Worse, the performance of the FBI in allowing the bombing to proceed was only one of a series of interrelated bungled performances and missed opportunities, climaxing with 9/11. The first was in connection with the murder in New York of the Jewish extremist Meir Kahane. The FBI and NY police actually detained two of the murderers in that case and then released them, allowing them to take part in the WTC bombing of 1993. A key trainer of the two men was Ali Mohamed while still in U.S. Special Forces, whose name was systematically protected from disclosure by the prosecuting attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald. Then in 1994, when Ali Mohamed was detained in Vancouver by the Canadian RCMP, the FBI intervened to arrange for his release. This freed Mohamed to proceed to Kenya, where he became the lead organizer of the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi.75
Ali Mohamed was finally detained by the Americans in 1998, but still not imprisoned. He was apparently still a free man when he readily confessed to his FBI handler, Jack Cloonan, that he not only knew at least three of the 9/11 alleged hijackers, but had helped instruct them in how to hijack airplanes.76 According to Ali Soufan, released in September 2011, Ali Mohamed was still awaiting sentencing in 2011, twelve years after his guilty plea in May 1999.77
We have to conclude that there is something profoundly dysfunctional going on here, and has been going on since before 9/11, indeed under both political parties. The conditions of secrecy created by special clearances have not just masked this dysfunctionality; they have, I would argue, helped create it. The history of espionage demonstrates that secret power, when operating in the sphere of illegal activities, becomes, time after time, antithetical to public democratic power.78 The more restricted the group of special planners with special clearances, the less likely are their decisions to conform with the dictates of international and domestic law, still less with common morality and common sense.
Add to these conditions of unwholesome secrecy the fundamentally unhealthy, indeed corrupt, relationship of U.S. intelligence agencies to those of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. This has been profoundly anti-democratic both at home and in Asia. The US dependency on Saudi oil has in effect subsidized a wealth-generated spread of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the world, while what the 99.9 percent of ordinary Americans pay for oil and gas generates huge sums, which Saudis then recycle into the financial institutions of the one tenth of one percent at the pinnacle of Wall Street.
In like manner, America’s fraught relationship with the ISI of Pakistan has resulted in a dramatic increase in international heroin trafficking by the two agencies’ Afghan clients.79 In short the bureaucratic dysfunction we are talking about in 9/11 is a symptom of a larger dysfunction in America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan, and through them with the rest of the world.
Liaison Agreements and the Protection of Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi
Even without the suggestive precedent of the 1993 WTC bombing, it is legitimate to posit that liaison agreements may have inhibited the roundup of Khalid Al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi. Let us consider first Fenton’s finding of fact: “It is clear that this information [about the two men] was not withheld through a series of bizarre accidents, but intentionally.”80 This finding I consider rock hard. But we cannot be so coinfident about his explanation: that “the purpose of withholding the information had become to allow the attacks to go forward.”81
I believe that in fact there are a number of possibilities about the intention, ranging from the relatively innocent (the inhibitions deriving from a liaison agreement) to the nefarious. Before considering these, let us deconstruct the notion of “letting the attacks go forward.” Clearly, if the alleged hijackers were not detained at the airport gates, people would probably have been killed – but how many? Recall that in the Operation Northwoods documents, which envisaged planning “false flag” attacks to justify a U.S. military intervention in Cuba, the Joint Chiefs wrote “We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign” in which “We could sink a boatload of Cubans.”82 Would the loss of four planeloads of passengers have been a qualitatively different tragedy?
Of course 9/11 became a much greater tragedy when three of the planes hit the two Towers and the Pentagon. But it is possible that the liaison minders of the two Saudis did not imagine that their targets were capable of such a feat. Recall that their flying lessons, even in a Cessna, were such a fiasco that the lessons were quickly terminated. Their instructor told them “that flying was simply not for them.”83
Let me suggest that there are three separable ingredients to the 9/11 attacks: the hijackings, the strikes on the buildings, and the astonishing collapse of the three WTC buildings. It is at least possible that the Alec Station liaison team, as a group, contemplated only the first stage, without ever imagining the two stages that ensued.
A minimal, least malign initial explanation for the withholding of information about two of the alleged hijackers would be the hypothesis I proposed in the case of Emad Salem – the restricted access created by the special clearance for a liaison agreement. But just as in 1993, the secret power created behind the wall of restrictive clearances may have been exploited for ulterior purposes. The dangerous situation thus created – of potential would-be-hijackers being protected from detention at a time of expected attack – may have inspired some to exploit the resulting conditions of secrecy as an opportunity to plan an incident to justify war. One important analogy with the 1964 false Second Tonkin Gulf Incident that was used to justify attacking North Vietnam is the same presence of a powerful faction – in 2001 the PNAC clique inside government – that was bent on unilateral military action.84
One clue to this more sinister intention is that the pattern of withholdings detailed by Fenton is not restricted exclusively to the two Saudis and their CIA station handlers. There are a few concatenating withholdings by other agencies – above all the Able Danger info that was destroyed at SOCOM and the withholding – apparently by NSA – of an important relevant intercept, apparently about the alleged hijackers and Moussaoui.85
If the NSA was withholding information from relevant officials, it would recall the role of the NSA at the time of the second Tonkin Gulf Incident in August 1964. Then the NSA, at a crucial moment, forwarded 15 pieces of SIGINT (signals intelligence) which indicated – falsely – that there had been a North Vietnamese attack on two US destroyers. At the same time NSA withheld 107 pieces of SIGINT which indicated – correctly – that no North Vietnamese attack had occurred.86 NSA’s behavior at that time was mirrored at the CIA: both agencies were aware of a powerful consensus inside the Johnson administration that had already agreed on provoking North Vietnam, in hopes of creating an opportunity for military response.87
We know from many accounts of the Bush administration that there was also a powerful pro-war consensus within it, centered on Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the so-called cabal of PNAC (the Project for the New American Century) that before Bush’s election had been lobbying vigorously for military action against Iraq. We know also that Rumsfeld’s immediate response to 9/11 was to propose an attack on Iraq, and that planning for such an attack was indeed instituted on September 17.88 It is worth considering whether some of those protecting the alleged hijackers from detention did not share these warlike ambitions.89
Did Richard Blee Have an Ulterior Motive for Withholding Information?
Fenton speculates that one of those seeking a pretext for an escalated war against Al Qaeda may have been Richard Blee. We saw that Blee, with Cofer Black, negotiated an intelligence-sharing liaison agreement with Uzbekistan. By 2000 SOCOM had become involved, and “U.S. Special Forces began to work more overtly with the Uzbek military on training missions.”90 In the course of time the Uzbek liaison agreement, as we saw, expanded into a subordinate liaison with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Blee, meeting with Massoud in October 1999, agreed to lobby in Washington for more active support for the Northern Alliance.91
After the USS Cole bombing in Aden in 2000, Blee was pushing to expand the Uzbek military mission still further into a joint attack force in conjunction with the Northern Alliance forces of Massoud. There was considerable objection to this while Clinton was still president, partly on the grounds that Massoud was fighting Pakistani-backed Taliban forces with Russian and Iranian support, and partly because he was known to be supporting his forces by heroin trafficking.92 But in the spring of 2001 a meeting of department deputies in the new Bush administration revived the plans of Blee and Black, (supported by Counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke) for large-scale covert aid to Massoud.93 On September 4, one week before 9/11, the Bush Cabinet authorized the drafting of a new presidential directive, NSPD-9, authorizing a covert action program along these lines in conjunction with Massoud.94
In the new Bush administration Blee was no longer a minority voice, and six weeks after 9/11 he would be named the new CIA station chief in Kabul.95 Fenton reports that in this capacity Blee became involved in the rendition of al Qaeda detainees, and suggests that the motive may have been to obtain, by torture, a false confession (by Ibn Shaikh al-Libi) to Iraqi involvement with al Qaeda. This false confession then became part of the “fixing” of evidence, and “formed a key part of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s embarrassing presentation to the UN to support the invasion of Iraq.”96
Did SOCOM Have an Ulterior Motive for Closing Down Able Danger?
What ensued after 9/11 went far beyond Blee’s program for paramilitary CIA involvement with the Northern Alliance. The CIA component in Afghanistan was soon dwarfed by the forces of SOCOM: George Tenet reported that by late 2001 the US force in Afghanistan consisted of about 500 fighters, including “110 CIA officers, 316 Special Forces personnel, and scores of Joint Special Operations Command raiders creating havoc behind enemy lines.”97
In the Bush administration Stephen Cambone, who earlier had collaborated with Rumsfeld and Cheney in signing the PNAC’s statement, Rebuilding America’s Defenses, became one of the active promoters of using SOCOM special forces to operate covertly against al Qaeda, not just in Afghanistan, but “anywhere in the world.”98
It is possible that anything Blee may have done in Alec Station to prepare the way for 9/11 was only one part of a larger inter-agency operation, in which an equivalent role was played by SOCOM’s shutting down of the Able Danger project. This might help explain a handwritten notation around 10 PM on 9/11 by Stephen Cambone, then one of Cheney’s PNAC appointees under Rumsfeld in the Pentagon, after a phone call with George Tenet:
AA 77 – 3 indiv[iduals] have been followed since Millennium & Cole
1 guy is assoc[iate] of Cole bomber
2 entered US in early July
(2 of 3 pulled aside & interrogated?)99
The “guy” here is probably Al-Mihdhar, and the “Cole bomber” probably Khallad [or Tawfiq] bin Attash, a major al Qaeda figure connected not just to the Cole bombing but also to the 1998 embassy attacks. One wants to know why Tenet was sharing with a hawk in the Pentagon information that has apparently never been shared by anyone outside the CIA since. And is it a coincidence that Cambone, like Blee, oversaw a program – in this case staffed by SOCOM special operations personnel – using torture to interrogate detainees in Afghanistan?100
Just as Blee was reportedly a special protégé of George Tenet at CIA, so Cambone was notorious for his fierce loyalty to first Dick Cheney and later Donald Rumsfeld in the Pentagon. It is not known whether he was associated with the Continuity of Government (COG) planning project where Rumsfeld and Cheney, among others, prepared for the warrantless surveillance and detention measures that were (as I have argued elsewhere) implemented beginning on the morning of 9/11 and continuing to today.101 Nor is it known if he was associated in any way with Cheney’s Counterterrorism Task Force in the Spring of 2001, which has been alleged to have been a source for the war games, including rogue plane attacks, which added to the disarray of the US response, on 9/11.102
Deep Events as a Repeated Pattern of U.S. Engagement in War
I want to conclude with a little historical perspective on the dysfunction we have been looking at. In a sense 9/11 was unprecedented – the greatest mass murder ever committed in one day on U.S. soil. In another sense it represented an example of the kind of signature event with which we have become only too familiar since the Kennedy assassination. I have called these events deep events – events deeply rooted in illegal covert activity in various branches of US intelligence and with a predictable accompanying pattern of official cover-ups backed up by amazing media malfunction and dishonest best-selling books. Some of these deep events, like the Kennedy assassination, Tonkin Gulf, and 9/11, should be considered structural deep events, because of their permanent impact on history.
It is striking that these structural deep events – the JFK assassination, Tonkin Gulf, and 9/11 – should all have been swiftly followed by America’s engagement in ill-considered wars. The reverse is also true: all of America’s significant wars since Korea – Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan (twice, once covertly and now overtly), and Iraq – have all been preceded by structural deep events. As I wrote in American War Machine, a J-5 Staff Report of 1963 reported to the Joint Chiefs that “The engineering of a series of provocations to justify military intervention is feasible and could be accomplished with the resources available.” Tonkin Gulf, 9/11, and even the Kennedy assassination itself can all be seen as events that were indeed “engineered,” along the guidelines set out in 1962 in the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposals for Project Northwoods.
In two recent books I have been slowly persuaded, against my own initial incredulity, to list more than a dozen significant parallels between the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. Thanks to Kevin Fenton’s brilliant research, I can list a further analogy. The CIA files on Lee Harvey Oswald, more or less dormant for two years, suddenly became hyperactive in the six weeks before the Kennedy assassination. Fenton has demonstrated a similar burst of activity in FBI files on the two Saudis in the weeks before 9/11 – a burst initiated by Tom Wilshire, at a time suspiciously close to when the alleged hijackers settled on a final date for their attack. Then in both cases there were also strange delays, leaving the files open at the time of the deep events.105
The Impact of 9/11 on U.S. and International Law
Throughout this essay we have seen two different and indeed antithetical levels of U.S. foreign policy at work. On the surface level of public diplomacy we see a commitment to international law and the peaceful resolution of differences. On a deeper level, represented by a long-time Saudi connection and covert arrangements to control international oil, we see the toleration and indeed protection of terrorists in fulfillment of both Saudi and American secret goals. We should see the actions in 2000-2001 of the “Alec Station group,” with respect to the two alleged hijackers al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, in the context of this long-time Saudi connection, as well as of the secret consensus in 2001 – just as earlier in 1964 – that America’s oil and security needs (along with those of Israel) required a new American mobilization for war.
Horrendous as it was, the murder of over 2000 civilians on 9/11 was not the only major crime of that day. 9/11 also initiated a series of on-going onslaughts on both international and domestic U.S. law. Law and freedom go together, and both had been significantly enhanced by the founding documents of the United States in the 18th Century. The world benefited; written constitutions soon appeared on every continent; and the Young Europe movements, inspired by America’s example, began the long difficult process towards today’s European Union.
Starting in 2001, both law and freedom have been progressively eroded. International comity, which depends on each state not doing to others what they would not want done to them, has been supplanted, at least for a while, by U.S. unilateral military engagement without constraint, acting without fear of retribution. Drone killings in far corners of the world have now become routine, causing more than an estimated 2000 Pakistani deaths, the vast majority of them untargeted civilians, and over 75 percent of them under President Obama.106 The preemptive war against Iraq, despite being proven both unwarranted and counterproductive, has been followed by the preemptive bombing of Libya, and the prospect of still further campaigns against Syria and Iran.
Writing as a Canadian, let me say that I believe in American exceptionalism, and that at one time America was truly exceptional in its unprecedented replacement of authoritarian with limited constitutional government. Today America is still exceptional, but for its percentage of citizens who are incarcerated, for its disparity in wealth and income between rich and poor (a ratio exceeded among large nations only by China), and for its wanton use of lethal power abroad.
Only the last of these trends began with 9/11. But 9/11 itself should be seen as a dialectical outcome of America’s imperial expansion and simultaneous decay – a process inevitably afflicting those superstates that amass and retain more power than is necessary for the orderly management of their own affairs.