Over the last few months, former diplomat and author Peter Dale Scott has published a series of articles about one of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, and the parallels between his handling by Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, and events in the 1960s, such as an apparent CIA operation involving Lee Oswald, John Kennedy’s alleged assassin. They are Deep Events and the CIA’s Global Drug Connection, The JFK Assassination and 9/11: the Designated Suspects in Both Cases and The Assassinations of the 1960s as “Deep Events”.
Scott looks at the CIA’s apparent “errors”—due to which Alec Station repeatedly and over a period of 20 months before the attacks failed to pass on information about Almihdhar and his associates Nawaf Alhazmi and Khallad bin Attash to the FBI. He concludes, correctly in my view, that they were not really errors, but were intentional and that Alec Station intended to protect Almihdhar from the FBI. He then goes on to say that this protection was not because Alec Station wanted the 9/11 attacks to succeed, but ascribes to it another, lesser motive. Although this may be a reasonable explanation for some of the officers involved in hiding information about Almihdhar, at least one of—and probably both—the “ringleaders” were aware Almihdhar was to be involved in a forthcoming major attack in the summer of 2001, making Scott’s explanation unlikely in their case.
Scott’s position is set out most clearly in The Assassinations of the 1960s as “Deep Events”:
It would be wrong to assume that the withholding of information, though deliberate, had the assassination and plane hijackings in mind. It is perhaps more likely that Oswald and al-Mihdhar were being protected by the CIA for some other operation — possibly against Cuba (in the case of Oswald), or to penetrate existing al-Qaeda cells in the US (in the case of al-Hamzi and al-Mihdhar).
Scott goes on to add:
But someone in the CIA with knowledge of these sensitive files, and intent on a criminal deep event, could have used the sensitive identities of Oswald and al-Mihdhar as designated culprits in the plots, knowing that the CIA would be virtually coerced into cover-up because of the embarrassing manipulations of their files on these individuals.
This argument that the two key Alec Station officers who protected Almihdhar may have done so for reasons other than allowing an al-Qaeda attack in the US is probably wrong, as I will attempt to explain.
”Very High Interest”
The two most senior officers involved in withholding information about Almihdhar from the FBI, as well as their own superiors, are Tom Wilshire, deputy chief of Alec Station until May 2001 and then Alec Station’s representative to the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section, and Rich B, his boss at Alec Station. Wilshire was the key figure in the withholding of information, blocking a cable to the FBI about Almihdhar in January 2000, and continuing to keep information about him from it in 2001.
In the summer of 2001, both men were highly aware that al-Qaeda was planning an attack against US interests. In fact, Rich B was the lead briefer within the government on these attacks and briefed not only CIA Counterterrorism Center Chief Cofer Black and CIA Director George Tenet, but also National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, including at the famous 10 July meeting revealed by Bob Woodward, on the attacks’ possible, date, form and location.
Wilshire was clearly aware that Almihdhar was a likely participant in the forthcoming attacks. In an e-mail sent on 23 July 2001, he wrote:
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].
The recipients of this e-mail are not known. However, it is highly likely that they included Rich B, Wilshire’s former boss, as this e-mail follows on from another sent 10 days before that Rich B received. It is worth pointing out that the existence of this e-mail was only disclosed after the Zacarias Moussaoui trial in 2006. It was not mentioned in the Congressional Inquiry Report, the 9/11 Commission Report or the Justice Department Inspector General Report. It appears in Wilshire’s substitution for testimony for the trial and the substitution seems to be based on the Justice Department IG report.
Almihdhar’s Presence in US Discovered
Wilshire therefore knew that there was to be an attack and that Almihdhar may well be involved. About a month later, he officially learned that Almihdhar was in the US, when he was informed of this by Margaret Gillespie, one of his former colleagues at Alec Station, and then Dina Corsi, an agent he worked with at the FBI. It is highly likely that Rich B also officially learned Almihdhar was in the US at this time, as Gillespie was one of his subordinates and clearly appreciated Almihdhar’s presence in the US was big news.
At this point, Wilshire and Rich B had three pieces of information: there was going to be a major al-Qaeda attack, Almihdhar was “very high interest” in relation to this attack and Almihdhar was in the US. Given that Almihdhar was a member of a terrorist organisation dedicated to fighting the US, it could not have been hard to forecast that the attacks would be in the US.
However, there is no record of Rich B doing anything with this information, although he clearly should have briefed Black and Tenet. It is worth noting that Rich B already thought that the major attack was going to be in the US. It is also worth mentioning that he was the officer in charge of US operations in Afghanistan when bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora, and that he played a key role in the ramping up of rendition after 9/11. Rich B is also said to be the son of a controversial former CIA officer.
Wilshire’s performance was even worse. Not only did he not tell anyone at the FBI that Almihdhar was a likely participant in a forthcoming major attack inside the US, he even helped Corsi in her attempts to restrict the resources the FBI could use to look for Almihdhar.
Presumably, the other CIA officers who had walk-on parts in the withholding of the information from the FBI did believe that the information was being withheld for some purpose other than allowing attacks against the US, such as to penetrate al-Qaeda networks in the US without interference from the bureau. However, given that Wilshire stated that he thought Almihdhar was “very high interest” in connection with the forthcoming attacks, he cannot have thought a presumed “black” operation monitoring the hijackers in the US was solely aimed at following Almihdhar to uncover al-Qaeda networks in the US and had no connection to the attacks. It is also highly likely that Rich B was aware of Almihdhar’s link to a forthcoming attack in the US.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the hijackers’ operational security was poor. For example, members of the four different teams lived together, including with Almihdhar and Alhazmi, and the two men repeatedly telephoned bin Laden’s operations centre in Yemen, which was under surveillance by the NSA and CIA. It would not have been at all difficult for the “black” team monitoring Almihdhar and Alhazmi to discover the other hijackers, their flight training and their ticket purchases shortly before 9/11. Yet there is no known attempt by this team to disrupt the plot.
Alec Station had ample information that could have been used to stop the plot, but prevented the FBI from acting on this information. In addition, it took no known actions to stop the plot itself. The conclusion that it wanted the attacks to go ahead seems inescapable.