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December 18, 2009

Writing Blind or Turning a Blind Eye? The Confused World of Amy Zegart


I recently had the misfortune to read Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11 by Amy Zegart. I have to say it is the very worst book I have ever read abut 9/11. It was even worse than this one, which, as you can appreciate, is difficult, and it was way, way worse than this one, this one and this FBI press release. I haven’t read this one yet, and I anticipate it will be a lot, lot worse even than Zegart’s attempt, but you never know.

Basically, Zegart takes the 9/11 Commission’s no-fault thesis to the nth degree by claiming the whole thing was systemic failure and holding no individual accountable for his or her failures.

Here are a typical couple of paragraphs of dreck, about the FBI’s search for Almihdhar and Alhazmi:

Culture also played an important role. It turns out that the FBI analyst who requested the manhunt actually believed the matter had some urgency. She was so worried about finding Almihdhar, in fact that she called an agent in New York’s bin Laden squad to alert him even before finishing her formal request. This was something she had never done before.14 A few days later, she sent him an e-mail urging, “I… want to get this going as soon as possible.”15 In addition, when another counterterrorism agent pressed to have the manhunt opened as a full-scale, high priority criminal investigation, she explicitly considered the matter and sought legal advice. Yet she ultimately assigned the manhunt the lowest possible priority: a “routine” intelligence case. Why?

The answer lies in pervasive attitudes and beliefs, not individual errors. Like nearly all FBI officials, the analyst believed that criminal investigations—which are designed to solve past crimes—took precedence over intelligence investigations designed to gather information about future attacks. After September 11, the analyst told Justice Department officials that although she considered finding Almihdhar to be important, this investigation was “no bigger” than any other intelligence investigation at the time.16 Good instincts led the analyst to take unusual steps to expedite the search, but old attitudes prevailed: when pressed to prioritize the manhunt relative to the bureau’s traditional law enforcement work, she put down “routine.”

Those knowledgeable of the issues will have identified in this passage Dina Corsi (the FBI analyst), Craig Donnachie (the bin Laden squad agent) and Steve Bongardt (the other counterterrorism agent). Having read the relevant sources, Zegart knows who these people are, but, with the exception of a walk-on part for Bongardt in an end note late in the book, she doesn’t trouble her readers with them. This means that unless you have read all of Zegart’s sources five times yourself, you can’t tell that some of the same people are involved in multiple failures.

You can also only marvel at Zegart’s description of Corsi’s actions. Zegart has her charging hard to get the case started, but it took her a week to send the five-page lead to New York, so how much did she really want it? And your jaw can only drop in wonder at Zegart’s explanation for Corsi giving the lead routine precedence. As Zegart must know, Almihdhar and Alhazmi were being sought as material witnesses in the Cole bombing investigation, which was actually a past crime, having occurred the previous October. This, in Zegart’s world, should mean that the investigation gets a high priority, but Zegart keeps this from her readers, giving them the impression the two men were being sought for some other reason.

There are also three things startling by their absence here. One is the complete absence of Tom Wilshire, referred to variously and vaguely throughout the book, but never by name and never by an alias readers can keep track off. Zegart cites The Looming Tower repeatedly, so she must know who he is, but she isn’t telling her readers. Second, in the whole of the discussion of the failed hunt for Almihdhar the two things conspicuous by their entire absence from the book are the NSA’s permission to share its intelligence on Almihdhar and Alhazmi with Bongardt and other criminal agents and Sherry Sabol’s alleged (and probably fabricated) opinion that Bongardt could not be present at an interview of Almihdhar if the FBI did find him. Why does Zegart miss them out? We don’t know, but we do know that they are pretty powerful evidence of intentional wrongdoing by Corsi, and that if you wanted to write a book claiming systemic failure was the main cause of 9/11, you’d better leave them out.

Here’s another couple of paragraphs of the same, this time about the shouting match meeting and the run-up to it:

That same month, another CIA official had the chance to disclose information about the plot to an FBI counterpart but did not. The CIA official, an analyst who was trying to identify someone else in US custody in connection with the Cole bombing, showed an FBI Intelligence Operations Specialist a picture of Almihdhar but said nothing about the fact that the picture had been taken at a meeting with Khallad, that Almihdhar held a US visa, or that he might travel to the United States.

On June 11, the same CIA analyst met with FBI agents from the New York field office who were investigating the Cole case. The New York agents were also shown copies of Almihdhar’s photo. But they were told only his name. One of the New York agents pressed for more information, asking, “Why were you looking at this guy? You couldn’t have been following everybody… What was the reason behind this?” He didn’t get an answer. The CIA analyst said that the information could not be passed, but might be shared in the days and weeks to come. It wasn’t despite repeated inquiries by the FBI agent.

Let’s take the errors here one by one.

First, like I said earlier, in order to understand what went on, you really have to name the players involved. If you don’t do this, you don’t understand that the same people are involved in multiple failures on multiple occasions and that Wilshire is involved in pretty much all of them.

Second, the “CIA official, an analyst” Zegart refers to is Clark Shannon. However, he did not show the FBI Intelligence Operations Specialist, Corsi, the photo of Almihdhar. Zegart cites two sources for the claim it was Shannon that showed the photo to Corsi, the Congressional Inquiry report and the staff statement read by Eleanor Hill on 20 September 2002. Neither of these sources say what Zegart claims they say. The correct source is the Justice Department inspector general’s report, which clearly states it was Wilshire who showed the photo to Corsi.

Third, the “someone else in US custody in connection with the Cole bombing” was Fahad al-Quso, who, I trust, would be surprised to learn he was ever in US custody. The Yemeni authorities who held him would have been equally surprised, as would the bureau.

Fourth, the New York agents were not only told Almihdhar’s name at the 11 June meeting. They were also told he was travelling on a Saudi passport, which you can also learn from the DoJ IG report or the relevant entry in the 9/11 Timeline.

Fifth, CIA analyst Shannon did not say that the information might be passed, Corsi said that. Zegart cites an “unidentified FBI agent” testifying before the Congressional Inquiry on 20 September 2002 for this (and she knows this is Bongardt). The testimony makes it clear that Corsi, not Shannon said she would try to get the information passed.

So, in one paragraph Zegart confuses Shannon with Wilshire and in the next she confuses him with Corsi. Way to go.

This has already been a long post, so just one more example:

The FBI’s decentralized field office structure proved even more crippling. Within a seven-week period, three different field offices uncovered leads to the plot. Phoenix identified a connection between bin Laden and flight schools, Minneapolis arrested a suspicious jihadist who wanted to fly 747s, and New York began searching for two suspected al-Qaeda operatives. Because of the autonomous field office structure, however, none of the agents working these cases knew about the others,54 and most of the FBI’s fifty-three other field offices didn’t either…

Zegart repeats this over and over throughout the book like a mantra. However, it is so obviously untrue that even she has to add a sort-of disclaimer. If you turn to endnote 55, this is what you get:

The Phoenix memo reached some officials in the New York field office and was forwarded to the Portland Office, which took no action. No other field offices received it. The Moussaoui investigation was known by a handful of headquarters officials and some agents in the bureau’s Oklahoma City field office who had been dispatched to Airman Flight School, which Moussaoui had previously attended…

The problem here is that Rita Flack, an FBI headquarters employee, worked on the Moussaoui case and read the Phoenix memo, Jack Cloonan, a New York agent, was involved in the hunt for Almihdhar and Alhazmi and was also the main NY agent to whom the Phoenix memo was forwarded, and Wilshire was the senior manager involved in the hunt for Almihdhar and Alhazmi, and also the most senior official fully involved (not counting Michael Rolince’s bit part) in the Moussaoui case. (And while we are at it HQ employee Jennifer Maitner worked on the Phoenix memo and President Bush’s August 6 PDB). The sources Zegart cites state this repeatedly, and she must know it.

I guess a well-paid lawyer could argue that agents that were working on the cases did not know of the other cases. After all, Flack’s technical job title was intelligence operations specialist, not agent, and Wilshire was a manager. In addition, Cloonan didn’t work on the manhunt, he just supervised it.

On the other hand, I’m not a well-paid lawyer, so I call this “pulling a fast one on your readers” and have no choice but to give her a Hayden for honesty. Whatever you do, don’t read this book, it is completely worthless.

P.S. I just have to add this. One thing that is remarkable is the near-total absence of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice from the book. One would have thought that the National Security Advisor at the time of the attacks was a key figure in the interagency process whose conduct should be analysed in detail. However Rice, whose performance has been criticised by just about everybody except her staunchest supporters, only gets two mentions in the book: on page 6 she takes a pop at the Clinton administration and on page 109 she says she thought the FBI had it under control. You can certainly criticize, say, the 9/11 Commission’s treatment of Rice, but at least they mentioned most of the important events that involved her (except this one, of course). So what explains Zegart’s lack of interest in Rice? This does (second sentence, third paragraph). The Wayback Machine is so useful, isn’t it? Incidentally, here‘s a current version of the same page where the offending reference has been airbrushed out.

3 Comments »

  1. Farmer’s main source for his analysis? Amy Zegart. She got all sorts of access to the intelligence community for her book. It’s not hard to understand why.

    If the bureaucratic inefficiency model is correct then why is the intelligence community sitting on the 9/11 Commission MFR’s which involve agents associated with the al-Hazmi/al-Midhdar withholding? Is the excessive secrecy intended to conceal already revealed bureaucratic inefficiency?

    Comment by Mike — December 18, 2009 @ 5:47 am | Reply

  2. Tell us how you really feel, Kev…

    Thanks for the heads up on what not to leave under the tree this year🙂

    Comment by Jane Novak — December 18, 2009 @ 9:16 am | Reply

  3. Kevin, did you write a version of this for Amazon? Credulous readers should be warned of what they’re about to receive….

    Comment by Max — January 24, 2010 @ 10:19 pm | Reply


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