The 9/11 Conspiracy of Incompetence

A new book by an Emmy Award-winning journalist chronicles the exploits of the "triple-crossing" superspy who outwitted and outgunned our intelligence agencies, Ali Mohamed.
What if I told you that a member of Osama bin Laden's inner circle operated with impunity within the United States for years before Sept. 11? That despite being an ardent and avowed jihadi, he managed to become a naturalized citizen, join the U.S. Army, get posted to the Special Warfare Center where Green Berets and Delta Force train, and work with both the CIA and the FBI? And all the while, he was a top al Qaeda operative, hosting the organization's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, when he traveled to the United States in the 1990s to raise money, and training both bin Laden's personal bodyguard and radical Muslims who would go on to assassinate Jewish militant Meir Kahane and detonate a truck bomb at the World Trade Center?

Would you take it as evidence that our so-called intelligence community was abjectly incompetent and dysfunctional in the months and years before 9/11? Or would you see it as further proof that the powers-that-be were the powers behind 9/11, either "making it happen on purpose?" Or alternately: "letting it happen on purpose?"

With time running out on the lame duck Bush administration (now well on its way to becoming a "comma," as the president might phrase it), our chances of getting to the bottom of the signal event of the Bush years -- the unsolved murder of nearly 3,000 people, the worst terror attacks ever on U.S. soil, the "day that changed everything," the iconic 9/11 -- are also rapidly fading.

Even as the misnamed "war on terror" continues to heat up, the crime that precipitated it has somehow become a cold case. The only federal prosecution directly associated with the attacks -- that of Zacarias Moussaoui -- ended in a plea bargain and with an FBI agent accusing his superiors of "criminal negligence." Meanwhile, in the absence of a truly unfettered investigation, amidst calls from victims' families for a reopened, nonpartisan inquiry, and with many major questions still unanswered more than five years after the fact, it is unsurprising that faith-based theories continue to pour into the information vacuum and assume, at least for some, an aura of truth.

Numerous polls indicate that few Americans now believe they have been told the truth about 9/11. According to one poll conducted recently for the New York Times and CBS News, more than 80 percent think the administration is either "mostly lying" or at least "hiding something." Before it becomes too late, and the case too cold, is it still possible to determine what happened on 9/11 -- and why?

Did some version of the MIHOP or LIHOP conspiracy theories actually take place? Or were our leaders and their minions in the intelligence community simply so incompetent that they missed dozens, if not hundreds, of pre-attack "threat assessments," warnings, signs and indications that, as the notorious PDB of Aug. 6, 2001, bluntly informed the president, Osama Bin Laden was "Determined to Strike in U.S.?" If so, did they then conspire to cover up their "criminally negligent" incompetence?

Count author Peter Lance, an Emmy-winning former reporter and producer for ABC News, among those who believe in the "9/11 Incompetence Conspiracy Theory." Lance's new book, "Triple Cross," tells the amazing story of an al Qaeda superspy named Ali Mohamed. As Lance writes, "In the annals of espionage, few men have moved in and out of the deep black world between the hunters and the hunted with as much audacity as Ali Mohamed."

Mohamed's fundamentalist proclivities were no secret to U.S. intelligence. As early as 1989, he turned up in FBI surveillance photos, conducting weapons training of followers of the Omar Abdel Rahman, the "blind sheikh" now imprisoned for his role in a plot to blow up the United Nations and several bridges and tunnels into Manhattan. The sheikh's followers would later be involved in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, but Ali Mohamed not only avoided arrest but managed to become an FBI informant, even while smuggling bin Laden in and out of Afghanistan, writing much of the al Qaeda terrorist manual and helping to plan attacks on American troops in Somalia and U.S. embassies in Africa.

''The FBI allowed the chief spy for al Qaeda to operate right under their noses,'' Lance says in amazement. ''They let him plan the bombings of the embassies in Africa right under their noses. Two hundred twenty-four people were killed and more than 4,000 wounded because of their negligence."

While some contend that Mohamed's intimate relations with the FBI and CIA are proof of government involvement in a 9/11 plot, Lance says that it was instead embarrassment and ass-covering on the part of Justice and Pentagon officials over the mishandling of Ali Mohammed that led first to a conspiracy of silence and then to a conspiracy to cover up their incompetence and deception. He believes that chagrin over the fact that bin Laden's spy stole top-secret intelligence (including, for example, the positions of all Green Beret and SEAL units worldwide) led to a decision on high to bury the entire Able Danger intelligence program, which identified the al Qaeda cell active in Brooklyn months before the 9/11 attacks, and also identified Ali Mohamed as a member of bin Laden's inner circle as early as March 2000. Lance further states that then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was "hopelessly outgunned by Mohamed" and covered up key al Qaeda intelligence as far back as 1996.

Although Fitzgerald called Mohamed "the most dangerous man I've ever met," he left him on the street for years, which allowed Mohamed time to help plan the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998, in which 224 died and more than 4,000 were injured. Fitzgerald, who later became both U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and Special Prosecutor in the Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame CIA leak probe, finally arrested Ali Mohamed after the bombings in 1998. But Fitzgerald then cut a deal that allowed Mohamed to avoid the death penalty and enter witness protection. Although Mohammed was kept in federal custody for three years, Fitzgerald and his FBI and Justice Department associates were unable to extract any information from him about the looming 9/11 plot.

Finally, in October 2000, after having tricked the U.S. intelligence establishment for years, Mohammed admitted in federal court his involvement in plots to kill U.S. soldiers in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, U.S. ambassadors in Africa, and American civilians "anywhere in the world." Despite these admissions, he has never been sentenced, the details of his plea agreement remain secret, and his whereabouts today are unknown to all but a few.

Given the many mistakes and apparent government deception obvious from even a cursory examination of the Ali Mohamed case, along with related miscues involving the Central Intelligence Agency (see "The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright, and "State of Denial" by Bob Woodward), the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and high officials at Special Operations Command, Central Command, and yes, the White House, it's no wonder that conspiracists see evidence -- if not outright proof -- for their "loose change" theories of what happened on 9/11.

But in writing his brilliantly researched, highly detailed, exhaustive (and at nearly 500 pages, exhausting!) account of how Osama bin Laden's master spy "triple crossed" the CIA, the Green Berets and the FBI, Lance has actually done the 9/11 truth movement a distinct service. The media and the government's national security apparatus may have failed to "connect the dots," but Peter Lance certainly has in "Triple Cross."

Was there a government conspiracy behind the attacks of 9/11? Or did the true conspiracy begin only after the attacks, in a desperate but thus far successful attempt to avoid scandal and obscure the truth that our intelligence agencies had suppressed critical intelligence and bungled their jobs? Whatever your faith and belief, the Ali Mohamed story seems key to understanding the full truth of 9/11. "Could the attacks have been prevented?" Lance asks. "If so, who in our government should be blamed for the failure?" And finally, and most importantly, "have our intelligence agencies undergone sufficient reform to prevent future assaults on America?"
Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the Media Is A Plural blog.
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