Recent allegations made by former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke against former CIA Director George Tenet and two other former CIA managers, Cofer Black and Richard Blee, have thrown one of the key unanswered questions of 9/11 into sharp relief. What happened at Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, after an officer there discovered that two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, had entered the US?
The officer, Margaret Gillespie, says she made the discovery on August 21 and the record indicates she began to notify the FBI and other government agencies on this day. However, while a substantial amount of information has been made public about how the news circulated around the FBI, almost nothing is known of how Alec Station dealt with it.
In an interview recently broadcast as a trailer for the forthcoming audio documentary “Who Is Rich Blee?” Clarke alleged that the CIA had deliberately withheld from him information about Almihdhar and Alhazmi—in particular the news that Almihdhar had a US visa—for over twenty months before 9/11. Clarke also highlighted the importance of the information, saying it was more important than, for example, any of the key pieces of intelligence discussed at a controversial meeting with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on July 10, 2001.
According to a statement recently released by Tenet, Black and Blee, neither Tenet nor any other senior CIA official was told of the visa or of travel to the US by Alhazmi and Almihdhar before 9/11. This was also the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion, although this conclusion was hedged. If this is true, then one appropriate question would be: why not?
After the attacks, it emerged that the FBI had arrested one of the possible hijackers, Zacarias Moussaoui. However, it blew the case, failing to obtain a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings and even failing to inform its own director of what was happening. This later failure became a badge for the FBI’s general uselessness. And Thomas Pickard, the acting director whom the information did not reach, made matters worse when he suggested Tenet, who had been informed of the case, should have stepped in and done the job Pickard’s staff failed to do.
In his 2007 book At the Center of the Storm Tenet piled on the agony for Pickard (emphasis in original):
During the 9/11 Commission hearings, I was stunned to hear Tom Pickard, who was acting FBI director in August 2001, suggest that I had somehow failed to notify him about Moussaoui. Failed to tell him? Hell, it was the FBI’s case, their arrest. I had no idea that the Bureau wasn’t aware what its own people were doing.
However, the CIA’s failure to inform Tenet of the Almihdhar and Almihdhar information must be regarded as more serious than the FBI’s failure to inform Pickard of Moussaoui. While the local Bureau agents who arrested Moussaoui thought he may well be a terrorist, they did not even realise he was a bin Laden operative, let alone connected to a suspected forthcoming al-Qaeda attack. On the contrary, the CIA knew Almihdhar was linked to the next attack.
In a July 23, 2001 e-mail published following Moussaoui’s trial in 2006, one of Blee’s former deputies, Tom Wilshire, warned CIA Counterterrorism Center (CTC) managers of Almihdhar’s link to the next attack: “When the next big op is carried out by UBL hardcore cadre, Khalad 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 Mihdar should be very high interest anyway, given his connection to the (redacted).”
Khalad (usually spelt Khallad) was a known al-Qaeda leader, currently in Guantanamo. The redaction is probably a reference to al-Qaeda’s global operations hub in Yemen, to which Wilshire knew Almihdhar was linked. The e-mail appears in none of the relevant reports published by the Congressional Inquiry, 9/11 Commission and Justice Department inspector general. It was a follow up to one sent ten days earlier that Blee is known to have read. Wilshire, who was on loan to the FBI at this point, is one of the officials who failed to pass on notification of the Moussaoui case towards Pickard.
The scenario that Tenet, Black and Blee are selling is this: Gillespie found that Almihdhar and Alhazmi had entered the US and notified multiple other agencies. Four weeks previously, Wilshire had informed his former CTC colleagues that Almihdhar was “very high interest.” Yet, nobody at the CTC was able to put this together. Indeed, the significance of the two militants’ presence in the US would usually necessitate prompt notification to Tenet, even without Wilshire’s e-mail. Yet this was not done.
Here, then, is a very simple question: If Tenet did not know that Alhzami and Almihdhar had entered the US after August 21, who failed to tell him?
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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.