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The FBI opens a case on Osama bin Laden. Dan Coleman and John Ligouri, members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), are sent to the CIA Counterterrorist Center (CTC) to see what the CIA knows about bin Laden. “They were amazed by the amount of material - some forty thick files’ worth - that they found.… Most of the information consisted of raw, unfocused data: itineraries, phone records, associates lists, investment holdings, bank transfers.” The vast majority of the data comes from NSA electronic eavesdropping and most of it has not been properly analyzed (see Early 1990s). They find that the CTC has been conducting a vigorous investigation on Wadih El-Hage, bin Laden’s personal secretary. (Miller, Stone, and Mitchell 2002, pp. 148-149) Coleman will go on to become the FBI’s biggest expert on bin Laden and will help start the bureau’s bin Laden unit. (Suskind 2006, pp. 90) It is not known when the CIA or NSA began monitoring bin Laden or El-Hage.
David Cohen, head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, wants to test the idea of having a “virtual station,” which is a station based at CIA headquarters and focusing on one target. He chooses Michael Scheuer to run it. Scheuer is running the Islamic Extremist Branch of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center at the time and had suggested creating a station to focus just on bin Laden. The new unit, commonly called Alec Station, begins operations in February 1996 (see February 1996). The 9/11 Commission will later comment that Scheuer had already “noticed a recent stream of reports about bin Laden and something called al-Qaeda.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 109) It has been widely reported that US intelligence was unaware of the term al-Qaeda until after defector Jamal al-Fadl revealed it later in 1996 (see June 1996-April 1997). But Billy Waugh, an independent contractor hired by the CIA to spy on bin Laden and others in Sudan in 1991 to 1992, will later claim that the CIA was aware of the term al-Qaeda back then (see February 1991- July 1992). And double agent Ali Mohamed revealed the term to the FBI in 1993 (see May 1993). The term will first be used by the media in August 1996 (see August 14, 1996).
The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center creates a special unit focusing specifically on bin Laden. It is informally called Alec Station. About 10 to 15 individuals are assigned to the unit initially. This grows to about 35 to 40 by 9/11. (US Congress 9/18/2002) The unit is set up “largely because of evidence linking [bin Laden] to the 1993 bombing of the WTC.” (Gellman 10/3/2001) Newsweek will comment after 9/11, “With the Cold War over, the Mafia in retreat, and the drug war unwinnable, the CIA and FBI were eager to have a new foe to fight.… Historical rivals, the spies and G-men were finally learning to work together. But they didn’t necessarily share secrets with the alphabet soup of other enforcement and intelligence agencies, like Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and they remained aloof from the Pentagon. And no amount of good will or money could bridge a fundamental divide between intelligence and law enforcement. Spies prefer to watch and wait; cops want to get their man.” (Hosenball 10/1/2001) Michael Scheuer will lead the unit until 1999. He will later become a vocal critic of the US government’s efforts to combat terrorism. He later recalls that while bin Laden is mostly thought of merely as a terrorist financier at this time, “we had run across bin Laden in a lot of different places, not personally but in terms of his influence, either through rhetoric, through audiotapes, through passports, through money-he seemed to turn up everywhere. So when we [created the unit], the first responsibility was to find out if he was a threat.” (Zeman et al. 11/2004) By the start of 1997, the unit will conclude bin Laden is a serious threat (see Early 1997).
A Renditions Branch is established at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Its job is to find militant leaders and then assist their abduction. The US government has been rendering suspects for four years (see 1993), and the CIA has had a dedicated program for this since the summer of 1995 (see Summer 1995). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 276) Although some specific rendition operations are known (see Summer 1998, July 1998-February 2000, and Late August 1998), the total before 9/11 is not. Estimates vary, but generally fall into a similar range:
Citing a public statement by CIA Director George Tenet, 9/11 commission deputy executive director Chris Kojm will say “70 terrorists were rendered and brought to justice before 9/11;”
Shortly after this, Tenet himself will confirm there were “over 70” renditions; (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004)
Tenet will also say “many dozen” suspects were rendered before 9/11; (Central Intelligence Agency 3/24/2004)
The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will say that the Branch is involved in “several dozen” renditions before 9/11; (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 728 )
Michael Scheuer, a CIA manager responsible for operations against Osama bin Laden, will say that between 1995 and May 1999 “[t]he operations that I was in charge of concerned approximately 40 people…” (Scheuer 7/1/2006)
A later review by the CIA’s inspector general will find that the CIA’s counterterrorism resources are not properly administered during this period. The review will comment that “during the same period [CIA counterterrorism managers] were appealing the shortage of resources, senior officials were not effectively managing the Agency’s counterterrorism funds.”
Although counterterrorism funding increases from 1998, funds are moved from the base budget of the Counterterrorist Center to other CIA units. Some of the funds moved are “used to cover nonspecific corporate ‘taxes’ and for a variety of purposes that… were unrelated to terrorism”;
No funds are moved from other programs to support counterterrorism, even after CIA Director George Tenet issues a “declaration of war” against al-Qaeda in December 1998 and says he wants no resources spared in the fight against terrorism (see December 4, 1998);
Little use of reserve CIA funds is made to fight terrorism;
Counterterrorism managers do not spend all the money they have, even after their funding has been reduced by diversions to other programs. (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005, pp. x-xi )
The CIA’s inspector general will recommend that accountability boards be convened to review the performance of the following officials for these failings:
The executive director (David Carey from July 1997, A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard from March 2001);
The deputy director for operations (Jack Downing from 1997, James Pavitt from 1999); and
The chief of the Counterterrorist Center (Jeff O’Connell from 1997, Cofer Black from summer 1999). (Central Intelligence Agency 3/16/2001; Coll 2004, pp. xiv, 456; Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005, pp. x-xi )
In December 1997, former CIA agent Robert Baer, newly retired from the CIA and working as a terrorism consultant, meets Hamad bin Jassim bin Hamad al Thani, who was Qatar’s minister of the economy and chief of police until he was deposed and exiled the year before, and whom he calls the “black prince.” Al Thani tells Baer that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) was being sheltered by then Qatari Interior Minister Abdallah bin Khalid al-Thani in 1996 (see January-May 1996). However, the black prince knows other details, based on what Qatari police and intelligence learned when KSM was in the country. He says that KSM is chief of al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations (see Early 1998). KSM was leading an al-Qaeda cell in Qatar together with Mohammed Shawqui Islambouli, the brother of the Egyptian who had killed Anwar Sadat. They also were linked to bomber Ramzi Yousef. But what worries the black prince is that KSM and Islambouli are experts in hijacking commercial planes. He tells Baer that KSM “is going to hijack some planes.” Further, he says that KSM has moved to the Czech Republic, and has also traveled to Germany to meet bin Laden associates there. In early 1998 Baer sends this information to a friend in the CIA Counterterrorist Center, who forwards the information to his superiors. Baer doesn’t hear back from the CIA. He says, “There was no interest.” (Baer 2002, pp. 270-71; Baer 2/2002; Sale and Iqbal 9/30/2002; Baer 2003, pp. 190-198) Later in 1998, President Clinton will be briefed about a hijacking threat in the US involving Islambouli, but it is unclear if Islambouli was actually involved in the 9/11 plot or any other hijacking plots targeting the US (see December 4, 1998). He will not have been captured by March 2008. Baer tries to interest reporter Daniel Pearl in a story about KSM before 9/11, but Pearl will still be working on it when he is kidnapped and later murdered in early 2002. (Waterman 4/9/2004) Baer also tries to interest New York Times reporter James Risen in the information about KSM. But just before Risen can come to the Middle East to meet the black prince, the black prince is kidnapped in Lebanon and sent to prison in Qatar. There will be speculation that the CIA turned on the source to protect its relationship with the Qatari government. Risen will publish an article in July 1999 about KSM, but it will not include most of the information from the black prince, since Risen will not be able to confirm it. (Risen and Weiser 7/8/1999; BBC 7/25/1999; Gertz 2002, pp. 55-58; Baer 2003, pp. 190-198) Al-Thani will continue to support al-Qaeda, even hosting visits by bin Laden between 1996 and 2000 (see 1996-2000). (Ross and Scott 2/7/2003) Yet the US will not have frozen al-Thani’s assets or taken other action by March 2008.
CIA Director George Tenet issues a “declaration of war” on al-Qaeda, in a memorandum circulated in the intelligence community. This is ten months after bin Laden’s fatwa on the US (see February 22, 1998), which is called a “de facto declaration of war” by a senior US official in 1999. Tenet says, “We must now enter a new phase in our effort against bin Laden.… each day we all acknowledge that retaliation is inevitable and that its scope may be far larger than we have previously experienced.… We are at war.… I want no resources or people spared in this efforts [sic], either inside CIA or the [larger intelligence] community.” Yet a Congressional joint committee later finds that few FBI agents ever hear of the declaration. Tenet’s fervor does not “reach the level in the field that is critical so [FBI agents] know what their priorities are.” In addition, even as the counterterrorism budget continues to grow generally, there is no massive shift in budget or personnel until after 9/11. For example, the number of CIA personnel assigned to the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) stays roughly constant until 9/11, then nearly doubles from approximately 400 to approximately 800 in the wake of 9/11. The number of CTC analysts focusing on al-Qaeda rises from three in 1999 to five by 9/11. (Risen 9/18/2002; US Congress 9/18/2002) Perhaps not coincidentally, on the same day Tenet issues his declaration, President Clinton is given a briefing entitled “Bin Laden Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks” and US intelligence scrambles to respond to this threat (see December 4, 1998).
The CIA decides to increase its links with Ahmed Shah Massoud, an Afghan commander fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. The decision is pushed through by Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, and Richard Blee, head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. According to author Steve Coll, Black and Blee see Massoud “as his admirers in Europe [do], as an epochal figure, extraordinarily skillful and determined,” and believe that Massoud is the key to capturing bin Laden. However, the CIA’s Near East Division is skeptical of the potential for this liaison, partly because they remember problems they had with Massoud during the Soviet-Afghan War. Near East officers also think Massoud can only be of limited usefulness against bin Laden because of the geographical distance between Massoud’s forces in the north of Afghanistan and bin Laden’s base in the country’s south. (Coll 2004, pp. 460-1) The CIA will soon send more personnel into Afghanistan to meet Massoud and discuss co-operation (see October 1999). However, a plan to make the increase substantial will be rejected in late 2000 and Massoud will still not be receiving much aid by 9/11 (see December 20, 2000).
In testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and in a briefing to House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence staffers one month later, the chief of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center describes reports that bin Laden and his associates are planning attacks in the US. (US Congress 9/18/2002)
A presentation by the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center to the National Security Council’s Small Group emphasizes the importance of rendition operations in the CIA’s fight against al-Qaeda. The briefing says: “We will continue with disruptions of operations and renditions… but with an increased emphasis on recruiting sources; at this time, we have no penetrations inside [Osama bin Laden]‘s leadership.” (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 388 ) The Small Group was formed by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and includes members of Clinton’s cabinet cleared to know about the most sensitive counterterrorism issues. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 120)
The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center concludes in a classified report that bin Laden wants to inflict maximum casualties, cause massive panic, and score a psychological victory. He may be seeking to attack between five and 15 targets on the Millennium. “Because the US is bin Laden’s ultimate goal… we must assume that several of these targets will be in the US.” (Elliott 8/12/2002; US Congress 7/24/2003) CIA Director George Tenet delivers this warning to President Clinton. Author Steve Coll later comments that Tenet also “grabbed the National Security Council’s attention with that prediction.” (Coll 2004, pp. 482) The US takes action in a variety of ways (see Early December 1999). It will turn out that bin Laden did plan many attacks to be timed for the millennium celebrations, including ones inside the US, but all failed (see December 31, 1999-January 1, 2000).
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center sends a cable reminding all its personnel about various reporting obligations. The cable clearly states that it is important to share information so suspected members of US-designated terrorist groups can be placed on watch lists. The US keeps a number of watch lists; the most important one, TIPOFF, contains about 61,000 names of suspected terrorists by 9/11. (Meyer 9/22/2002; McCaffrey 1/27/2004) The list is checked whenever someone enters or leaves the US. “The threshold for adding a name to TIPOFF is low,” and even a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is connected with a US-designated terrorist group warrants being added to the database. (US Congress 9/20/2002) Within a month, two future hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, will be identified as al-Qaeda operatives (see December 29, 1999), but the cable’s instructions will not be followed for them. The CIA will initially tell the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry that no such guidelines existed, and CIA Director Tenet will fail to mention the cable in his testimony to the Inquiry. (Gerth 5/15/2003; US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 157 )
The CIA sends an officer from its Counterterrorist Center (CTC) to the NSA to review raw transcripts of intercepted communications between terrorists. However, the officer is only there for a “brief period” and is subsequently withdrawn and not replaced, damaging the CIA’s ability to exploit the information gleaned from the intercepts. The CIA only previously received summaries of intercepted calls, not the transcripts themselves, and had been arguing for years that it needed the actual transcripts to better understand the material (see February 1996-May 1998, December 1996, After December 1996, After December 1996, and Late August 1998). After the single officer leaves the NSA, which intercepts calls between the US-based 9/11 hijackers and an al-Qaeda communications hub in Yemen around this time (see Early 2000-Summer 2001), the reason the CIA gives for not replacing him is “resource constraints.” In 2005, the CIA’s Office of Inspector General will regard this failure as so serious that it will recommend an accountability board be convened to review the performance of the CTC managers responsible, and will suggest that officers should have been detailed to the NSA “on a consistent, full-time basis.” (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005, pp. xxiii ) The CIA and NSA are obtaining information about people in the US from phone companies to support “black ops” at this time (see After July 11, 1997).
On January 6, 2000, the CIA station in Malaysia begins passing details from the Malaysian government’s surveillance of the al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to the CIA Counterterrorist Center (CTC) (see January 5-8, 2000 and January 5-8, 2000 and Shortly After). Cofer Black, head of the CTC, orders that he be continually informed about the meeting. CIA Director George Tenet is frequently informed as well. They are given continual updates until the meeting ends on January 8. (Laabs 8/13/2003) National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, FBI Director Louis Freeh, and other top officials are briefed, but apparently President Clinton is not. (Bamford 2004, pp. 225-26) However, it appears that the CIA deliberately and repeatedly fails to tell the FBI that one attendee, future 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, has an active visa to visit the US (see Mid-July 2004, January 6, 2000, and January 5-6, 2000). No evidence will be presented suggesting anyone else outside the CIA is told this crucial fact either. The Malaysia summit ends on January 8. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 237) Officially, the CIA will later claim to have lost future hijackers Alhazmi and Almihdhar as they left the meeting (see January 8, 2000). However, Almihdhar will later report back to al-Qaeda that he thought he was followed to the US (see Mid-July 2000). It will not be reported whether any of the other attendees are monitored after leaving the meeting.
Although the CIA passes information to the FBI about the attendance of 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi at al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit, it repeatedly fails to mention that Almihdhar has a US visa (see January 6, 2000, 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000, January 5-6, 2000). It also fails to check that the FBI has received this information. The CIA’s inspector general will say it “found no indication that anyone in [the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center] checked to ensure FBI receipt of the information, which, a few [Osama bin Laden] Station officers said, should have been routine practice.” (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005, pp. xv )
The CIA sends the NSA some information about 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, including information about al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see January 5-8, 2000), which Almihdhar attended, as well as the name of a person who helped him in Kuala Lumpur, where the summit was held. The NSA is also told Almihdhar’s primary purpose for coming to Malaysia was to meet with other people. The CIA knows Almihdhar has a US visa (see January 2-5, 2000), but it is unclear whether the NSA is informed of this. (US Congress 7/24/2003, pp. 156 ) At this time, the NSA has some information about Almihdhar, whose calls it has been intercepting for at least a year (see Early 1999, Summer 1999, Late Summer 1999, and Shortly Before December 29, 1999), that has not been disseminated. In particular, the NSA seems to have overheard something in early 1999 that should have been disseminated, but was not. This new information from the CIA does not cause the NSA to re-examine its material on Almihdhar or disseminate any important information to other US agencies. However, Almihdhar is subsequently put on the NSA watchlist (see Mid-January 2000) and the NSA intercepts calls between his home in Yemen and him in the US (see Spring-Summer 2000), but fails to alert the FBI to his presence in the US (see (Spring 2000)).
Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is involved in a reorganization at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) and is merged into a larger group within the CTC. Precise details of the reorganization are not known. When FBI agent Charles Frahm is detailed to the CIA in July 2000 to replace an FBI agent who had previously been deputy manager of Alec Station (see Mid-January 2000), due to the reorganization Frahm is made deputy chief of the larger unit. Presumably therefore, Alec Station chief Richard Blee is now the head of the larger unit. (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 229, 231-232, 320 ) The 9/11 Commission Report will refer to Blee as “head of the section that included the bin Laden unit,” and “a group chief with authority over the bin Laden unit,” indicating that his position is indeed upgraded. (Note: this first quote from the 9/11 Commission Report refers to an event in mid-1999. Presumably, there is an error in the timing here by the Commission, as at this time Blee was head of the bin Laden unit (see June 1999), not the larger group. His position appears not to be upgraded until around the spring of 2000.) (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 142, 204) Journalist Ken Silverstein will say that at one point Blee holds the number four position at the CTC, chief of operations, which may be at this time. (Silverstein 1/28/2007)
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)
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).
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)
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 )
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 )
Two unnamed veteran CIA Counterterrorist Center officers deeply involved in Osama bin Laden-related issues are so worried about an impending attack that they consider resigning and going public with their concerns, according to the 9/11 Commission. Apparently they are also unhappy with the Bush administration’s lack of response to recent warnings. (9/11 Commission 3/24/2004; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 259-260) In a 2008 book by journalist Philip Shenon, one of the officials will be named as Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, Alec Station, from 1996 to 1999. The other may be his replacement Richard Blee (see June 1999), the CIA manager currently responsible for overseeing Alec Station. Neither will have commented publicly on their threatened resignations. (Shenon 2008, pp. 395) However, in 2004, Scheuer will say that on the day of 9/11, he turned on his TV just in time to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center. He will say that at that moment he felt “sadness more than anything else.… I was nearly physically sick that I had neither resigned in 1999 and told Congress what I knew nor resigned and published my book sooner.” (Zeman et al. 11/2004)
A deputy head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center warns a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee, “We’re on the verge of more attacks that are larger and more deadly.” Apparently this is based on the spike in “chatter” picked up by NSA and CIA monitors and the realization that a number of well-known al-Qaeda operatives have gone underground. (Zeman et al. 11/2004)
A CIA manager says that an additional intelligence officer, Doug Miller, will be assigned to help an ongoing low-key review of al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit when Miller returns from holiday (see January 5-8, 2000 and Mid-May 2001). The statement is made in response to an e-mail by CIA manager Tom Wilshire, who pointed out that al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash attended the summit, meaning it was important (see January 4, 2001). Presumably, the manager that sends this e-mail is Richard Blee, who is responsible for Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Blee appears to have received the e-mail to which this is a response (see July 13, 2001). The review is currently only being conducted by one intelligence officer, Margaret Gillespie, who is only told to do it in her spare time and whom it takes over three months to find CIA cables indicating two of the future 9/11 hijackers have entered the US (see August 21-22, 2001). Miller’s help would certainly benefit the review, as he is already aware one of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, has a US visa, but a cable he drafted to notify the FBI about this was blocked by Wilshire (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000). However, there is no mention of Miller actually being given the assignment on his return and no sign he does any work on this. Wilshire also asked that the FBI be officially told bin Attash attended the summit in Malaysia, but this information is again withheld (see January 5, 2001 and After). (US Department of Justice 11/2004, pp. 298-9 )
Former CIA agent Robert Baer is advising a prince in a Persian Gulf royal family, when a military associate of this prince passes information to him about a “spectacular terrorist operation” that will take place shortly. He is given a computer record of around 600 secret al-Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The list includes ten names that will be placed on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list after 9/11. He is also given evidence that a Saudi merchant family had funded the USS Cole bombing on October 12, 2000, and that the Yemeni government is covering up information related to that bombing. At the military officer’s request, he offers all this information to the Saudi Arabian government. However, an aide to the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan, refuses to look at the list or to pass the names on (Sultan is later sued for his complicity in the 9/11 plot in August 2002). Baer also passes the information on to a senior CIA official and the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center, but there is no response or action. Portions of Baer’s book describing his experience wil be blacked out, having been censored by the CIA. (Baer 2002, pp. 55-58; Robinson 1/12/2002)
Frustrated with the lack of response from FBI headquarters about Zacarias Moussaoui, the Minnesota FBI contacts an FBI agent working with the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and asks for help. (US Congress 10/17/2002) On this day, the CIA sends a cable to stations and bases overseas requesting information about Moussaoui. The cable is titled, “Subjects Involved in Suspicious 747 Flight Training.” The cable says that the FBI is investigating Moussaoui for possible involvement in the planning of a terrorist attack and mentions his efforts to obtain flight training. It also suggests he might be “involved in a larger plot to target airlines traveling from Europe to the US.” (US Congress 9/18/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 540) It calls him a “suspect 747 airline attacker” and a “suspect airline suicide hijacker”—showing that the form of the 9/11 attack is not a surprise, at least to the CIA. (US Congress 10/17/2002) FBI headquarters responds by chastising the Minnesota FBI for notifying the CIA without approval. (Time 5/21/2002)
After the CIA sends the FBI information it thinks is sufficient for a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings (see August 24, 2001), the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) sends the same information to a CIA representative to the FBI and asks him to help arrange a search warrant. The representative is not named, but it may be Tom Wilshire (see May 2001), a CIA officer assigned to the FBI who requests information about Moussaoui on this day (see August 24, 2001). The CTC officer writes: “No one in the FBI seems to have latched on to this. Perhaps you can educate them on Moussaoui. This may be all they need to open a FISA on Moussaoui.” (Tenet 2007, pp. 202)
Northern Alliance leader Amrullah Saleh calls the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center to inform it of the assassination of anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Massoud (see September 9, 2001). His call is taken by Richard Blee, the manager responsible for Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Although Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, an expert on Afghanistan, realizes the assassination means “something terrible [is] about to happen” (see September 9, 2001), Blee does not appear to connect the assassination to a spike in warnings about an al-Qaeda attack against US interests, even though he has been briefing senior officials about this all summer (see May 30, 2001, June 28, 2001, July 10, 2001, and Late July 2001). The Northern Alliance realizes that the Taliban will attack them immediately, because they are leaderless, and Saleh asks for support from the CIA. However, some at the CIA think that the Northern Alliance has no chance without Massoud, who held it together. Other officers “[call] frantically around Washington to find a way to aid the rump Northern Alliance before it [is] eliminated.” The CIA informs the White House of the assassination, and the news soon leaks to CNN. This prompts the Northern Alliance to call again, this time complaining about the leak. (Coll 2004, pp. 582-4)
According to CIA Director George Tenet, “Only minutes” after the South Tower is hit, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) receives a report that at least one other commercial passenger jet plane is unaccounted for. (Tenet 2007, pp. 163) The CTC is based at the CIA headquarters in Langley, and is run by the agency’s operations division. It gathers intelligence and runs covert operations abroad. It employs hundreds of analysts, and includes experts assigned from Defense Department intelligence agencies, the Pentagon’s Central Command, the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other government agencies. According to the Los Angeles Times, “It serves as the nerve center for the CIA’s effort to disrupt and deter terrorist groups and their state sponsors.” (Garza 10/2/2001; Drogin 10/12/2001) Further details of the unaccounted-for plane, and where the CTC learns of it from, are unclear. The plane is presumably Flight 77, which veered off course at 8:54 (see (8:54 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and was evidently lost by 8:56 (see 8:56 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Wald and Sack 10/16/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 9) The FAA will later claim it had established several phone bridges at around 8:50 a.m., which included various government agencies, on which it shared “real-time information… about the unfolding events, including information about loss of communication with aircraft, loss of transponder signals, unauthorized changes in course, and other actions being taken by all the flights of interest, including Flight 77” (see (8:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 5/23/2003) So the CTC may have learned of the errant plane by this means. Yet the 9/11 Commission will claim the FAA’s phone bridges were not established until about 9:20 (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 36) And NORAD is supposedly only alerted to Flight 77 at 9:24, according to some accounts (see (9:24 a.m.) September 11, 2001), or 9:34, according to others (see 9:34 a.m. September 11, 2001).
At around 10 a.m., following reports that several aircraft were not responding to communications and could be heading toward Washington, CIA Director George Tenet orders the evacuation of the CIA headquarters building in Langley, Virginia (see (9:50 a.m.-10:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001). However, Cofer Black, the director of the Counterterrorist Center (CTC), is unhappy about this and tells Tenet, “Sir, we’re going to have to exempt CTC from this because we need to have our people working the computers.” The CTC, according to the Los Angeles Times, is “the nerve center for the CIA’s effort to disrupt and deter terrorist groups and their state sponsors.” About 200 employees are currently working in it. Eight of them are in the Global Response Center on the sixth floor of the building, monitoring the latest intelligence on terrorism throughout the world. The rest are in a windowless facility low down in the building. When Tenet points out that the Global Response Center staff will be at risk, Black responds, “They have the key function to play in a crisis like this. This is exactly why we have the Global Response Center.” When Tenet points out, “They could die,” Black replies, “Well, sir, then they’re just going to have to die.” After pausing, Tenet agrees, “You’re absolutely right.” Tenet later says, “Now that we were under attack, the Counterterrorist Center, with its vast data banks and sophisticated communications systems, was more vital than ever. Even as we were discussing going or staying, CTC was sending out a global alert to our stations around the world, ordering them to go to their liaison services and agents to collect every shred of information they could lay their hands on.” (Drogin 10/12/2001; Woodward 2002, pp. 8-9; Tenet 2007, pp. 164-165)
The chief of operations at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center proposes that the CIA establish “hit teams” to assassinate high-value targets in al-Qaeda’s structure. The CIA compiled a list of such targets before 9/11, and updated it afterwards. The suggestion is made as part of a debate about what to do with the targets. The hit teams would be made up of CIA paramilitaries that would covertly infiltrate countries in the Middle East, Africa, and even Europe to assassinate people on the list, one by one. However, some CIA officers object to this, saying that it would be better to keep the targets alive and interrogate them about their network and other plots. Other officers worry that the CIA might not be good at assassinating people, and the plan is never implemented, although the agency does establish a network of black sites for interrogating detainees. The identity of the chief of operations that makes this proposal is not known definitively, but Richard Blee is said to hold the position around this time (see Between Mid-January and July 2000). (Priest 11/2/2005)
The CIA begins a program to kill or capture al-Qaeda leaders using small teams of its paramilitary forces. (Mazzetti and Shane 7/14/2009; Warrick and Smith 8/20/2009) The aim is to take out of circulation members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates who are judged to be plotting attacks against US forces or interests. The program’s establishment follows its proposal by an official at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (see Shortly After September 11, 2001) and official approval from the White House (see September 17, 2001). The program, initially run by the Counterterrorist Center, never becomes operational at the agency and no targets are ever proposed for the White House’s approval; although the CIA will both capture and kill several al-Qaeda leaders over the next few years (see, for example, February 29 or March 1, 2003 and December 1, 2005), these successes result from ad hoc operations or other programs. However, the Pentagon will later begin a parallel program that does kill and capture al-Qaeda leaders (see July 22, 2002). Although the CIA’s program is never used, it is, according to CIA spokesman George Little, “much more than a PowerPoint presentation.” (Mazzetti and Shane 7/14/2009; Warrick and Smith 8/20/2009) Another official adds: “It’s wrong to think this counterterrorism program was confined to briefing slides or doodles on a cafeteria napkin. It went well beyond that.” (Mazzetti 8/20/2009) Top CIA officials are briefed periodically about the program’s progress. (Mazzetti and Shane 7/14/2009) The program is intended for use in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other countries. (Mazzetti and Shane 7/14/2009; Warrick and Smith 8/20/2009) Reasons for its non-use include logistical, legal, and diplomatic hurdles. (Mazzetti 8/20/2009) There are three versions of the program: an initial one done in house, another one operated by the private military contractor Blackwater (see 2004), and another, possibly after Blackwater leaves the program (see (2005-2006)). The total spending on the program is under $20 million over eight years. (Warrick and Smith 8/20/2009) There is a US government ban on assassinating people. However, the Bush administration takes the position that killing members of al-Qaeda, a terrorist group that attacked the US and has pledged to attack it again, is no different from killing enemy soldiers in battle, so the CIA is not constrained by the ban. (Mazzetti and Shane 7/14/2009; Mazzetti 8/20/2009)
On September 19, 2001, Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, speaks to Gary Berntsen, a CIA officer who is about to lead the first unit of CIA operatives into Afghanistan. Black tells Berntsen that President Bush has signed a new intelligence order. As Black will put it in 2002, the gloves are off (see September 26, 2002). Black orders Berntsen: “You have one mission. Go find the al-Qaeda and kill them. We’re going to eliminate them. Get bin Laden, find him. I want his head in a box.… I want to take it down and show the president.” Berntsen replies, “Well, that couldn’t be any clearer.” (Woodward 11/18/2002) Indeed, two days before Bush, signed new orders giving the CIA broad new powers (see September 17, 2001 and September 17, 2001). Bernsten and his team arrive in Afghanistan on September 26 (see September 26, 2001).
CIA official Michael Scheuer will later comment: “By the spring of 2002 the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) realized that the administration had decided to go to war with Iraq. There was no announcement to that effect, of course, but the intent was evident as the flow of officers sent to beef up the post-9/11 war against al-Qaeda ended and experienced Arabic-speaking officers were reassigned from CTC to Middle East posts (see Spring 2002) and to the task forces at CIA headquarters charged with preparing for the Iraq war.” (Scheuer 2008, pp. 122) He will also say: “It was almost taken for granted that we were going to go to war with Iraq. It was a nightmare, and I know [CIA Director George] Tenet was briefed repeatedly by the head of the bin Laden department that any invasion of Iraq would break the back of our counterterrorism program.” (PBS Frontline 3/24/2008)
Held in a secret CIA prison in Thailand, al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida is interrogated by a new team of CIA interrogators led by James Elmer Mitchell and Dr. R. Scott Shumate. Mitchell is a psychologist contracted to the CIA, while Shumate is the chief operational psychologist for the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Mitchell wants to use torture techniques based on reverse-engineering SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), a class he has taught that trains US soldiers to resist torture by the enemy. But the techniques have never been tried before and studies will later determine they are not effective in obtaining good intelligence (see Mid-April 2002). Zubaida is resistant to Mitchell’s new aggressive techniques and refuses to talk. Mitchell concludes Zubaida will only talk when he has been rendered completely helpless and dependent, so the CIA begins building a coffin to bury Zubaida alive in but not actually kill him. This creates an intense controversy over the legality of such a technique, and ultimately it appears the burying alive is never carried out. Both domestic and international law clearly prohibits death threats and simulated killings. However, a number of aggressive techniques have just been approved at the highest political level (see Mid-March 2002), so opponents to these techniques are mostly powerless. Shumate is so strongly opposed to these techniques that he leaves in disgust. He will later tell his associates that it was a mistake for the CIA to hire Mitchell. But with Shumate gone, Mitchell is now free to use more extreme methods, and the torture of Zubaida begins in earnest around the middle of May. (Eban 7/17/2007) Around this time, the FBI also washes its hands of the controversial techniques and withdraws its personnel from the secret prison (see Mid-April-May 2002).
Jose Rodriguez, formerly chief of the CIA’s Latin American division, is appointed head of its rapidly expanding Counterterrorist Center. The appointment surprises some, as Latin America is not at the heart of global counterterrorism efforts and Rodriguez, who cannot speak Arabic, has no experience in the Middle East. In addition, Rodriguez was removed from his position in 1997, after he tried to get the government of the Dominican Republic to drop charges against a person described as a “friend,” and was criticized by the CIA Office of Inspector General for showing a “remarkable lack of judgment” over the affair. (Mazzetti 12/8/2007) CIA officer Gary Berntsen, who served under Rodriguez as a station chief in an unnamed South American country, will be critical of him in a 2005 book. When Berntsen, an officer with a wealth of counterterrorism experience, took up his position in South America following the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, Rodriguez greeted him “by saying that he had heard about my successful record of conducting counterterrorism operations, but that would not, repeat not, be my primary mission as a Chief of Station in South America. He stated categorically that he wanted me to conduct normal foreign intelligence collection against traditional targets and no, repeat no, counterterrorism. I was stunned. Had this man been living in a cave the last two years?” Berntsen was also surprised when, after 9/11, he received a message from CIA headquarters asking for volunteers to fight terrorism, and then a message from Rodriguez ordering all Latin American station chiefs not to volunteer. Berntsen will comment: “I didn’t understand… he was ordering me and other highly skilled officers in Latin America not to step forward? Had this guy taken leave of his senses? In a time of national tragedy was he still thinking of how to protect his Division?” (Berntsen and Pezzullo 2005, pp. 69, 71) Rodriguez’s identity is supposedly secret until the summer of 2007, shortly before he retires from the agency. (Associated Press 8/8/2007) Rodriguez will be put in charge of the Directorate of Operations in 2004, but will become involved in a scandal over the destruction of videotapes of detainee interrogations (see November 2005 and December 6, 2007). (Mazzetti 12/8/2007)
The CIA starts a course for individuals who will be involved in its detainee interrogation program. The pilot program runs for two weeks, focuses on so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and is designed to train, qualify, and certify individuals as CIA interrogators. The curriculum is designed by several CIA Counterterrorist Center officers, including an instructor on Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) techniques. The first week is for classroom training, whereas the second week is what the agency’s inspector general will call “hands-on” training in the use of the enhanced techniques. Once an interrogator becomes certified, he is deemed to be qualified to conduct an interrogation using the enhanced techniques. All course graduates are required to sign an acknowledgement that they have read, understood, and will comply with interrogation guidelines issued by the CIA’s director. (Central Intelligence Agency 5/7/2004, pp. 25, 31-33 )
The CIA’s inspector general, which is reviewing some aspects of the CIA’s performance with respect to 9/11, examines the agency’s analysis of Osama bin Laden-related matters before the attacks and finds it was wanting. The executive summary of the inspector general’s report will state that the US intelligence community’s understanding of al-Qaeda “was hampered by insufficient analytic focus, particularly regarding strategic analysis.” The inspector general also asks three former senior analysts to review what was produced about bin Laden. They find that there were some shortcomings, and that some important elements, such as discussions of the implications of information, were ignored. In addition they find there was:
No comprehensive strategic assessment of al-Qaeda by any unit at the CIA;
No comprehensive report focused on bin Laden after 1993;
No examination of the possible use of planes as weapons;
Limited analytic focus on the US as a target;
No comprehensive analysis putting the increased threat reporting in the summer of 2001 into context;
Not much strategic analysis in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, where the analytical unit focused on current and tactical issues.
In addition, the National Intelligence Council produced its last terrorist threat assessment before 9/11 in 1995, although it was updated in 1997. Work on a new assessment began in early 2001, but was not completed by 9/11. (Central Intelligence Agency 6/2005, pp. xvii-xviii )
CIA employees who have been applying “enhanced interrogation techniques” to al-Qaeda leader Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri decide that he is now “compliant.” The techniques, including waterboarding, have been used on al-Nashiri for around a month (see (November 2002)). At this point, the agency regards him to be ready to be “debriefed”—a CIA term for part of an interrogation conducted by a more knowledgeable officer who does not use the enhanced techniques, or not to such an extent. Following this decision, the Counterterrorist Center at CIA headquarters sends out a senior operations officer to question al-Nashiri. (Central Intelligence Agency 5/7/2004, pp. 36, 41 ) This officer will later become known to the public as “Albert.” (Goldman 9/7/2010) Al-Nashiri is currently being held at CIA black site in Poland (see December 5, 2002).
A dispute breaks out at the CIA after a proposal is made to render an Islamist extremist named Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from Italy to Egypt. Nasr had previously informed for the CIA (see August 27, 1995 and Shortly After), but had been close to a senior al-Qaeda figure (see Summer 2000). Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA’s senior official in Milan, disagrees with the plan. The CIA and local Italian authorities are co-operating on surveillance of Nasr, and in a few months Lady thinks they will have enough evidence to arrest and convict him. In addition, kidnapping a man in Italy could endanger US-Italian relations. However, the rendition is supported by Jeff Castelli, the chief of the CIA station in Rome. (Cole 3/2007 ) Reporter Jeff Stein will even say that the rendition is Castelli’s “brainchild.” (Stein 4/19/2008) Opinion appears to be divided at CIA headquarters. According to one account, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center is against the idea, but the plan is ultimately approved by unspecified CIA managers. (Cole 3/2007 ) According to another account, it is the Counterterrorist Center that approves the rendition. (Stein 4/19/2008) One of the CIA officials involved in the rendition is Stephen Kappes, assistant director of the Directorate of Operations. However, details of his opinions on it are unknown. (Donadio 11/4/2009) CIA Director George Tenet also agrees to the rendition. (Cole 3/2007 )
The CIA’s inspector general interviews a female CIA officer about the efficacy of the agency’s custody and interrogation practices for high value detainees. The officer is not identified, but as the topic discussed is the involvement of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) in the practices, and the highest known female officer at the CTC at this time is Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, it may be her. (Note: Bikowsky is involved in rendition—see Before January 23, 2004—and torture—see After March 7, 2003). The officer says that the value of the program is taking terrorists off the streets, and if the CIA gets unique valuable information from a detainee then an operation is judged a success. The officer also makes a number of statements about information provided by detainees:
Training camp facilitator Abu Zubaida provided information about al-Qaeda’s modus operandi and that led to the arrest of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, an associate of the 9/11 hijackers;
Alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) provided information that led to the arrest of a truck driver in Ohio named Iyman Faris, a smuggler named Uzair Paracha, a sleeper operative in New York named Saleh Almari, an operative named Majid Khan, and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, KSM’s nephew, who was involved in financing 9/11;
Detainees have also provided a wealth of information about al-Qaeda plots, including potential attacks on the US consulate in Karachi, a plan to fly planes into Heathrow Airport and Canary Wharf in London, a plot where spikes in track would be loosened in an attempt to derail a train, a plot to blow up some gas stations, a plot to fly planes into the Library Tower in California, and a plot to collapse a suspension bridge by cutting lines.
The manager adds that as some operatives potentially involved in these plots have been arrested and the plans have not come to fruition, then the operations must have been thwarted by the CIA. (Central Intelligence Agency 7/17/2003 )
In an interview with author James Bamford, an unnamed FBI agent says that Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, deliberately hid 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar from the FBI, allowing 9/11 to happen. He says: “They refused to tell us because they didn’t want the FBI, they didn’t want John O’Neill in particular, muddying up their operation. They didn’t want the bureau meddling in their business—that’s why they didn’t tell the FBI. Alec Station worked for the CIA’s CTC [Counterterrorist Center]. They purposely hid from the FBI, purposely refused to tell the bureau that they were following a man in Malaysia who had a visa to come to America. The thing was, they didn’t want John O’Neill and the FBI running over their case. And that’s why September 11 happened. That is why it happened.… They have blood on their hands. They have three thousand deaths on their hands.” (Bamford 2004, pp. 224)
Two senior CIA managers, Counterterrorist Center head Jose Rodriguez and Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt, are informed that an innocent German named Khalid el-Masri is being held at one of the agency’s black sites in Afghanistan. The news comes about as a result of dissatisfaction on the part of some officers that the agency is holding an innocent man and refusing to release him (see Late March 2004). According to author Jane Mayer, “a lawyer for the [Counterterrorist Center] surreptitiously alert[s] a lawyer for the European division—which ha[s] an interest in [el-]Masri because of his German citizenship—that he [is] innocent. Together the CIA lawyers scheme […] about how to get [el-]Masri released.” A senior European division officer then goes to see Rodriguez, who had heard that el-Masri is, in Mayer’s words, a “tremendous catch.” However, the officer tells him, “It’s the wrong Khalid el-Masri.” (Note: some of the 9/11 hijackers knew a different man of the same name.) Subsequently, Pavitt is also informed of the problem. Mayer will comment, “Yet for months after these senior CIA officers were warned that the agency was holding an innocent man in dire circumstances, the situation continued.” (Mayer 2008, pp. 285)
Former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center Cofer Black tells the 9/11 Commission: “[U]nfortunately, when Americans get killed, it would translate into additional resources. It’s a constant track: either you run out, or people die, when people die you get more money.” He says this at the end of his prepared statement in a section dealing with what he says is a lack of funds at the CIA for counterterrorism. (9/11 Commission 4/13/2004)
CIA Director George Tenet is informed that the agency has wrongly rendered an innocent German named Khalid el-Masri to a black site in Afghanistan and has been holding him there for several months (see January 23 - March 2004). Tenet receives this information at a meeting with all the main participants in the case: a bin Laden unit manager named Alfreda Frances Bikowsky who pushed the rendition in the first place; Counterterrorist Center head Jose Rodriguez and Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt, who have known of the case for some time but done nothing about it (see (April 2004)); and two European Division officers who have a plan to free el-Masri (see (April 2004)). After they all say their piece, Tenet is, according to author Jane Mayer, “stunned.” He says: “Are you telling me we’ve got an innocent guy stuck in prison in Afghanistan? Oh sh_t! Just tell me—please—we haven’t used ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques on him, have we?” The group then discusses what to do, and one suggestion is to let him go with a large quantity of cash. According to two of Mayer’s sources, Pavitt chuckles, “At least the guy will earn more money in five months than he ever could have any other way!” (Mayer 2008, pp. 286) No definitive decision about what to do is taken, and Tenet goes to see National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (see (May 2004)).
The CIA closes its unit that had been in charge of hunting bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders. Analysts in the unit, known as Alec Station, are reassigned to other parts of the CIA Counterterrorist Center. CIA officials explain the change by saying the agency can better deal with high-level threats by focusing on regional trends rather than on specific organizations or individuals. Michael Scheuer, who headed the unit when if formed in 1996 (see February 1996), says the move reflects a view within the CIA that bin Laden is no longer the threat he once was, and complains, “This will clearly denigrate our operations against al-Qaeda.” Robert Grenier, head of the Counterterrorist Center in 2005, is said to have instigated the closure. (Mazzetti 7/4/2006; Goldenberg 7/4/2006) The White House denies the search for bin Laden has slackened, calling the move merely a “reallocation of resources” within the CIA. (Reuters 8/17/2006)
By late 2005, many inside CIA headquarters has concluded that the hunt for Osama bin Laden has made little progress in recent years. Jose Rodriguez Jr., head of the CIA’s clandestine operations branch, implements some changes. Robert Grenier, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center since late 2004, is replaced by someone whose name has yet to be made public. Grenier had just closed Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, as part of a reorganization (see Late 2005), and Rodriguez and Grenier had barely spoken to each other for months. Dozens of new CIA operatives are sent to Pakistan as part of a new push to get bin Laden called Operation Cannonball. But most of the operatives assigned to the task have been newly hired and have little experience. One former senior CIA official says: “We had to put people out in the field who had less than ideal levels of experience. But there wasn’t much to choose from.” Two other former officials say this is because the experienced personnel have generally been assigned to the Iraq war. One of them says, “You had a very finite number” of experienced officers. “Those people all went to Iraq. We were all hurting because of Iraq.” The New York Times will later comment, “The increase had little impact in Pakistan, where militants only continued to gain strength.” (Mazetti and Rohde 6/30/2008)
Robert Grenier, the CIA’s chief counterterrorism officer, is relieved of his position after months of turmoil within the agency’s clandestine service. Grenier has headed the Counterterrorist Center for about a year; he will be offered another position within the agency. The CIA’s semi-official position is that some in the agency, particularly Grenier’s superior officer in the clandestine service, do not consider Grenier to be forceful enough in his approach to handling threats from al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro says that the official story is not entirely true: Grenier was sacked not because of his lack of aggression towards terrorist organizations, but because he opposed the agency’s rendition program and the torture of suspected terrorists. Cannistraro says: “It is not that Grenier wasn’t aggressive enough, it is that he wasn’t ‘with the program.’ He expressed misgivings about the secret prisons in Europe and the rendition of terrorists.” Cannistraro says Grenier also opposed “excessive” interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. Other sources say that CIA Director Porter Goss believes Grenier may either be the source of some of the leaks that have appeared in recent months in the press, or allowed the leaks to occur. Grenier was the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, during the 9/11 attacks, and helped the agency plan its covert campaign that preceded the US military’s offensive against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. From there, he went on to head the newly created Iraq Issues Group within the agency, and was heavily involved in the administration’s Iraq invasion efforts. “The word on Bob was that he was a good officer, but not the one for the job and not quite as aggressive as he might have been,” one official says. Another official says, “The director of NCS [the national clandestine service] decided there was somebody better, perhaps to better match his management vision, so [Grenier] is moving on.” Rumors had Grenier resigning in September 2005 along with the CIA’s second-highest official in the clandestine service, Robert Richer (see September 2, 2005), but those rumors proved to be false. (Gellman and Linzer 2/7/2006; Miller 2/7/2006; Baxter and Smith 2/12/2006)
A front page article in the Los Angeles Times reports that the US effort to fight the financing of terrorism is “foundering.” Insiders complain that the Bush administration’s efforts are stumbling over legal difficulties, interagency fighting, and disagreements with allied nations. Michael Jacobson, a recently retired senior adviser in the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, says, “The international cooperation and focus is dropping, the farther we get from 9/11.” The Times notes that “Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other key nations have not taken the necessary steps to crack down on terrorist financing or suspect money flowing across their borders.” Designations of terrorist financiers has slowed to a “trickle.” Militant groups are also using methods that are harder to trace, including sending money by donkey or mule. Robert Grenier, recently retired director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, says the US has exaggerated the successes of financial enforcement: “There’s been a lot of work done on it, a lot of focus. But as a method for identifying and capturing terrorists, it has not been significant.” (Meyer 3/24/2008)
CIA Director Leon Panetta is informed by the agency’s Counterterrorist Center that it has a program to assassinate or capture al-Qaeda leaders. The program was established shortly after 9/11, but has never become operational (see Shortly After September 17, 2001). Panetta immediately cancels the program. (Mazzetti and Shane 7/14/2009) CIA spokesman George Little says the decision was “clear and straightforward,” as Panetta “knew it [the program] hadn’t been successful.” (Warrick and Smith 8/20/2009) There is no resistance inside the CIA to this decision, apparently because the program is not fully operational and has not yet been briefed to Congress. (Shane 7/12/2009)
CIA Was Reviewing Program - It is unclear why Panetta is informed of the program at this time. However, the Counterterrorist Center has recently conducted a review of it, so he may learn of its existence due to the review, which will be presented to the White House and the Congressional intelligence committees. (Mazzetti 8/20/2009)
Why Was Panetta Not Told Before? - It is also unclear why Panetta, who was confirmed as CIA director four months ago, was not told of the program earlier. One explanation is that it is because the program was not operational. “It’s a capability that wasn’t being used, so it wasn’t a front-burner issue,” says one unnamed official. Another retired official familiar with the program’s details says, “It would have been a big deal if it was operational, but since it was not, it’s not a big deal.” However, several former CIA officers and intelligence experts find this explanation unconvincing. According to Time magazine, “For one thing, they say, the mere fact that the program apparently merited [former Vice President Dick] Cheney’s close attention should have been a red flag.” A former operations expert says, “Even if the program was dormant, the top officials would have known about Cheney’s instructions, and they should have told Panetta right away.” Another retired senior official puts it more bluntly, saying, “[Given Cheney’s interest,] I don’t know why the program was not on the new director’s desk within his first two weeks on the job.” He adds, “The speed of Panetta’s actions when he was informed tells me that the program was pretty important.” Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center, comments, “In retrospect, the [Cheney] angle ought to be sufficient grounds for someone to think, this does deserve the boss’s attention.” (Mazzetti and Shane 7/14/2009)
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