Author of 9/11’s famed “Phoenix Memo” was told White House’s pursuit of warm relations with kingdom comes first
Former Senate intelligence chair Bob Graham calls FBI’s action “a fundamental assault on the principle of democracy”
By Brian P. McGlinchey
A retired FBI counterterrorism agent with a notable role in the story of 9/11 says the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel told him not to cooperate with attorneys representing 9/11 victims in their suit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia because it could harm U.S.-Saudi relations.
In an exclusive interview with 28Pages.org, Kenneth Williams, author of an ignored July 2001 memo warning that Osama bin Laden may be training pilots in the United States, explains why he has now decided to ignore the FBI’s instructions, Continue reading →
Co-chair of congressional inquiry into 9/11 aids investigative journalist’s FOIA case against FBI
At a federal court hearing in Miami on Tuesday, former U.S. senator and Florida governor Bob Graham was seated at the plaintiff’s table in a case pitting a journalist against the FBI in a fight for transparency about the bureau’s investigation of a Saudi family that suddenly left its upscale Sarasota home shortly before the 9/11 attacks. Continue reading →
Former Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Endorses Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act
In an appearance this morning at the National Press Club, former Senate intelligence committee chairman Bob Graham said the July release of 28 pages from a 2002 congressional inquiry was just the first step toward gaining full transparency on the U.S. government’s investigation of Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks.
“This is removing the cork from the bottle,” said Graham. “There is a significant amount of information which, like the 28 pages, has been withheld and it was necessary to get this first block of material to the public in order to build the support that will be necessary for the balance of the material to flow.”
Pattern of “Aggressive Deception”
Among the countless documents still hidden from public view are those relating to the FBI’s investigation of a wealthy, well-connected Saudi family in Sarasota that reportedly had many contacts with future 9/11 attackers before suddenly vacating its home days before the attacks.
The FBI initially denied that it had any documentation of that investigation. When pressed with a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the bureau surrendered 80,000 pages of documents to a federal judge who is currently reviewing them for potential release.
Graham characterized the FBI as moving beyond a cover-up, which he defined as a passive withholding of information, to “aggressive deception” in which “they rewrote the narrative,” making public declarations that are at odds with what’s contained in the bureau’s still-secret documents.
Noting that there were several al Qaeda cells around the country, Graham called for the release of still-classified files from the investigations of hijackers based in New Jersey and Virginia, as well as additional material from the 9/11 Commission.
Those commission documents are vital to helping the American public understand the apparent disconnect between the commission’s conclusions that it found no evidence of Saudi government support of the 9/11 plotters and disturbing declarations in the newly-released 28 pages—including revelations that an al Qaeda operative in Pakistan had an unlisted phone number associated with Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s Aspen, Colorado mansion, as well as the phone number of a bodyguard at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C.
Pending Legislation Would Help Cause of Transparency
Graham also endorsed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which would modify the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in a way that would clear the path for 9/11 families to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its alleged links to the attacks.
Graham positioned the lawsuit as a critical avenue of transparency. Noting that he was familiar with much of the research that plaintiffs’ attorneys had already conducted, Graham said “of all the channels of information about the Saudi role, what’s going to come out in that litigation—if it is allowed to occur because the sovereign immunity defense has been modified—will be astounding.”
JASTA passed the Senate unanimously in May, and activist 9/11 family members and victims are pressing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to schedule a vote immediately upon Congress’s return from summer recess next week. The activists’ latest efforts include emotionally impactful videos recorded by those directly and indirectly affected by the attacks, as well as a letter from the children of many who were slain in the attacks.
Graham said his daughter, Florida Congresswoman Gwen Graham, has observed an increase in constituent support for JASTA following the release of the 28 pages, adding, “I hope that (the House) will act during this session, ideally before the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11.”
The Saudi government promptly responded to Graham’s remarks, declaring in a press release its “strong disappointment at Senator Graham’s continued advocacy of the idea that the government of Saudi Arabia bore responsibility for the attacks of September 11, 2001.”
Call Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at 202-225-0600 and ask him to schedule a vote on JASTA before 9/11
In 2000, then-FBI agent Mark Rossini was a witness to perhaps the most disastrous and consequential incident in the history of the U.S. intelligence community—one he believes is ultimately the only reason why al Qaeda was able to kill 2,977 people on September 11, 2001 and unleash a chain of worldwide aftershocks that continue to this day.
Rossini told 28Pages.org about the CIA’s intentional obstruction of a warning about a future 9/11 hijacker, and the agency secret that he thinks lies behind it.
By Brian P. McGlinchey
In January 2000, Mark Rossini and Doug Miller were FBI agents with an unusual assignment: They worked in the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, code-named “Alec Station.”
That month, the CIA learned that known Al Qaeda terrorist Khalid al-Midhar—who had been linked to a pair of devastating attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and who had just attended a terrorist summit in Malaysia—had obtained a multi-entry visa enabling him to travel to the United States.
To alert his FBI superiors that a known “bad actor” was now equipped to travel to the homeland—the FBI’s jurisdiction—Miller dutifully drafted a Central Intelligence Report, or CIR. To the astonishment of Miller and Rossini, however, the message was stopped in its tracks.
A CIA supervisor, responding via the computer system that managed the flow of CIRs, wrote: “pls hold off on CIR for now per Tom Wilshire.” Wilshire was Alec Station’s deputy chief.
Bewildered and alarmed, given what was at stake, Miller turned to Rossini who, as the senior of the two, took it upon himself to follow up with the supervisor. In his interview with 28Pages.org, Rossini would not name this person—whose name is still considered classified—and instead referred to her using the pseudonym “Michelle.” Elsewhere, however, it’s been reported that the CIA supervisor was a woman named Michael Anne Casey.
In a heated exchange, Rossini says Casey told him, “You are not to tell the FBI about it. When and if we want the FBI to know about it, we will.”
Had the FBI been alerted, Rossini says, “(FBI counter-terror chief) John O’Neill would have assembled a whole team to come to the agency and demanded a meeting and ask how do you know about this information, why do you know about this information, and for how long?”
The questions would have been followed by decisive action. “If they come here, we’re going to follow them and put them on every watch list, put them in a computer system, tickler the NSA because the NSA monitors all their travel and tickets and everything. They’re coming to America? Great. We’ll have people there that day to follow them in America,” he says. Given such scrutiny, it seems likely the broader plot could have been detected and foiled.
But because of Wilshire’s directive and its enforcement by Casey, none of that happened. Instead, on September 11, al-Midhar helped hijack American Airlines Flight 77, which struck the Pentagon and killed 64 people on the aircraft and 125 on the ground.
The CIA incident—and the thought of what would have happened if he or Doug had disobeyed the order—has weighed heavily on Rossini ever since.
Today, Rossini is a man on a mission—a mission to expose what he believes was an illegal CIA operation that was the reason for the agency’s interference: “I’m trying to prove circumstantially, for the rest of my life, there was a recruitment op that went bad.”
Rossini is convinced that the CIA, in an effort to get more information on al Qaeda, was trying to recruit al-Midhar or, less likely, his close associate, Nawaf al-Hazmi—in other words, to turn one or both of them into a source that would share the terror organization’s secrets. Doing so on U.S. soil without consulting the FBI is prohibited. Bush counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, who was also kept in the dark, embraces the same theory.
More Suspicious Behavior…and a Cover-Up
According to a revealing 2011 story by Rory O’Connor and Ray Nowosielski in Salon, although Casey prevented Miller and Rossini from alerting the FBI, she sent out a message—or cable, in CIA parlance—to others in the CIA saying the FBI had been notified. And she sent that message two days before the heated conversation with Rossini.
Casey’s supervisor, identified by O’Connor and Nowosielski as Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, would later tell investigators working for the 2002 joint congressional intelligence inquiry into 9/11 that she had personally delivered al-Midhar’s visa information to FBI headquarters, a statement proven false when the investigators checked the FBI visitor log.
That congressional inquiry, a precursor to the 9/11 Commission, is the same one that produced the famously classified, 28-page chapter documenting foreign government ties to 9/11.
Rossini says that, before the inquiry’s investigators arrived, the word was put out: “You’re not to talk about anything going on here. Those (joint inquiry investigators) are not cleared to know about the operations going on here, so just keep your mouth shut. No one said ‘lie,’ but it was put in my head that they’re after somebody to put in jail. And I wasn’t allowed to have an attorney present,” says Rossini.
While Rossini didn’t have an attorney, someone else was present in the interview: A CIA monitor, taking notes. “Every question I was asked, she would just look at me in the eye and stare at me while I talked,” says Rossini, whose repeated responses of “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember” made for a very brief discussion: “Maybe 15 minutes at most.”
Looking back now and asked to characterize the CIA’s approach to the joint inquiry, Rossini replies, “Obstruction. And fear. An assurance that questions would just hit roadblocks.” Those roadblocks were so effective that the 9/11 Commission skipped Miller and Rossini altogether.
It wasn’t until the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) conducted its own 9/11 inquiries—with an assurance that participants needn’t worry about being prosecuted, found civilly liable or losing their jobs—that Rossini finally felt comfortable fully exposing the CIA’s stifling of the warning about al-Midhar.
The OPR interviews took place in a conference room filled with executives and staff members. “We came in one by one, and you sat at the end of the table. It was like a Senate hearing and they peppered you with questions.” Rossini was near one of seven audio recorders arrayed around the table. The FBI’s assistant director of OPR, Candice Will, was seated next to him.
Then came the question he yearned to answer: “Mark, why do you think Doug’s memo didn’t go?”
“I can be a little cheeky,” says Rossini. “I tapped the recorder and looked at Candice Will in the eye and said, ‘This thing on?’ She smiled and said ‘yes’ and I said, ‘Well, let me tell you a little story…'”
The Unasked, Unanswered Question: “Why Did You Write That?”
Though Rossini has told his story, what’s missing, he says, is the rationale behind the message that halted Miller’s CIR: “pls hold off for now on CIR per Tom Wilshire.”
“No one’s ever drilled down on the person who wrote it and found out why. Not to my knowledge. The 9/11 Commission certainly didn’t do it,” says Rossini. “We need to know why she wrote that, and why (Tom Wilshire) told her to tell that to Doug. And what was said between those two people. The answer to that is the reason 9/11 happened. No other issue. No other thing.”
“Tell me why. Why you hold off on sending a CIR to the FBI that evil people that you took the time and effort to follow halfway around the globe, you hold off on telling the bureau that they have visas to come to the USA. There’s no logical reason. None, other than they wanted to recruit somebody or try to and they didn’t want the FBI in the form of John O’Neill messing up their operation and they didn’t want the FBI to cause embarrassment to the Saudi regime.”
Rossini said that, to protect Saudi Arabia from embarrassment, the CIA and its Saudi Arabian counterparts had something of a gentleman’s agreement—one that can help explain why the CIA wouldn’t want the FBI to know a prominent al-Qaeda member was poised to travel to the United States.
“(Former CIA officer) Bruce Reidel says that, essentially, the U.S. government had an agreement with the Saudi GID—the General Intelligence Directorate, their version of a combined FBI/CIA—that if and when we identify wayward Saudis around the globe, boys that had lost their moral compass, if you will, rather than embarrassing the regime and arresting them with big splashy headlines like we’re prone to do, we would get them back home to be reprogrammed. Or—we use the term in the FBI—‘rechromed,”’ said Rossini. “If you screw up in the FBI, they’ll send you to headquarters for two years to be rechromed, and you come out like a fresh new Cadillac.”
The kingdom’s extreme fear of embarrassment—which Rossini says flows from its self-perceived position as the promoter of pure Islam and the keeper of the religion’s two holiest sites—obstructed the FBI before, in the wake of the 1996 bombing of a housing complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemembers.
“This all ties in to Khobar Towers and the FBI trying to go over there and interview the people and the Saudis executed them before they even got a chance to talk to them. Because they don’t want to be embarrassed,” says Rossini. “‘You can’t interview them, they’re dead.'”
“In my opinion, I think the person that was most logically recruited or intended to be recruited was Khalid al-Midhar, for the simple reason that he had a wife and children back in Yemen. Remember, he was allowed to go back home, get a new passport and come back to America,” says Rossini.
Connecting that CIA-GID understanding to his circumstantial case against the CIA, Rossini continued, “So when Khalid al-Midhar was identified, rather than making a big splashy headline, rather than letting my colleague’s memo go to the FBI and have John O’Neill and us go follow him and then maybe arrest him, the CIA said let him be rechromed, let him go back home to Yemen to see his wife, let him go get a new passport. And in that passport they put a chip or a code identifying him as someone who is to be watched.”
Rossini says the CIA’s feelings about O’Neill figured heavily in the agency’s behavior. “They feared John O’Neill being a loose cannon because they hated O’Neill and they feared O’Neill and they thought wrongly of O’Neill. And they feared O’Neill going in and arresting them and embarrassing the Saudis,” he says.
In a terrible twist, O’Neill was killed on September 11 in New York City, where he served as chief of security for the World Trade Center after leaving the FBI.
The CIA may also have realized they would likely clash on priorities. “The bureau, first of all, would never have given a damn about recruiting them. The first thing the bureau would have done is follow them. And monitor them and get a FISA and then maybe try to recruit them,” says Rossini.
Eventually, the CIA and FBI would talk—to a limited extent. In August of 2001, the CIA had a sudden change of attitude, calling a meeting with the FBI in New York to ask for the bureau’s help in tracking down al-Midhar and al-Hazmi. Notably, Rossini wasn’t invited, and the CIA wouldn’t tell the FBI exactly why they were looking for them.
To Rossini, the shift bolsters the proposition that the CIA had tried to recruit al-Midhar or al-Hazmi—but that something went very wrong.
“What happened in Yemen, when he was there? When he went back home, when he left America. Did someone talk to him, try to speak to him? That’s the thing we need to know. And why was he allowed to come back to America, on July 4th of all days? And then why did the CIA come running up to the FBI and saying ‘you gotta find these guys’? Why? Did Khalid al-Midhar tell them to go pound sand? Did he turn around and say I’m not going to talk to you anymore? Did he stop communicating and they couldn’t find him? That’s really it, that’s what we need to know,” said Rossini.
Given the history-altering nature of the CIA’s silencing of Miller and Rossini, and the documented dishonesty of CIA supervisors that followed it, one would expect the incident to command an entire chapter within the 9/11 Commission Report—ostensibly a definitive accounting of the attacks and the government’s failure to thwart them. Instead, it’s relegated to a single endnote, buried deep within 116 pages of tiny print in the back of the book.
“Mr. Strada is not a footnote and neither is anybody else who died that day,” says Rossini with disgust. “I’m not a footnote, and you’re not a footnote. And to be treated like a footnote is sickening in a government that’s by the people for the people.”
There was a time when, so very fatefully, Mark Rossini was silenced. Today, he is speaking out forcefully and repeatedly, determined to help expose the secret buried somewhere behind footnote 44.
More from Mark Rossini: His thoughts on the 28 pages and his pointed answer to the question of whether Iran may have had a hand in 9/11.
One of the distinguishing hallmarks of the drive to declassify the 28-page finding on foreign government support of the 9/11 hijackers is the absence of vocal opposition. That’s not to say there are no opponents—only that they are working quietly and effectively behind closed doors.
It’s likely that among the most powerful of those unseen opponents of 9/11 transparency are two strange bedfellows:
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—which has fueled the growth of terror
The U.S. intelligence community—which is charged with thwarting terror
Saudia Arabia’s Broad Influence on U.S. Policy
Saudi Arabia has claimed it wants the 28 pages released, but the kingdom is surely bluffing. At a January 7 press conference promoting the reintroduction of a House resolution urging the president to declassify the 28 pages, former Senator Bob Graham was pointed in describing how Saudi Arabia figures in the censored chapter of the report of a joint Congressional intelligence inquiry into 9/11: “The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11 and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier.”
Like many other countries, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in building influence within American shores, and that influence may be a big reason why Barack Obama hasn’t reversed George W. Bush’s extraordinary redaction of 28 consecutive pages of a Congressional intelligence report, and why most of our federal legislators haven’t even bothered reading those pages despite the strong urging of peers who have.
One relatively new pillar in Saudi Arabia’s influence infrastructure illustrates its strength. In September, The Nation’s Lee Fang—in a piece outlining the remarkable depth and breadth of the Saudi web of influence—revealed that Saudi Arabia had made an eyebrow-raising addition to its army of lobbyists: Norm Coleman, former United States senator and current chair of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a prominent Republican super PAC.
The hire breaks new ground, writes Fang, as Coleman “appears to be the first leader of a significant Super PAC to simultaneously lobby for a foreign government.” The move also reveals cringe-inducing hypocrisy: In 2005, Coleman signed a letter condemning Saudi Arabia for fostering Islamic extremism around the world, and today he serves on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy.
While noteworthy, Coleman is just one star in a broad constellation of Saudi Arabian influence on American policymakers. As The New York Times reported in a September expose, another major avenue of foreign government influence is the funding of American think tanks:
“The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom: Some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.”
The pressure on scholars isn’t always indirect: Some “donations” are accompanied by an explicit quid pro quo understanding that the think tank will advance the interest of its foreign state benefactor.
According to a Times infographic, Saudi Arabia has given money to many of the think tanks that journalists and policymakers turn to for analysis, including The Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution, the Middle East Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Does the work product of these think tanks reflect their Saudi sponsorship? Consider the rather Saudi-friendly insights the CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman recently offered decision-makers on the transition of power following the death of King Abdullah. In it, Cordesman heralds Abdullah as “one of (Saudi Arabia’s) most competent and impressive kings” and “a strong ally.” While he touches briefly on extremism, strikingly absent from Cordesman’s examination of Saudi Arabia’s role as a “close partner” in U.S. counterterrorism efforts is any mention of the country’s well-documented financial support of Islamic extremism and terror. To the contrary, Cordesman declares that Saudi Arabia “has been critical to preserving some degree of regional stability…during the rise of Islamic extremism.”
Considering Saudi Arabia’s think tank sponsorship, it’s no wonder that 28Pages.org is only aware of one occasion where one of these influential entities has allowed an analyst to use its platform to promote the release of the 28 pages: Last month at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin urged their release and implored journalists to make the 28 pages a 2016 campaign issue.
Intelligence Community’s “Pervasive Pattern” of Covering Saudi Role
Saudi Arabia’s reasons for wanting the 28 pages kept secret are clear, but what about America’s intelligence community? Actually, its motives are likely identical: Shielding itself from public humiliation and the consequences that would accompany it.
The intelligence community would have us believe that publishing the 28 pages would somehow pose a threat to national security, a notion that’s been pointedly rebutted by many who’ve read them, including former Senate intelligence committee chairman Graham.
At the January 7 press conference, Graham said, “Much of what passes for classification for national security reasons is really classified because it would disclose incompetence. And since the people who are classifying are also often the subject of the materials, they have an institutional interest in avoiding exposure of their incompetence.”
The intelligence community’s failure in the years and months leading up to 9/11 isn’t exactly secret, but the 28 pages may shed powerfully unflattering new light on it. Remember, they’re found in the report of the “Joint Inquiry into Intelligence CommunityActivities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.”
Secrecy about American intelligence agencies’ performance before and after the 9/11 attacks stretches far beyond the 28 pages. Perhaps the most prominent example of that broad veil relates to a 9/11 hijacker cell in Sarasota: Graham says the FBI failed to disclose its knowledge of that cell to the joint congressional intelligence inquiry he co-chaired.
When the cell later came to the attention of investigative journalist Dan Christensen at FloridaBulldog.org, the FBI first denied that it found any connection between 9/11 hijackers and a wealthy Saudi family that suddenly fled the country two weeks before September 11, and then denied it had any documentation of its investigation. Now we know the FBI indeed found direct links between that family and the hijackers, and a federal judge is studying more than 80,000pages of FBI documents relating to the Sarasota investigation for potential release in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
Relating the FBI’s Sarasota secrecy to the 28 pages, Graham said, “This is not a narrow issue of withholding information at one place, in one time. This is a pervasive pattern of covering up the role of Saudi Arabia in 9/11 by all of the agencies of the federal government which have access to information that might illuminate Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11.”
The CIA may want the 28 pages kept secret, too. Richard Clarke, who was the White House’s counter-terrorism czar in the Clinton and Bush administrations, says the CIA never told him that two known Al Qaeda operatives were living in southern California under their own names. Considering the San Diego cell figures prominently in the joint inquiry report, the 28 pages may shed light on the CIA’s motives for its history-altering failure to inform Clarke or the FBI or elaborate on what disaster-averting information the CIA had and didn’t share.
Like the CIA, the NSA also knew about the San Diego-based hijackers well before September 11. Keeping the 28 pages under wraps may serve the agency in its fight to preserve the post-9/11 mass surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden: If the 28 pages amplify the fact that the government had all the information it needed to thwart the 9/11 attacks without those controversial programs, the NSA’s arguments would be further weakened.
A Deadly Bargain
Amid all this discussion of the actions and inactions that enabled the terrible loss of life on 9/11, one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that lives continue to hang in the balance—and the fact that former Senator Graham and current Congressmen Walter Jones, Stephen Lynch and Thomas Massie have all said that declassifying the 28 pages is imperative to understanding and countering the ongoing terror threat.
Said Graham at the 28 pages press conference that came just hours after the terror attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo: “There is no threat to national security in disclosure (of the 28 pages). I’m going to make the case today that there’s a threat to national security by non–disclosure, and we saw another chapter of that today in Paris.”
According to Graham, shielding Saudi Arabia from scrutiny of its role in 9/11 has emboldened the kingdom to continue its sponsorship of extremism and, in the process, enabled the rise of ISIS. If so, the continued censorship of the 28 pages has cost more lives around the world than were lost on September 11, 2001—and with growing U.S. involvement in the fight against ISIS, American lives could become increasingly imperiled.
Americans may not be surprised that a faraway monarchy would be willing to gamble the lives of innocents in a bid for continued power, but they should be deeply troubled that the U.S. intelligence community would—wittingly or not—make the same deadly bargain. By shielding themselves from the oversight that’s vital to our system of government, our national security agencies also shield Saudi Arabia from accountability. In so doing, they endanger the very lives they’re charged with saving.
Brian McGlinchey is the founder and director of 28Pages.org.