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CIA Withheld Information on Two 9/11 Hijackers, Charges Fmr. Counterterror Czar

(photo: Aude)

Ex-counterterrorism czar in the Clinton and Bush Administrations, Richard A. Clarke, alleges in a new radio documentary that former top CIA officials George Tenet, Cofer Black and Richard Blee withheld intelligence on two key 9/11 hijackers—Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar.

Truthout’s Jason Leopold has posted an article that fully details the allegations. Leopold reports during Clarke’s 13-minute interview in the documentary Clarke blames Tenet, Black and Blee for failing to capture the two hijackers, who flew an airplane right into the Pentagon killing nearly two hundred people.

In 2000, the CIA was monitoring al-Hazmi, al-Mihdhar and Walid bin Attash, the man alleged to have masterminded the USS Cole bombing. The three traveled to Thailand and then boarded a plane to Los Angeles and met Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national who was secretly working as an informant. The CIA claimed to have lost track of the three men. But, as Leopold notes, the CIA should have notified the FBI and State Department so they could be put on the State Dept’s terrorist watch list.

Joby Warrick, a Washington Post reporter, detailed in a recent book, Triple Agent, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center did not respond to multiple “cabled warnings” in 2000 on the two hijackers. The warnings were likely seen by “as many as sixty CIA employees” but the two hijackers never had their names passed on to the FBI. Theoretically, the “cable warnings” could have led to a full unraveling of the terror plot.

Clarke doesn’t allege one single CIA agent is responsible for a possible cover-up. He suggests that fifty people had something to do with any cover-up. “Fifty CIA personnel knew about this,” Clarke says in his interview. “Fifty people in CIA” knew the hijackers “were in the country.” And one of those fifty people was CIA director Tenet.

Clarke concludes:

For me to this day, it is inexplicable why when I had every other detail about everything related to terrorism that the director didn’t tell me, that the director of the counterterrorism center didn’t tell me, that the other 48 people inside CIA that knew about it never mentioned it to me or anyone in my staff in a period of over 12 months … We therefore conclude that there was a high-level decision inside CIA ordering people not to share that information.

Tenet would have made the decision to withhold the information, Clarke maintains.

Allegations that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar should have been caught are not new. History Commons, a website operated by the Center for Grassroots Oversight that facilitates “open-content participatory journalism,” began to connect the dots by synthesizing various media reports back in 2002. A published essay pointed to the fact that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were not like the other hijackers.

The essay presents, as accurately as possible, what likely happened at an al Qaeda summit in Malaysia, which is now believed to be the meeting where the 9/11 plot was hatched. Details presented in the essay indicate the CIA had Malaysia’s security service conduct surveillance for them. Unfortunately for the CIA, they failed to wiretap the meeting.

Following the meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the CIA had substantial details to expand an investigation:

The CIA knew that Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi had ties to Osama bin Laden because they both had attended what the CIA considered “to be a gathering of al-Qaeda agents.” [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] And, as mentioned above, the agency was aware that Khalid Almihdhar “held a US B-1/B-2 multiple-entry visa” and had made his travel arrangements to Malaysia through a Yemeni organization considered by the CIA to be a “logistical center” for al-Qaeda.

As the essay makes clear, the names of the two hijackers could have been added to the terrorism watch list:

The watch list, a database known as TIPOFF, currently consists of over 80,000 names, with about 2,000 new names being added every month. [Los Angeles Times, 9/22/02] Regulations require that the list is checked for visa applications or whenever someone enters or leaves the US (note that it is not checked for domestic flights). Officials are liable to be subject to criminal penalties if they fail to consult TIPOFF when required. The Congressional inquiry noted that “the threshold for adding a name to TIPOFF is low,” explaining that even a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is connected with a terrorist group, warrants the addition of the person’s name to the database. [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02] Why were Almihdhar and Alhazmi, whose names were reportedly important enough to have been mentioned to the CIA Director several times that January [Congressional Intelligence Committee, 9/20/02], not added to the watch list?

Unsurprisingly, Clarke’s charges, which renew interest in what the CIA did and did not know, have drawn condemnation from Tenet, Black and Blee. They find Clarke’s comments are “reckless and profoundly wrong.”

The three assert in a statement that no information was withheld; in fact, they maintain they knew of little information until after 9/11. What junior personnel knew, they add, was not fully examined because the “significance of the data was not adequately recognized.”

They note that the 9/11 Commission concluded “no one informed higher levels of management of either the FBI or CIA about the case.”

A website,, is set to roll out at 10 pm Eastern Time tonight. The website is a transparency website launched by John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski, who produced the film “Press for Truth,” which tracked the story of four 9/11 widows who pressured the Bush administration to open a commission to investigate the attacks. The transparency website aims to show what Blee and others surrounding him knew prior to 9/11.

There may be little chance that Clarke’s charges lead to further inquiries or even a closed congressional hearing into the CIA prior to 9/11. Congress already held a hearing to mark the ten year anniversary of 9/11 in March. Both Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, testified.  And, mostly, the hearing provided insight on how to continue to address the threat of terrorism.

However, it should go without saying that what Congress does or does not do shouldn’t stop the people of this country from discussing the events surrounding 9/11, especially what major intelligence agencies did and did not know. That discussion along with a discussion on the way terrorism or national security has been used to chip away at American civil liberties or constitutional rights must be had.

Evidence, such as government documents, that have been published since the attacks point to government misconduct and negligence. (See the documents in Jesse Ventura’s recently published book 63 Documents Your Government Doesn’t Want You to Read.)

Questions do still exist and they demand answers. There are people beyond what one might call tinfoil hat people who want to know the truth. There are 9/11 widows and families who want this truth. And, as a country with a government that has set domestic and foreign policy off of what may or may not have happened on 9/11, it seems appropriate that the tenth anniversary be used to get even closer to the truth, especially so the population could truly understand its vulnerability to future attacks.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."