History Commons Groups

November 19, 2009

The Sabol-Corsi Consultation: FBI General Counsel’s Take

One of the documents Erik found at the National Archives and posted to the 9/11 Document Archive contains additional information about the failure to find alleged Pentagon hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. The document, a memo of a 9/11 Commission interview of former FBI General Counsel Larry Parkinson drafted by commission staffer Barbara Grewe, concerns a consultation on August 28, 2001 between Dina Corsi, an FBI headquarters agent, and Sherry Sabol, an attorney at the FBI’s National Security Law Unit.

This consultation has been erroneously reported in several venues, such as Justice Department inspector general’s report into the FBI’s pre-9/11 failings, the Congressional Inquiry report and the main text of the 9/11 Commission report, although an endnote to the commission’s report (number 81 to chapter eight) tells a different, seemingly much more accurate story. As nobody reads endnotes, the story from the three reports has been picked up around the media as a badge for the FBI’s perceived hopelessness before 9/11.

Some background is required to understand the issue. On August 21, 2001, Margaret Gillespie, an FBI agent on loan to the CIA who was allegedly analysing cables about al-Qaeda’s Malaysia Summit at the suggestion of Tom Wilshire, a manager at the CIA and then FBI, apparently discovered that Almihdhar had entered the US. Wilshire had previously ordered that this information be concealed from the bureau, back in January 2000, when he worked for Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit.

Gillespie then Wilshire, who by this time had moved to the FBI, and Corsi. None of them remember that meeting much, but Corsi informed the FBI’s New York field office about the case and said she would soon ask them to begin searching for Almihdhar. The search was to be an intelligence investigation, which would limit the resources and tools that could be used. The distinction between criminal and intelligence investigations had potential significance because of the “wall,” a set of rules that governed information sharing between criminal agents, intelligence agents and prosecutors.

A criminal agent in New York investing the USS Cole bombing, Steve Bongardt, learned of the forthcoming search. Bongardt knew Corsi thought Almihdhar was connected to the Cole bombing, but didn’t know exactly why she thought this–she had been withholding information from him for months.

Bongardt, and two other agents in New York, told Corsi the search for Almihdhar should be a criminal, not intelligence investigation, which would allow the use of more resources and tools. However, Corsi disagreed and said she would consult a bureau attorney, who turned out of be Sabol. Two questions were to be put to Sabol: should the search be a criminal or intelligence investigation? and if it were an intelligence investigation and Almihdhar were located, could a criminal agent be present?

Sabol and Corsi agree that the consultation occurred and agree Sabol advised the search should be an intelligence investigation (which was bad advice, although Corsi did not present all the facts to Sabol). However, Corsi says Sabol told her a criminal agent could not be present at an interview. When Corsi told Bongardt this the next day, it led to his famous “someday someone will die” e-mail, without which no account of the FBI’s actions before 9/11 is complete.

Sabol denies this, although you won’t find Sabol’s denial in the Justice Department inspector general’s report, the Congressional Inquiry report or the main text of the 9/11 Commission report. This is the problem with them; they imply that Corsi’s claim about the consultation is established fact, whereas in reality it is, at best, a he-said she-said situation. You have to dig into the 9/11 Commission endnote mentioned above to find this; there Sabol “denies advising that [Bongardt] could not participate in an interview and notes that she would not have given such inaccurate advice.”

This is where Parkinson’s comments come in. Basically, he backed Sabol up, saying that such bad advice would have been shocking. Page 6 of the 9/11 Commission memo says:

When told that Dina Corsi alleged that NSLU had told her that no criminal agents could be involved in the search for the two men and none could participate in any interview if they were found, Parkinson said he would be shocked if anyone in NSLU gave such advice. He said there would have been no problem with a criminal agent hopping in on the search or participating in the interview. There was no FISA on these individuals so no internal walls would have been applicable.

Given that the advice would be shockingly bad, Sabol denies it, and there is no documentation of the actual consultation (just Corsi’s later e-mail to Bongardt, which, the commission’s endnote comments, was not copied to Sabol, so Sabol “did not have an opportunity to confirm or reject the advice [Corsi] was giving to [Bongard]”), who are we to believe?

Well, Sabol is an attorney of unblemished record, whereas on several occasions over the summer of 2001 Corsi threw a spanner in the works of the investigation of Almihdhar and Alhazmi (see here, here, here, here, here, here and very especially here) and she was working for a guy who had previously withheld the information about them.


  1. In the same time period the CIA was warning of possible attacks while the FBI was investigating an al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole. To think that Corsi’s conduct was at all appropriate and that such a key investigation was limited to her discretion is very hard to believe. By that I mean one would think (plausible deniability comes to mind) the al-Hazmi/al-Mihdhar investigation would have been at the FBI Director level. Yet Pickard would have us believe he was out of the loop. Corsi was reporting to Wilshire who was likely reporting to Blee>Black>Tenet>Cheney. Meaning Corsi was likely not the key official making such bizarre decisions but rather was following orders. This would explain why she was not singled out after 9/11 and was in fact promoted. The difficulty is in getting past the BS explanations like the Gorelick wall. Why would FBI agents be ordered to obstruct al Qaeda investigations? Where is the KSM fearmongering crowd on this question? One would think they would be very, very bothered by such conduct. Oddly this doesn’t appear to be the case. They appear satisfied with BS answers.

    Comment by Mike — November 19, 2009 @ 3:19 am | Reply

  2. Mike, I gotta agree with most of that. Corsi must have been doing what Wilshire wanted, although how his desires were communicated to her exactly is a grey area. Wilshire was clearly reporting to Blee, but who Blee was reporting to is unclear to me. It’s not even clear he was reporting to anybody. Maybe he was doing the whole thing on his own.

    Black must have figured it out at least halfway afterwards and decided to protect Blee and continue to further his career. Why Black did that I have no idea. Maybe Blee had a ready-made explanation that Black bought. Maybe Black had signed off on whatever Blee was doing and the incorrect briefings of Black by Blee around the millennium were the result of Black’s orders to Blee that Blee create a paper trail showing Black didn’t know what was going on. If I had to pick, though, right now I’d go for Blee on his own, duping Black and then feeding him a line after the attacks which Black, sensing the alternatives, decided to buy.

    Comment by kevinfenton — November 19, 2009 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

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