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August 12, 2008

Category Summary: Search for Almihdhar and Alhazmi


This is a summary of the 9/11 Timeline’s category covering the search for Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi after it was discovered in August 2001 that the two of them, known to US intelligence as al-Qaeda operatives, had both entered the US. The CIA had had this information for some time, but, through an alleged series of bizarre missteps, had managed to withhold it from the FBI whilst simultaneously convincing itself it had informed the Bureau.

Even at this late date, there was enough time to find the two and arrest them, either for their part in the USS Cole bombing or for immigration violations, but a headquarters agent withheld information from the field office conducting the search, a CIA manager failed to tell anybody on the investigation Almihdhar was probably going to be involved in the next major al-Qaeda attack, and the agent conducting the search reportedly examined a database containing information about them, but somehow managed not to see it.

Presence in US Discovered

The search was triggered when Margaret Gillespie, an FBI agent on loan to the CIA’s bin Laden unit—known as Alec Station—found cables reporting that Alhazmi had arrived in the US in January 2000. She then checked with the INS and found that Almihdhar had left the US in the summer of that year and re-entered the country on July 4. This led her to alert an agent named Dina Corsi, a member of the bin Laden unit at FBI headquarters. Together, they went to see a CIA officer detailed to the FBI named Tom Wilshire to tell him the news.

Wilshire was the CIA manager who initially blocked notification to the FBI about Almihdhar’s possession of a US visa in January 2000. He had been aware of the cables Gillespie had just discovered since May, at least, but, instead of warning anybody else at the FBI, he had simply asked Gillespie to review all the cables related to al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit. However, he told her to do it in her free time, which is why it took her three months to figure out what he already knew.

Information Withheld

Wilshire was aware that al-Qaeda was planning an attack on the US and that Almihdhar may well be involved in the attack, but there is no record of him communicating this crucial information to Corsi and Gillespie at this point, or to anyone else at any time during the investigation. At the same time Wilshire was working on this case, he was also involved in the failure to obtain a warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s belongings, a search that could have prevented 9/11, not least because Moussaoui and Almihdhar had a mutual acquaintance who was known to US intelligence.

There has been some speculation as to why Gillespie discovered the relevant cables at precisely this time. Some link it to a warning from the Mossad about the hijackers, others to the departure of John O’Neill, an FBI manager disliked by the CIA from the Bureau; the theory being that the CIA did not want to tell the FBI about the hijackers before O’Neill left, because he would take the case away from them. A third option is that the FBI team investigating the USS Cole bombing went back to Yemen on this day. It could be argued that the CIA wanted to communicate the information to the FBI, but did not want the Cole team to get it at this point—the CIA had been withholding important information from the Cole investigators for some time. However, there is no proof for any of this and Gillespie’s discovery of the cables could just be a coincidence.

Watchlisted

At the CIA, Gillespie had Almihdhar and Alhazmi watchlisted, but the CIA’s further actions in this case are not known. At the FBI, where there was heightened interest in terrorists named Khalid, Wilshire sat on a proposal from Gillespie to ask arrested millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam if he recognized Almihdhar.

FBI Headquarters vs. New York Field Office

There then began a long and complicated series of arguments over who the Bureau was going to allow to search for Almihdhar. Perhaps spurred by Gillespie, Corsi called the Bureau’s New York Field Office to give it a heads up about the case, an unusual step, especially given the lack of urgency she displayed subsequently. Corsi then emailed Wilshire and told him the investigation would be an intelligence investigation, even though Almihdhar’s connection to the Cole bombing was even stronger than she previously thought and the Cole bombing was the subject of a criminal investigation. The distinction between a criminal and intelligence investigation was important, because more resources could be used to find Almihdhar as a part of a criminal investigation, which could lead to his arrest.

Corsi informed the I-49 squad Almihdhar was in the country, telling them they would conduct the search as a part of an intelligence investigation. However, intelligence agent Craig Donnachie disagreed with Corsi, saying Almihdhar should be hunted as a part of the Cole case. I-49 squad supervisor Jack Cloonan later agreed with Donnachie.

Corsi possibly informed FBI manager Michael Rolince of the case, but the investigation was no bar to Almihdhar and Alhazmi purchasing their 9/11 plane tickets in their own names, and a non-urgent request to the INS to determine their visa status did not do much good either.

“Someday Someone Will Die”

Cloonan also accidently forwarded a memo from Corsi about Almihdhar to Steve Bongardt, a criminal investigator on the Cole case. Bongardt called Corsi to discuss the case, but Corsi forced him to delete the memo from his computer, saying that a criminal investigator could not have the information, because it was going to be an intelligence case. Bongardt was extremely unhappy with this and argued with Corsi, saying she completely misunderstood the “wall” regulations governing the separation of criminal and intelligence investigations.

One reason Corsi said she wanted the investigation to be an intelligence case was that part of the information came from NSA intercepts of Almihdhar’s phone calls, which could not be passed to Bongardt without the approval of the NSA’s general counsel. However, the NSA did approve the passage of the information to criminal investigators working on the Cole case. This was done at Corsi’s request, but there is no record of her then passing the information on to Bongardt. Corsi also appears to have lied to Bongardt about legal advice from the FBI’s National Security Law Unit on the case. As the FBI did not fully realize the consequences of the fact Almihdhar was in the US illegally, and a manager from Alec Station, possibly Wilshire, called Bongardt to back Corsi up, Corsi was able to get the New York Field Office to open an intelligence case, although Bongardt’s parting shot was “someday someone will die”.

Rookie Agent

The search for Almihdhar, which Corsi gave the lowest possible priority, was assigned to Robert Fuller, a rookie intelligence agent who already had an urgent task. When he did get round to it, the search Fuller performed was incomplete or faulty. For example, he failed to perform a credit card check, or search the ChoicePoint database, although Fuller alter claimed that he did search this database. There is also a dispute about whether Fuller searched the National Crime Information Center database, where Alhazmi had several records. Fuller did not draft a lead for the FBI’s office in Los Angeles, where the two hijackers had stayed in 2000, until one day before the attacks.

The CIA passed on information to the FBI about al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash, an associate of Almihdhar’s, on August 30, possibly because it was worried about the resignation of Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki, although it is unclear what the FBI did with this information. In any case, CIA Director George Tenet did not mention the case to President George Bush in their regular briefings. Almihdhar was listed as “armed and dangerous” in an INS database on 30 August, but this classification was revoked on September 5, when Almihdhar’s visa was cancelled.

A few hours after the attacks, Bongardt was allowed to join the search and he turned up information on Almihdhar “within hours”.

1 Comment »

  1. It’s such a strange account. It made US intelligence look so bad. IMO, Trento’s GID association is the best theory to explain the strange conduct of US intel. But even that has significant questionable aspects: Why the cavalier tradecraft? What explains the Bandar association? Arrogance? Sloppiness? I have never understood the use of cashier checks. That seems like a deliberate effort to create a trail.

    One would think after six years it would make more sense.

    Comment by Mike — August 16, 2008 @ 2:03 am | Reply


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