These Officials Let 9/11 Happen
New book is a litany of intelligence lapses
Powerful people, whose job it was to protect the U.S. public, made choices that facilitated the 9/11 attacks, according to an explosive new book. The Watchdogs Didn’t Bark: The CIA, NSA and the Crimes of the War on Terror by John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski is a harrowing, compelling read.
The book is Duffy and Nowosielski’s third work together and the culmination of their efforts, following 2006’s documentary film 9/11: Press for Truth and the 2011 investigative podcast Who is Rich Blee? The latter made a splash when it inadvertently revealed CIA officer Alfreda Bikowski’s name. Bikowski was one of the main architects of the CIA black-site prison and torture program.
The Watchdogs Didn’t Bark explores Bikowski and others as they made disastrous and suspicious decisions in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks, then seized upon the tragedy to establish a sprawling war-crime complex. Duffy and Nowosielski do this with the help of declassified and leaked sections of key post-9/11 and War on Terror-era investigations, other journalistic exposes and most importantly their own interviews with a variety of central players in the drama.
Chief among these sources are the whistleblowers and dissidents. Richard Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Thomas Drake, a former NSA employee. John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer. And Mark Rossini, a former FBI agent detailed to the CIA. By combining all these sources Duffy and Nowosielski have collated evidence that nobody had bothered to connect before.
The story they tell weaves together several distinct tales, each damning in their own right. First is their extensive look at exactly how CIA went to extraordinary lengths to keep the FBI from knowing that two of the future 9/11 hijackers — Khalid Al Mihdhar and Nawaf Al Hazmi — were in the United States since early 2000. CIA tracked the two hijackers to a meeting with top Al-Qaeda leaders in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in January 2000.
A few days before the summit was to begin, Mihdhar took a flight from Yemen with a long layover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. When he stepped out of his room at the Nihal Hotel for a bit, agents who had been waiting … broke into his room and searched his things. Among them, they found his passport and photocopied it.
The CIA station in the United Arab Emirates sent a copy of Mihdhar’s passport to Alec Station (the CIA’s effort to track Al Qaeda) and Riyadh Station in Saudi Arabia. It was included in a cable with the dramatic title: ‘Activities of Bin Ladin Association Khalid Revealed.’ They had discovered a bombshell. Mihdhar possessed a multiple-entry visa to the United States, due to expire that April.
The CIA would later claim that they lost track of Mihdhar and his comrade Hazmi following the Malaysia meeting, and that they had reported everything they knew to the FBI — the agency responsible for preventing acts of terrorism in the U.S. homeland. Duffy and Nowosielski do a thorough job of demonstrating that both claims are false.
The book then lays out exactly how the NSA also failed to uncover the 9/11 plot despite having everything they needed to do so with plenty of time to disrupt it. For as long as five years, the NSA had maintained a “cast iron” trap on a key Al-Qaeda communications hub run through the home of one of their supporters, Ahmed Al Hada, in Sana’a, Yemen.
“Al Qaeda operatives around the world made phone calls to the hub in Yemen as a means to pass messages to each other,” Duffy and Nowosielski write. “This was necessary because some countries blocked or monitored calls from one country to another as possible terrorist communications. For instance, at the time, one could not call from Egypt to Afghanistan, unless one used a go-between in a third country.”
Through this surveillance, the NSA could trap every number calling in or out of the phone, creating a global map of the Al-Qaeda network. When terrorists in the United States called, the NSA knew right away that a plot was underway here at home. Of course, they were swimming in data of this sort, so it is possible that such information got lost in the shuffle.
Duffy and Nowosielski demonstrate, however, that one of the NSA’s top technical intelligence managers — Bill Binney — had developed a computer program called ThinThread which would have used sophisticated algorithms to highlight this data.
In February 2002, future whistleblower Drake led an effort at NSA to see what it could have found in the agency’s database if it had been operational before the attacks. “To Drake and his deputy’s horror,” Duffy and Nowosielski write, “the printout from ThinThread was able to identify the suspect fact that the 9/11 hijackers had booked airline tickets all flying on the same day. Having been previously identified as members of Al Qaeda cells in the ‘Finest of the NSA’ report, this stunned Drake.”
Had ThinThread been in use, the plot could have been identified before it was completed. Operational intelligence uncovered by Drake in the weeks following 9/11 “showed that the NSA had accurately mapped, in rich and extensive detail, Bin Laden’s networks, cells and associated movements. It was, in Drake’s words, ‘an extraordinarily detailed long-term study of Al Qaeda’s activities’ that identified ‘the planning cells (for 9/11),’ including ‘a number of the hijackers based on actual copy: Atta, Hazmi, Mihdhar.’”
At top — 9/11 from space. Photo via Wikipedia
This would make sense especially for Mihdhar, seeing as the telephone hub’s controller Al Hada was in fact his father-in-law, and Mihdhar’s wife and children lived in the same home.
It’s unclear why the NSA failed to share the “Finest of the NSA” findings with any other agencies, but ThinThread’s fate is well established. Outside contractors had promised to build a more expensive version of the same sort of program and managers in the NSA who used to work for the contractor were looking out for their colleagues.
NSA employees knew that their agency should have been able to prevent the attacks, and their headquarters was the site of traumatized reactions afterward, including at least one person dying of a heart attack and another — the employee responsible for monitoring the Yemen telephone hub — suffering a career-ending nervous breakdown.
Duffy and Nowosielski begin exploring other possible motives for the negligence at hand by presenting extensive evidence of high-level Saudi connections to the hijackers. These were the subject of the notorious “28 pages” of the House and Senate intelligence committees’ report on 9/11 that authorities kept classified for more than a decade. They include the fact that the unlisted phone number of Saudi Arabia’s powerful then-ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, was found in the effects of Al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah.
Bandar and his wife also sent tens of thousands of dollars to Osama Basnan, a Saudi national living in San Diego who in turn paid Omar Al Bayoumi, another Saudi in San Diego. Bayoumi used this money to provide a home and income for Khalid Al Mihdhar and Nawaf Al Hazmi shortly after they arrived in the United States.
Duffy and Nowosielski ultimately arrive to the conclusion that CIA was likely attempting to “flip” Mihdhar and Hazmi and turn them into intelligence assets within Al Qaeda. Saudi intelligence may have been assisting in this effort, and Basnan and Bayoumi were, they claim, probably Saudi spies. It is also very likely that some elements of the Saudi royal family sympathized with Al Qaeda and assisted the plot because they supported its mission. The book describes many more damning instances of Saudi collaboration, none of which has prompted any official accountability.
In fact, Duffy and Nowosielski show that there was no accountability for the 9/11 disaster whatsoever. The CIA and NSA employees most responsible for suppressing information that could have prevented the attacks were not only never punished, they were promoted and some remain the most powerful figures in U.S. intelligence to this day.
They went on to help establish the NSA warrantless wiretapping system — which was reverse-engineered from ThinThread while removing all of its privacy protections for U.S. citizens — the CIA black site prison system, “enhanced interrogation” torture programs and the fixed intelligence justifying the Iraq war.
Among the top players in the torture program was Gina Haspel, now the director of central intelligence.
The Watchdogs Didn’t Bark shows, on the other hand, that the only people to ever face serious legal or professional consequences as a result of their actions around 9/11 are the whistleblowers who tried to warn the public about official abuse.
Clarke faced the fewest consequences, only being forced out of government service. Drake faced decades in prison under a rigged interpretation of the Espionage Act for telling reporters unclassified facts about NSA surveillance. He survived that threat, but now works in an Apple store, refusing on principle to cash in on his service.
Rossini was compelled to plead guilty to federal charges, fined and put on probation, while Kiriakou served 30 months in prison.
“As this happened, [Kiriakou] thought back to the advice he had followed, given by his CIA colleague back in 2002,” Duffy and Nowosielski write. “That colleague had predicted he should steer clear of participating in torture because those involved would later be prosecuted. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘it turned out I was the only one who went to prison anyway out of the entire program.’”
The Watchdogs Didn’t Bark explores this and many more explosive moments. Just to mention one, NSA’s number-three executive Maureen Baginski tried to pep up the agency’s demoralized analysts a few weeks after the attacks by telling them “you have to understand, 9/11 is a gift to the NSA. We are going to get all the money we want.”