For some time we have known that the CIA passed on to the FBI general information about al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit, which was attended by 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, as well as other al-Qaeda leaders, in January 2000. However, with the exception of FBI Director Louis Freeh and the two lower-level officials identified only as “Bob” and “Ted” in the Justice Department inspector general’s report into the bureau’s performance before 9/11, we did not know who at the FBI learned of it.
Now, thanks to a letter from senior FBI official Thomas Pickard that 9/11 researcher Erik Larson found in the National Archives, we can add two names to the list. Unsurprisingly, they are Pickard himself, at the time of the Malaysia summit deputy director, but acting director in the summer of 2001, and Dale Watson, head of the counterterrorism at the FBI from 1999 to 2001.
Pickard’s letter, which deals primarily with Attorney General John Ashcroft’s lack of interest in terrorism at a meeting with Pickard on 12 July 2001, is extremely surprising. It has this to say about Malaysia: “I had not told the AG [Ashcroft] about the meeting in Malaysia since I was told by FBI Assistant Director Dale Watson that there was a ‘close hold’ on that info. This means that it was not to be shared with anyone without the explicit approval of the CIA. I then strongly suggested that the AG meet with [CIA Director] George Tenet to get a full briefing on the matter.”
Although the FBI was told of the meeting’s occurrence in January 2000, the CIA withheld from it key details, such as the fact that Almihdhar had a US visa, meaning that the summit appeared substantially less significant to the bureau than it really was. Indeed, although we now fully appreciate the summit as a unique meeting of al-Qaeda leaders, the CIA subsequently claimed that before 9/11 it did not grasp the full import of the summit, at which 9/11 and the USS Cole bombing in Yemen were evidently discussed.
The first two questions we need to ask are simple: What did Pickard and Watson know about the summit and when did they know it? Did they learn of it in January 2000, or later?
We know now that the CIA, in addition to deliberately withholding information about the summit at the time, continued to withhold it when Ali Soufan, the bureau’s case agent on the Cole bombing investigation, deduced that there had been an al-Qaeda meeting in Southeast Asia in January 2000 that was linked to the Cole bombing. He sent three requests to the CIA for information it might have, but the agency repeatedly claimed it knew nothing. The letter makes it clear that, in addition to the CIA, both Pickard and Watson had some of the information about Malaysia that Soufan was seeking. However, they withheld it from Soufan, evidently on the CIA’s instructions. Had Soufan been given the information he requested, his investigation would have led to Almihdhar and Alhazmi, who could have been detained and/or deported, derailing the 9/11 plot. Therefore, we need to ask what Watson and Pickard did to get the information to Soufan. One would certainly expect them to move heaven and earth to assist such an important investigation. By withholding the information in effect they sabotaged one of the bureau’s most important cases.
Finally, we need to know why Pickard thought the Malaysia summit was important in the summer of 2001. Based on the little information he is known to have had about the meeting, he may well have linked it to the Cole bombing, as it came just after a previous failed ship-bombing attempt in Yemen. But why would he link it to the threat reporting in the summer of 2001?