The best chance to stop the 9/11 attacks was catching the hijackers the US government had been monitoring for years: Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. They could have led investigators to the others.
But before 9/11, some US government officials acted criminally. Whether this was negligence or not is beside the point: 3000 people died. The story is rarely fully, properly told, but is still worth telling.
The prequel took place in January 2000. The two hijackers were tracked going to an important al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia. One lived with bin Laden, the other with bin Laden’s trusted comrade. They were veterans of Bosnia and Afghanistan.
On the way, the CIA found out that Mihdhar had a US visa. An FBI agent working at the CIA headquarters wanted to tell his bosses. But this was forbidden by the CIA: “pls hold off on this for now per Tom Wilshere.” Tom Wilshere was a middle-manager in the CIA’s bin Laden unit, and was involved in increasing wrongdoing from that moment till 9/11.
An internal CIA e-mail claimed that the visa information had been sent by personal courier to FBI headquarters. But there is no record of this person signing into the building.
The two hijackers arrived in Los Angeles on January 15, 2000. An honest CIA officer in the field kept asking what had happened to them. On March 5, an officer in Bangkok, their departure point, confirmed they had flown to LA. If the CIA had not known about it before, they knew it now.
50 to 60 CIA people read that email saying they were in the US. As far as we know, they sat on their hands. Many, including angry FBI agents, say there was must have been attempt to recruit the hijackers as spies. Why else were they allowed to gallivant around the US? But we simply don’t know for certain.
Anyway, they weren’t very effective. They didn’t speak English. At their flight school, they were called “Dumb and Dumber”. (They were both non-pilot hijackers on the Pentagon plane.) They even lived under their own names. Mihdhar left the US in June 2000 for a year, while Hazmi stayed on.
If that was the whole story, it would be a small, maybe even understandable, piece of CIA skulduggery. The real story came after al-Qaeda attacked the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in October 2000, killing 17 sailors.
Investigating the Cole, the FBI saw that phone calls had been made to Malaysia. Also, people had gone there after a failed U.S. ship bombing in Yemen in January 2000. But it did not know that the mastermind of the bombing, Khallad bin Attash, had been there. Everyone there would have been a wanted man for the FBI. Including Mihdhar and Hazmi, if it knew about them.
Three times, the CIA denied knowing anything about a meeting in Malaysia, after FBI requests for information in early 2001. In fact, it conducted two fishing trips to make sure the FBI knew nothing, and wouldn’t find out about, the future hijackers. This alone should cause us to dispense with the notion the commonplace notion that many people were being monitored, and attention on particular people could be dropped. Hiding Mihdhar and Hazmi was a persistent concern.
In the first fishing trip, in January 2001, an al-Qaeda source, used by both agencies, was asked by the CIA if he recognised Mihdhar in a Malaysia photo taken a year ago. He didn’t, but he wrongly identified a photo of Hazmi as being Khallad bin Attash. Since it was not known until after 9/11 that this was false, it was important news. Obviously, the FBI would have wanted to know the Cole bomber had been positively identified at Malaysia! (He had been there, even if the source got the photo wrong.) They were not told.
In fact, Wilshere showed that he knew the faces of the hijackers better than the source. Regarding the source’s identification of Attash at Malaysia, he wrote: “someone saw something that wasn’t there.” This laid the ground for the second fishing trip, when a photos of Mihdhar and Hazmi (who the CIA had been told was Attash) were shown to FBI’s honest al-Qaeda investigators in New York.
By the time of this trip, Tom Wilshere was working inside FBI headquarters. Officially, his job was to keep the Bureau informed of what the Agency was doing. On June 11, 2001 he sent his close Bureau colleague, Dina Corsi, to the New York office. The pretext was to ask if a low-level terrorist, who failed to film the Cole bombing because he overslept, was in the Malaysia photos.
Instead, Corsi showed Steve Bongardt, a senior investigator on the Cole case, photos of Mihdhar and Hazmi only. After hesitating about identifying the oversleeper, Bongardt started asking common sense questions. Who was in the photos? Where were they taken? What did they have to do with the Cole? (Incidentally, Bongardt retired from the FBI in 2016.)
Corsi eventually told Bongardt that one photo was of Mihdhar. The name did not mean anything to him. She stalled on giving any more information. Bongardt believed she was holding back. After 9/11, the meeting was described as a “shouting match.”
In fact, what Corsi was holding back were NSA reports about Mihdhar and Hazmi going to Malaysia. Passing them needed NSA approval. When she got approval, in late August, it took one day, and she still did not give the reports to the Cole investigators. Instead, for two months, Bongardt pressed Corsi for information by phone and email, to no avail.
Meanwhile, in May, a CIA review of the paperwork about the Malaysia meeting had begun. Ordering it was Tom Wilshere’s last act before going to the Bureau. The review is normally seen as an opportunity to let the FBI know about the hijackers’ US residency. But the course of the review is bizarre.
First off, on May 15, Wilshere read the cables saying Mihdhar had a US visa, and the hijackers had flown to LA. This was another opportunity to tell the FBI, which he was soon to move to. Instead, he ordered the review, effectively telling an underling, Margaret Gillespie, to read the same cables again.
Gillespie was told to do the review in her “free time”. But she did not begin in earnest until late July, a giant lag. At that time, she read about Mihdhar’s US visa. On the same day, she read the internal CIA e-mail claiming to have passed on the information to the FBI. There was no seeming need to tell them again.
In early August, she discussed with colleagues the possibility that another terrorist had flown with Mihdhar to Malaysia. Then, on August 21, she read the cable saying Mihdhar and Hazmi had flown to the US, the same one Wilshere had read three months previous.
Gillespie finally contacted the FBI. Given the slow pace of the review, which made no advance on Wilshere’s, the suspicious timing of its conclusion, and the fact that in its early stages Gillespie used a computer system that did not contain information of the visa and US travel, it must be doubted that it was taken in full sincerity.
It is vital to note that during this period, summer 2001, an al-Qaeda attack was feverishly expected. As the CIA’s director, George Tenet, later said: “The system was blinking red.”
An excuse put forward is that the attack was expected on American targets outside the homeland. But reports circulated that there would be a ‘Hiroshima’ inside America. On July 10, Richard Blee, the chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, and Tom Wilshere’s direct boss, said at a briefing at the White House: “They’re coming here.” Let that sink in.
Indeed they were. When Mihdhar re-entered the US, on July 4 of all days, he was the last hijacker to arrive. He is thought to have been responsible for helping the others to enter the country.
During that July, Wilshere wrote three e-mails about Attash to Blee and other senior managers. Two of the e-mails stressed the link between Mihdhar and Attash, the Cole bomber. Whether he expected a positive response or not, he asked to be allowed pass information about Mihdhar to the Bureau. He got no response.
The last of these e-mails, on July 23, predict Mihdhar’s participation in an attack:
“When the next big op is carried out by UBL hardcore cadre, Khallad will be at or near the top of the command food chain – and probably nowhere near either the attack site or Afghanistan. That makes people who are available and who have direct access to him of very high interest. Khalid Midhar [sic] should be very high interest anyway, given his connection to the [redacted].”
The redacted section may refer to Mihdhar’s residency at the central al-Qaeda switchboard in Yemen, to which bin Laden phoned orders. Let all that sink in.
Margaret Gillespie’s Malaysia cable review, which as we have seen took Wilshere a day, came to a conclusion on August 21: she read that Mihdhar and Hazmi had entered the US on March 5, 2000 and contacted the Naturalization Service, which also recorded Mihdhar’s re-entry on July 4. Gillespie also notified the FBI’s Dina Corsi.
After 20 months, the FBI was informed. A search could begin. But senior levels of the FBI and CIA were not told, as they should have been. For comparison, the George Tenet was told about the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, later convicted for withholding information about 9/11. The most senior official working in the FBI to learn about him was Wilshere! Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism official, is angry to this day that he was not told about the future hijackers.
By this time, Corsi, an al-Qaeda analyst at FBI headquarters and associate of Wilshere, knew that Attash had been at the Malaysia meeting. She told this to a single Cole agent FBI agent on August 22. Who this agent was, and why he did not tell this vital information to Steve Bongardt and his colleagues on the Cole case, who would have lapped it up, are both mysteries to this day. But one clue may be that he was working closely with Corsi in recent months, while Bongardt was in arguments with her.
Wilshere, knowing that Mihdhar would be involved in the next attack, whose logical location now was the US, remains more culpable than Corsi. At a meeting with Corsi and Gillespie on August 22, it is not known that he mentioned his analysis.
Nonetheless, Corsi acted in bad faith for the next three weeks. Shockingly, Corsi did not send a draft lead to investigate Mihdhar to the Bureau’s New York office, which was in charge of al-Qaeda matters, until August 28. Unfortunately for her, an agent forwarded it to Steve Bongardt.
Corsi ordered him to delete the e-mail, but he recognised the name and fought to be allowed join the hunt. Incidentally, Corsi had received permission from the NSA to share reports about Mihdhar’s travel to Malaysia to Cole criminal agents that day. But Bongardt never knew.
A decision had to be made whether to investigate Mihdhar and Hazmi as a criminal or an intelligence matter. Part of the difference between them was that the former was quicker and had greater access to resources
Bongardt wanted a criminal investigation. Even though he did not know Attash had been in Malaysia, the hijackers’ presence there suggested a link to the Cole bombing. They could be arrested as material witnesses. In fact, their very presence in the US was evidence of a crime in the offing. As he said: “If this guy is in the country, it’s not because he’s going to fucking Disneyland!”
Corsi said it had to be an intelligence investigation. The information about Mihdhar and Hazmi had come from intelligence sources: NSA travel reports, covert copying of a passport, and surveillance in Malaysia.
As later investigations pointed out, Corsi was wrong. Intelligence investigations were compulsory only where the intelligence came from inside the US, and where no crime was suspected, but the target was thought to be an agent of a foreign power (including al-Qaeda).
Corsi’s insistence is portrayed as bureaucratic confusion, though Bongardt had argued cogently. But it is of a piece with her withholding of information about Mihdhar after June 11, and her failure to tell Bongardt and other Cole investigators about Attash’s identification in Malaysia.
The circumstantial evidence that Corsi was acting in bad faith came after Bongardt requested the opinion of a lawyer at FBI headquarters. Two points were in contention: Did it have to be an intelligence investigation? And could a criminal agent be present at interviews if the hijackers were caught after an intelligence investigation?
Corsi went to Sherry Sabol, a lawyer specialised in national security law, on August 29. There is no record of how Corsi verbally presented the information, which would obviously have an effect on the advice. In the end Sabol advised that, 1) it had to be an intelligence investigation, and 2) that no criminal agent could be present at interviews.
Sabol later agreed that the first piece of advice was wrong. But she also strongly denied that she had given the second piece of advice. She is backed up by the FBI’s chief lawyer at the time, Larry Parkinson, who said he would be shocked if any FBI national security lawyer gave such advice.
In this matter, it is essentially Corsi’s word against Sabol’s. But Corsi had already unjustifiably withheld information from the Cole investigators, and was working with another withholder, Wilshere. Sabol’s reputation is otherwise unblemished. A footnote in the 9/11 Commission Report, which points out that Corsi failed to copy Sabol into an e-mail relaying the advice to Bongardt, may be a hint that the report’s writers believed Sabol.
The upshot was that Bongardt, an experienced agent, was off the case. Robert Fuller, a rookie cop, was given his first intelligence investigation, on August 30. No sense of urgency was imparted: he was given 30 days to begin.
To top this all off, that same day, after a request from Corsi, the CIA passed formal notification to FBI that Attash had been at the Malaysia meeting. The information stayed inside FBI headquarters: it effectively allowed the CIA to blame the FBI further for incompetence after the attacks. The information was passed through a CIA counterterrorism working at FBI – very possibly Wilshere.
Once again, while the NSA reports of Mihdhar and Hazmi’s presence in Malaysia made them of definite interest to Cole investigators, Attash’s presence there made them hot suspects.
As we saw, Corsi was already aware of the Attash information, which the Cole investigators were desperate for. It could always have been shared, as it came from a joint FBI-CIA source. Here was another opportunity. If Bongardt had known about this information, associating the future hijackers with Attash, he could have asked for a criminal investigation on unimpeachable grounds.
Robert Fuller’s investigation was part-time and ineffectual. He searched a number of databases, but others, more effective were not tried. As the 9/11 Commission Report noted: “Searches of readily available databases could have unearthed the driver’s licenses, the car registration, and the telephone listing.”
On September 4, Corsi advised him not to check for credit card numbers with Saudi Arabian Airlines, saying it was not “prudent”. This was another big “failure”. On September 10, Fuller sent a lead to Los Angeles, where the hijackers had arrived early the previous year. But the chance of an effective investigation had been killed off when Bongardt was kicked off the case, and it was far too late.
When Bongardt was allowed to start an investigation, on 9/11, he threw up leads within hours. As Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism official later said, “If those guys had been put out on the AP wire, they would have been arrested within 24 hours.”