The Real News Network recently carried an interview of former FBI lawyer Coleen Rowley by Paul Jay (part 1, part 2 and part 3), dealing with what it called the “unanswered questions about the lead up to 9/11.” Rowley was stationed at the bureau’s Minneapolis office during the Zacarias Moussaoui case in August and September 2001, but later became a whistleblower and left the organisation.
While many aspects of the interview are good and interesting, it leaves out what is probably the most important known fact about the Moussaoui case: the identity of the most senior FBI headquarters official involved fully involved in the case.
The official, a CIA officer named Tom Wilshire who was on loan to the bureau, is ubiquitous in the intelligence failures before 9/11. He was involved not just in the Moussaoui case, but also in the deliberate withholding from the FBI of visa information about one of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, in January 2000, the failure to notify the FBI of Alhazmi and Almihdhar’s entry into the US after he reviewed the Malaysia cables in May 2001, the preparations for the 11 June 2001 “shouting match” meeting between CIA officers and the bureau’s Cole investigators, and the failed hunt for Almihdhar in the weeks before the attacks.
By late August 2001, Wilshire knew al-Qaeda was about to attack US interests, knew Almihdhar was likely to be involved and knew Almihdhar was in the US. However, despite being on loan to the FBI at that time, Wilshire told none of the agents searching for Almihdhar that he was likely to be part of a near-term attack. The bureau only sought Almihdhar as a witness to the Cole bombing, and the search was assigned to a single rookie agent who had other stuff to do. The agent failed to find him in bizarre circumstances that have never been fully explained. Had Wilshire mentioned that, by the way, this guy is about to blow something up, maybe the bureau would have devoted more resources to looking for him.
Wilshire’s involvement in the Moussaoui case was conclusively revealed in July 2006, when his substitution for testimony at the case was posted to the website of the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Attached to the testimony is an e-mail, sent on 24 August 2001 to the three officials in the bureau’s Radical Fundamentalist Unit handling the case. It reads:
Dave, Please advise when you get a chance this AM where we are re the Minneapolis Airplane IV crowd. Has the tasking gone out to try and obtain more bio info on the guys, (redacted). Do we have photos yet? Can the agency get the photos so they can get them on the wire to assets?
This may be only one e-mail, but in it he is asking for an update, which means he must have previously been aware of the case. It is also eminently possible that this was not his last involvement. In addition, the use of the phrase “Minneapolis Airplane IV crowd” (apparently a reference to the disaster movie parodies, of which only two were made) indicates both familiarity with the case and a certain, shall we say, dismissive attitude.
The Congressional Inquiry (presumably), Justice Department Inspector General and 9/11 Commission all knew of Wilshire’s involvement in the case, but both the inquiry and the commission declined to make any mention of it. The inquiry even had Wilshire testify publicly before it (albeit from behind a screen), but failed to ask him a single solitary question about the case. The writer of the Justice Department Inspector General’s report spends one hundred and twenty pages discussing Moussaoui (more in the classified version), but never once does she trouble herself to actually name the top guy fully involved in the case at FBI HQ (although he is the “consultant” who e-mails Dave Frasca on page 151). This despite him rating 80+ mentions (under the alias “John”) in the report in connection with his participation in the Almihdhar affair.
One of the major failures in the Moussaoui case was the failure to pass notice of the case on up the FBI chain of command. Famously, CIA Director George Tenet and other agency managers were repeatedly briefed on the case, whereas the bureau’s senior management had never heard of him before the attacks. This, together with the failure to find Amihdhar–also overseen by Wilshire–made the bureau a laughing stock after the attacks. Who should we blame for this failure to pass information on to senior management? Somebody in Minneapolis? Rita Flack, a lowly intelligence operations specialist at FBI HQ? Or the most senior official fully involved in the case at HQ–Wilshire?
At this point in time there is no evidence that conclusively proves intentional wrongdoing by Wilshire—or any of the other FBI officials at headquarters—in the Moussaoui matter. However, Wilshire clearly did deliberately withhold information about Almihdhar from the bureau for a period of more than twenty months. We need to ask the question whether his poor performance in the Moussaoui case was genuine–perhaps caused by the excessive time demands covering up for Almihdhar placed on him –or deliberate. And we won’t know that for sure until we get more information.