By Rory O'Connor and Ray Nowosielski | Salon | Oct. 14, 2011
A growing number of former government insiders — all responsible officials who served in a number of federal posts — are now on record as doubting ex-CIA director George Tenet’s account of events leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Among them are several special agents of the FBI, the former counterterrorism head in the Clinton and Bush administrations, and the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, who told us the CIA chief had been “obviously not forthcoming” in his testimony and had misled the commissioners.
These doubts about the CIA first emerged among a group of 9/11 victims’ families whose struggle to force the government to investigate the causes of the attacks, we chronicled in our 2006 documentary film “Press for Truth.” At that time, we thought we were done with the subject. But tantalizing information unearthed by the 9/11 Commission’s final report and spotted by the families (Chapter 6, footnote 44) raised a question too important to be put aside:
Did Tenet fail to share intelligence with the White House and the FBI in 2000 and 2001 that could have prevented the attacks? Specifically, did a group in the CIA’s al-Qaida office engage in a domestic covert action operation involving two of the 9/11 hijackers, that — however legitimate the agency’s goals may have been — hindered the type of intelligence-sharing that could have prevented the attacks? And if not, then what would explain seemingly inexplicable actions by CIA employees?
As we sought to clarify how the CIA had handled information about the hijackers before 9/11, we found a half dozen former government insiders who came away from the Sept. 11 tragedy feeling burned by the CIA, particularly by a small group of employees within the agency’s bin Laden unit in 2000 and 2001, then known as Alec Station.
This is not a conspiracy theory or the speculation of uninformed people. Gov. Thomas Kean, co-chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which was responsible for investigating 9/11, agreed to an on-camera interview for our documentary in 2008. He surprised us by voicing many doubts and questions about the CIA’s actions preceding Sept. 11 — and especially about former CIA director George Tenet.
Four years after Tenet testified to the commission, Kean said the CIA director had been “obviously not forthcoming” in some of his testimony. Tenet said under oath that he had not met with President Bush in the month of August 2001, Kean recalled. It was later learned he had done so twice.
Did Tenet misspeak? we asked the New Jersey Republican.
“No, I don’t think he misspoke,” Kean responded. “I think he misled.”
A tale of two hijackers
The story buried in footnote 44 of Chapter 6 of the 9/11 Commission report was this:
The commission became aware in early 2004 of a warning written by Doug Miller, an FBI agent working inside the CIA’s Alec Station. In January 2000, Miller tried to inform his bosses about a man named Khalid Al Mihdhar, who had previously been identified as a member of an al-Qaida operational cadre. By the spring of 2000, the CIA had learned that Mihdhar and another suspected al-Qaida operative, Nawaf Al Hazmi, had likely arrived in Southern California. But the CIA did not pass along the information to the FBI.
The draft cable — blocked by Miller’s CIA superiors — was not turned over to the commissioners or to the earlier congressional investigation. It was discovered in CIA records by an investigator working for a concurrent inquiry conducted by the Justice Department’s inspector general. Apparently it had been missed by Tenet’s DCI Review Group, convened immediately after the attacks to examine CIA records in order to prepare the director for the coming government investigations.
Kean was disturbed by the revelation.
“The idea that that information was left out of something that was so essential for the FBI, whose job it is to work within the United States and track these people … you know, it’s one of the most troubling aspects of our entire report, that particular thing,” Kean said.
We pushed Kean. Could it be this was a simple mistake, a failure to recognize the significance of Mihdhar and Hazmi, as the CIA had initially characterized it?
“Oh, it wasn’t careless oversight,” Kean replied. “It was purposeful. No question about that in my mind … In the DNA of these organizations was secrecy.”
Mihdhar and Hazmi boarded American Flight 77 at Washington Dulles airport on the morning of Sept. 11. After the plane took off, they joined three other men in commandeering the aircraft and flying it into the Pentagon, killing a total of 184 people.
So how then had George Tenet and those responsible at the CIA managed to get away with misrepresenting the incident as a mistake for so long?
“Tenet was a likable guy,” Kean concluded. “He got away with some stuff because people liked him.”
“Malfeasance and misfeasance”
In 2009, former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke took the scenario further. In an on-camera interview he suggested that Tenet, once a close friend and colleague, had ordered the withholding of the information about the two al-Qaida operatives from the FBI and from the White House.
Clarke explained why he had come to that remarkable conclusion. Tenet, he said, followed all information about al-Qaida “in microscopic detail” and would call Clarke at the White House several times a day to share “the most trivial of information.” In addition, there were terrorism threat meetings held in person every other day.
We must have had dozens, scores of threat committee meetings over the time when they knew these guys had entered the country … They told us everything except this … So now the question is, why?
The only explanation Clarke could offer was admittedly speculative: that the CIA may have been running an operation to recruit the two al-Qaida operatives while they were living under their own names in Southern California. This might appear to have been a reasonable thing for the CIA to do. After all, Bill Clinton’s White House had long complained to the agency about the lack of penetration agents in al-Qaida.
But if the CIA was following or recruiting or monitoring Mihdhar and Hazmi in the United States, that might well have qualified as operating on U.S. soil, a violation of the agency’s charter. Once the two men were identified as hijackers on Flight 77, CIA officials may have begun a coverup of their earlier “malfeasance and misfeasance,” as Clarke charges.
His language is blunt, especially for a national security policymaker.
“I am outraged and have been ever since I first learned that the CIA knew these guys were in the country,” explained Clarke. “But I believed for the longest time that this was probably one or two low-level CIA people who made the decision not to disseminate the information. Now that I know that 50 CIA officers knew this, and they included all kinds of people who were regularly talking to me, saying I’m pissed doesn’t begin to describe it.”
Clarke said he assumed that “there was a high-level decision in the CIA ordering people not to share that information.” When asked who might have issued such an order, he replied, “I would think it would have been made by the director,” referring to Tenet — although he added that Tenet and others would never admit to the truth today “even if you waterboarded them.”
The view from the FBI
We found the same suspicion was also prevalent among FBI counterterrorism agents from the time, particularly those who had worked under a legendary FBI agent named John O’Neill in New York. O’Neill, movingly portrayed in Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” was one of the special agents in charge of counterterrorism in the FBI’s New York office. He retired to serve as chief of security at the World Trade Center and was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, only three weeks after leaving the bureau.
O’Neill’s deputy for counterterrorism was Pasquale D’Amuro, who was appointed inspector in charge of the FBI’s investigation into the attacks.
“I am cautious about saying it, because you have to deal with the facts,” D’Amuro told us. He said that he was told that Richard Blee, the chief of Alec Station, and his deputy, Tom Wilshere, had blocked the sharing of intelligence on Mihdhar and Hazmi with the FBI.
“I had heard that Blee stopped it from coming over, that Blee and Wilshere had had the conversation and stopped it,” D’Amuro said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that that went up further in the agency than just those two guys. And why they didn’t send it over — to this day, I don’t know why.”
Jack Cloonan, former manager at the FBI’s al-Qaida-busting I-49 Squad, is another insider pained by the CIA’s actions.
“If you start to look into everything that’s Khalid Al Mihdhar and Nawaf Al Hazmi, you can’t help but conclude to most people’s minds that this is it,” Cloonan, said during an emotional interview in his New Jersey living room. “9/11 occurred not because the systems failed. The systems actually worked. Somebody made a critical decision not to share this information … If you look at this, it’s really just a handful of people. I don’t know how they sleep at night, I really don’t.”
The CIA’s failure to inform the FBI meant that a last chance to stop the hijackers was missed, says Clarke.
“And if they had….” Clarke told us, his voice trailing off. “Even as late as Sept. 4,” he went on, “we would have conducted a massive sweep. We would have conducted it publicly. We would have found those assholes. There’s no doubt in my mind — even with only a week left — we would have found them…”
Clarke is not an infallible or even a disinterested witness. As a top counterterrorism adviser at the time of the attack, he cannot help but take the tragedy personally. That said, the fact that at least three FBI agents share his views certainly enhances his credibility.
A spokesman for the CIA rejects the notion, telling Salon, “any suggestion that the CIA purposely refused to share critical lead information on the 9/11 plots with the FBI is simply wrong.” The spokesman cited the 9/11 Commission report and a report of the CIA’s independent inspector general. (The latter study, completed in 2004, has never been made public.)
The story of the alleged CIA intelligence failure attracted little other media interest until this August. That’s when Tenet, Richard Blee and another CIA official criticized by Clarke, Counterterrorism Center director J. Cofer Black, replied to our request for an interview. We had asked them to respond to Clarke’s speculation.
Although they declined to be interviewed, Tenet, Black and Blee sent us a joint written statement that charged Clarke was “reckless and profoundly wrong” and that he had “suddenly invented baseless allegations which are belied by the record and unworthy of serious consideration.”
The statement, which we shared with the Daily Beast, was newsworthy because the three men had never before felt the need to explain their actions directly to the American public.
“We testified under oath about what we did, and what we didn’t know,” they stated. “We stand by that testimony.”
The relevance of their testimony to Clarke’s theory is hard to assess. Tenet and Black were never asked about the surveillance of Mihdhar and Hazmi, at least in their public testimony. Blee’s testimony has never been made public.
“You’re not going to say anything”
The CIA’s explanation is not convincing to Mark Rossini, an FBI agent who was assigned to Alec Station in 2000 and 2001. The assignment of tracking Khalid Al Mihdhar, he told us, had been given to a young staff operations officer who shared responsibility for watching events in Yemen along with Alec Station deputy chief Tom Wilshere.
Rossini, who resigned from the FBI in the wake of legal troubles, recalled in a phone interview that the staff officer’s direct supervisor was a redheaded analyst working directly for Wilshere. He says that this supervisor, not referred to by even so much as an alias in any of the government reports on 9/11, is the same woman who told congressional investigators that she had hand-delivered Mihdhar’s visa information to FBI headquarters. This was later proven false when the investigators checked the log books at the FBI headquarters, discovering that she had never set foot in the building. Eleanor Hill, staff director of the congressional inquiry, also told us that her investigators found no evidence that the FBI had ever received the information.
Rossini remembered that the staff operations officer working under that redhead had ordered him and his fellow FBI agent Doug Miller not to tell their colleagues at the bureau, including John O’Neill’s New York office, that Mihdhar was likely on his way to the United States in early 2000.
“She got a little heated,” Rossini recalled. “She just put her hand on her hip and just said to me, ‘Listen, it’s not an FBI case. It’s not an FBI matter. When we want the FBI to know, we’ll let them know. And you’re not going to say anything.’”
Only two days before, this same officer had sent a message internally throughout the CIA misleading her fellow agents into believing that the information had been passed on to the FBI. Her later conversation with Rossini makes it appear that this was a deliberate misstatement. According to the Justice Department inspector general, she sent the misleading message only hours after posting an electronic note on Doug Miller’s draft warning to the FBI: “pls hold off … for now per [the CIA deputy chief of bin Laden unit],” a reference to Tom Wilshere.
We now know the staff officer is a woman named Michael Anne Casey. Her red-haired supervisor was a woman named Alfreda Frances Bikowsky.
Google penetrates the CIA
How we learned the names of those two CIA personnel can be summarized in one word: Google. In the case of the redhead, an Associated Press article from February 2011 seemed to refer to her. She had also been referenced in Jane Mayer’s book “The Dark Side,” by her middle name, Frances. The AP article stated that she had an unusual first name. After searching State Department nominations from the past decade — often cover positions for CIA personnel but still entered into the Congressional Record -– a contemporary historian named Kevin Fenton with whom we work closely found a name that seemed to fit.
For the staff officer, we knew three important facts. She had a “man’s name” — most likely Michael, the name used in the Commission Report. She was in her late 20s at the time of the incident, and was a “CIA brat,” meaning she had at least one parent or another family member inside the agency. We wondered if she might be related to a prominent CIA figure, as her boss Richard Blee had turned out to be. One of the first names that came to mind, given her probable birth year, was William J. Casey, Ronald Reagan’s CIA director.
Pairing the first name “Michael” with the last name “Casey,” we found a number of people with that name working in State Department or military positions. Again looking in the Congressional Record, we found the name Michael Anne Casey — a woman with a man’s name — and another website listing Casey as 27 years old in 1999 and living in the D.C. area, which seemed to make her very likely the person in question. (Incidentally, we were later informed that she is no relation to William J. Casey.)
A CIA threat
When we informed the agency’s Public Affairs office that we planned to release an investigative podcast on iTunes on Sunday, Sept. 11, that named Bikowsky and Casey, the agency replied immediately.
“We strongly believe it is irresponsible and a potential violation of criminal law [emphasis added] to print the names of two reported undercover CIA officers who you claim have been involved in the hunt against al-Qaida,” said spokesman Preston Golson.
Erring on the side of caution, we took the names out of our podcast. On the day we released the revised podcast on our website, we heard from Sibel Edmonds. A former FBI analyst and prominent whistleblower, Edmonds posted a story on her blog Sept. 21 stating that she had three credible sources and a document confirming that the redhead in our revised story was Bikowsky. She also stated that the staff officer involved was Michael Anne Casey and cited our website, Secrecy Kills. It was only then that we discovered our webmaster had briefly and inadvertently placed our entire email to the CIA on our site. Edmonds saw the information and published it.
Within minutes the information had spread widely through social media on the Internet. Before long Gawker breathlessly announced the latest of the CIA’s problems: that Bikowsky, who had risen to become the head of the CIA’s global jihad unit, had been outed. The rather more significant story — that a CIA intelligence failure had contributed to the 9/11 attacks — got short shrift from the popular gossip site.
In an effort to clarify the story, we asked the CIA two factual questions. We asked if Bikowsky’s statement to the congressional 9/11 inquiry — that she had delivered Mihdhar’s visa information to the FBI prior to the attacks — was accurate.
We also asked if former FBI agent Mark Rossini’s recollection that Michael Anne Casey had told him not to report information about Mihdhar and Hazmi was accurate.
The agency did not address the specifics of either question.
“We do not, as a rule, publicly confirm or deny the identities of currently serving agency officers,” a spokesman replied. “That includes those dedicated to the disruption of terrorist plots. The officers involved in those critical efforts have, thanks to their skill and focus, saved countless American lives.”
The story of Mihdhar and Hazmi could easily be clarified, says Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer in the Middle East who worked directly with some of the people involved.
“A lot of these people who withheld this information were not covert operatives,” he explained. “There was no reason to hide their names. They are out there in the public. You can find them in data and credit checks and the rest of it … They certainly could have been brought before the House or the Senate in closed session and an explanation and a report put out there.”
Langley on the defensive
The CIA prefers not to disclose but to protect the handful of people at the heart of this story.
Tenet remained George W. Bush’s CIA director for another two and a half years, where he was famously involved in passing along faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that justified the disastrous invasion of Iraq. On Dec. 14, 2004, George Tenet was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush.
Richard Blee, chief of Alec Station in 2001, reportedly took over the CIA operation during the invasion of Afghanistan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden when bin Laden was surrounded in the mountains of Tora Bora three months after 9/11. According to 23-year career CIA officer Gary Berntsen, as reported in his book, “Jawbreaker,” Blee was in charge at the time bin Laden managed to slip away to Pakistan to live comfortably for nearly a decade. Harper’s Ken Silverstein reported that Blee was active in the controversial renditions and detainee-abuse programs. He is now retired and living in Los Angeles.
We do not know exactly what became of Tom Wilshere, a mysterious figure who has managed to maintain an even lower profile than the rest. Dale Watson, former head of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, told us that us that Wilshere became a White House briefer during the Bush era.
Casey and Bikowsky have risen in the CIA’s ranks, despite the fact that Bikowsky has been associated with at least one major blunder. The AP reported that Bikowsky was at the center of “the el-Masri incident,” in which an innocent German citizen was renditioned (a euphemism for kidnapped) by the CIA in 2003 and held under terrible conditions (a euphemism for tortured) in a secret Afghan prison. The AP characterized it as “one of the biggest diplomatic embarrassments of the U.S. war on terrorism.” It was no doubt something more to Khaled el-Masri. Despite that episode Bikowsky was promoted.
As chief of the counterterrorism center, Cofer Black was the boss of Casey, Bikowsky and Blee. He too was associated with the abuses of the extraordinary rendition program. He resigned shortly after George Bush was elected to a second term. Black then served as vice chairman of Blackwater USA, the controversial U.S.-based private security firm, from 2005 to 2008. Earlier this month Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced that Black would join his campaign as a foreign policy adviser.