By Robbyn Swan, FloridaBulldog.org
A long-secret report, written 18 months before 9/11 by senior members of President Clinton’s national security team, concluded that U.S. intelligence were failing in their attempts to break al Qaeda, and warned that agencies were not structured or adequately funded to meet the threat posed by Osama bin Laden.
U.S. counterterrorism policy, the team judged, required “immediate revision,” and laid out a series of recommendations – some “time-critical”– needed to stop future al Qaeda attacks on U.S. interests. By Sept. 11, 2001, though, key recommendations had still not been acted upon.
The report, known as the Millennium Alert After Action Review (MAAR), was prepared in January 2000 by the Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG), whose members include representatives of each of the U.S. government’s counterterrorism and security agencies. In a process of “soul-searching,” the CSG, chaired by Richard Clarke, the National Security Council’s counterterrorism chief, had decided that “chance had played far too important a role” in averting major terrorist attacks planned for the turn of the century.
Though the gist of the CSG’s critique featured in official inquiries into the attack, this Florida Bulldog report marks the first time the MAAR has been seen by the public. It was released to the author after a Mandatory Declassification Review.
After 9/11, the MAAR was the object of an inexplicable theft. While preparing to testify before official inquiries into the attacks, President Clinton’s former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger was caught in the act of stealing five copies of the then-still-secret document. He was publicly exposed, charged with taking classified documents and – a year later – fined $50,000 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Why Berger committed the theft, and why he risked his reputation to sweep up copies of the MAAR, has never been satisfactorily explained. Berger died in 2015.
THE MILLENIUM FEAR
The Millennium, a cause for celebration for millions, had seemed just the moment the terrorists might strike. On Dec. 6, 1999, in Jordan, a group of terrorists had been caught as they prepared to bomb a hotel used by American and Israeli tourists. They had been overheard on a telephone intercept, talking with a key bin Laden contact.
A week later, on Dec. 14, the driver of a Chrysler sedan, waiting to enter Washington state from a ferry arriving from Canada, caught the attention of an alert Customs officer. The driver was an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam. Hidden in the car, officers discovered, were bomb-making materials. His plan, Ressam later admitted, had been to bomb Los Angeles Airport on or about the day of the Millennium. He had learned about explosives in al Qaeda’s Afghan training camps, Ressam had planned the attack himself, he claimed, but said bin Laden had been “aware” of it.
After Ressam’s arrest, and with the Millennium looming, senior White House and intelligence officials feared there were more attacks to come. “I was nervous all the time,” President Clinton recalled in his memoirs. “Our security team had been on high alert for weeks due to numerous intelligence reports that the United States would be hit with several terrorist attacks…I had been focused intently on bin Laden.” National Security Advisor Berger met with senior intelligence officials almost daily. Their concern percolated down, jump-starting a round of frenzied activity
Come the night of the Millennium, thousands of law enforcement agents and military personnel were on duty. FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno kept vigil in their offices. Later, CIA Director George Tenet could not recall how he had spent the evening, but he was to tell the 9/11 Commission that the Millennial period had been the “most difficult operational environment the CIA had ever faced.” In the event, no catastrophe came. After midnight, a relieved Berger rang counterterrorism chief Clarke to say, “I think we dodged the bullet.”
A CIA briefing in early January 2000, however, suggested the thwarted plots might have been “only the kick-off” for a period of extended attacks. Berger subsequently approved an “After Action” review by the members of the CSG, and led by Clarke. That review included 18 recommendations and 16 accompanying funding proposals deemed necessary to “seriously weaken the al-Qida [sic] terrorist global web.”
The CSG assigned the CIA the task of attempting to “seriously attrit the al Qida [sic] and affiliates network.” The review warned, though, that the Agency was “not designed or funded” to “sustain an operational tempo and level of operations” that would enable it to foil major al Qaeda attacks.
‘CAPABILITIES’ NEEDED TO DEGRADE AL QAEDA
The report noted that two “capabilities” would need to be added to the CIA’s toolkit “in order to degrade seriously al Qida’s [sic] presence simultaneously in a large number of countries.”
The first “capability,” point “A” – still redacted in its entirety on national security grounds – most likely related to covert operations or perhaps to technological advances such as those that were to enable the Predator drone to be operated remotely from thousands of miles away. The drone, which would have its first trial run in September 2000, was eventually to play a significant part in the war against al Qaeda.
Point “B” highlighted a longstanding concern – the agency’s lack of human intelligence sources within al Qaeda. It warned that lacking sources within bin Laden’s network, the U.S. had become “overly reliant on second party [intelligence] services.”
A heavily redacted portion of the Congress’ Joint Inquiry’s Report on 9/11 shows that, weeks before the MAAR was written, top CIA officials had already been focused on the problem. At a White House meeting with a select group of top-level National Security Council members, a Counterterrorism Center [CTC] representative made clear that the agency had “no penetrations inside UBL’s [bin Laden’s] leadership.” “We need to also recruit sources inside OBL’s organization,” a CTC member told CIA leadership. “Realize that recruiting terrorist sources is difficult…but we must make an attempt.”
What became of the MAAR’s recommendations and the funding proposals that accompanied them? Although the CIA did eventually receive some “modest” supplemental funding, its leaders believed its counterterrorism effort remained underfunded. The “supplemental” nature of the funding, a former CTC chief told Congress’ Joint Inquiry, meant the agency never had the kind of budget that would have enabled it to pursue long-term technical programs or hire necessary case officers.
In spite of “many creative attempts,” the CIA did not succeed in placing a source close to al Qaeda leadership before 9/11.
With hindsight, looking at the MAAR’s analysis, it is possible to speculate that the “over reliance” on foreign liaison continued in a haphazard way – “incomplete, unresponsive to timely collection tasking, or unreliable” – the CSG had noted.
In 2003, for example, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal claimed that in late 1999 and early 2000, his service had warned the CIA that Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar – who would hijack American Airlines Flight 77 on 9/11 – were terrorists. “What we told them,” he said, “was these people were on our watchlist from previous activities of al Qaeda…”
In 2007, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan, went further. “Saudi security,” Bandar said, had been “actively following the movements of most of the terrorists with precision…If U.S. security authorities had engaged their Saudi counterparts in a serious and credible manner, in my opinion, we would have avoided what happened.”
There is no publicly available information on whether Prince Turki was ever questioned about the matter. In spite of the author’s efforts over more than a dozen years, Prince Turki’s interview with the 9/11 Commission remains classified in its entirety. Bandar, who made his comments after U.S. government inquiries into 9/11 had ended, was never questioned about his claims by any official body.
In the course of official investigations and post-9/11 investigative reporting, leads have surfaced suggesting that a San Diego-based Saudi named Omar al-Bayoumi, who helped hijackers Hazmi and Mihdhar get settled in California, was suspected of working for Saudi intelligence. Bayoumi’s contacts with the hijackers – according to a 2012 FBI document released to Florida Bulldog – came about after he and a Saudi consulate official named Fahad al Thumairy were “tasked” to assist them by a more senior official, Musaed al-Jarrah, who worked at Saudi Arabia’s Washington Embassy. The embassy was then headed by Prince Bandar.
How to judge Bandar’s assertion? “A major element of the 9/11 tragedy may remain unrevealed,” Richard Clarke himself wrote in 2016, that there may have been “a possible failed CIA-Saudi spy mission on U.S. soil that went bad and eventually allowed 9/11 to proceed unimpeded.” Mark Rossini, a former FBI agent who served as a liaison to the CTC at the time, has suggested much the same, as have several other former intelligence professionals.
In a 2005 book, authors Joseph and Susan Trento suggested a mind-boggling possibility. They reported that a former CIA officer, once based in Saudi Arabia, told them, “We had been unable to penetrate al Qaeda. The Saudis claimed they had done it successfully. Both Hazmi and Mihdhar were Saudi agents.”
That scenario bumps up against known events and evidence. It seems likely that the Trentos’ intelligence sources fed them morsels of fact mixed in with deliberate disinformation – a common ploy. Their account, though, prompts a much closer look at the interplay between the CIA and the Saudi intelligence.
CIA IG REPORT
The CIA’s own Inspector General, reporting in 2005, found that its bin Laden station and “[NAME REDACTED] were hostile to each other and working at cross purposes for a number of years before 9/11.” In context, it is clear that the redacted name refers to the Saudi intelligence. Pulitzer-winning New York Times’ reporter James Risen, writing later, revealed that – as early as 1997 – the CIA’s bin Laden tracking unit Alec Station had regarded their Saudi counterparts as a “hostile service.”
The signs were, Risen reported, that intelligence given to Saudi intelligence about al Qaeda was often passed on to al Qaeda. Once CIA staff shared phone intercepts with the Saudis, they found, al Qaeda operatives would abruptly stop using the lines that had been monitored. Congress’ Joint Committee Report hinted at the true picture. “On some occasions,” one passage read – [followed by several redacted lines] – “individuals in some [foreign] liaison services are believed to have cooperated with terrorist groups.” “Over reliance” on such services, as the MAAR pointed out, posed real potential problems.
Jodi Westbrook Flowers is an attorney at South Carolina’s Motley Rice law firm representing 9/11 victims and families in their long-running civil suit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Flowers says she has seen no evidence to support the claim that Saudi intelligence was tracking the hijackers in the U.S. before 9/11 in order to warn the U.S. government. “We don’t know to what extent [the Saudis were] tracking terrorists or whether they were sharing that information with the CIA,” Flowers said. “What we have seen is evidence of Saudi officials aiding [Flight 77 hijackers] Hazmi and Mihdhar immediately preceding the attacks.”
Pre-9/11 intelligence community failings were a major focus of later official inquiries. After 20 years, however, sight of contemporary documents like the MAAR starkly highlight the “what ifs.”
The FBI and Justice Department, the MAAR noted, had been “stretched to the limit of their capacity during the millennium threat and were forced to jury-rig their counter-terrorism operation.”
‘WHAT IS AL QAEDA?’
Richard Clarke recalled for the Joint Inquiry his dismay when he and the FBI’s Assistant Director for Counterterrorism, Dale Watson, had visited FBI field offices after the Millennium, and asked them what they were doing about al Qaeda. “I got sort of blank looks of ‘what is al Qaeda?’”
Watson, for his part, told the 9/11 Commission that he had not felt the Justice Department supported moves to beef up the bureau’s counterterrorism capabilities. He had sensed, he said, that “the Justice Department wanted the FBI to get back to the investigative basics: guns, drugs, and civil rights.”
The Joint Inquiry learned that prior to 9/11, field agents had often been diverted from counterterrorism or other intelligence work to cover major criminal cases. By Sept. 11, 2001, only six percent of FBI personnel had been working on counterterrorism. Some of the MAAR’s recommendations, like expanding the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces, had been acted on. Others, like a centralized translation unit, had not.
The fixes had been intended to address a major concern: that a number of terrorist groups had formed sleeper cells within the United States. The MAAR emphasized that such cells were “widespread” and engaged in criminal activity – such as credit card fraud – to raise money for their comrades overseas. “Sleepers,” the review’s authors concluded, “provide the infrastructure to support foreign ‘hit teams’ brought into the U.S.”
After the attacks, the 9/11 Commission would conclude that the MAAR’s focus on sleeper cells inside the U.S. had been misplaced – that “the threat that was coming was not coming from sleeper cells. It was foreign…”
In the years since the Commission Report, however, evidence has emerged that suggests that finding may itself have been wrong. Four men, in particular, stand out as fitting the description of possible “sleepers.”
AWLAKI AND SHUKRIJUMAH
Witness accounts and other evidence suggests that Anwar Awlaki and Adnan Shukrijumah, both U.S. residents, may have aided the 9/11 hijackers. After 9/11, both men were to become senior figures in al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission failed to reach a conclusion on the nature of Awlaki’s involvement with the hijackers, and did not mention Shukrijumah at all.
Shukrijumah was a former Miramar resident who grew up in the U.S. and attended Broward College. His name came up in connection with the Florida Bulldog’s investigation – with Anthony Summers and the author – of a Sarasota-based Saudi family who FBI reports say “fled” the U.S. abruptly about two weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
A senior counterterrorism agent said that gate logs for the community where the Saudi family of Abdulazziz al-Hijji lived showed that 9/11 hijackers, including Mohammed Atta, had visited the family’s home. The agent also said that a woman who attended parties at the Saudis’ home placed Shukrijumah there with three of the 9/11 hijackers.
Further, an FBI informant who later pleaded guilty to weapons and other federal charges, told the bureau in 2004 that three or four years earlier al-Hijji introduced him to Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by Florida Bulldog. Wissam Taysir Hammoud confirmed that account in an interview from prison in 2012.
The roles of two other men, Mohdar Abdullah and Omar Abdi Mohamed, are also in question. During its post-9/11 investigations, the FBI found that Mohdar Abdullah had befriended and helped acclimate hijackers Hazmi and Mihdhar when they arrived in California. They also discovered that he had lied on his immigration forms – claiming to be a Somali refugee, when in fact he was a Yemeni who had entered the U.S. through Canada.
After 9/11, Somali Omar Abdi Mohamed was deported from the United States following his conviction on immigration charges, including a failure to disclose that he was employed by the Saudi government. Lawyers for 9/11 victims believe that a charity Mohamed founded served as a front for funding al Qaeda – $400,000 of which the charity raised may have gone to fund the 9/11 plot itself.
Addressing the issue of foreign terrorists inside the U.S., Richard Clarke was to say later, had been like trying to turn a liner the size of the Queen Mary. Blowing hard in the other direction, the Joint Inquiry was repeatedly told, were competing intelligence priorities. “Remember, in the Millennium, we succeeded in stopping the attacks,” Clarke told the 9/11 Commission. “Unfortunately, this country takes body bags…to make really tough decisions about money and governmental arrangements.” (Clarke did not respond to Florida Bulldog questions for this article.)
“The Millennium Alert After Action Review identified shortcomings in U.S. intelligence and enforcement agencies,” 9/11 survivors’ attorney Flowers said. “The lack of follow-through left open only one possibility – that eventually there would be an attack, it was only a matter of time.”
(Robbyn Swan and Anthony Summers are co-authors of “The Eleventh Day,” an authoritative account of 9/11 that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Additional research by Jordan Nann.)
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