Purpose, not oversight to blame for CIA-FBI lack of communication pre-9/11
Key quote: “It wasn’t careless oversight. It was purposeful. No question about that in mind. It was purposeful.” Tom Kean, 9/11 Comissioner
In his recent book The Black Banners, former FBI agent Ali Soufan portrays a key 9/11 Commission staff member, Doug MacEachin, as believing the CIA deliberately withheld information from the FBI in January 2001. This is in contrast with the Commission’s final report, which states that the CIA failed to pass on intelligence to the FBI on multiple occasions, but puts it down to honest failings.
MacEachin was one of the best-known of the Commission’s staffers before its formation. He was a career CIA officer and even served as Deputy Director for Intelligence between 1993 and 1996.
According to Soufan, MacEachin believed that the CIA purposefully withheld information placing al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash at the Malaysia summit, a gathering of top al-Qaeda figures in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000 that was monitored by the CIA. This intelligence was especially significant because it linked bin Attash, then known to be a mastermind of the October 2000 USS Colebombing, to future Flight 77 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi.
Had the FBI learned what the CIA knew of the Malaysia summit at this time, its Cole investigators would have focused on Almihdhar and Alhazmi eight months before 9/11, giving them plenty of opportunity to stop the plot.
In his book, Soufan describes a meeting between himself and some Commission staffers, evidently Soufan’s second interview with the Commission on September 15, 2003.
Soufan says he started the interview by discussing a source inside al-Qaeda that he and his partner Steve Bongardt had helped recruit some time before the Cole bombing. In late 2000, the source had been shown a passport photo provided by the Yemeni authorities of a person the FBI thought to be bin Attash, and had identified him as such to a CIA officer known only as “Chris” and FBI agent Michael Dorris. This was another plank in the case being built against bin Attash for the Cole bombing.
Shortly after, in murky circumstances Soufan does not discuss, the CIA sent pictures of Almihdhar and Alhazmi taken at the Malaysia summit for the source to try to identify. While Dorris was out of the room, Chris showed the pictures to the source, who said he did not know Almihdhar, but identified the photo of Alhazmi as bin Attash; the two men had similar facial features.
Although the photo was not actually of bin Attash, it simply caused the CIA to believe something that was, in fact, true. Bin Attash had been at the Malaysia meeting, the agency had photos of him there; it simply omitted to show them to the source.
Whereas Chris had had the previous identification, of bin Attash in the Yemeni-provided photograph, repeated for Dorris’ benefit, this second identification of bin Attash was not repeated. In fact, Chris kept completely silent about it.
Soufan quotes himself as telling the Commission:
After 9/11 we learned that the CIA went behind our backs and showed the pictures of the Malaysia summit meeting—the pictures they wouldn’t share with us—to the source. They didn’t tell us that they had shown him the pictures, nor did they share with us what he told them about the pictures. He didn’t know that the CIA wasn’t sharing information with the FBI; nor was he told why these pictures were important. …
… This shows that the CIA knew the significance of Malaysia, Khallad, and Mihdhar but actively went out of their way to withhold the information from us. It’s not a case of just not passing on information. This is information the FBI representative working with the source should have been told about. It was a legal requirement. Instead we were deliberately kept out of the loop.
A Commission staffer then interjected that the CIA claimed it had shared the information, and Soufan responded by asking whether the Commission had checked the “regular cables,” meaning general reporting of the debriefing of the source, including information that would be shared with the FBI and the wider intelligence community. The staffer replied that they had. As later reported, the regular cables contained no mention of the key fact that that the mastermind of the Cole bombing had attended a summit of al-Qaeda leaders in Malaysia. Soufan then asked whether the Commission had checked the “operational traffic,” where mention of the source’s identification of bin Attash was later found. At this point MacEachin exclaimed, “That must be it,” although Soufan judged that the other Commission staffers in the room had not understood his point.
Soufan explains what MacEachin had grasped:
Operational traffic refers to cables sent during an operation. The officer will list procedures, leaving a record in case something goes wrong or something needs to be referred to. Because these cables are strictly procedural and not related to intelligence, they would not be sent to the FBI. If someone wanted to hide something from the FBI, that’s where he would put it. Because Doug had worked for the CIA, he knew what operational cables were, while other members of the team might not have.
This clearly indicates MacEachin had come round to Soufan’s way of thinking, at least on this point. However, the Commission’s final report did not find that this information about bin Attash—or indeed any information—was deliberately withheld by the CIA. In fact, the final report calls this incident “an example of how day-to-day gaps in information sharing can emerge even when there is mutual goodwill.”
Chris subsequently met with the source again, in the presence of Dorris and other FBI agents, and they repeated the first identification of the Yemeni-provided photograph of bin Attash for formal use in legal proceedings. However, Chris did not mention that bin Attash had attended the Malaysia summit. Chris also reported the identification of bin Attash to the CIA station in Yemen, which failed to pass it on to the FBI Cole investigators there. Finally, Chris also asked the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to bring the FBI up to speed with what was going on, but they also failed to tell their colleagues bin Attash had been identified in a Malaysia photograph.
Soufan later refers to MacEachin as a “supporter of mine,” indicating that there was some disagreement inside the Commission. As we can see from the final report, the opinion that the failure to pass on information was not deliberate prevailed.
Nevertheless, there are still questions. In the recently released audio documentary Who Is Rich Blee? 9/11 Commission chairman Tom Kean disagreed with his own report’s conclusions, stating of the CIA’s failure to pass on information: “It wasn’t careless oversight. It was purposeful. No question about that in mind. It was purposeful.”
Does MacEachin, agreeing with his former boss, still believe that information about bin Attash was deliberately withheld from the FBI? Also, what other information does he think was withheld—the interview of the source in Islamabad was only one piece of a larger mosaic? Finally, what happened in the discussions of this issue within the Commission—if MacEachin was a “supporter” of Soufan, who were his opponents?
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