Shortly before 9/11 the National Security Agency (NSA) asked Thomas Drake to join its senior staff. As things turned out, Sept. 11 was his first day on the job. Already au courant with key NSA programs via his earlier contract work, Tom was immediately tasked to find out how much information NSA had on terrorist attacks before 9/11.
Drake found an embarrassing abundance of such information. But when he told top NSA management, his investigation was abruptly shut down. On Jan. 7, 2014 in a VIPS Memorandum prepared for President Obama, "NSA Insiders Reveal What Went Wrong."
Drake wrote: "Make no mistake. That data [collected and analyzed by NSA] could have, should have prevented 9/11."
As the post-9/11 months dragged on, Drake had to listen to NSA Director Michael Hayden’s gloating over the ease with which he was able to hide NSA’s egregious performance. It is a good guess that a huge part of that "ease" can be attributed to protection by Hayden’s very powerful patron, Vice President Dick Cheney. It is clear that the Vice President played a key role in "authorizing" unconstitutional surveillance. It is also possible that, BEFORE the 9/11 attacks, Hayden shared with Cheney some of the alarming evidence NSA had collected but otherwise kept to itself. Tom continued:
"In short, when confronted with the prospect of fessing up, NSA chose instead to obstruct the 9/11 congressional investigation, play dumb, and keep the truth buried, including the fact that it knew about all inbound and outbound calls to the [al-Qaeda] safe house switchboard in Yemen. …
"When the 9/11 Commission hearings began, Director Hayden chortled at executive staff meetings over the fact that the FBI and CIA were feeling the heat for not having prevented 9/11. This was particularly difficult for me to sit through, for I was aware that NSA had been able to cover up its own culpability by keeping investigators, committees, and commissions away from the truth." ***
FBI and CIA Feeling the Heat
The role played by NSA Director Hayden was replicated by his counterparts at the FBI and CIA – in addition to other ossified bureaucracies like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Each had intelligence information, that could have, and should have, thwarted the attacks of 9/11. We know some of that from the public record – although not much from the literarily polished but grossly deficient "The 9/11 Commission Report".
Deficient? Let’s take just a moment to remind ourselves that those who would rely on that poor excuse for an investigative report are not working with a full deck, and that this was openly acknowledged by the commission’s co-chairmen, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton. A couple of years after the formal report they published a book Without Precedent, which began with the words, "We were set up to fail." They elaborated, "both of us were aware of grumbling around Washington that the 9/11 Commission was doomed – if not designed – to fail". Besides complaining about inadequate funding and too little time, the two predicted, accurately, that they "would be denied the necessary access to do the job". (NOW they tell us.)
Several of us VIPs (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity) were involved in intelligence work related to 9/11. Coleen Rowley, a FBI special agent for more than 20 years, was legal counsel to the FBI field office in Minneapolis from 1990 to 2003. Bogdan Dzakovic was a special agent for the FAA’s security division. On Oct. 15, 2010, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed in which both wrote about their frustration – and that of their close-to-the-ground colleagues – at the ossified bureaucracies that ignored the warnings they gave before 9/11.
A gutsy investigative journalist like the late Michael Hastings could write a volume about FBI mismanagement under Director Louis Freeh and his deputy Thomas Pickard, as well as the cover-up (and worse) under Director Robert Mueller (yes, that Robert Mueller) of Bureau errors pre-9/11. Let’s focus here on what Coleen Rowley observed from her catbird seat in the Minneapolis Division. After arresting would-be hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui on August 16, 2001, Rowley’s FBI colleagues in Minneapolis ran into scarcely believable foot-dragging by FBI headquarters functionaries, who would not permit a search of Moussaoui’s laptop computer or his personal effects.
In late August, the same Washington functionaries stonewalled an FBI Minneapolis Division supervisor, who emphasized that he was just "trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing it into the World Trade Center." (Yes, those were his exact words.) Special Agent Harry Samit, who helped arrest Moussaoui, later testified that the actions of his FBI superiors in Washington constituted "criminal negligence."
The main fly in the ointment was a FBI Headquarters functionary, Marion "Spike" Bowman, the lawyer who turned down the agents in Minneapolis when they asked for a search warrant against Moussaoui. At Mueller’s recommendation, Bowman was later awarded a Presidential Rank Award and large cash bonus – incentives characterized by some congressional overseers as rewards for incompetence – or for risking/doing nothing.
Former Air Marshal Bogdan Dzakovic led an elite "Red Team" for the Federal Aviation Administration to probe vulnerabilities of airports and aircraft during the years before 9/11. Given the many holes in security before 9/11, Dzakovic describes the task of hijacking planes "child’s play". In trying to warn those would could plug this holes, Bogdan and his team ran into perpetual foot-dragging at senior levels of the FAA. His story is as painful to hear as FBI Special Agent Harry Samit’s, in terms of being ignored and stymied in the period leading up to 9/11.
Dzakovic’s "Red Team" included two Vietnam veterans: Steve Elson, a retired Navy Seal lieutenant commander, and Brian Sullivan, a retired Army lieutenant colonel with experience in intelligence and law enforcement. Their Red Team had found weaknesses in airport and airline security nine out of ten times, vulnerabilities that made it possible to smuggle weapons aboard and seize control of airplanes.
Starting in 1997-98, the Team worked feverishly through its chain of command, and got nowhere with its urgent warnings. It then went to the FAA inspector general and, later, the Government Accountability Office – and again got nowhere.
Team members then contacted and briefed members of Congress in person, to no avail. As a last resort, about a year before the 9/11 attacks, Team members desperately tried to get the media interested in the calamity they could see brewing. This resulted in only two small stories, easily ignored in other mainstream media.
Testifying before the 9/11 Commission, Dzakovic summed up the Team’s experience:
"In the simulated attacks, the Red Team was extraordinarily successful in killing large numbers of innocent people … [and yet] we were ordered not to write up our reports and not to retest airports where we found particularly egregious vulnerabilities… Finally, the FAA started providing advance notification of when we would be conducting our ‘undercover’ tests and what we would be checking."
Dzakovic has expressed "contempt… for the bureaucrats and politicians who could have prevented 9/11 but didn’t." Adding further bureaucratic insult to injury, the 9/11 Commission did not see fit to include any of his testimony in its report.
Deliberately withholding critical intelligence from those who need it, and can act on it, is, at the least, gross dereliction of duty. The more so if keeping the White House promptly and fully informed is at the top of your job jar, as it was for Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet – especially amid accumulating evidence that a terrorist attack on U.S. territory was in the works.
And yet dereliction of duty is precisely the charge former anti-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke leveled at the former DCI. In a little-noticed interview aired on Aug. 11, 2011 on a local PBS affiliate in Colorado, Clarke charges that Tenet and two other senior CIA officials, Cofer Black and Richard Blee, deliberately withheld information about two of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar. The two had entered the United States more than a year before the 9/11 attacks.
Clarke added that the CIA then covered it all up by keeping relevant information away from Congress and the 9/11 Commission.
Lying by senior officials is bad enough, and there is now plenty of evidence that former CIA Director George Tenet and his closest agency associates are serial offenders. (Think for a minute about the falsehoods spread regarding Iraq’s nonexistent WMD stockpiles.)
But withholding intelligence on two of the 9/11 hijackers would have been particularly unconscionable, the epitome of malfeasance, not just misfeasance.
That’s why Richard Clarke’s conclusion that he should have received information from CIA about al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, "unless somebody intervened to stop the normal automatic distribution" amounts to a criminal charge, given the eventual role of the two in hijacking on 9/11 of AA-77, the plane that struck the Pentagon.
Tenet has denied that the information on the two hijackers was "intentionally withheld" from Clarke, and he has enlisted the other two former CIA operatives, Cofer Black (more recently a senior official of Blackwater) and Richard Blee (an even more shadowy figure), to concur in saying, Not us; we didn’t withhold. Whom to believe?
It is an open question, if a key one, whether Tenet told Bush about the two hijackers, al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, while keeping that key information from the person who most needed it, White House counter-terrorist czar Richard Clarke. Clarke finds the only plausible explanation in his surmise that Tenet was personally responsible.
Clarke says: "For me to this day, it is inexplicable, when I had every other detail about everything related to terrorism, that the director didn’t tell me, that the director of the counterterrorism center didn’t tell me, that the other 48 people inside CIA that knew about it never mentioned it to me or anyone in my staff in a period of over 12 months."
The CIA is said to have had zero spies within al-Qaeda at the time. It would be reasonable to expect that there were desperate attempts to "turn" al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar and get them working for the agency. Once Richard Clarke and – inevitably – the FBI found out about these two al-Qaeda operatives already inside the US, the Bureau would acquire jurisdiction. This may account for Tenet’s unconscionable silence, but it cannot – by a long shot – excuse it.
The Other Big Rap on Tenet
As DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) George Tenet had the authority/responsibility to gather the various elements of the intelligence community and cobble together a National Intelligence Estimate for the President and his chief advisers. The NIE process is designed to provide each intelligence element the opportunity to share information and to make it difficult for a particular agency too hide/hoard relevant data.
After 9/11 the conventional wisdom was that "No one was in charge of the intelligence community". That was self-serving – and dead wrong. Tenet was in charge, but had not ordered an NIE. Indeed, the NIE, once the coin of the realm for intelligence analysis and impact with policy makers, seems to have become a vanishing species. (See: "Generals End-Run Around Civilian Intel Analysts."
*** Drake added, "I subsequently blew the whistle on … NSA’s hoarding of critical pre- and post-9/11 intelligence, and its cover-up. I shared this information via proper channels with the Joint Congressional Inquiry on 9/11 and the Defense Department Inspector General to no avail."
Drake also blew the whistle, through authorized channels, on NSA’s gross violation of 4th Amendment rights, as well as widespread waste, fraud, and abuse.. The Department of Justice retaliated by indicting and prosecuting Drake under the Espionage Act. In July 2011, the DOJ lawyers abruptly dropped felony charges, which could have put Tom in prison for 35 years; at which point Maryland’s Federal District Court judge, Richard D. Bennett, termed DOJ behavior "unconscionable".
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).