A document recently found in the National Archives shows that the CIA station in Yemen knew that al-Qaeda leader and USS Cole bombing mastermind Khallad bin Attash had attended the organisation’s Kuala Lumpur summit. However, other information proves that the Yemen station never communicated this to the FBI, even though it was working closely with FBI investigators into the Cole bombing. This raises questions as to why the CIA station in Yemen failed to pass this information on and whether this failure was part of a wider agreement to withhold information from the bureau.
The document, found at the archives by History Commons contributor Erik Larson (a.k.a. paxvector) and uploaded to the 9/11 Document Archive at Scribd, is a set of comments by the CIA’s Office of General Counsel on a draft section of the 9/11 Commission’s staff statement 10, Threats and Responses in 2001.
The section in the staff report the CIA was complaining about details the identification of Khallad as an attendee at the Malaysia summit by a joint FBI/CIA source on 4 January 2001.
At the request of the head of the FBI’s Cole investigation Ali Soufan, in late 2000 the source had identified a photo of a man thought to be one of the masterminds behind the Cole bombing as bin Attash. At a joint FBI/CIA debriefing of the source a few weeks later, a CIA officer at the station in Islamabad known only as “Chris” showed him two photos taken at the meeting in Malaysia, which had been monitored by the CIA and Malaysian authorities in January 2000. The source identified one of the photos as Khallad (note: the person in the photo turned out not to be Khallad in the end, although Khallad had actually attended the meeting and the CIA had other photos and video of him in Malaysia that it failed to show to the source).
The source’s identification was crucial, as it put Cole mastermind Khallad at an important al-Qaeda meeting that started just two days after the failed attack on the USS The Sullivans, itself a forerunner to the Cole attack. It also clearly linked him to alleged 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, who the CIA already knew to have been at the meeting. Although the CIA knew Almihdhar had a US visa and that the FBI should be informed of this, officers at Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, deliberately withheld this information from the bureau.
The passage to the CIA station in Yemen is one more opportunity the CIA failed to take to pass the information on to the FBI. Chris should have informed his FBI counterpart of the identification (the FBI representative did not speak the source’s language). He should then have reported the identification in a cable he drafted to the wider US intelligence community about the debriefing of the source, but omitted it from the cable. Officers at Alec Station, which had received a CIA-only cable that did detail the identification, then met with the FBI’s Cole investigators to discuss the case, but again failed to tell them of the identification. In early February, Soufan and a colleague flew to Pakistan to meet Chris and the source and have the source formally repeat the identification of Khallad in the first photograph. Yet Chris never mentioned that the source had also identified Khallad in one of the Kuala Lumpur photos.
The newly found document adds one more example of this list of failure.
The changes to the staff statement proposed by the CIA point out: “CIA disseminated information about the photo identification to Aden, Yemen, where the Cole investigation was centered and FBI and CIA officers were working hand-in-hand.”
In the comments the CIA adds:
The report from the case officer about the identification of Khallad was disseminated to, inter alia, Aden Station in Yemen. The only purpose of dissemination to Aden would have been to aid the Cole investigation. Aden was the center of the investigation of the Cole bombing. FBI investigators and CIA officers were meeting daily to work on the Cole case. They had pledged to share their information and were doing so.
Nevertheless, it is clear the FBI’s Cole investigators did not know of the identification of Khallad in Malaysia and that they did not even know that there had been any al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia until after 9/11–they would have recalled such a key breakthrough, and there would have been a flurry of contemporary documents about it. However, based on witness interviews they suspected that there had been such a meeting somewhere in Southeast Asia and kept asking the CIA if they knew anything about one. The CIA repeatedly denied this, despite the bag full of photos and video it had.
The number of occasions on which the CIA failed to pass on the information and its gravity–al-Qaeda had just blown up a destroyer, killing 17–indicate that this was not just some minor oversight by the agency, but that it deliberately withheld this information from the FBI and that it acted in bad faith. The reason for this is not yet 100% clear, although the CIA was withholding information about both Almihdhar and Khallad in Kuala Lumpur, and the logical conclusion is that its actions regarding the two main were linked.
Further bad faith by the CIA is shown by its attitude after 9/11, when it claimed that it thought it had told the FBI of the Khallad identification at the time it happened. For example, Counterterrorist Center Director Cofer Black told the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry:
I want to be as clear as I can be that FBI agents and analysts had full access to information we acquired about the Cole attack. For example, we ran a joint operation with the FBI to determine if a Cole suspect was in a Kuala Lumpur surveillance photo. I want to repeat-it was a joint operation. The FBI had access to that information from the beginning. More specifically, our records establish that the Special Agents from the FBI’s New York Field Office who were investigating the USS Cole attack reviewed the information about the Kuala Lumpur photo in late January 2001.
Yet on 13 July 2001, Tom Wilshire, a CIA manager involved in the withholding of information about Almihdhar from the FBI, wrote to his superiors at the CIA and asked them if he could tell the FBI that the source had identified Khallad in a Kuala Lumpur photo. This is doubly bizarre. First, the fact that Wilshire was asking for permission to tell the bureau shows he thought the bureau did not already have the information, undercutting Black’s contention the CIA thought the FBI’s Cole investigators knew of the identification. Second, the information was generated from a joint FBI/CIA source at a joint debriefing, meaning that it was FBI information just as much as it was CIA information, and no approval from CIA managers was required to “share” it with the bureau.
The CIA continued to withhold the information about Khallad until 30 August, when it sent a message to the FBI saying, “We wish to advise you that, during a previously scheduled meeting with our joint source,” Khallad was identified in a surveillance photograph.
The list of occasions and amount of information the CIA withheld from the FBI in the run-up to 9/11 is already impressive, and the newly found document simply adds one more tile to an ever-growing mosaic. The likelihood is that there is more that we don’t know, more information that the CIA purposely withheld.