NEWS ANALYSIS -- [Richard Clarke served as the national coordinator for counterterrorism on the White House National Security Council during Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s administrations and was in the role before, during and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He is now an ABC News consultant.]
The recently released “28 pages” are a snapshot in time. They came at the conclusion of the joint House-Senate Intelligence Committees' inquiry and before the 9/11 Commission started its work in 2003. Those pages and many others previously released posed questions for further investigation, based on the committees’ review of raw intelligence and FBI reports. The 9/11 Commission took the baton and followed up on most of those leads, but not all.
Among those dangling strands of the investigation, two stand out. The first, the subject of these 28 pages, is what role Saudi government officials played in supporting al-Qaeda and the 9/11 plot.
The second question, with which the 9/11 Commission struggled but was unable to answer, is why the CIA failed to tell the FBI and the White House when the agency knew about al-Qaeda terrorists in the United States.
I believe that the two questions may be linked and that a major element of the 9/11 tragedy may remain unrevealed: a possible failed CIA-Saudi spy mission on U.S. soil that went bad and eventually allowed 9/11 to proceed unimpeded.
My perspective on these issues is shaped by my job in the Clinton and Bush administrations, the national coordinator for counterterrorism, based in the White House’s National Security Council. In that role, I was constantly reading detailed intelligence reports and being briefed by the CIA, the FBI and other agencies concerning possible terrorist plots.
The interagency team I chaired prevented numerous attacks, but not 9/11. Despite the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission that information sharing among the agencies was inadequate, we did actually share reports and analysis on a daily basis. In addition to the formal interagency groups that reviewed reports, the CIA director would frequently call me whenever he saw an important report about al-Qaeda plans.
He never called about the presence of the 9/11 hijackers — even when the CIA knew two of them were in the country and had been tracking them around the world for months.
According to an investigation by the CIA Inspector General, no one in the agency alerted the FBI or White House with that information for over a year, even though 50 to 60 CIA personnel knew it. Quite the opposite: CIA managers issued instructions that the information was not to be shared. Why?
The CIA declined to comment for this report, but the answer may be found in what a small group of Saudi nationals were doing in Southern California in 2000 and 2001.
Two Saudi would-be hijackers, named Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi, showed up in Los Angeles in 2000. Shortly after they arrived, another Saudi citizen, Omar al-Bayoumi, introduced himself to them, found them housing, provided them with money and took them to Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam who would become a senior al-Qaeda figure, in San Diego.
The official story, found in the 9/11 Commission report, is that al-Bayoumi was just a good Samaritan who met al-Mihdhar and al-Hamzi by chance at a restaurant after overhearing them speak Arabic with Gulf accents.
But the newly released 28 pages shed light on widespread suspicions about al-Bayoumi and raise an important question that has never fully been answered: Who was he, really?
According to the 28 pages, FBI agents involved in the case had received several reports that led them to believe al-Bayoumi was a Saudi intelligence officer, living and working secretly in the U.S. His cover story was that he worked for an aviation logistics company owned by the Saudi government, but investigators found he never did any work for the company.
Even al-Hamzi suspected al-Bayoumi was a Saudi spy, according to the 9/11 Commission report.
It is still not known whether al-Bayoumi was totally innocent, whether he was purposefully supporting al-Qaeda operatives on behalf of the Saudi government or whether he was an al-Qaeda sympathizer. The 9/11 Commission report says there is “no credible evidence” that he “knowingly aided extremist groups,” and he was found to be an “unlikely candidate for clandestine involvement with Islamic extremists.”
But there is another theory that the 28 pages and the 9/11 Commission report do not explore: What if al-Bayoumi was a Saudi spy who was investigating al-Qaeda at the request of the CIA?
I believe that could be the answer and, if he was, could explain why the CIA took measures to prevent the FBI and the White House from knowing that al-Qaeda terrorists had shown up in California.
Terrorists Tracked Around the World
Al-Mihdhar and al-Hamzi were already known to U.S. and Saudi intelligence as midlevel al-Qaeda operatives.
Before they made their way to the U.S., at the CIA’s request, al-Mihdhar’s hotel room in Dubai was searched by the United Arab Emirates' intelligence service. At CIA’s request, al-Mihdhar and al-Hamzi were videotaped by the Malaysian intelligence service while attending an al-Qaeda terrorist planning meeting in Kuala Lumpur. At the CIA’s request, the Thai intelligence service was asked to track them when they flew to Bangkok after that meeting. The Thais later reported back to the CIA, somewhat slowly, that the two men left on a flight for Los Angeles.
About the time that CIA learned the two men were in Los Angeles, the possible Saudi intelligence officer, al-Bayoumi, found them and befriended them.
The CIA is not authorized to run intelligence operations in the U.S. Even if it were, most CIA employees would have had a hard time making friends with al-Mihdhar and al-Hamzi.
A fellow Saudi like al-Bayoumi, however, would stand a much better chance, especially if he pretended to be an al-Qaeda sympathizer acquainted with people like the radical imam al-Alwaki. In the parlance of the intelligence world, such approaches to potential sources of information, using false pretenses, are known as false flag operations.
If the CIA asked the Saudi intelligence service to approach al-Mihdhar and al-Hamzi in the U.S. then, it would have come at the same time that the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) was trying to develop human sources inside al-Qaeda.
It would have been entirely logical for the CTC to try to learn things about al-Qaeda by having someone from a friendly intelligence service run a false flag operation on two known al-Qaeda operatives. Because those two men were in the U.S., however, the CIA would have needed to coordinate the approach with the FBI.
Had FBI been informed, however, it very likely would have vetoed the idea and moved quickly to arrest the two men. I knew very well the FBI personnel in charge of counterterrorism at the time, and they would not have hesitated to make such an arrest. That is also what I would have requested the FBI to do if the CIA had told me, which it should have and did not.
If the CIA broke the rules about getting FBI approval and, in cooperation with the Saudi intelligence service, ran a false flag operation in the U.S. against al-Qaeda terrorists, that would explain why CIA managers repeatedly made decisions and issued clear instructions not to tell anyone outside the CIA the rather startling and unprecedented news that al-Qaeda operatives were in our country.
It is possible that the false flag operation produced no information of value and the CIA lost interest in it.
We Deserve to Know
Finally, 18 months after the two al-Qaeda men arrived in the U.S., the CIA, in a very low key way, passed a report to the FBI about al-Mihdhar and al-Hamzi. It was too late. Their trail had gone cold. They had entered the final phase of preparations for 9/11.
Nothing in the joint congressional investigation, the 9/11 Commission’s work or the CIA Inspector General’s investigation explains why the CIA hid its knowledge about these two al-Qaeda operatives.
Also, nothing in those reports provides any reason to disbelieve the possibility that the CIA, the CTC and the agency’s top management hid a false flag operation that went wrong. Anyone involved in such a false flag operation would have good reason to hide it. Had the presence of the two terrorists in the U.S. led to their arrest and interrogation by the FBI, other 9/11 hijackers might also have been caught.
It was 15 years ago that the 9/11 tragedy occurred, but it is not too late to finish the investigation, to answer the questions that were left open over a decade ago.
Was the reason that a Saudi helped the hijackers in California the same reason that the CIA blocked dissemination of information that those hijackers were in the U.S.? Was that reason that the CIA was trying to use those two terrorists as a potential source of insider information about al-Qaeda?
We all deserve to know.