Another Lost Opportunity

In the spring of 2001, one of the U.S. government's most valuable terror informants gave the FBI a far more alarming account of Al Qaeda plans to attack inside the United States than has ever been publicly disclosed, according to newly available court documents.

Algerian expatriate Ahmed Ressam, whose sentencing for a Millennium-eve plot to blow up the Los Angeles airport was unexpectedly postponed today, told bureau interrogators nearly four years ago that Al Qaeda commander Abu Zubaydah had been discussing plans to smuggle terrorist operatives and explosives into the country for the purpose of launching a strike on U.S. soil, the documents show.

The fresh documents, released in federal court in Seattle in recent days, shed new light on an issue that dominated last year's hearings by the September 11 commission: precisely how much did the U.S. government know about Al Qaeda plans to strike inside the country in the summer of 2001 when the attacks on the World Trade Towers and Pentagon were in their final stages?

Ressam was scheduled to be sentenced today for his December 1999 attempt to smuggle a rental car filled with explosives across the Canadian border. He planned to use them to blow up Los Angeles airport on the eve of the New Year's Eve 2000 celebrations. But after a dramatic hearing, in which prosecutors accused Ressam of ceasing his cooperation with the FBI two years ago and jeopardizing their cases against two terror defendants he had previously identified, U.S. Judge John Coughenour delayed the sentencing hearing so that Ressam could reconsider his stand. "I hope it's not lost on Mr. Ressam, we need to see something happen in the next few months," said Judge Coughenour.

Until his apparent change of heart, Ressam had been considered one of the U.S. government's prized catches in the fight against terrorism, a hardened terrorist operative who had access to the highest levels of Al Qaeda but chose to cooperate with the FBI in the spring of 2001 when confronted with the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.

Ressam's information helped authorities break up violent jihadi networks on two continents and jail suspected members of Canadian- and U.S.-based cells. Even John McKay, the U.S. attorney in Seattle who has complained about Ressam's recent falling out with the government, confirmed that the original information he provided was an important boon to prosecutors, particularly about Al Qaeda tradecraft. "He did give us very good information," McKay said.

Perhaps no better sign of that was the inclusion of some of Resssam's information in the now famous presidential daily briefing (PDB)--entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."--that was presented to President Bush by the CIA on Aug. 6, 2001.

The fact that Ressam's information was the basis for at least part of the PDB to Bush first became known last year when the 9/11 commission hearings forced the White House to make the long-disputed document public. But it turns out, according to the new court documents, the information from Ressam that was contained in the PDB was watered down and seemed far more bland than what the Algerian terrorist was actually telling the FBI.

In the course of a debriefing by FBI interrogators on May 30, 2001, Ressam talked with some detail about his experiences in Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in 1998 and 1999 and his many dealings with Abu Zubaydah, then one of Osama bin Laden's top deputies, according to a declassified, highly detailed summary of Ressam's 72 debriefings by government agents that was entered into his court record last week by defense lawyers.

"Abu Zubaydah asked Mr. Ressam to send him original Canadian passports so Abu Zubaydah could get people to America," Ressam told the FBI that day, according to the summary. "Abu Zubaydah wanted an operation in the U.S. Abu Zubaydah also talked to Mr. Ressam about need to get explosives into U.S. for operation, but this wasn't re: Mr. Ressam's operation," meaning explosives that could be used for an attack other than the one planned for the Los Angeles airport. The debriefing report went on to say: "Mr. Ressam does not know if any [explosives] made it to U.S. Once possible operation initiated, operators would not talk about it to anyone, including Abu Zubaydah."

The brief portion of the one-page CIA-prepared PDB to Bush that was based on Ressam's reporting stated that Ressam's Millennium-eve attempt to enter the United States from Canada "may have been part of Bin Laden's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the U.S." The PDB went on to say that Ressam had told the FBI that he conceived of the plot to blow up Los Angeles airport on his own but that Abu Zubaydah encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. "Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaydah was planning his own U.S. attack," the PDB also stated.

But the PDB included none of the additional detail provided by Ressam--such as Abu Zubaydah's talk about smuggling operatives and explosives into the United States as well as his plans to keep such an operation highly compartmentalized. Such particulars might have given the report more urgency. (McKay, the U.S. attorney, said the government wouldn't comment specifically on Ressam's reporting on his dealings with Abu Zubaydah because aspects of it were still classified.) The PDB was also, it turned out, wrong in one particular. The PDB had stated that bin Laden "was aware" of Ressam's airport-attack plot. But according to another court document filed by prosecutors last week, this last sentence in the president's brief "appears to have resulted from a miscommunication" since Ressam never told the FBI that bin Laden had blessed his operation, only that he had sought bin Laden's blessing.

Still, the apparently watered-down nature of the PDB may partly explain why President Bush later told the commission that he viewed the August 2001 briefing as "historical in nature" and that he never followed up with either national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice or Attorney General John Ashcroft to direct them to push more aggressively to identify Al Qaeda cells inside the United States.

It fails, however, to explain why Ressam's reporting didn't get wider circulation within the U.S. government or, perhaps more critically, do anything to shift U.S. intelligence community assumptions that Al Qaeda was fixated on attacking U.S. targets overseas rather than inside the country.

Ironically, a close reading of the 9/11 Commission report suggests that Ressam's information may have been "recycled" back to the U.S. intelligence community by an unidentified foreign intelligence community--most likely after learning it from the FBI in the first place. "Late in [August 2001]," the 9/11 Commission report stated, "a foreign [intelligence] service reported that Abu Zubaydah was considering mounting terrorist attacks in the United States, after postponing possible operations in Europe. No targets, timing or method of attack were provided."

A former U.S. law-enforcement official familiar with Ressam's case said that the foreign intelligence service reporting was typical of the kind of "cyclical reporting" that was rampant in the intelligence world in which other services would simply rereport to the CIA what it had originally learned from the FBI through separate channels. "We used to get a kick out of that," said the former official.

Either way, the multiple channels for Ressam's warnings did little to change thinking within the FBI or CIA, according to the 9/11 Commission report. Indeed, the report stated that after the PDB : "We have found no indication of any further discussion before September 11 among the President and his top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an Al Qaeda attack in the United States." The report went on to note that while the threat reporting that summer was unprecedented and alarming ("The System Was Blinking Red," was the title of that chapter of the commission's report) most of the reporting "suggested that attacks were planned against targets overseas" --not inside the United States.

There is no indication that Ressam had specific knowledge of the 9/11 attacks themselves. Indeed, on Sept. 12, 2001, according to the defense lawyers' summary, investigators questioned Ressam about the previous day's events. "Mr. Ressam never heard discussion of such a plan, but based on what he's already told the government, it is not surprising," Ressam told his interrogators, according to this account. "Abu Zubaydah talked generally of big operations in U.S. with big impact, needing great preparation, great perseverance, and willingness to die. Mr. Ressam had told gov. of plans to get people hired at airports, of blowing up airports, and airplanes."

An Algerian refugee living in Canada, Ahmed Ressam was a petty thief in Montreal who went through three of Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s then returned to Canada to set up a militant cell in preparation for a terrorist attack on the United States. After having difficulty recruiting confederates, Ressam decided to carry out his freelance plan to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. But it was thwarted when a nervous Ressam caught the eye of an alert U.S. Customs inspector as he drove off a ferry from British Columbia into Washington state; in the trunk of his rental car, investigators found enough homemade explosives and timing devices to make four powerful bombs.

A sullen Ressam initially refused to talk to his American captors. But after conviction in a jury trial on terrorism offenses that could have landed him a 130-year prison sentence, Ressam agreed to become a government witness. In debriefings with an alphabet-soup of American agencies and investigators from around the world, Ressam provided a roadmap to the organization and reach of Osama bin Laden's network.

Among those Ressam identified was Zacarias Moussaoui, who pled guilty last week to being a party to the 9/11 conspiracy, and a London-based militant figure named Abu Doha (a.k.a. "The Doctor") who also had personal contact with bin Laden. The evidence supplied by Ressam enabled U.S. prosecutors to file extradition cases against Abu Doha, Ressam's alleged Al Qaeda control agent, as well as Samir Ait Mohamed, another alleged co-conspirator in Vancouver. Both suspects were arrested and have been detained for years as they fought U.S. extradition efforts in British and Canadian courts.

As is typical in such cases, prosecutors indicated that based on Ressam's cooperation they might be willing to see his sentence reduced to 27 years rather than the 130-year maximum.

But according to the government documents made public in recent weeks, Ressam's cooperation began to unravel in April 2003 when U.S. officials met with Ressam to confirm that he was willing to testify to information he had provided them at previous meetings about Samir Ait Mohamed who allegedly once wanted to bomb a target in Canada connected to Israel.

When investigators started reviewing the Ressam statements he had previously made about Mohamed, Ressam responded that he didn't remember any more. In the government's words, Ressam claimed "that he had been asked so many questions and in such a manner that he could not say whether the statements being attributed to him were true."

Government attorneys told Judge Coughenour that they believe Ressam was lying about being confused and simply stopped wanting to cooperate. In a lengthy report submitted by defense lawyers, however, psychiatrist Stuart Grassian says that Ressam appears to be suffering from the effects of prolonged solitary confinement. The consequence of this isolation, combined with lengthy and repetitive interrogations, meant that "over time, Mr. Ressam found it increasingly difficult to be clear in his own mind about events which had happened years ago; it was especially difficult because he needed to distinguish between what he was told by his interrogators that he had said previously, what he actually recalled that he had said, and what had actually happened in the past. The past, and his past statements, and what he was being told were his past statements, all began blurring into a hopeless muddle," the psychiatrist wrote.

For prosecutors, the loss of Ressam as a witness is serious: it could force them to drop their attempts to extradite Abu Doha from Great Britain and Samir Ait Mohamed from Canada. McKay, the U.S. attorney, told NEWSWEEK that prosecutors intend to move quickly to determine if the judge's offer to postpone Ressam's sentencing until July 28 will do anything to refresh his memory. While Coughenour has given Ressam three months to change his mind, McKay said, "we expect it sooner than that"--an indication that, as far as the government is concerned, they want Ressam to immediately remember what he now claims to have forgotten.

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