Several years before Al Qaeda launched its most devastating attack on the United States, in 2001, the FBI recruited a "high echelon source" with access to the likes of Osama bin Laden, according to newly cited testimony by FBI officials in a years-old discrimination lawsuit against the agency.
On Wednesday, though, U.S. law enforcement sources were bewildered by reports that the FBI had actively placed the source in direct contact with bin Laden and hid that fact from both the 9/11 Commission and congressional investigators. In fact, testimony in the lawsuit indicates the source had already met with bin Laden by the time an FBI agent recruited him.
In January 1993, a month before the first World Trade Center bombing, FBI agent Bassem Youssef began recruiting two sources from Los Angeles with strong ties to Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called "Blind Sheikh" who masterminded that first attack on New York City, Youssef testified nearly four years ago in his discrimination case against the FBI. Within two years, one of the sources was handing over "highly sensitive information on the entire network in the U.S. as well as abroad," Youssef told a federal jury in Washington on Sept. 15, 2010.
Among other things, the source told Youssef about a plot to attack a Masonic lodge in the Los Angeles area, and information gleaned from the source was ultimately sent to FBI agents in New York to support counterterrorism investigations there, according to testimony from one of Youssef's superiors in Los Angeles at the time, Ed Curran.
The sources' recruitment was "over a period of time, it's not a week," Curran testified on Sept. 15, 2010. "One source came back, had direct contact with Osama bin Laden. He had indicated to [Abdel] Rahman that he had a target picked out for an explosion in the Los Angeles area, I believe it was a Masonic lodge. [Abdel] Rahman went and told him to go get the money from Osama back in the Middle East."
"At that point," Curran then testified, he and Youssef met with the potential source overseas, and "eventually we turned him [so] that he was working for us."
According to Curran's own words and chronology, therefore, the "one source came back" from meeting with bin Laden before the FBI "turned him" into an FBI asset working for the U.S. agency. What's more, the FBI "turned him" by deporting him, and then using a promised return to the United States as "the carrot … to get his cooperation," Curran testified.
"It was the only source I know in the Bureau where we had a source right in al-Qaeda directly involved," Curran told the jury.
Curran first disclosed the high-level source's existence five years earlier, in a deposition taken for the same lawsuit.
"Bassem had been working on the development of [a] particular person for months at a time trying to develop him and whatever," Curran said under oath on April 21, 2005 "And [the potential source] was deported but that did not dissuade him … [Bassem] worked with this person's wife and set up negotiations directly with Bassem, and we were able to travel twice overseas to try to get this person to work for us."
It's unclear what became of the second source recruited by Youssef.
The transcript of that deposition is posted on the National Whistleblowers Center's website.
On Wednesday, U.S. officials could not confirm the accuracy of Curran's testimony, particularly the assertion that an FBI asset had met with bin Laden in the early 1990s. In addition, one federal law enforcement official told ABC News he and others he spoke to in the counterterrorism community could not recall any such FBI asset or recruitment effort, but he acknowledged memories may have faded over the past two decades.
Still, asked for comment, the FBI took issue with suggestions that the agency kept any information from the 9/11 Commission or congressional investigators.
"The FBI made all relevant information available to the 9/11 Commission and the Joint Intelligence Community Inquiry," an FBI spokesman said. "Throughout both of these review, the FBI shared pertinent documents and knowledgeable personnel in order to present all known information to Commission and Inquiry personnel."
An email and a phone call to Curran seeking comment were not returned. An email to Youssef's attorney was also not returned.
It's unclear exactly why the public testimony from 2010 has resurfaced four years later.
Legal wrangling tied to Youssef's lawsuit continues.