In the first two parts of this series we saw how a group of officers at Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, concealed information about al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit from their FBI colleagues in January 2000. In particular they hid information about a US visa in the possession of Flight 77 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar. We also saw how this protection of Almihdhar, his partner Nawaf Alhazmi and al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash continued even after the involvement of Almihdhar and bin Attash in the October 2000 USS Cole bombing became known to the US intelligence community. Concealing information about terrorists involved in seventeen homicides was bad enough, but things were about to get much worse.
Shortly after the CIA had failed to respond truthfully to a second formal request for information about the Cole bombing from FBI agent Ali Soufan in April 2001, the cables the CIA drafted about the Malaysia summit were reviewed at Alec Station. The review was conducted by Tom Wilshire, the station’s deputy chief and one of the key figures in the withholding of the information, and a female CIA officer whose name is not known. The two of them re-read cables from the previous year that said Almihdhar had a US visa and that Alhazmi had flown to Los Angeles with a companion, but neither of them took the appropriate action—watchlisting the Malaysia attendees and alerting the FBI.
After this review, Wilshire ordered another review of the same information. The review was to be carried out by Margaret Gillespie, a CIA detailee to Alec Station whose alleged memory loss regarding the events of January 2000 makes one suspicious of her motives. Wilshire believed, correctly as it turns out, that the cables contained the key to preventing the next major al-Qaeda attack—had they been handled properly, 9/11 would never have happened.
Three weeks before the attacks, Gillespie allegedly discovered a key cable, and this led her to tell the FBI about Almihdhar and Alhazmi. As you know, the FBI hunt for Almihdhar and Alhazmi was unsuccessful and this, as you probably don’t know, was largely due to Wilshire. Nevertheless, Wilshire received substantial praise from the post-attack investigations for getting Gillespie to do the review. Plenty of his other actions cast suspicion on him, but this review seemed to put him in the clear—if he really was trying to hide the information, why start a review?
If we look at how Wilshire started the review, two things stand out. First, Wilshire told Gillespie that the review was not urgent and that she should do it in her free time. There were obviously other things to do at the time, but figuring out the location of the next major al-Qaeda attack should have been fairly high on the Counterterrorist Center’s to-do list. Second, the reason it allegedly took Gillespie three months to review a handful of relatively short documents is reportedly that she could not find them in the CIA’s database. However, Wilshire had the cables when the review started, but simply failed to give them to Gillespie. Had he done so, the review would have lasted closer to a couple of hours than three months. As we will see, Gillespie says she discovered the key cable that led her to alert the Bureau shortly after the 9/11 hijackers finalised the date of the attack.
After the above facts are taken into consideration, we can come up with a theory about why Wilshire started the second review: after the first review by Wilshire and the unnamed CIA officer, it was obvious that action should be taken; specifically, the FBI and INS should be contacted and told what Alec Station knew, which would have prevented Almihdhar re-entering the US late in the year, or enabled the FBI to follow him when he did. In order to prevent the unknown officer from doing this, Wilshire suggested a second review, which he may have represented as being, for example, more complete, thorough, wide-ranging, etc. Initiating such a review was the only way he could come up with to stop this officer from doing what she knew she should do.
Shortly after this, Wilshire moved to the FBI, where he became deputy chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section. He also initiated a series of events that led to the FBI’s Cole investigators being shown photos of Almihdhar and Alhazmi, although all information about the two men continued to be withheld.
First, Wilshire initiated a discussion with a CIA analyst named Clark Shannon in which a group of three surveillance photos taken at al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit were mentioned. In this discussion, Wilshire committed a slip, suggesting that the photo of Alhazmi that, based on the January 4 meeting with “Omar” discussed in part two of this series, the CIA believed showed bin Attash did not actually show bin Attash at all. “Someone saw something that wasn’t there,” he wrote to Shannon. Given that Wilshire claims he had not even read the cable reporting on the January 4 identification of bin Attash, this is surprising to say the least. Wilshire was, in fact, correct and the photo showed Alhazmi, not bin Attash, but Wilshire appeared to know al-Qaeda operatives better than one of the US’s top sources inside the organization. The explanation for this seems clear: Wilshire knew well who Alhazmi was, and he knew bin Attash too.
After e-mailing with Wilshire, Shannon mentioned the photos to Dina Corsi, an FBI headquarters analyst who worked closely with Wilshire and will go on to play a key role in the story. Wilshire then printed the photos off for Corsi, who was to show them to the Cole agents. Naturally, Wilshire forgot to mention that bin Attash, the mastermind of the attack they were all investigating, had been in Malaysia with Almihdhar in January 2000. Corsi also obtained information from the NSA about the Malaysia meeting.
On June 11, 2001, Shannon, Corsi and Gillespie went to meet with the Cole agents, in particular Steve Bongardt and Russell Fincher, at the FBI’s New York office. After a presentation by the Bureau about the state of the investigation, Shannon told Corsi to take the photos out and show them to her FBI colleagues. Bongardt was immediately curious and asked some basic questions about the photos, such as who was in them and what was going on. The “Wilshire” side of the table mostly refused to answer them. There was an argument, a “shouting match,” which continued between Bongardt and Corsi when the meeting broke up.
It is hard to sustain a good-faith explanation for this meeting, which represents another opportunity to interdict Almihdhar, Alhazmi and the whole 9/11 plot. The claimed reason for showing the photos was that the CIA wanted to know if any of them showed Fahad al-Quso, one of the Cole plotters who was in Yemeni custody and had been interviewed by the FBI. However, one of the photos showed Almihdhar. Wilshire identified him as such when he gave Corsi the photos and she even wrote Almihdhar’s name on the back of the photo. How was the FBI supposed to identify al-Quso in a photo of Khalid Almihdhar? Another photo showed Alhazmi, who looked nothing like al-Quso. Also, Shannon provided conflicting accounts of the meeting afterwards, and his claim that he went to an information-sharing meeting without any information to share is both bizarre and contradicted by Corsi’s notes, which show he did disclose that Almihdhar was travelling on a Saudi passport in January 2000.
Corsi’s refusal to provide the Cole investigators with the NSA information is also incredible. She claimed she could not do so because of an offshoot of the “wall” regulations, which primarily governed the sharing of information between FBI intelligence agents and criminal prosecutors. However, the regulations did not apply to one of the New York agents at the meeting, who was a designated intelligence agent. In addition, it would have taken Corsi one day to get permission to pass the information to the other agents, who were on the criminal side, from the NSA’s general counsel.
When the events of the meetings and what preceded it are weighed up, the following conclusion seems inescapable: the meeting was not a good faith attempt to share information, but a ruse—orchestrated by Wilshire—to learn whether the Cole agents recognised Alhazmi and Almihdhar.
When this meeting is compared to the January 4, 2001 meeting with “Omar” referenced in part two of this series, there is a striking similarity: photos of Almihdhar and Alhazmi are passed under the pretext that they show other people, and information just happens not to be shared. Meanwhile, the group around Wilshire learns whether the people recognise Almihdhar and Alhazmi or not.
Another significance of the June 11 meeting is that it shows us that whatever the CIA was doing with Almihdhar and Alhazmi was still very much ongoing. The two men had not been forgotten, they were at the front of the minds of Wilshire and his now-former boss, Richard Blee. As we will see in part 4 of the series, both men were highly aware of the drumbeat of threat reporting in the summer of 2001 and Wilshire even linked Almihdhar to the forthcoming major al-Qaeda attack in a highly incriminating e-mail.
Kevin Fenton is the author of Disconnecting the Dots: How CIA and FBI Officials Helped Enable 9/11 and Evaded Government Investigations.
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