Ali Soufan’s long-awaited new book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, was released today, meriting a story on some of its more explosive material in an article by Scott Shane at the New York Times. According to Shane, “Mr. Soufan accuses C.I.A. officials of deliberately withholding crucial documents and photographs of Qaeda operatives from the F.B.I. before Sept. 11, 2001, despite three written requests, and then later lying about it to the 9/11 Commission.”
The book made headlines last month when it was revealed the CIA had demanded “scores” of cuts to the book, for purposes of “national security.”
According to Soufan, in a special introduction to the new book:
“… the FBI informed me that the manuscript had been sent to the CIA for review. This was strange, as I have never reported to the CIA or had any contractual agreement with them. While I understood that the FBI might feel the need to consult with others in the intelligence community about certain material in the book, there was absolutely no reason to subject me to a second full-blown prepublication review.”
Soufan, a long-time special agent working with the FBI, worked on some of the more notorious terrorist cases post-9/11, including the interrogation of Mohamed Al-Qahtani and Abu Zubaydah. According to Soufan, he was pulled off these interrogations when the CIA or military officials wanted to use torture on the detainees. In these cases, and it turns out others, Soufan and his colleagues were pulled out of interrogations at the behest of the Bush administration or the CIA. Soufan was also the lead investigator on the bombing of the USS Cole.
In at least one other case, crucial information was kept from Soufan and other investigators by CIA officials, information that would have helped break the Cole case, and, crucially, have led FBI investigators to identify Al Qaeda operatives who had entered the United States more than eighteen months before 9/11. These two operatives, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, died on the plane that rammed into the Pentagon.
The controversies surrounding the CIA’s withholding of information about these two hijackers was told in Lawrence Wright’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, and was further explored in Kevin Fenton’s recent book, Disconnecting the Dots: How 9/11 Was Allowed to Happen.
Here’s how Shane described the moment when Soufan realized he’d been had. For some strange reason, the NYT refrains from actually giving al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi’s names.
[Soufan] recounts a scene at the American Embassy in Yemen, where, a few hours after the attacks on New York and Washington, a C.I.A. official finally turned over the material the bureau requested months earlier [from the CIA], including photographs of two of the hijackers.
“For about a minute I stared at the pictures and the report, not quite believing what I had in my hands,” Mr. Soufan writes. Then he ran to a bathroom and vomited. “My whole body was shaking,” he writes. He believed the material, documenting a Qaeda meeting in Malaysia in January 2000, combined with information from the Cole investigation, might have helped unravel the airliner plot.
According to Shane’s report, CIA spokesman Preston Golson called “baseless” the idea that the CIA “purposely refused to share critical lead information on the 9/11 plots.”
How Al Qaeda Terrorists Were Allowed to Enter the U.S.
What briefly reportedly occurred was this:
In January 2000, the CIA got information from the National Security Agency that al-Mihdhar and an associate were headed to a seeming summit of top terrorists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. According to Fenton, “the CIA realized that the summit was so important that information about it was briefed to CIA and FBI leaders, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and other top officials at the start of 2000.” The CIA discovered a visa for al-Mihdhar showing he was planning to come to the United States. Al-Mihdhar’s father-in-law was the owner of a house in Yemen that NSA, CIA, and likely others were surveilling electronically — the so-called Al Qaeda Yemen “hub.”
In any case, according to Wright, the CIA already knew from Saudi intelligence that al-Mihdhar was Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the CIA had obtained al-Mihdhar’s passport, along with the visa, photographed it and sent it on to the CIA’s Bin Laden desk, known as “Alec Station.” When an FBI agent assigned to Alec Station, Doug Miller saw the cable, he drafted a memo requesting permission to alert his FBI superiors of the terrorists’ intentions to come to the U.S. But permission was denied. We know that this was upon the authority of Alec Station deputy chief Tom Wilshire.
Even worse, another CIA agent at Alec Station, informed others who inquired that the information was passed on to the FBI. Except it never was.
In an article about these matters by Jason Leopold at Truthout, Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick’s new book, Triple Agent, about the suicide bomber who killed seven CIA agents at Khost, reports that the CIA Inspector General said “as many as sixty CIA employees” had seen “a series of cabled warnings in 2000 about” al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar “who later became part of the September 11 plot…. yet the two operatives’ names were never passed along to the FBI, which might have assigned agents to track them down or shared with the State Department, which could have flagged their named on its watch list. In theory, the arrest of the either man could have led investigators to the other hijackers and the eventual unraveling of the 9/11 plot.”
This was the beginning of numerous instances of lying and obstruction of an investigation by CIA, and on occasion, FBI officials, related to these two Al Qaeda personnel in particular. As you can see, far from the 9/11 terrorists begin “lucky,” it appears there was a concerted effort to keep FBI criminal investigators from tracking key Al Qaeda operatives in the months, even weeks or days, leading up to 9/11. As Fenton points out, the latter possibly was achieved by detailing Wilshire, the agent who had blocked the first evidence of al-Mihdhar and al-Hawsi entering the U.S., to work with the FBI’s counterterrorism unit in early 2001.
Soufan relates a much later instance of obstruction, this time only weeks before 9/11 itself. In late August, the FBI was finally figuring out what the CIA had known over a year before. When one reads this, one should remember that al-Mihdhar was certainly involved in the Cole terrorist plot, and both he and the very existence of the Malaysia Al Qaeda “summit” were kept from Soufan and his investigators for months, only finally told them when they had pretty much figured it out for themselves.
The following exchange took place in late August 2001, after FBI agent Dina Corsi had accidentally copied a criminal FBI investigator on an email about al-Mihdhar:
“Dina, you’ve got to be kidding me. Mihdhar is in the country?” [FBI agent Steve Bongardt] could hardly contain his anger….
“Steve, you’ve got to delete that,” Dina replied nervously. “We’ll have a conference call about it tomorrow.”
Dina called the next day, with a senior CIA official also on the line. Steve was told by the senior official that he had to “stand down” regarding Mihdhar. He was furious to hear—again—that this was intelligence that couldn’t be shared with criminal agents.
“If this guy is in the country, it’s not because he’s going to fucking Disneyland,” Steve retorted.
“Stand down,” the senior official replied.
The “stand down” ordered by the CIA was not the first “stand down” surrounding intelligence agencies in the months before 9/11. As I wrote the other day, both here and, with Jason Leopold, at Truthout, according to the former Deputy Chief of a Pentagon intelligence unit, which was hunting Bin Laden, and concerned with the scenarios about when and how and where Al Qaeda would attack, his group was pulled off that work in early 2001. This story is in addition to the controversial news reports about the Army’s Able Danger data mining operation, shut down after it had identified some of the Al Qaeda terrorists, and more than one case of FBI reports of possible terrorists training to be pilots that were ignored by higher-ups.
Last month, two investigators released a partial video interview of former counter-terrorism “czar” Richard Clarke talking about the CIA and the withholding of information from the FBI and his office on movements of al-Mihdhar and al-Hawsi. (See video at end of story.) Clarke said George Tenet never told him about the two U.S.-bound terrorists. He also believed that Tenet, and Alec Station chief Rich Blee, “whose true identity was revealed for the first time two years ago, were responsible for the failure to capture al-Mihdhar and al-Hawsi.
The investigators’ documentary on all this, “Who is Rich Blee?”, was supposed to be released yesterday. But at their website we see the following message, “On Thursday, the CIA threatened the journalists behind Who Is Rich Blee? with possible federal prosecution if the investigative podcast is released in its current form.
“We are delaying that release while we consult with others and weigh our options. A press statement with a more complete explanation will be made available at this site soon.”
Silence and the Legacy of 9/11
I haven’t yet finished Soufan’s book, so this essay is by no means meant to be a review. In the past, I have been critical, for instance, of how Soufan has played around with what he felt were non-coercive interrogations, which I believe meant it was okay to use isolation, for instance. I will be very curious to read his narrative about the Al Qahtani and Zubaydah interrogations, for instance. But for the purposes of this article, I’m concentrating only on the obstruction of justice aspects of his charges.
Whether it was a deliberate attempt to let terrorists operate in this country (as Kevin Fenton maintains), or a terrible combination of over-caution, inertia, lack of imagination, bad judgement, institutional hubris, and bad luck, as others would suggest, remains to be seen. What is clear is that we need a new investigation of the activities of the intelligence groups and the military leading up to 9/11, the earlier investigations being hog-tied by lies, information coerced from tortured detainees, and repeated efforts (mostly successful) to hide or withhold crucial information from investigators.
Only our silence will guarantee that we will never know the truth. Given that 9/11 and the threat of terrorism is used to justify trillions spent on wars, a major crackdown on civil liberties, and the use of torture and other abuses upon detainees, I don’t see silence as an option.