U.S.

The Inside Information That Could Have Stopped 9/11

01_16_Rossini_10
01/23/15
In the Magazine
A minister stands amid the wreckage of the World Trade Center, seemingly dazed from the events of the day on Sept. 11, 2001. Larry Towell/Magnum

Just before Christmas, former FBI special agent Mark Rossini greeted me with his usual good cheer when we met for drinks in a midtown Manhattan restaurant. He told me his life had finally taken a turn for the better. He’s spending most of his time in Switzerland, where he works for a private global corporate-security firm. “Life’s good,” he said.

Good, but with a few major changes. Rossini was drinking club soda instead of the expensive cabernets he quaffed when I first knew him as a high-flying FBI official in Washington a decade ago, when he was a special assistant to the bureau’s chief spokesman, John Miller (now with the New York City Police Department). “I’ve cut back,” he said. “Feeling good.”

But when I ask him how he’s really doing, the light in his eyes dims. “Well, you know, I still miss the job,” he said, shaking his head. A boneheaded move—showing confidential FBI documents to his actress-flame Linda Fiorentino, who said she was researching a script about L.A. wiretapper extraordinaire Anthony Pellicano—cost him his career in 2008 and nearly landed him in jail.

“What’s past is past,” he said. But not all of it. He quickly told me of an encounter the day before on a street in Yonkers, where he keeps an apartment. He’d run into a close family friend who’d lost relatives at the World Trade Center on 9/11. “Mark,” she told him, “you’ve got to get to the bottom of this.”

01_16_Rossini_01 Former F.B.I. Agent Mark Rossini leaves U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. after being sentenced to a year's probation and a $5,000 fine for his role in illegally accessing F.B.I. documents, May 14, 2009. Ron Sachs/CNP/Newscom

“She says that every time I see her,” he said, his mouth turning down. But now, at 53, six years out of the bureau, he’s making a determined effort to do just that—to close some of the gaping holes in the official 9/11 narrative, which blames the attacks on a vague “intelligence failure.”

Rossini is well placed to do just that. He’s been at the center of one of the enduring mysteries of 9/11: Why the CIA refused to share information with the FBI (or any other agency) about the arrival of at least two well-known Al-Qaeda operatives in the United States in 2000, even though the spy agency had been tracking them closely for years.

That the CIA did block him and Doug Miller, a fellow FBI agent assigned to the “Alec Station,” the cover name for CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, from notifying bureau headquarters about the terrorists has been told before, most notably in a 2009 Nova documentary on PBS, “The Spy Factory.” Rossini and Miller related how they learned earlier from the CIA that one of the terrorists (and future hijacker), Khalid al-Mihdhar, had multi-entry visas on a Saudi passport to enter the United States. When Miller drafted a report for FBI headquarters, a CIA manager in the top-secret unit told him to hold off. Incredulous, Miller and Rossini had to back down. The station’s rules prohibited them from talking to anyone outside their top-secret group.

01_16_Rossini_06 Khalid Almihdhar was one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. FBI

All these years later, Rossini still regrets complying with that command. If he had disobeyed the gag order, the nearly 3,000 Americans slaughtered on 9/11 would probably still be alive. “This is the pain that never escapes me, that haunts me each and every day of my life,” he wrote in the draft of a book he shared with me. “I feel like I failed, even though I know it was the system and the intelligence community on the whole that failed.”

‘I Finally Broke Down’

The various commissions and internal agency reviews that examined the “intelligence failure” of 9/11 blamed institutional habits and personal rivalries among CIA, FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) officials for preventing them from sharing information. Out of those reviews came the creation of a new directorate of national intelligence, which stripped the CIA of its coordinating authority. But blaming “the system” sidesteps the issue of why one CIA officer in particular, Michael Anne Casey, ordered Rossini’s cohort, Miller, not to alert the FBI about al-Mihdhar. Or why the CIA’s Alec Station bosses failed to alert the FBI—or any other law enforcement agency—about the arrival of Nawaf al-Hazmi, another key Al-Qaeda operative (and future hijacker) the agency had been tracking to and from a terrorist summit in Malaysia.

01_16_Rossini_05a Nawaf Al-Hamzi was one of the five hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. FBI

Because Casey remains undercover at the CIA, Rossini does not name her in his unfinished manuscript. But he wrote, “When I confronted this person...she told me that ‘this was not a matter for the FBI. The next al-Qaeda attack is going to happen in Southeast Asia and their visas for America are just a diversion. You are not to tell the FBI about it. When and if we want the FBI to know about it, we will.’”

Rossini recalled going to Miller’s cubicle right after his conversation with Casey. “He looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language.… We were both stunned and could not understand why the FBI was not going to be told about this.”

It remains a mystery. None of the post-9/11 investigating bodies were able to get to the bottom of it, in part because Rossini and Miller, who continued to work at Alec Station after the attacks, didn’t tell anyone what happened there. When congressional investigators came sniffing around, they kept their mouths shut.

“We were told not to say anything to them,” Rossini said. Who told you that? I asked. “The CIA. I can’t name names. It was just understood in the office that they were not to be trusted, that [the congressional investigators] were trying to pin this on someone, that they were trying to put someone in jail. They said [the investigators] weren’t authorized to know what was going on operationally.… When we were interviewed, the CIA had a person in the room, monitoring us.”

As a result, Rossini wasn’t interviewed by the subsequent 9/11 Commission, either. “Based on that interview, I guess the 9/11 Commission [which followed up the congressional probe] thought I didn’t have anything worthy to say.” He kept his secret, he said, from the Justice Department’s inspector general as well. “I was still in shock,” he added, and still fearful of violating Alec Station’s demand for omerta. Finally, when his own agency—the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR)—came to him in late 2004, after the congressional probe and 9/11 Commission had issued their reports, he opened up.

01_16_Rossini_09 Pedestrians react to the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11, 2001. Richard Cohen/Reuters

“Tape recorders were running. I was sitting right next to Candace Will, associate director of the FBI” in charge of the OPR, Rossini recalled by telephone early this month. “It’s when I finally broke down and told them what had happened, what I had done, and why. Those tape recordings are the key, that’s what has to be released.”

The CIA has long insisted it shared intelligence about al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi with the FBI, but records gathered by the 9/11 Commission contradict this assertion. Indeed, the panel could find no records supporting the claim of another Alec Station supervisor, Alfreda Bikowsky, that she had hand-carried a report to the FBI.

“The FBI is telling the truth,” Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission, told Newsweek. As for why the CIA not only failed to share pre-9/11 information on Al-Qaeda operatives but forbade the FBI agents in Alec Station from sharing it, Zelikow said, “We don’t know.”

And He Comes Back...

In such darkness, all sorts of conspiracy theories have flourished, from the absurd “truther” scenarios about preset charges in the World Trade Center to Israeli or even Bush administration connivance in the attacks. But more substantive theories remain, some deeply disturbing.

The issue was revived on January 7, when two members of Congress, backed by the co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, former Florida Democratic senator Bob Graham, unveiled a resolution calling on the Obama administration to declassify 28 pages of the joint congressional probe dealing with Saudi contacts with and financial support for the hijackers when they were in this country. Saudi officials, Graham says, “knew that people who had a mission for Osama bin Laden were in, or would soon be placed in, the United States. Whether they knew what their assignments were takes the inference too far.”

Zelikow, who later went on to work for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, sees the Saudi Embassy’s alleged connections to the hijackers as “a red herring.” But he said there are “loose ends” worth exploring, particularly the hijackers’ movements in the U.S. that brought them close to Yemeni extremist preachers. “The more interesting story is where they decided to settle and why,” he added.

01_16_Rossini_03 Richard Clarke, former National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and National Security, is sworn in before the bipartisan September 11 commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon The U.S., on Capitol Hill, March 24, 2004, in Washington. Mark Wilson/Getty

Now a professor of history at the University of Virginia, Zelikow is likewise skeptical of what former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke said in a startling, videotaped interview with two freelance journalists in October 2009—remarks that have garnered far less attention than the hijackers’ Saudi connections.

Clarke recalled that in 1999, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center had been taken over by Cofer Black and Rich Blee, two “hard-charging” covert operations veterans who “understood Al-Qaeda was a big threat.… What I was told at the time,” Clarke told journalists Ray Nowosielski and John Duffy, “was that they were going to try, for the first time, to get sources on the inside”—to turn one of the terrorists into a double agent.

Clarke found it odd that when CIA Director George Tenet came to an emergency White House meeting with Black and Blee on July 10, 2001, “they never mentioned that already two Al-Qaeda terrorists...had entered the United States.”

“So you ask yourself, Why not?” he added. The “only conceivable reason that I’ve been able to come up with” is that they were running an illegal domestic operation to recruit al-Mihdhar or al-Hazmi. And they didn’t want the FBI to barge in on it.

That would also explain why Alec Station’s Michael Anne Casey forbade Miller and Rossini to tell FBI headquarters about al-Mihdhar’s multi-visa passport to enter the U.S. Rossini believes “they did” try to recruit al-Mihdhar, who had made prior visits to the U.S. As the former FBI agent pointed out, the NSA had been eavesdropping on a house al-Mihdhar frequented in Yemen. It’s how the CIA learned of the Kuala Lumpur terrorist summit. “He’s a known terrorist that they follow around the globe,” Rossini said. “He’s a subject of several cables, he comes to America…and they allow him to leave America and go back to Yemen for the birth of his baby. And he comes back.”

The CIA didn’t tell the FBI about his presence until midsummer of 2001, after they had lost track of him. “It just stands to reason that they had some kind of relationship with him—or they tried,” Rossini said. “So they were following these merry men around for a year or two without telling us, and now all of the sudden, in July 2001, they say, ‘Please help us find these guys!’ Why then? I can’t prove it, the only reason is, he went south—he told them to go fuck themselves—or stopped responding to their phone calls. They ran a clandestine op in the U.S., and they didn’t want the bureau involved in it.”

01_16_Rossini_10 A minister stands amid the wreckage of the World Trade Center, seemingly dazed from the events of the day on Sept. 11, 2001. Larry Towell/Magnum

‘Lying Pieces of Shit’

A former CIA operations officer who was assigned to Alec Station at the time thinks that both Rossini and Clarke are onto something—but that their theory is a bit off-kilter. “I find that kind of hard to believe, that [al-Mihdhar or al-Hazmi] would be a valid source,” said the former CIA operative, who spent 25 years handling spies in some of the world’s most dangerous places, including the Middle East. “But then again, the folks that were making a lot of calls at the time there were junior analysts, who had zero general experience and absolutely zero on-the-ground operational experience or any kind of operational training.”

From the beginning, Alec Station, the operative pointed out, was run by intelligence analysts, many of them like the fictional heroine of Zero Dark Thirty, a composite of real-life CIA analysts. Over time, they began fancying themselves as field-savvy, venturing into the operations—sometimes with disastrous consequences.

“They had all these analysts coming up with their grand schemes and following targets,” said the former officer, who asked for anonymity in exchange for talking freely about clandestine matters. “But then they wanted to call the shots on the operational size of things, and that’s where their strengths were not.” It was an Alec Station analyst, Jennifer Matthews, the operative pointed out, who recruited the double agent who killed her and six other CIA personnel on a remote base in Afghanistan on December 2009.  

“Their definition of a source was very different from what an intelligence officer or case officer or the [directorate of operations] would consider a validated bona fide source,” said the operative. And the Alec Station analysts didn’t much like the wizened older case officers looking over their shoulders. “Sometimes I’d propose something and they would warn me off, saying it might compromise somebody they were talking to.”

But who would they be talking to? Not real terrorists. “I don’t think they ever personally talked to anybody,” the operative said. “They just worked in their office in tennis shoes....They probably got a source through liaison. So their source [on the hijackers] might have been someone in the Saudi service who said they are talking to somebody, or someone in the Jordanian service who said he was talking to someone. As far I was concerned, they were a bunch of lying pieces of shit. So they could’ve done that.”

“That” meaning essentially conjuring up a relationship with al-Mihdhar, perhaps through a very sensitive source in Saudi intelligence, and selling it as something with great potential to their CIA bosses, who were desperate to get something going inside Al-Qaeda. This is essentially what happened with Matthews and her spy Humam al-Balawi, a doctor who claimed to be treating Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri at his lair in Pakistan. Balawi was served up to Matthews by Jordanian intelligence, the CIA’s closest Middle East partner outside of Israel.

Top CIA officials were so excited about al-Balawi’s supposed access to Al-Qaeda’s inner circle that they were running down to the White House to give progress reports on him. That is, until he was driven into a CIA base without being searched—on Matthew’s explicit, tragic orders—and blew himself up, killing eight people altogether.

Waiting for Heads to Roll

All these years later, no one has come up with a plausible explanation for why Alec Station would deny Rossini and Miller the chance to tell the FBI about dangerous Al-Qaeda figures coming into the U.S. “It’s looney,” said the former Alec Station CIA ops officer.

“When the first 9/11 report came out, I was waiting for heads to roll,” the ops officer said. “But of course they took out all the important stuff. And all the people who were responsible for not sharing information—their names were taken out. They were commended and moved up.”

To this day, Rossini can barely contain his fury. Over drinks in New York, he tried to count his blessings. It was Christmas, nearby Rockefeller Center was lit up and beautiful. He was firmly locked into his default mode: big smile, glass raised.

“What the hell,” he said, taking a sip of his drink. “I’m gonna tell my story.”

Jeff Stein is Newsweek’s national security correspondent in Washington. He can be reached somewhat confidentially via spytalk@hushmail.com.

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