The Spy Who Dissed Me

A few days ago, CIA chief George Tenet threw a hissy fit and fired off a letter to the four leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees. What had angered him was that the staff of the committees’ joint investigation of Sept. 11 had noted in a briefing book that Cofer Black, the past chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, would "probably dissemble" -- that is, not tell the full truth -- during his public testimony before the panels. "This suggestion is an affront not only to him," Tenet huffed, "but to every man and woman in the CIA." Tenet decried congressional investigators for harboring "bias" and "apparent animus" against the spies.

The nation’s top spy-bureaucrat was playing by an old rule: The best defense is a strong offense -- and his letter, for at least a day, displaced the negative press the CIA had been receiving. For several weeks, the intelligence community -- as it is called in Washington -- had been suffering at the hands of the committees’ investigators. In July, members of the intelligence committees told reporters their probe had unearthed no smoking-gun evidence showing U.S. intelligence had missed a clear clue that the 9/11 attacks were coming. These legislators said the committee would be focusing on so-called systematic problems -- meaning those institutional flaws for which no one ever gets blamed. So expectations were low when the committees in mid-September started holding hearings and releasing staff reports. Yet those expectations were quickly blown away, as the initial report revealed that various intelligence agencies -- the CIA included -- had missed many more signals than previously acknowledged that terrorists, including those connected to al-Qaeda, had for years been considering a 9/11 sort of attack against the United States.

Remember national security adviser Condoleeza Rice and others, after 9/11, asserting no one could have foreseen such a horrific event. Well, poof -- say goodbye to that canard. The first staff report demonstrated the CIA and other intelligence agencies paid insufficient attention to these hints. That is a good reason for committee members to send angry letters to Tenet, asking why no one supposedly has lost his or her job for that strategic screw-up. Or to ask whether he is stonewalling for the Bush White House. Tenet, using his power to declare information classified, refused to allow the intelligence committees to say whether a July 2001 briefing to "senior government officials" -- which reported that Osama bin Laden "will launch a significant terrorist attack" against the United States that "will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties" -- was actually delivered to Bush. (It probably was.)

Overlooking signs a 9/11 attack was coming is not the only CIA blunder chronicled by the committees. The staffers have probed the CIA’s handling of information it possessed regarding two suspected terrorists who ended up on the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon. This matter was an important subject of Black’s testimony, and, in keeping with the briefing book prediction, Black was not forthcoming.

A report written by the committees’ staff details this tragic episode. (Even if you have seen some of this already in the press, this story remains worth dwelling upon.) In January 2000, the CIA was spying on a meeting in Malaysia of individuals believed to be associated with Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. Days after the meeting ended, the CIA identified at least two of the participating individuals: Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. The Agency also knew that at this time that al-Mihdhar held a U.S. visa that allowed him multiple entries into the United States. As the report notes, "Al-Mihdhar’s and Nawaf al-Hazmi’s names could have been, but were not, added at this time to the State Department, INS, and U.S. Customs Service watchlists denying individuals entry into the United States."

It gets worse. In March 2000, the CIA learned al-Hazmi had entered the United States via Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 15. It did not act on this information. It did not alert the FBI that a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist was in the country. Nor did it consider the possibility that al-Mihdhar, who earlier had been traveling with al-Hazmi, might also have come to America at that time -- which, it turns out, he had. "The sharing of this information with the FBI and appropriate law enforcement authorities," the staff report says, "could have prompted investigative efforts to locate these individuals and surveil their activities within the United States. Unfortunately, none of these things happened." Both men, using their true names, settled in San Diego and took flight lessons.

In January 2001, the CIA learned that the suspected mastermind of the Oct. 12 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen had attended the terrorist summit in Malaysia. This ought to have raised new suspicions about al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. But, again, the CIA did not add their names to the State Department watchlist. In May 2001, CIA personnel mentioned al-Mihdhar’s presence at the Malaysia meeting to an FBI intelligence operations specialist. But the CIA did not say anything about al-Mihdhar’s possible presence in the United States. The following month, a CIA analyst who was aware of al-Hazmi’s travel to the United States and al-Mihdhar’s U.S. visa, met with FBI officials during a CIA-FBI meeting concerning the Cole investigation, but he did not pass that information to the FBI. This CIA man told the committees’ staff "that he would not share information outside of the CIA unless he had authority to do so and unless that was the purpose of the meeting." Meanwhile, on June 13, 2001, al-Mihdhar, who had left the United States, obtained a new US visa in Saudi Arabia, and a month later he re-entered the United States without any trouble. He was still not on a watchlist.

On Aug. 23, 2001 -- after an FBI analyst assigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center had reviewed material concerning the Malaysia meeting and concluded that these two men needed to be put on the watchlist immediately -- the CIA notified State, INS, Customs and the FBI to be on the look-out for al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. This warning came late. Nineteen days later, both men boarded American Airlines Flight 77, which soon after takeoff rammed into the Pentagon.

What a series of mistakes! The report says, "There were numerous opportunities during the tracking of these two suspected terrorists when the CIA could have alerted the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement authorities to the probability that these individuals either were or would soon be in the United States. That was not done."

Now let’s turn to Cofer Black’s testimony. Regarding this dark chapter, he said, "While the [Malaysian] meeting was in progress, CTC [CIA] officers detailed to the FBI kept the FBI updated through verbal briefings. Where we fell short was in our not informing the Department of State that we had identified two al Qaeda men so that the Department could decide whether to place them on the watchlist." That was the CIA’s only error here, according to Black. By not addressing the CIA’s repeated failure to inform the FBI -- and by suggesting that the FBI had been told about the meeting -- he was indeed being disingenuous.

Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, pressed Black on this point. "There’s another problem here besides failing to notify the State Department," Levin said, "and that was the failure to notify the FBI ... Why was the FBI not notified until August 2001?" Black did not directly answer the senator. He noted that "the nature of our work" is "very fast-paced." He then tried to suggest that there had been "communication between CIA officers in the Counterterrorist Center and individuals in the FBI," and repeated the mea culpa regarding the State Department watchlist. He was dissembling. Levin would not let up, however, and demanded to know if the CIA had specifically told the FBI about al-Hazmi’s travel plans and al-Mihdhar’s possible entry into the United States. "What I am saying," Black replied, "is the identities and the names of the individuals were [communicated], but the issue of the visa is problematic. We have no evidence that that piece of information was communicated"

To cut a long story short: Black did try to shave the truth, and Levin outed him. Tenet’s outrage is misdirected. He should be this mad at the CIA folks who let two of the presumed 9/ll hijackers develop their plot unnoticed and unmolested by U.S. law enforcement.

This hissing match between Tenet and the intelligence committees reveals that in Washington’s bureaucratic culture, self-protection comes before accountability. The spies messed up big, but Tenet appears more concerned about a slight to one of his officers (for which Eleanor Hill, the inquiry’s staff director felt compelled to apologize). And Tenet takes the absurd position that if the intelligence committees dare challenge the word of any CIA official, they are insulting every CIA employee. This is a cheap attempt at intimidating the intelligence committees, who are, surprisingly, making the CIA look worse than might be assumed.

And days after Tenet dispatched that poison-pen letter, his CIA sent the Senate intelligence committee a report on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction too late for it to be digested before a scheduled closed-door hearing with CIA officials on Iraq. Moreover, the report did not cover areas that the committee members considered crucial and had requested be studied. The CIA also declined a congressional request for a report on its clandestine operations in Iraq. All this naysaying prompted Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who chairs the intelligence committee, to accuse Tenet and the CIA of "obstructionism." It's about time Congress got mad with the Agency.

Last February, testifying before the Senate intelligence committees, Tenet declared that Sept. 11 "was not the result of the failure of attention and discipline and focus" on the part of the CIA. But the CIA did drop one big ball with the al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi case. No one can ever know what would have happened had the Agency red-flagged two of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers eighteen months before the attacks. But this was indeed a monumental failure of attention and focus. It's true cause for anger -- and perhaps punishment -- rather than an offending (though accurate) sentence in a briefing book.

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