With the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks just around the corner, new revelations by former high-ranking officials in American intelligence continue to uncover serious inefficiencies—and in some cases deliberate omissions—in dealing with security.
Richard Clarke was anti-terrorism advisor in the Clinton and Bush administrations and is today president of the security firm Good Harbor Consulting. Clarke has accused former CIA leaders George Tenet, Cofer Black, and Richard Blee of keeping hidden precious information—the White House, FBI, and Immigration knew about it—regarding two of the hijackers of American Airlines flight 77 to Los Angeles.
In October 2009, Clarke revealed his interpretation of the facts to journalists John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski, who were working on a documentary about Blee and the secrets surrounding his role in the intelligence failures leading up to September 11. The documentary will be broadcast on the day of the anniversary, but the website Truth Out has obtained the interview and posted some of the material.
Clarke claims that Tenet, ex-director of the agency, Black, anti-terrorism director, and Blee, Tenet’s right-hand man, failed to capture Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, hijackers of flight 77 along with three other terrorists. The airplane crashed into the Pentagon killing 189 people.
“Tenet followed all the information on al-Qaeda in the minutest detail—says Clarke—and read the intelligence reports before the analysts in the Counterterrorist Center. He used to call me at 7:30 in the morning to talk about things.”
But the ex-CIA chief failed to share with Clarke important information about the al-Hazmi/al-Mihdhar case. In January 2000, CIA analysts were informed by the NSA (National Security Agency, the co-coordinating body for all US intelligence agencies) that the two terrorists were on their way to a meeting of al-Qaeda affiliates in Malaysia. The CIA was given photographs of the two men by Malaysian intelligence. The two men then went to Thailand along with Khallad bin Attash, brains behind the attack on the aircraft carrier USS Cole. According to depositions given to the September 11 commission, the CIA claims to have stopped here and lost track of the three men. Al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar took a flight to Los Angeles, where they met with retired British professor Abdussattar Shaikh, who was working in secret as an FBI informer. It would appear that the CIA failed to inform the FBI and the State Department about al-Mihdhar’s activities. Despite having obtained multiple entry visas, the men were never put on an immigration watch list.
Clarke argues that if the CIA had shared what it knew about al-Mihdhar with the FBI and others, the attack on the Pentagon might have been prevented. The FBI has its share of responsibility as well. Still in 2000, one of its agents discovered that al-Mihdhar had a visa for the US and wrote a memo to the bureau unit in charge of investigating Bin Laden. But the memo was never sent: someone in the CIA forbid the agent to send it.
“Besides him, Jennifer Matthews, another top-level CIA agent, knew a lot of things about this terrorist. She died in an attack in Afghanistan. But there were fifty or so officers besides her who knew what was going on. And that al-Mihdhar resided in the US for eighteen months,” says Clarke. The former anti-terrorism agent has a theory about why he wasn’t informed.
“They may have wanted to recruit the two terrorists. The agency was desperate for informers in al-Qaeda’s inner circle.” When the two men set foot in the US, responsibility for them should have fallen to the FBI, but according to Clarke the CIA may have used its contacts with Saudi intelligence so that they could have access to the men.
The intelligence agency waited until the end of August before telling low-level FBI officers that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were on US soil, and that they were probably planning an attack. In a September 4 meeting with Bush administration officials at which Clarke was also present, the CIA continued to withhold intelligence information about the two hijackers. “The reason is clear,” concludes Clarke. “If they had I would have had some questions for my ‘colleagues’: how long have you known this? why didn’t you report it in any of the daily meetings on threat levels to our country? We would have launched an investigation into the agency’s illegal conduct and abuse of power. If they had told us what they knew even a week before the attacks, the FBI could have captured them and destroyed their plans to attack the Pentagon. We would have conducted a public manhunt. We’d have gotten those bastards. I have no doubt. Even with just a week.”
translated by Gary Cestaro