I have filed a new FOIA request about the investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. The document is referred to in the 9/11 Commission Report as “CIA briefing materials, ‘Intelligence Assessment: The Attack on the USS Cole,’ Dec. 21, 2000.” It is mentioned in endnote 144 on page 508 of the 9/11 Commission Report.
The text of the 9/11 Commission Report, on page 195, provides a description on the document’s contents as follows:
Nearly a month later, on December 21, the CIA made another presentation to the Small Group of principals on the investigative team’s findings. The CIA’s briefing slides said that their “preliminary judgment” was that Bin Ladin’s al Qaeda group “supported the attack” on the Cole, based on strong circumstantial evidence tying key perpetrators of the attack to al Qaeda. The CIA listed the key suspects, including Nashiri. In addition, the CIA detailed the timeline of the operation, from the mid-1999 preparations, to the failed attack on the USS The Sullivans on January 3, 2000, through a meeting held by the operatives the day before the attack. 144
The slides said that so far the CIA had “no definitive answer on [the] crucial question of outside direction of the attack–how and by whom.” The CIA noted that the Yemenis claimed that Khallad helped direct the operation from Afghanistan or Pakistan, possibly as Bin Ladin’s intermediary, but that it had not seen the Yemeni evidence. However, the CIA knew from both human sources and signals intelligence that Khallad was tied to al Qaeda. The prepared briefing concluded that while some reporting about al Qaeda’s role might have merit, those reports offered few specifics. Intelligence gave some ambiguous indicators of al Qaeda direction of the attack. 145
One of the mysteries of the Cole bombing is how come the Clinton administration found itself unable to declare al-Qaeda responsible for the bombings and take some action against it—whether firing missiles at jungle gyms or something more sensible. At a relatively early stage in the investigation the attack was linked to three top al-Qaeda operatives Khallad bin Attash, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Ahmed al-Hada. The 1998 embassy bombings had been linked to al-Qaeda by the Clinton administration, which proceeded to fire missiles at a random chemical factory in Sudan and training camps run by the ISI in Pakistan. One of the ways this link was made was through these three operatives—one of the arrested bombers, Mohamed al-Owhali, named bin Attash, al-Hada and al-Nashiri (who he only knew under the alias Bilal) as people who had facilitated the attack (al-Nashiri got him a false passport, bin Attash helped him with his martyrdom video, and al-Hada was a key communications link between bin Laden in Afghanistan and the bombers in Africa).
The key question in this context clearly is: if the links to these three operatives were good enough for the Clinton administration to retaliate after the embassy bombings, why was it not good enough for retaliation after the USS Cole bombing? Having read through a bunch of sources, I cannot help but think that one or more high-ranking Clinton officials (not sure who, possibly Albright) deliberately set the bar too high (see also here and here) for retaliation, in order to ensure that the US intelligence community could not get over it and declare al-Qaeda responsible. If this were the case, the motivation might have been because heavy-handed retaliation may have derailed the Palestinian peace process, leading to another round of interminable conflict in the Middle East. What is notable, but perhaps unsurprising in all this, is that the nice people with sensitive antennae at CIA headquarters do not seem to have been too put out and were happy to go along with it—the name Clark Shannon springs to mind. For example, the assertion reported by the 9/11 Commission that the CIA was not sure Khallad was tied to the operation even by late December 2000 is pure 100% BS, they knew that damn well by this time.
In my opinion, this is wrong. I could not imagine a clearer case of fixing the intelligence to fit the policy. If the CIA and FBI had been allowed to get on with the job and then the cabinet had decided not to retaliate with missiles or in any other manner, then that would be one thing (and in any case there were plenty of reasons not to fire expensive missiles at low-value targets staffed only by a couple of bozos). But framing the question in such a way that the FBI and CIA can’t answer any way but the way you want, then having the finger pointed at the intelligence community after no action is taken, that’s wrong. And that’s why I’m interested in the way responsibility for the Cole bombing was handled.