By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Weeks before 9/11, an angry New York FBI agent nearly “came over the table” at CIA officials who were blocking him from obtaining intelligence about two al Qaeda terrorists who would soon take part in hijacking an American Airlines passenger jet and crashing it into the Pentagon.
“Someone is going to die,” the counterterrorism agent wrote in a bitter email shortly after the 2001 encounter.
That astonishing account, and many others, are contained in a sworn declaration by Donald Canestraro, an investigator for the Office of Military Commissions, part of the Department of Defense’s Military Commissions Defense Organization. It is dated July 20, 2021.
Canestraro said in a brief interview with Florida Bulldog that he is part of the defense team for Guantanamo detainee Ammar al-Baluchi, a Pakistani citizen who is awaiting trial with four other men accused of planning the 9/11 attacks. His declaration includes the results of his interviews with 11 ex-FBI agents, 2 ex-CIA agents, a CNN investigative journalist, former deputy National Security Advisor Richard Clarke and former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.
The 22-page declaration, first obtained by the national security website Spytalk, is not confidential, but rather it’s marked CUI – Controlled Unclassified Information. The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency defines CUI as “government created or owned information that requires safeguarding or dissemination controls consistent with applicable laws, regulations and government wide policies.”
A REMARKABLE DOCUMENT
It is nevertheless remarkable for its accounts supporting the veracity of long public, yet highly disturbing allegations that top CIA officials, including Director George Tenet, intentionally withheld vital intelligence from the FBI that might have prevented the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. Specifically, that known operatives and future hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar had entered the U.S. in Los Angeles shortly after attending an al Qaeda summit meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in early January 2000.
The new accounts, mostly obtained during interviews in 2016 and 2018, flesh out that narrative. They also support the ominous theory, never fully explored by either the 9/11 Commission or Congress, that the CIA kept silent because it was secretly working hand in glove with its Saudi Arabian counterpart to recruit Hazmi and Mihdhar as informants.
Except for Clarke and Graham, the people interviewed are not named or identified by gender because they spoke on condition of anonymity. Canestraro states that he knows who they are, and he declined to identify them to Florida Bulldog. Enough descriptive information is provided in the text, however, that it’s possible to identify several interviewees.
The un-redacted declaration is remarkable for another reason: it comes from litigation in the U.S. Military Court at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp – where government censors routinely scrub and/or withhold court filings and transcripts in the name of national security. Its disclosure raises questions about what other information about September 11th is being kept secret at Guantanamo – from the 9/11 families and the American public?
According to his declaration, Canestraro was a DEA agent for 21 years when he joined the Office of Military Commissions in April 2016. “During July of 2016 I began an investigation into the possible involvement of the Saudi Arabian Government and the Central Intelligence Agency in the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks.”
A REVIEW BEGINS
Canestraro’s initial review of discovery documents provided by the government to the defense focused on Omar al Bayoumi and Fahad al Thumairy. Bayoumi was an apparent Saudi intelligence officer who had numerous contacts with Hazmi and Mihdhar and helped them obtain an apartment in San Diego. Thumairy was a Saudi consular official in Los Angeles and a local religious leader.
Bayoumi, Thumairy and a third man, Musaed al Jarrah – deputy head of Islamic Affairs at the Saudi embassy in Washington — are named as “principal subjects” of the FBI’s Operation Encore, a once-secret FBI probe into Saudi government involvement first made public in an October 2012 FBI report obtained by Florida Bulldog amid Freedom of Information Act litigation in 2016. The report says Jarrah “tasked” Bayoumi and Thumairy with helping the hijackers.
In September 2021, President Biden issued an executive order directing the Department of Justice and other federal agencies to conduct declassification reviews of documents regarding Operation Encore, referred to in the order as a “subfile” of the FBI’s primary PENTTBOMB investigation, and to publicly release as many documents as possible. The FBI has released thousands of pages so far – including records previously declared to be “state secrets” that say Saudi government officials knowingly provided a support network for Hazmi and Mihdhar, the first two al Qaeda hijackers to enter the U.S.
Canestraro’s client Ammar al-Baluchi, also known as Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, is a nephew of and co-defendant with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged “mastermind” behind 9/11. Government documents allege that from banks in Dubai he transferred tens of thousands of dollars to a Suntrust Bank account in Florida jointly owned by 9/11 hijackers Marwan al-Shehhi and Mohammed Atta. Atta flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Shehhi was at the controls of United Airlines Flight 175 when the Boeing 767 crashed into the South Tower.
Baluchi, like Mohammed, was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and held by the CIA for three years at overseas “black sites” where he was reportedly tortured before being transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. He, Mohammed and three others – Walid Bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi – all face capital charges, and the government has previously said it would seek the death penalty. No trial date has been set.
CIA SPIED ON THE FBI
The CIA’s lack of cooperation with the FBI is discussed in detail in the declaration. One ex-FBI agent who worked under CIA control at Usama Bin Laden (UBL) Station, also known as ALEC Station, discussed how a colleague had prepared a Central Intelligence Report “outlining the possible presence of Al-Hazmi and Al-Mihdhar in the U.S.,” but was not allowed to forward it to the FBI for action.
Two former FBI agents stated that the CIA even spied on the FBI as it investigated 9/11.
Canestraro’s declaration says that in the spring of 2021 a former agent with “extensive experience in terrorism and counterintelligence matters,” explained that after the attacks “it became impossible for the FBI to unilaterally conduct a terrorism or counterintelligence investigation without the tacit approval of the CIA. CS-22 further related that officers of the local CIA domestic station located in his/her office of assignment would frequently sit in the command centers of local FBI Field Offices while FBI agents conducted operations related to counter terrorism to monitor FBI activities. CS-22 told me that the above made it easy for CIA officers to monitor FBI activities.”
Another former FBI agent, known as CS-8, said that “immediately following the 9/11 attacks, an intelligence officer was detailed to the FBI’s San Diego Field Office. CS-8 recalled that the officer was supposed to be assigned to the San Diego office to further information sharing between the FBI and the CIA. However, CS-8 later learned the officer was actually examining FBI files in an attempt to blame the FBI for the intelligence failures that led to 9/11.”
The ex-New York FBI counterterrorism agent who tussled with the CIA, referred to in the declaration as CS-12, was assigned to work the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in the summer of 2001. That June, CS-12 was present during a meeting between CIA and FBI officials.
CIA LOSES TRACK OF HAZMI AND MIHDHAR
The CIA was said to have sought the meeting after being unable to locate some terrorist suspects. CIA officers showed three surveillance photos, didn’t say where or when they were taken, but asked if one was of Fahd Al-Quso, a suspect in the Cole bombing. CS-12 didn’t know. When FBI agents asked he CIA whether “stops” had been put in place to prevent those suspects from entering the U.S., frustrations grew.
CS-5, another former FBI special agent, said the New York agent “was so adamant” that the CIA provide information “for his/her investigation that he/she nearly ‘came over the table’ at CIA officials at a meeting with the FBI’s counter terrorism squad prior to 9/11,” the declaration says.
CS-12 later learned that two of the photos were of Hazmi and Mihdhar, the declaration says. Quso was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2012.
On Aug. 23, less than three weeks before the attacks, the New York FBI agent opened an EC, or electronic communication, from FBI headquarters about the photographs. It contained information “showing that Al-Hazmi and Al-Mihdhar were in the United States.” The declaration does not say it, but it has long been reported that the photos were snapped at the Malaysian al Qaeda gathering.
The agent contacted an FBI analyst at headquarters. The conversation became “’heated’ when the analyst told CS-12 that he/she was not authorized to view the EC and that he/she was ordered to delete it immediately.” Why? Because the information had been obtained from intelligence sources and that the bureaucratic “wall” between intelligence and criminal investigations precluded the agent from seeing it.
The next day the agent, the analyst and the acting chief of the FBI’s (Usama) Bin Laden Unit met in a 45-minute conference call. “During the call, officials at FBI headquarters told CS-12 to ‘stand down’ and to cease looking for Khalid Al-Mihdhar” and that HQ was looking to open an intelligence gathering investigation of Mihdhar. The following day the agent emailed the analyst warning, “‘someone is going to die’ unless the case against Mihdhar was pursued further.”
FUEL FOR THE RECRUITMENT THEORY
Immediately after the attacks FBI HQ and the New York office met again. “It was during this call that CS-12 learned that Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi were on the flight manifests of one of the planes that were used in the attacks. CS-12 recalls that the conference call then became quite heated between the New York agents and HQS personnel.”
On Sept. 14, CS-12 contacted the FBI analyst who produced a fourth photograph from the same surveillance operation. The photo was of Walid Bin Attash, who was readily identifiable due to his missing leg.
Had the New York agents been shown that photo earlier, CS-12 said, they would have “immediately linked Al-Hazmi and Al-Mihdhar to Bin Attash, a prime suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole. As a result, the inquiry would have been able to devote the full resources of the FBI’s New York Field Office to efforts to find the two hijackers later in the summer of 2001.”
What happened fueled the theory that the CIA didn’t tell the FBI that two al Qaeda terrorists were in the U.S. to protect their secret plan to recruit Hazmi and Mihdhar as informants.
One “former senior FBI official whose identity if known to me,” dubbed CS-16, told Canestraro, the FBI’s N.Y.C. office wasn’t told that Hazmi and Mihdhar were in the country until Aug. 26, 2001. “CS-16 stated that the CIA withheld the information that the two hijackers had had entered the country in 2000 from the FBI on orders from two CIA employees, Richard Blee and Tom Wilshire. CS-16 stated that it was his/her opinion that the information was withheld as the CIA was attempting to recruit Al Hazmi and/or Al Mihdhar as intelligence sources while they were in the U.S.”
Blee became the chief of UBL Station in 1999 and was in charge there on 9/11. Wilshire was Blee’s deputy.
FBI agent CS-5 said the CIA’s reluctance to tell the FBI about the two al Qaeda figures “didn’t make sense” to many New York agents and led CS-5 to conclude “that the CIA was running an intelligence operation targeting Al-Qaeda that somehow involved Hazmi and Mihdhar.” CS-5 believed the CIA operation “may have spun out of control” and they came to the FBI in June 2001 “with limited information in an attempt to locate the hijackers without revealing the true nature or extent of their operation against Al Qaeda.”
Yet another ex-FBI agent said to have “extensive knowledge” of counterterrorism and counterintelligence matters, stated in June 2021 that the effort to recruit Hazmi and Mihdhar “was an operation directed by the Central Intelligence Agency. CS-23 told me that the CIA used their liaison relationship with the Saudi intelligence services to conduct an operation on U.S. soil. CS-23 told me that the Saudis were used as a go between as the CIA is forbidden by law to conduct intelligence operations within the U.S.” The CIA “has used its relationship with allied intelligence services to conduct operations inside the United States in the past,” the declaration says.
THE CIA’S ‘FALSE FLAG’ RECRUITMENT OPERATION
Former Deputy National Security Advisor Richard Clarke gave a similar account, adding that prior to the attacks Deputy CIA Director Cofer Black had told him the CIA had no human intelligence sources inside Al Qaeda and that he was determined to change that. Clarke also said neither he nor the FBI was told about Hazmi and Mihdhar because “the CIA was running a ‘false flag’ operation to recruit the hijackers.
“According to Mr. Clarke, this ‘false flag’ operation would have involved Al-Bayoumi befriending the two hijackers by attempting to convince them that he was sympathetic to their cause. At the same time, Al-Bayoumi would have been reporting on the hijackers’ activities to Saudi intelligence and, ultimately to the CIA. Mr. Clarke stated that when he proclaimed this belief publicly, he received an angry phone call from former director of the CIA George Tenet. Mr. Clarke noted, however, that Mr. Tenet did not deny the allegation made by Mr. Clarke.”
Both Clarke and former Sen. Graham were critical of the 9/11 Commission, saying it “did not investigate the Saudi connection to the 9/11 attacks completely.” Clarke added that the commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, “was selected by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to prevent damage to the Bush Administration by blocking the Commission’s line of inquiry into the Saudi connection.”
“Mr. Clarke told me that the operation to penetrate Al-Qaeda may have [been] organized by high level employees of the CIA. Mr. Clarke stated that he believed that most of the records of the CIA’s operation to penetrate Al-Qaeda through Al-Bayoumi were destroyed in an effort to cover up the operation,” the declaration says.
An ex-FBI agent, CS-3, working under CIA control at Usama Bin Laden (UBL) Station, also known by the code name ALEC Station after the son of its first chief, discussed how a colleague had prepared a Central Intelligence Report (CIR) “outlining the possible presence of Al-Hazmi and Al-Mihdhar in the U.S.,” but was not allowed to forward it to the FBI for action.
“CS-3 stated that he/she believed at the time that the CIA prevented the distribution of the CIR as teh agency did not want the FBI interfering with a CIA operation that was being run domestically in violation of U.S. law,” the declaration says.
FBI COVERED UP, TOO
While most criticism in the declaration is directed at the CIA, higher ups at the FBI were also targets of the FBI agents’ complaints.
An ex-agent in the bureau’s Washington Field Office referred to as CS-9, was part of a squad tasked with investigating leads developed after the attacks. CS-9 told Canestraro that “agents were told they were not permitted to interview Saudi nationals in support of their investigation. CS-9 stated that many of the leads developed during his/her investigation pointed toward the Saudi diplomats stationed in Washington, D.C.
Another former FBI agent, CS-4, who in the spring of 2002 supervised two other FBI agents assigned to the CIA’s UBL Station, stated that “CS-3 approached him/her and said, ‘Boss, something is bothering me big time…we [meaning the United States government] could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.” CS-3 then outlined the CIA intelligence that showed Hazmi and Mihdhar had attended the Malaysian al Qaeda meeting, that the CIA knew in January 2001 that both men had multiple entry visas to the U.S. and that his FBI colleague had written a report on the future hijackers that “was not distributed on orders from one of the analysts at UBL Station.”
CS-3 gave his supervisor a draft of the report. The supervisor, a male, asked who else knew about it. CS-3 said just him and the colleague who wrote it. The supervisor said he then contacted FBI deputy director for counterterrorism Pasquale D’Amuro saying he needed to meet right away. The supervisor hopped in his car and “at a high rate of speed” drove to FBI headquarters where he met with D’Amuro and gave him the secret UBL report on Hazmi and Mihdhar.
“D’Amuro read the cable then told CS-4, ‘I will take care of this,’ the declaration says. “CS-4 noted that D’Amuro never mentioned the cable’s existence” again.
A short time later, though, CS-4 was promoted out of UBL Station to a senior liaison position outside of the FBI. He hadn’t asked for a promotion and told Canestraro he felt he was moved away from UBL Station because he “knew about the existence” of the CIA’s secret report on Hazmi and Mihdhar. CS-4 added he believed he was moved to ensure he “kept silent.”
Ex-FBI agent CS-23 said that when the FBI became aware of Omar Bayoumi’s affiliation with Saudi Intelligence and the CIA’s recruitment operation through Bayoumi after 9/11, “senior FBI officials suppressed investigations into the above. CS-23 also told me that FBI agents testifying before (Congress’s) Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks were instructed not to reveal the full extent of Saudi involvement with Al-Qaeda,” Canestraro’s declaration says.
The declaration does not say who ordered FBI field agents investigating 9/11 not to interview Saudi nationals or other agents to lie to Congress – or why.