Former 9/11 Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton recently made some bizarre comments about the Zacarias Moussaoui case in an interview for Vanity Fair. The interview was used for a wide-ranging and very interesting oral history of the Bush White House. Hamilton’s comments appear to show complete ignorance of a key aspect of the investigation of which he was vice chair.
Moussaoui was arrested on an immigration violation due to suspicious he was planning to hijack an aircraft by the Minneapolis FBI on 16 August 2001, nearly four weeks before 9/11. His personal effects contained evidence linking him to eleven of the nineteen alleged hijackers and the local FBI suspected that he was part of a wider plot. It correctly assumed a search of the effects would uncover his links to the other conspirators. However, due to obstruction by FBI headquarters, no warrant was ever granted to search Moussaoui’s belongings. Middle managers at headquarters also failed to properly inform their superiors of the case.
Here are Hamilton’s comments on the Moussaoui case:
- We knew, for example—when I say we, I mean the F.B.I. in Minneapolis knew—that those guys in flight-training school were more interested in flying the airplane than they were in taking off and landing. They knew that. Who didn’t know it? The director of the F.B.I. didn’t know it. The director of the C.I.A. did know it. His response was that it was none of his business. Technically correct, because his business is foreign intelligence.
Anyone familiar with the Moussaoui case can see that this is pretty much garbage from start to finish. Let’s go through it one point at a time.
Error No. 1: “Those guys in flight training.” Minneapolis did not know of any “guys [plural] in flight training.” It knew of one [singular] guy, Moussaoui. Moussaoui had an associate, Hussein al-Attas, but he was not in flight training. Minneapolis suspected Moussaoui had associates (who turned out to be the actual alleged hijackers), but did not know of them.
Error No. 2: “…more interested in flying the airplane than they were in taking off and landing.” This is an urban myth, which was reported shortly after 9/11. However, the flight school officials who alerted the FBI, Clancy Prevost, High Sims and Tim Nelson, have been interviewed numerous times about why they alerted the FBI to Moussaoui, and none of them have ever mentioned this. Neither was it mentioned at Moussaoui’s trial, in the Justice Department inspector general’s investigation of the case, the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry report or the 9/11 Commission report.
The flight school and the FBI were suspicious for other reasons, such as Moussaoui paid cash, he was too badly dressed to be an “affluent joyrider,” and he did not have a pilot’s licence at all, but wanted to train on a 747 simulator. Indeed, Moussaoui never trained on the simulator, he was arrested before the practical part of his course started.
Error No. 3: “The director of the C.I.A. did know it.” CIA Director George Tenet certainly did know of the case, as he was briefed on it on 23 August. However, he did not know Moussaoui was “more interested in flying the airplane than they were in taking off and landing” because this is not true. You can find the first information Tenet received about Moussaoui here. Here’s an update from a week later. See, no mention of Moussaoui being more interested in flying a plane than in taking off and landing, but both of them mention the cash payment.
Here’s the 9/11 Commission’s version of what Tenet was told (p. 275):
- Tenet was also told that Moussaoui wanted to learn to fly a 747, paid for his training in cash, was interested to learn the doors do not open in flight, and wanted to fly a simulated flight from London to New York. He was told that the FBI had arrested Moussaoui because of a visa overstay and that the CIA was working the case with the FBI.
See, no mention of Moussaoui being “more interested in flying the airplane than they were in taking off and landing” here either. Perhaps if Hamilton could actually remember what the commission of which he had been vice chair had written, it might aid him in his public pronouncements.
Error No. 4: “His response was that it was none of his business.” Tenet may legitimately be criticised for many things, such as the missing WMD in Iraq affair and the torture of who knows how many people. He may even be criticised for his pre-9/11 actions and the mountain of BS he tried to sell investigators after the attacks. However, he demonstrably did not respond that the Moussaoui case was none of his business.
The briefings for him both point out “We are working the case with the FBI.” The commission itself points out that the CIA continued to work on the case after Tenet was briefed:
- On August 24, the CIA also sent a cable to London and Paris regarding ‘subjects involved in suspicious 747 flight training’ that described Moussaoui as a possible ’suicide hijacker.’ On August 28, the CIA sent a request for information to a different service of the British government; this communication warned that Moussaoui might be expelled to Britain by the end of August.
Indeed, the mere fact of the second briefing a week later is evidence that he had not told his subordinates it was none of his business. If he had, they would not have troubled him with a second briefing.
Tenet has been criticised for failing to inform Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard and others, such as counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, of the case. Tenet’s response is that it was the FBI’s case, so he didn’t think it was his responsibility to brief people on it. You might find that response reasonable or, in the high threat environment in the summer of 2001, you might find it unreasonable. Whatever the case, Hamilton is some way off base with his comments.
Who Is Responsible?
While the failure to obtain the warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings has garnered most of the media attention, the FBI’s failure to inform its own director of the case is, in some ways, more interesting. Although “systemic errors” and suchlike were blamed for the intelligence failures after the attacks, the bureau’s failure to inform its own director was a failure by specific officials to pass notification up the chain of command.
So who was responsible for this? Notification was passed from the field office in Minneapolis to the Radical Fundamental Unit (RFU) at headquarters. However, the RFU then failed to properly communicate the information to the next official up the chain of command, the assistant director in charge of the bureau’s International Terrorism Operations Section (ITOS), Michael Rolince. RFU chief Dave Frasca did briefly mention the case to Rolince in late August, but only in what the commission calls “two passing hallway conversations.” Rolince didn’t appreciate the significance of the investigation and didn’t become more involved in the case until September. By then, the decision had already been taken not to apply for a warrant, but to attempt to deport Moussaoui.
So Frasca was the line manager whose job it really was to tell Rolince and push awareness of the case up the chain of command, but things are more complicated than that. The other managerial-level employee involved in the case at FBI headquarters was Tom Wilshire, a CIA officer on loan to the bureau. His role in the case was ignored by the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, the DoJ inspector general, and the 9/11 Commission, but an e-mail dated August 24 attached to his substitution for testimony at Moussaoui’s trial proves his involvement. In the e-mail, he asks for an update on the case, indicating it was not his only communication with the RFU about Moussaoui. He also makes light of the situation’s seriousness.
According to the substitution for testimony, Wilshire was “the CIA’s chief intelligence representative to ITOS Section Chief Michael Rolince,” and his “primary role at the FBI was to assist the FBI in exploiting information for intelligence purposes.” So should Wilshire shoulder some of the blame for Rolince not being informed in full and in a timely manner? In this context, I can’t help but note that Wilshire was involved in, at least, most of the other intelligence failures before 9/11 as well.
What happened to Wilshire and Frasca after 9/11? Nothing, they stayed in their positions. All the people who had failed stayed, some were even promoted. The entire US intelligence system was reconfigured to fit in a director of national intelligence, but the same people were still inside the system. And the lessons that should be drawn from this are what?