to provide investigators in terrorism and espionage cases with data from phone companies, banks, credit reporting agencies, and Internet service providers on any US citizens considered “relevant” to an ongoing investigation. This information is then stored in three separate computer systems, including a shared data-mining system called the Investigative Data Warehouse. Though warned in 2001 to use this power with restraint, FBI agents have so far issued over 47,000 NSLs, more than half of those targeting Americans. In the case of the CAU, a support bureau which analyzes suspected terrorist communications and provides intelligence to the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, its officials cannot issue subpoenas, but must have counterterrorism investigators do so. But the CAU has issued at least 739 “exigent letters” to AT&T, Verizon, and MCI seeking information on over 3,000 phone numbers; some of the individual letters contained requests for over 100 numbers. The letters read in part, “Due to exigent circumstances, it is requested that records for the attached list of telephone numbers be provided. Subpoenas requesting this information have been submitted to the US Attorney’s Office who will process and serve them formally to [telecom firm] as expeditiously as possible.” [Wired News, 7/12/2007] (Reporter Ryan Singel notes, The most striking thing about these exigent letters… is that they all use the same pathetic, passive bureaucratese.”) [Wired News, 7/10/2007] No such subpoena requests had been filed with the particular US attorneys, and only some of the requests were later followed up with proper legal processes. CAU chief Bassem Youssef says he ended the problem after he took over the unit in 2005, and says his attempts to provide post-facto legal processes were often hampered by uncooperative field offices. Youssef is suing the FBI over his complaints that the bureau was wasting his Arabic-language skills and antiterrorism experience and the bureau’s alleged retaliation. [Wired News, 7/12/2007]
Entity Tags: Counterterrorism Division (FBI), Verizon Communications, USA Patriot Act, Ryan Singel, Robert S. Mueller III, Bassem Youssef, Communications Analysis Unit (FBI), AT&T, MCI, Investigative Data Warehouse, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.