The name of the CIA officer who ran Alec Station, the agency’s bin Laden unit, in the run-up to 9/11 can be revealed. Known by a variety of aliases in the media until now, such as “Rich” in Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, “Richard” in the 9/11 Commission report and “Rich B” in George Tenet’s At the Center of the Storm, his real name is Richard Blee.
Blee was a key figure in the pre-9/11 intelligence failures, the CIA station chief in Afghanistan when Osama bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora and instrumental in setting up the Bush administration’s rendition and torture policies.
I confirmed Blee’s identity in this document, notes drafted by a 9/11 Commission staffer, apparently in preparation of the drafting of the final report. The notes were found along with thousands of other 9/11 Commission files at the National Archives by History Commons contributor Erik Larson, who uploaded them to the 9/11 Document Archive at Scribd. I previously blogged other interesting aspects of the notes here and here.
Blee is mentioned several times in the 9/11 Commission’s files, but his name is always redacted, as it has been in the media until now. However, in one case the people doing the redactions let it slip past them.
His name is disclosed on page 41 of the notes, where a comment says: “No one anticipated (well a few like Clarke, Black, Blee) what these people would do, or their single-minded determination, or that it would adapt to events and change to be more lethal.”
Clarke is White House counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, who Blee met with to discuss the an impending al-Qaeda attack in the summer of 2001. Black is Cofer Black, the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) and Blee’s boss at the time.
Before this, much information was known about Blee. His first name was given in at least four books and a key break was provided by former CIA Director George Tenet, who disclosed the initial of his surname in his 2007 book. Tenet even has an entry for “B., Rich” in the index and named the book’s eighth chapter after a comment Blee made to him in July 2001 about the location of the next al-Qaeda attack: “They’re coming here.”
Harper’s journalist Ken Silverstein revealed in a January 2007 article about Blee (under the pseudonym “James”) that he was the son of a well-known former CIA officer. Taken together, this meant that the officer’s first name was Richard, his surname began with the letter B and his father had also been a CIA officer–a relatively small group of people.
His father was David Blee, an Office of Strategic Services veteran who was honoured as one of the CIA’s finest fifty employees ever at ceremony on 18 September 1997. Blee came to fame within the agency in the mid-1960s, when he spirited Stalin’s daughter out of India and to the west. However, his main contribution was to sweep away the influence of paranoid counterintelligence chief James Angleton and build a network of spies in the Eastern Bloc. He also rated a mention by the Church Committee.
David Blee died in August 2000. James Risen’s obituary in the New York Times mentions that one of his sons was called Richard.
Involvement in Pre-9/11 Failures
One of the best-known pre-9/11 failures was the failure by the CIA in January 2000 to pass on to the FBI the information that one of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, had a US visa, and would therefore probably soon arrive in the US. FBI officers detailed to the CIA learned of the information, but one of Blee’s deputies, Tom Wilshire, prevented them from passing it on to the bureau.
While it was wrong of Wilshire to keep information from the bureau, it is perhaps not so unusual for the CIA to withhold information from the FBI. However, Blee’s actions at this time are more bizarre.
The CIA had been monitoring a summit of al-Qaeda leaders in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which began on 5 January. On 8 January three of the summit attendees, Almihdhar, his partner Nawaf Alhazmi and al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash, left for Bangkok, and Alec Station received a cable from the field reporting this. The CIA claims that its officers in Bangkok could not pick up the surveillance at the airport and that the three men were lost. The next day Alec Station sent a high-priority NIACT (night action) cable urging the station in Bangkok to find them.
Although the other summit attendees had also dispersed at the same time as the three men who flew to Bangkok, on 12 January Blee claimed to his bosses that the surveillance in Kuala Lumpur was continuing. The 9/11 Commission, suggested that Blee “may not have known that in fact Almihdhar and his companions had dispersed and the tracking was falling apart.” The interview of Blee received high-level attention on the commission. It was led by the commission’s executive director Philip Zelikow and two team leaders, Kevin Scheid and Barbara Grewe.
It is unclear how Blee could possibly have been unaware of this, as his unit had previously both received and sent at least one cable stating they had left for Bangkok and he would presumably have asked his subordinates for an update in the four days between the hijackers’ departure from Kuala Lumpur and the 12 January briefing. The commission’s formulation—that Blee “may not have known”—also begs the question: Well, did he know or not? If he did, he withheld key information from his bosses during the high threat period of the millennium alert. If he did not know, it means his subordinates withheld the information from him.
The next day, Bangkok station reported that it could not find the three men. Nevertheless, Blee went back to his superiors on 14 January and told them officials were continuing to track the summit’s attendees, who had now dispersed to various countries. Here, the commission’s report is clear, finding, “there is no evidence of any tracking efforts actually being undertaken by anyone after the Arabs disappeared into Bangkok.”
It is clear the information received by Blee’s superiors was incorrect. Given the improbability of Blee’s subordinates wanting or being able to conceal the real state of affairs from him for nearly a week, it appears that it was Blee that decided to withhold the information from them.
There has been speculation that the reason the information was withheld was to enable the CIA, perhaps using a group of former employees or confederates, to monitor Almihdhar and Alhazmi in the US without having to worry about a competing FBI surveillance team. The above analysis indicates that Blee wanted not only the FBI, but also his own superiors off his back.
The hypothesis that the withholding of the information from the bureau was not sanctioned by the CIA’s management is supported by the behaviour of the agency’s station in Kuala Lumpur. Four local stations performed badly regarding information about Almihdhar in the run-up to 9/11: Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Sana’a and Islamabad. Whereas the performance of the three last-named stations is so shocking—at various times they withheld information they must have known was crucial—that it indicates they were acting in bad faith, the errors by Kuala Lumpur station could be attributed to the usual mistakes that creep into anyone’s performance. In addition, on three separate occasions Kuala Lumpur went the extra mile and tried to move the issue forward. If the withholding of the information from the bureau was approved by the CTC’s leadership, why was Kuala Lumpur not on board with this?
“They’re Coming Here”
As most of the heavy lifting in the efforts to keep information about Almihdhar and Alhazmi from the FBI was done by Wilshire, Blee does not resurface in the story until July 2001.
On 4 July, Almihdhar re-entered the US. The next day, Wilshire, who had by then gone on loan to the FBI, apparently as the deputy chief of its International Terrorism Operations Section, wrote an alarming e-mail. In it he told unnamed Alec Station managers that he thought Almihdhar was linked to the current high level of threat reporting.
Five days after the e-mail, Black briefed Tenet about current threat reporting. The briefing was so alarming that it “literally made my hair stand on end,” Tenet recalled. He then immediately took Blee and Black to the White House, requesting an emergency meeting with National Security Condoleezza Rice so that Blee could brief her on the threat reporting. The meeting was also attended by Clarke and Rice’s deputy Stephen Hadley, and caused controversy when it was omitted from the 9/11 Commission’s final report, but highlighted in one of Bob Woodward’s books.
There is no indication that Blee mentioned Almihdhar or Malaysia to anybody there, at this time or at any other.
The withholding of the information about Almihdhar in January 2000 and subsequent occasions only makes sense if the hijackers were being followed by people linked to those who were withholding the information, and Blee sits at the centre of that web. It is therefore highly likely that Blee knew all about the hijackers’ entries and residences in the US by this time from following Almihdhar and Alhazmi, but that he withheld this information deliberately. Had he told the people at the meeting of this information, there would have been plenty of time to prevent the attacks—over two months to round the hijackers up.
Three days after the meeting, Wilshire sent another e-mail to the Counterterrorist Center, this time warning that Khallad was a “major-league killer,” pointing out that he had been identified by a CIA mole in al-Qaeda, and saying that it would be a good time to re-examine the Malaysia summit documents to get more information about him. On the same day this e-mail was sent Blee wrote an e-mail to another CIA officer entitled “Identification of Khallad,” so it is highly likely Blee received this e-mail.
Wilshire wrote a third e-mail on 23 July. This time it was very clear:
When the next big op is carried out by [bin Laden’s] hardcore cadre, [Khallad bin Attash] will be at or near the top of the command food chain—and probably nowhere near either the attack site or Afghanistan. That makes people who are available and who have direct access to him of very high interest. Khalid Almihdhar should be very high interest anyway, given his connection to the [redacted].
Blee made the comment that left such an impression on Tenet around this time. Tenet wrote:
… [I]magine how I and everyone else in the room reacted during one of my updates in late July when, as we speculated about the kind of attacks we could face, Rich B. suddenly said, with complete conviction, “They’re coming here.” I’ll never forget the silence that followed.
At this time, Blee certainly had reason to make such a comment: he was the government official most responsible for gathering the warning signs in the summer of threat and thus the most highly aware of them. He must have been aware of the hijackers’ presence in the US and was also involved in efforts to keep this presence hidden from both the bureau and his own superiors. Even if he did not figure out that the hijackers were linked to the threat reporting by himself, he must have known this because Wilshire told him so repeatedly and documented this with a clear paper trail.
Even if we suppose that Blee was cut off from the surveillance of the hijackers, Alec Station claims to have realised Almihdhar and Alhazmi were in the US on August 21 and communicated this to the FBI. (Coincidentally, this was one day before Blee’s nemesis FBI manager John O’Neill retired from the bureau and Ali Soufan, a bureau agent who had been asking questions about a possible al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia, went back to Yemen.) At this point Alec Station knew (1) there was going to be a major al-Qaeda attack, (2) Almihdhar was one of the terrorists probably involved in the attack, and (3) Almihdhar was in the US. With this information, it does not take a genius to work out the likely location of the attack was inside the US. Yet the FBI’s search for Almihdhar, overseen by Wilshire, was a catastrophe.
The case against Blee can be summed up like this: some intelligence community employees at and linked to Alec Station deliberately withheld information from the FBI in general and the USS Cole investigators in particular about Almihdhar and Alhazmi. Two of the officials who were involved in one example of this in January 2000, Doug Miller and Mark Rossini, have confessed to their part and implicated Wilshire and one of his subordinates. It stretches credulity well beyond breaking point to suggest that the group centred on Blee and Wilshire withheld information deliberately in January 2000, but that its subsequent inability to pass on the same and similar information was due to overwork and understaffing, especially given the most peculiar circumstances in which the information was not passed.
Although it is Wilshire that did most of the work, it is hard to imagine that a deputy unit chief could practice such a deception, leading us to suspect his boss, Blee. This suspicion is greatly enhanced by Blee’s incorrect briefings of his superiors on 12 and 14 January 2000 and his failure to mention to anyone the evident links between the high threat and the Malaysia meeting in numerous discussions in the summer of 2001. In addition, his position as a child of a CIA hero would have given him access to a network of intelligence community professionals. If he did want “off-the-books” surveillance of the two hijackers in San Diego, he would have known who to call.
It is certainly possible to dream up scenarios in which the surveillance of the hijackers inside the US somehow broke down, or to theorise that the hijackers, who were employing a countersurveillance technique when taking flights, were smarter than the people monitoring them. Both these scenarios would clear Blee of the most serious charge of deliberately allowing the attacks. However, neither of these scenarios seem likely at the moment. Perhaps further research will allow them to be either confirmed or ruled out.
Another question to ask is: did Blee benefit from the attacks?
Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars offers us an insight into the debate inside the CIA about what action to take against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. It portrays Blee as an officer most interested in providing increased assistance to Northern Alliance chief Ahmed Shah Massoud, with whom he met repeatedly. However, Blee was frustrated in this by others at the White House and agency, who did not trust Massoud. As we now know, all this changed after 9/11 and the US is still bogged down there along with its allies. In addition, as we will see, it was Blee that got himself appointed head of the CIA arm of the war…
What Richard Blee Did Next
Following the attacks, Blee was made station chief in Kabul, replacing Gary Berntsen, an officer who had realised the back door was open for bin Laden to escape from the battle of Tora Bora. Knowing some of the local warlords could not be trusted, Berntsen had repeatedly requested US ground forces to close off the escape routes and encircle bin Laden. However, he was unsuccessful, and Blee arrived to take over on 9 December. Although there are numerous stories about bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora, he seems to have still been there at this time. For example, in The One Percent Doctrine author Ron Suskind has bin Laden making a radio broadcast there on 15 December.
Had bin Laden been captured or killed there, it certainly would have provided some degree of closure for the US and the world, and probably significantly changed the course of subsequent events, possibly including a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan and a different public perception of the security vs. liberty trade-off. One can speculate about Blee’s role, but there is no evidence, let alone proof, one way or the other. On the other hand, it would be interesting to read his first cables from Afghanistan and compare them to Berntsen’s.
As CIA station chief in Afghanistan, he must have overseen all the abuses of prisoners that occurred there. One example for them all, from the Washington Post:
In November 2002, a newly minted CIA case officer in charge of a secret prison just north of Kabul allegedly ordered guards to strip naked an uncooperative young Afghan detainee, chain him to the concrete floor and leave him there overnight without blankets, according to four U.S. government officials aware of the case.
The Afghan guards — paid by the CIA and working under CIA supervision in an abandoned warehouse code-named the Salt Pit — dragged their captive around on the concrete floor, bruising and scraping his skin, before putting him in his cell, two of the officials said.
As night fell, so, predictably, did the temperature.
By morning, the Afghan man had frozen to death.
While Tora Bora is shrouded in the fog of war, the rendition of Ibn Shaikh al-Libi is not. Al-Libi, who had run training camps for radicals in Afghanistan, was captured by Pakistani forces trying to flee the country in November and handed over to the US in December. His questioning was initially headed by FBI agent Russell Fincher, who used the bureau’s traditional rapport-building techniques and began to extract nuggets of information from al-Libi. Fincher had previously worked on the Cole investigation–he was one of the agents the Blee/Wilshire group had withheld information about Almihdhar and Alhazmi from before 9/11.
FBI veteran Jack Cloonan was working with Fincher from headquarters. He later told the American Prospect: “They’re getting good stuff, and everyone’s getting the raw 302s [interview summaries] — the agency, the military, the director. But for some reason, the CIA chief of station in Kabul is taking issue with our approach.”
Newsweek also fingered Blee as the official responsible for starting the interagency contest:
The CIA station chief in Afghanistan, meanwhile, appealed to the agency’s hawkish counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black. He in turn called CIA Director George Tenet, who went to the White House. Al-Libi was handed over to the CIA.
More details of the discussions over al-Libi between the CIA, FBI and White House can be found elsewhere. However, this was the key battle between the agency and the bureau over the handling of detainees and determined the outcome of later contests, in particular the fight over Abu Zubaida. The CIA’s victory led to the “enhanced interrogation techniques” and everything they gave rise to.
After the agency took control of al-Libi, they put him on a plane to Cairo, where he was tortured into confessing a fictitious link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. This information then found its way into Colin Powell’s famous speech to the UN making the case for war with Iraq.
Ali Soufan, one of the Cole investigators from whom the Blee/Wilshire group had withheld information before 9/11, interviewed Abu Zubaida after his capture and got some useful information out of him. However, the CIA, led by its SERE contractors, muscled in on the interrogation and started implementing its torture tactics. Soufan was disgusted and protested what was happening, but eventually left the site of the interrogation.
Before 9/11, one of the mechanisms used to justify withholding the information was the “wall,” a term sometimes used to mean different things, but basically a set of regulations governing information sharing between and inside agencies. After 9/11, the wall came down, and information was shared freely in the panic to prevent what was then assumed to be the next attack. However, as Soufan wrote in an April 2009 New York Times op-ed:
One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him.
Blee, whose subordinates built up an impressive track record of failing to share information with the FBI before the attacks, helped re-institute the barriers that enabled the information to be withheld after them. In particular, this led to information not being obtained by Fincher and Soufan, two of the very agents he and his associates had been withholding information from not six months previously. We must ask: is this just a coincidence? Or could Blee reasonably foresee that shipping al-Libi to Egypt and getting control of detainees for the CIA would hurt the FBI’s access to information?
Finally, there is the question of the CIA’s assassination programme, devised but never implemented after 9/11, although it was put into practice by the military in another form.
The first mention of it in the press I can find is in Dana Priest’s groundbreaking November 2005 exposé of the CIA’s black sites, “The CTC’s chief of operations argued for creating hit teams of case officers and CIA paramilitaries that would covertly infiltrate countries in the Middle East, Africa and even Europe to assassinate people on the list [of high-value targets], one by one.”
Although Blee was appointed chief of Alec Station around June 1999, there was a reorganisation at the Counterterrorist Center in the first half of the next year and Blee’s position was upgraded. In a 2007 article Silverstein gives his positions in chronological order: a posting to Algeria (which was in the early 90s), work on Iraq (mid-90s), chief of operations at the CTC with oversight of Alec Station and renditions, and station chief in Kabul (a position he took up in December 2001). Therefore it appears that after his short stint as Alec Station chief, the position he moved to was CTC chief of operations. This makes him the official Priest has arguing “for creating hit teams.”
As we can see, he built up a very consistent track record: withholding information before 9/11, assassination teams, rendition and torture. Thankfully, it seems he has now left the agency.