In our continuing drive to spur healthy debate in the national security space, The Cipher Brief is sharing this op-ed from Philip Zelikow, the Former Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission, responding to a particular allegation about CIA information sharing with the FBI before the attacks of Sept. 11 on New York and Washington. We also invite you to join in the conversation, posting your point of view for submission at our new link at the bottom of this article, POV.
Recently, in September 2017, the History Channel aired an episode of a documentary on “The Road to 9/11” that repeated a disturbing allegation that CIA leaders, possibly including Director George Tenet, intentionally chose to withhold vital information from the FBI that might have prevented the 9/11 attack.
The allegation is that CIA leaders did this so that the agency could try to recruit al-Qaeda operatives whom they knew to be in the United States. I have been asked about this allegation from time to time over the more than thirteen years since the 9/11 Commission published its report. This most recent repetition shows the need to put the point on the public record: there is no evidence to support this serious allegation.
The background is that in January 2000, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center had learned that two terrorist suspects, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, men whom they were attempting to track in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, had obtained visas to visit the United States. The Center also learned in March that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi had apparently traveled from Bangkok to Los Angeles back in January.
No one outside of the Counterterrorist Center was told any of this. An FBI agent detailed to the Center attempted to share this information with his headquarters; a CIA desk officer at the Center told him not to. Several hours later, this same desk officer drafted a cable distributed solely within CIA stating, incorrectly, that the visa documents had been shared with the FBI. The desk officer later admitted that she had not shared the information with the FBI and did not recall who had told her that the information had been shared. (9/11 Commission Report, pp. 181-82 and notes on p. 502; also Commission Staff Statement #2.)
Information and discussion about al-Mihdhar resurfaced in January, May and June 2001 in a series of investigative efforts that reopened examination of a terrorist meeting in Kuala Lumpur. For a set of complicated reasons that we detailed in our report, none of these discussions led to a focus on the presence of operatives in the United States or adequately alerted the FBI.
Finally, in yet another reexamination of the Kuala Lumpur material suggested by a CIA officer, an FBI analyst detailed to the CIA made the link that an al Qaeda operative might be in the United States, putting together the evidence during late July and the first weeks of August. By Aug. 24, a search effort for al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi had begun in the United States. For reasons we detail in the report, the search within the United States did not bear fruit in time to disrupt the 9/11 attack. (Report, pp. 266-72, 353-57.)
Former senior White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke and a former FBI agent, Mark Rossini, alleged in the History Channel program that the CIA failures to share information with the FBI appear to have been deliberate. This was because, they say, the CIA had hoped to recruit al-Mihdhar or al-Hazmi to become agency informants, a plan approved by Director of the CIA Tenet and CIA leadership. This is obviously a grave allegation.
There is no evidence that this allegation is true. There is plenty of evidence that it is false. The Commission’s investigators interviewed all the relevant individuals (including Mr. Clarke and Mr. Rossini), in the course of the overlapping investigations conducted by the Commission and the Inspector General of the Department of Justice. When those individuals were interviewed by the Commission and the Office of the Inspector General, they knew that if they lied they could face criminal prosecution. They also knew that we had access to the relevant internal CIA and FBI records, including electronic indications of who had accessed what records and all of the briefings prepared by the Counterterrorist Center every day for Director Tenet — so that we could check on what they were telling us. Although it is not cited in our report, the Commission also had access to the good work and interviews that had been conducted internally and separately by the CIA’s Inspector General.
If the “recruitment theory” posited by Clarke and Rossini were true, there would be evidence of a recruitment effort — some CIA attempt to locate and contact al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. There is no such evidence. Nor was there any evidence of a recruitment plan or even the consideration of one. Instead, the evidence showed – as we detail in our Report – repeated confusion about who was being sought and where. There were several occasions during the work in the first half of 2001 when the dots might have been connected but, due to particular circumstances in each case, unfortunately this did not happen.
The dots did start getting connected in July 2001. And, contrary to the premise of the “recruitment theory,” this breakthrough happened because a persistent CIA officer, a man involved in much of the earlier work, asked an FBI analyst to look at the Kuala Lumpur materials one more time. As mentioned above, the subsequent search for al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi barely got underway before 9/11, for reasons that had little to do with the CIA.
In making the allegation about a supposed recruitment scheme, Clarke offered no new evidence to support it. To be fair to Clarke, he was a committed public servant, committed to countering the terrorist threat; perhaps he is still straining for less banal explanations for what happened. Rossini had no new evidence either. And neither man made any such claims when they were interviewed, at length, by knowledgeable investigators from the Commission or the Justice IG who had access to relevant records. The credibility of Rossini’s statements in recent years are further suspect: In 2009, Rossini pleaded guilty to illegally searching FBI computers in order to help a Hollywood private investigator who was himself being prosecuted, and was later sentenced to a lengthy prison term for criminal misconduct.
The 9/11 investigation did find problems. In addition to larger problems at the level of national policy and institutional capabilities, the Commission’s report “detailed various missed opportunities to thwart the 9/11 plot. Information was not shared, sometimes inadvertently or because of legal misunderstandings. Analysis was not pooled. Effective operations were not launched. Often the handoffs of information were lost across the divide separating the foreign and domestic agencies of the government.” (p. 353).
But neither the 9/11 Commission nor any other of the investigations found evidence that would support the allegation that Clarke and Rossini are now making.
The Commission was charged to determine what happened; it was up to the rest of the U.S. government to determine what personnel actions should follow. The Commission was very critical of a number of policy and managerial choices. The U.S. government, and the National Counterterrorism Center created in 2004 at the Commission’s recommendation, have learned much since then.
Yet, while it is important to note the problems, it is even more important to put them in context. Among the many tragedies of 9/11, one was that the agencies that later received the most negative attention, like the CIA and the FBI, were also the agencies where dedicated sets of officials had spent years doing more than anyone else in the U.S. government to combat the emerging terrorism threat. Specifically at the CIA, many devoted public servants including the CIA’s leaders were doing what they could, as best they knew how, to combat the terrorism danger posed by groups like al-Qaeda. It is neither fair nor accurate to tar these men and women with unfounded assertions of deliberate misconduct.