Friday, August 12, 2011

Analysing the CIA Response to Richard Clarke's Allegations: Who Knew What When?

Kevin Fenton

Following the airing of allegations by former counterterrorism "tsar" Richard Clarke that the CIA deliberately withheld from him information about Pentagon hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, former CIA director George Tenet, former CIA Counterterrorist Center chief Cofer Black and Richard Blee, a mid-level agency official who occupied two key counterterrorist positions before 9/11, have responded with a joint statement.

Clarke said that information about the two men was deliberately withheld from him in January 2000, at the time of a key al-Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which the CIA monitored. Clarke alleged that, based on his knowledge of how the CIA works, Tenet authorised the deliberate withholding. Clarke added that the information was clearly important in the summer of 2001, when the CIA knew that Almihdhar was in the country and, in the words of one of Blee's former deputies, was "very high interest" in connection with the next al-Qaeda attack. However, the CIA continued to withhold some information from both Clarke and the FBI.

Mark Rossini, one of Blee's former subordinates at Alec Station, the CIA's bin Laden unit, has previously admitted deliberately withholding the information from the FBI. According to Rossini, in early January 2000 he and a colleague, Doug Miller, knew they should notify the FBI that Almihdhar had a US visa and presumably intended to soon visit the US. Miller even drafted, but did not send, a cable informing the FBI of Almihdhar's visa. However, Rossini says he and Miller were instructed by a female CIA officer known as "Michael" and Blee's deputy, Tom Wilshire, to withhold the information.

The joint statement issued by these three men says that neither Tenet nor other senior managers were aware of the visa information at all. Neither of the two reports published after the attack, the heavily redacted 9/11 Congressional Inquiry report and the 9/11 Commission Report--the CIA inspector general's report is still secret, except the executive summary--give the "who knew what when" for Almihdhar's visa information. However, several CIA cables, readily accessible in the agency's database, mentioned the visa.

Wilshire knew of the visa information; Blee almost certainly did, too. The 9/11 Commission Report states that Blee briefed his superiors, presumably including Black, about the Malaysia meeting.

However, it is unclear from the report or any other source whether Blee mentioned the visa information. Some of the information Blee gave his superiors about the meeting was wildly inaccurate. For example, on January 12 he claimed the surveillance in Kuala Lumpur was still ongoing, whereas in actual fact Alec Station had sent and received several cables stating the attendees began to leave on January 8.

The joint statement quotes in support of its contention that senior management did not know of the visa information part of a sentence from the 9/11 Commission Report:
The 9/11 Commission quite correctly concluded that " one informed higher levels of management in either the FBI or CIA about the case."
However, the ellipsis in the quote replaces the words,"It appears that," indicating the commission was not entirely sure. The quote concerns the search for Almihdhar and his companion Nawaf Alhazmi in August and September 2001, not the passage of the visa information in January 2000, and the chapter from which it was taken was first drafted by Barbara Grewe, a Justice Department inspector general and 9/11 Commission staffer who was subsequently hired by a CIA contractor.

The statement, "The handling of the information in question was exhaustively looked at by the 9/11 Commission, the Congressional Joint Inquiry, the CIA Inspector General and other groups," is also questionable. The body of the CIA inspector general's report is still secret so its contents are unknown, but the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry did not even find Miller's blocked cable, let alone ask him about it, and the 9/11 Commission Report is silent on the vast majority of specifics in Blee's briefings to his superiors.

The CIA's cable database contains records of who accessed what cable when, and a statement on which Malaysia cables Tenet read would go some way toward answering the question of what he knew. Blee's written briefings would also be significant in this respect.

The lack of information the CIA leadership allegedly had in 2001's "summer of threat" is even more puzzling. Tenet worked himself up into a near frenzy in the months before 9/11, mostly based on unspecific chatter about a forthcoming major bin Laden operation. For example, when Tenet demanded an immediate meeting with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on July 10, 2001, when Clarke, Black and Blee were also present, one of Tenet's best arguments to support the idea that al-Qaeda would soon attack was, according to Tenet's 2007 book, "late June information that cited a 'big event' that was forthcoming." This is not so meaningful compared to the information the CIA had about Almihdhar and Alhazmi and should have presented to Clarke and Rice.

By late August 2001 Wilshire, and almost certainly Blee, knew that Almihdhar was in the US and Wilshire notified his CIA superiors that Almihdhar was "very high interest" in connection with the next al-Qaeda attack. If this information did not reach Tenet, as he claims, the appropriate question would again be: who failed to pass it on?

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