Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the numerous “20th hijackers,” was arrested ten years ago next Tuesday, outside the Residence Inn in Eagan, Minnesota. The arrest was one of the first events in a case that gave the FBI a chance to blow open the 9/11 plot, but resulted in abject humiliation for the bureau when its headquarters’ string of errors was exposed in the press.
The Moussaoui case is a poster boy for the state of our knowledge about the attacks: we have some of the details, but know some are missing. Also, two key questions remain unanswered. This despite the wealth of information that came out at the trial and the fact that Moussaoui, although largely ignored by the 9/11 Commission’s final report—partly due to the forthcoming trial—was a major topic of the Justice Department inspector general’s report into the FBI’s pre-attack failings.
These are the bare bones of the case: Moussaoui had been a known extremist for years prior to his arrest. Before the bureau first heard his name on August 15, he had been under surveillance by French and British intelligence and the CIA, although the agency would claim it only knew him under an alias. He was sent to the US for flight training by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, possibly to participate in 9/11, possibly to participate in a follow-up operation. However, he was a poor student and dropped out of basic flight school before obtaining a licence and went to learn about flying a Boeing 747, which aroused suspicion.
When the FBI was brought in, the Minneapolis agents realized he was dangerous and arrested him on an immigration violation—despite being told not to do so by headquarters. This was the first of many times the Minneapolis field office and FBI headquarters clashed over the case. Essentially, even though they did not know he was linked to al-Qaeda, the local agents understood the risk Moussaoui posed—one even speculated he would fly a large airliner into the World Trade Center—and they wanted a warrant to search his belongings to get information that would lead to his accomplices. On the other hand, headquarters seemed to think they were alarmist and there was nothing to the case. They kept throwing up roadblocks.
Although it is uncertain whether Moussaoui would have participated in the 9/11 attacks if he had remained free, or whether he ever met any of the nineteen hijackers, he certainly had very visible links to some of their key associates, such as Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ahmed al-Hawsawi and Yazid Sufaat. These links would have led to eleven of the nineteen. Some of the connections between what Moussaoui had in his possession and the hijackers would have been easy to make. For example, the CIA knew that Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi had stayed at Sufaat’s apartment during al-Qaeda’s January 2000 summit in Kuala Lumpur.
There were four key figures who dealt with the case at FBI headquarters: Rita Flack, an intelligence operations specialist at the FBI’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU); Michael Maltbie, a supervisory special agent with the RFU; their unit chief Dave Frasca; and Tom Wilshire, a CIA officer on loan to FBI headquarters. Wilshire was either a consultant to Michael Rolince, head of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section, or his deputy. Wilshire was also the key figure in the CIA’s withholding of information about Almihdhar and Alhazmi from the bureau.
These four people somehow managed to convince themselves that the Moussaoui case was a minor matter that deserved little attention and that the Minneapolis agents were, in Flack’s words, “maniacs.” Although very little is known about Wilshire’s involvement in the case, an e-mail used as evidence at the trial shows he shared this attitude; on August 24 he e-mailed his three colleagues asking for the latest on the “Minneapolis Airplane IV crowd,” although it is unclear whether this was a reference to Moussaoui and an associate or the Minneapolis field office.
This is one of the two key questions outstanding: where did this attitude come from? With hindsight, what the Minneapolis agents foresaw was not half as bad as what happened. It was not one airliner that flew into the WTC, but two, with another at the Pentagon and a fourth also aimed for Washington. Given the circumstances of the case, Minneapolis’ fears were reasonable and were shared both by a CIA detailee to the FBI, who predicted Moussaoui may crash a 747 into the White House, and at least one officer in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Given that we still lack information about the interactions between the four participants, we cannot say with whom this bad attitude originated. However, we can say that Wilshire shared and supported it.
It would take too long to summarise all the obstacles thrown up, but here are two examples: when French intelligence reported that, yes, they knew Moussaoui and, yes, he was an Islamist militant, Maltbie objected that maybe they were talking about some other guy with the same name. Therefore, Maltbie argued, the FBI should search all the telephone directories in France to see how many people called Zacarias Moussaoui actually lived there.
The second example involves a comment made by Moussaoui’s imam on a phone monitored by the FBI to the presumed accomplice arrested with him. “I heard you guys wanted to go on jihad,” said the imam. “Don’t talk about that now,” was the reply. Frasca’s response upon learning this? “The jihad comment doesn’t concern me by itself in that this word can mean many things in various [M]uslim cultures and is frequently taken out of context.”
Other roadblocks included Frasca’s ban on Minneapolis applying for a criminal warrant itself, Maltbie blocking a referral to the Justice Department’s criminal division, Flack’s inability to provide the Phoenix memo to anyone else after she read it, the withholding of the relevant documentation from attorneys asked to assess the case, the deletion of key passages from an application for an intelligence warrant, etc., etc.
When the case became public knowledge after the attacks the bureau was a laughing stock—they arrested one of the hijackers (actually more of an associate) over three weeks before the attacks but were unable to even file a warrant application to search his luggage. What’s worse, the bureau was so completely clueless that it even failed to inform its own acting director, Thomas Pickard, of the case. How much more incompetent could it get? This dynamic was made even worse when one of the Minneapolis office employees, Coleen Rowley, went public with her criticism of FBI headquarters, becoming one of Time’s people of the year for 2002.
Logically, if the information came into FBI headquarters, but didn’t get to the acting director, it must have stopped with someone. So who was that someone? The most senior official to be told about the case was Rolince, but he received scant information on it for nearly two weeks. The two people below him were his consultant/deputy Tom Wilshire and RFU chief Dave Frasca and the blame needs to be shared between them. Exactly how it should be apportioned out we don’t know—the relevant reports, by the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, 9/11 Commission, and Justice Department inspector general, are silent on who should carry the can—and the inspector general omits even to mention that not informing the bureau’s director was a failure. This is symptomatic of the reports’ approach—nobody who performed badly was held accountable.
Wilshire’s role in the deliberate withholding of information from the FBI about Pentagon hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi makes his presence in the Moussaoui case alarming. However, although Wilshire certainly had a malign influence on the case, there is no smoking-gun proof of wilful malfeasance on his part. What we do know, however, is that this case was a significant stimulus for the reform of the US intelligence community. Without knowing what actually happened here and why, we have no way of judging whether those reforms were warranted and appropriate. Perhaps it would have been better to fire those who performed badly, instead of promoting them.
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Kevin Fenton is the author of Disconnecting the Dots: How CIA and FBI Officials Helped Enable 9/11 and Evaded Government Investigations.