Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • Al Qaeda: Getting Warmer

    The arrests of a half dozen Qaeda operatives in Pakistan last week could bring U.S. intelligence officials a giant stride closer to unraveling the inner workings of the 9-11 terrorist plot--and possibly even locating Osama bin Laden, officials tell NEWSWEEK. One of those apprehended, Ali Abd al-Aziz--a nephew of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed--was a key, if largely mysterious, financial figure in the plot. Between April and September 2000, Aziz wired $119,500 from the United Arab Emirates to the hijackers, helping to pay for flight-school training and other expenses. But officials discount the idea that Aziz, believed to be in his mid-20s, was the ultimate source of the funds. If he cooperates, investigators say, it could allow them to piece together one of the enduring mysteries of 9-11: who put up the money? Some officials were even more ecstatic about another terrorist picked up in the Pakistani roundup, Tawfiq bin Attash. A one-legged former Afghan fighter, bin Attash, a...
  • Terror Watch: September 11 Showdown

    Will the White House block a terror panel's access to critical documents? Plus, here's another reason to badmouth France.
  • Terror Watch: The Secrets Of September 11

    Even as White House political aides plot a 2004 campaign plan designed to capitalize on the emotions and issues raised by the September 11 terror attacks, administration officials are waging a behind-the-scenes battle to restrict public disclosure of key events relating to the attacks.At the center of the dispute is a more-than-800-page secret report prepared by a joint congressional inquiry detailing the intelligence and law-enforcement failures that preceded the attacks--including provocative, if unheeded warnings, given President Bush and his top advisers during the summer of 2001.The report was completed last December; only a bare-bones list of "findings" with virtually no details was made public. But nearly six months later, a "working group" of Bush administration intelligence officials assigned to review the document has taken a hard line against further public disclosure. By refusing to declassify many of its most significant conclusions, the administration has essentially...
  • Terror Watch: Laying Off Syria

    CIA and State Department officials quietly urged the White House to take pressure off Damascus. Plus, how far can the U.S. go in prosecuting the war on terror?
  • Sex, Spies And The 'Parlor Maid'

    An accused Chinese double agent who was having long-term sexual affairs with two veteran FBI counterintelligence agents was a key source for a special Justice Department campaign-finance task force, NEWSWEEK has learned. Set up six years ago in part to investigate an alleged Chinese plot to influence U.S. lawmakers, the task force has since disbanded: it was never able to prove the Chinese government was behind millions of dollars in suspect campaign contributions to former president Bill Clinton and members of Congress during the 1990s. But last week's arrest of Los Angeles businesswoman Katrina Leung--an accused spy whose code name was Parlor Maid--has prompted an intense FBI review to determine if she compromised highly sensitive counterintelligence investigations, including the campaign-finance probe.Leung, sources say, was the task force's chief source on prime target Ted Sioeng, a suspected Chinese "agent of influence" whose family and businesses contributed $250,000 to the...
  • Terror Watch: A Legal Counterattack

    Saudis hire some of the toniest U.S. law firms to defend them against the landmark $1 trillion lawsuit on behalf of the victims of 9-11. So why is the plaintiff's counsel ecstatic? Plus, new heat on radical imam.
  • Terror Watch: Whose War On Terror?

    The FBI says it should have full authority over investigations into terrorist financing. Not so fast, says Homeland Security. Plus, why some Muslims are furious over a Bush nominee to rebuild Iraq.
  • Terror Watch: Where's Saddam?

    And what if he's never caught? U.S. Officials are quietly discussing that possibility. Plus, the White House orders key agencies to play ball with 9-11 Commission.
  • Terror Watch: With Friends Like These

    Saudis providing top-flight defense lawyers for their detained nationals in crackdown on suspected terrorists. 'It's outrageous, really,' says one senior law enforcement official. Plus, U.S. treasury searches for Saddam's laundered money.
  • Terror Watch: 'Dark Orange'

    If there is a war with Iraq, expect a new level of terror alert--and a dramatic increase in the guarding of 'soft targets' in the U.S.
  • Graham: His 9-11 'Outrage'

    What prompted Florida Sen. Bob Graham to join the Democratic presidential sweepstakes last week? The 66-year-old Graham--who recently had heart surgery--has toyed with the idea of running for years, but says he always lacked "fire in the belly." What gave it to him this time, he tells NEWSWEEK, was his experience last year overseeing a joint House-Senate inquiry into the events of 9-11. Graham says he became "outraged" by the intelligence and law-enforcement failures discovered by the inquiry--most of which, he charges, are still being suppressed by the Bush administration. The inquiry's 400-page report can't be publicly released because the administration won't declassify key portions. Graham says the report documents far more miscues by the FBI and CIA than have been publicly revealed, as well as still unpursued leads pointing to "facilitation" of the hijackers by a "sovereign nation." (Sources say the country is Saudi Arabia.) "There's been a cover-up of this," Graham said.
  • Saudis: No 'Particular Concern'

    In a move expected to infuriate religious conservatives and human-rights advocates alike, the Bush administration has decided to reject the recommendation of a special government commission to place Saudi Arabia on an American blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom. NEWSWEEK has learned that Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to shortly release an annual list of "countries of particular concern"--a formal branding of nations the U.S. government concludes engage in "systemic, ongoing and egregious" violations of the rights of religious minorities. After a contentious internal battle, the Saudis won't be on it--despite the conclusion by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that, with the demise of the Taliban, the Islamic nation is probably the worst oppressor of religious rights in the world. "I'm appalled and disappointed," says Felice D. Gaer, the commission chair, about the decision. "But I'm not surprised."This year's battle over the...
  • Hiding In Plain Sight

    For George W. Bush, it was just another campaign stop. But for Sami Al-Arian, a University of South Florida engineering professor, it was a golden opportunity. When Bush appeared at Tampa's Strawberry Festival in March 2000, Al-Arian sidled up to the candidate and had his picture taken. Bush joked around with the professor's son, Abdullah, nicknaming the 6-foot-3 teen "Big Dude." Al-Arian later told friends he even used the occasion to press Bush on a key issue among Muslim Americans: the Justice Department's use of "secret evidence" to deport accused terrorists.In those pre-9-11 days, Bush was eagerly courting the growing Muslim vote--and more than willing to listen to seemingly sincere activists like Al-Arian. When he debated Al Gore later in the year, Bush even made a point of bringing up the secret-evidence issue. Al-Arian was thrilled--and began registering local Muslims for the Republican Party and praising Bush at local mosques. "I think I personally played a big role in...
  • Colombia: 'We Are Already Involved In This Confli

    Even as the Bush administration polishes war plans for Iraq, the crash of a contractor aircraft in the jungles of Colombia last week threatens to enmesh U.S. military forces more deeply into that country's bloody civil war. One American civilian aboard the aircraft was shot and killed; three others are missing and are now believed being held captive by the leftist Revolutionary Army Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.U.S. officials fear the men have already been moved to a remote location and will be held by the FARC for ransom or as bargaining chips to free its own imprisoned leaders. (Electronic intercepts picked up talk among FARC commanders that they "have safeguarded the package," sources said.) The men were described as Pentagon contractors assisting the Colombian military on an unspecified "anti-drug" mission. In fact, sources tell NEWSWEEK, the men were on an intelligence mission equipped with special "jungle-busting" radar to identify FARC command "nodes" that are used...
  • Cia &Amp; Fbi: A Forced Marriage

    President Bush's announcement last week of a new Terrorist Threat Integration Center masked still simmering tensions between the FBI and CIA. The new office, which will be overseen by CIA Director George Tenet, is designed to "fuse" intelligence from both agencies, as well as the Defense Department, about potential terrorist threats to the country.But originally, the plan was to go much further. Sources tell NEWSWEEK that prior to Bush's State of the Union, Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller had reached a historic accord: to move the entire Counter-Terrorism Division out of FBI headquarters and house it in a new northern Virginia office building alongside the Counter-Terrorism Center of the CIA. When word of the plan first spread through bureau headquarters last Monday, some senior agents went ballistic. "I'm a law-enforcement officer. I'm not working for any goddam CIA agent," said one FBI veteran who was on the verge of resignation.Across the river at CIA headquarters in...
  • Investigators: The Fbi Says, Count The Mosques

    Frustrated that his troops are still not aggressive enough in hunting down terrorists, FBI Director Robert Mueller has launched a potentially controversial initiative aimed at making sure that field agents finally get the message--and are held accountable. As part of the effort, NEWSWEEK has learned, Mueller's top aides have directed chiefs of the bureau's 56 field offices to develop "demographic" profiles of their localities--including tallying the number of mosques. Those profiles are then being used, along with other factors, to set specific numerical goals for counter terrorism investigations and secret national-security wiretaps in each region. Top bureau officials have signaled that if field offices don't meet their pre-established goals, they may be subjected to special reviews by inspection teams from headquarters.Field offices learned of the new project earlier this month when they received a six-page questionnaire that, in a section headlined vulnerability, asked about the...
  • Caught On Tape

    The Bush administration is preparing to release supersensitive electronic intercepts obtained by the National Security Agency that officials say prove that Iraq has repeatedly lied to United Nations inspectors, plotted among themselves about how to conceal weapons material and even appeared to boast afterward at their success in doing so, NEWSWEEK has learned.The decision to allow Secretary of State Colin Powell to use the electronic intercepts in his speech next Wednesday to the U.N. was described by U.S. intelligence officials as extraordinary. Electronic intercepts by the NSA are considered the most jealously guarded of all U.S. intelligence secrets and government officials are normally loath to even refer to their existence for fear of tipping off targets and drying up invaluable sources of information.But in this case, officials said, the intercepts are so damning and dramatic that officials say their release outweighs the potential harm--especially given the increased...
  • Point Of View: It's All A Matter Of Bias

    Last May I had a rare audience with Saudi Prince Al-Walid bin Talal. A multibillionaire investor, the prince had made headlines the previous fall when he offered $10 million for 9-11 victims--and Rudy Giuliani turned it down. The prince complained to me about U.S. bashing of Saudi Arabia. "Don't you believe the Jewish lobby has a big role in what's going on?" he said. The "Jews" and the "Zionists" had "infiltrated" every part of the U.S. government. "Mr. [Paul] Wolfowitz is the boss of what's going on," he said, referring to the deputy secretary of Defense. What infuriated him most was the "Jewish lobby's" power over the media. As he went on, I noticed behind his desk the emblems of the many U.S. corporations that the prince owns chunks of: AOL Time Warner (his stake: $900 million), News Corp. ($1 billion) and Disney Corp. ($50 million). To be sure, his investments in the media giants wasn't enough to give him editorial control. Nor were they as much as his $10 billion stake in...
  • Hard Time For Corporate Perps

    In a dramatic Christmas-season crackdown, Attorney General John Ashcroft's top deputies have rebuked the director of federal prisons and ordered her to summarily remove 125 white collar felons from relatively lenient halfway houses and immediately relocate them to actual prisons.The directive--spelled out in internal memos obtained by NEWSWEEK--is part of a potentially far-reaching new policy designed by Ashcroft's top aides to insure "real time" in federal prisons for convicted tax evaders, inside traders and other white-collar malefactors.The Justice directive, signed this week by Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson, orders Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), to put an immediate end to a longstanding BOP practice that has allowed hundreds of white-collar felons to avoid spending any time in prison. Instead, BOP has routinely assigned these felons with relatively short prison terms of two years or less to "community corrections centers" or halfway...
  • 9-11 Investigation: 'We'll Go Where The Facts Lea

    The Bush White House borrowed a page from Henry Kissinger's own diplomatic playbook last week when it named the ex-secretary of State to chair the new independent commission to investigate the 9-11 terror attacks. As foreign-policy guru of the Nixon and Ford years, Kissinger was known for deceptive bureaucratic maneuvers, followed by bold public strokes that took Washington by surprise. That was the case when Bush named Kissinger--a move nobody anticipated. Leaders of the family groups, whose lobbying led to the panel's creation, say White House staffers had been seeking their recommendations for panel chair as late as last Monday--without ever hinting a choice was already in the works. A list of proposed names was faxed to the White House only that day. But top aides had by then focused on Kissinger. Chief of staff Andy Card first suggested Kissinger to President Bush last month and Bush thought it was a "terrific" idea, one aide said. Last Monday night, Card called Kissinger at...
  • The Saudi Money Trail

    When the two Qaeda operatives arrived at Los Angeles International Airport around New Year's 2000, they were warmly welcomed. Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar would help hijack American Airlines Flight 77 and crash it into the Pentagon a year and a half later, but that January in Los Angeles, they were just a couple of young Saudi men who barely spoke English and needed a place to stay. At the airport, they were swept up by a gregarious fellow Saudi, Omar al-Bayoumi, who had been living in the United States for several years. Al-Bayoumi drove the two men to San Diego, threw a welcoming party and arranged for the visitors to get an apartment next to his. He guaranteed the lease, and plunked down $1,550 in cash to cover the first two months' rent. His hospitality did not end there.Al-Bayoumi also aided Alhazmi and Almihdhar as they opened a bank account, and recruited a friend to help them obtain Social Security cards and call flight schools in Florida to arrange flying lessons,...
  • '04 Using 9-11

    For nearly a year, the White House had resisted an independent commission to investigate the September 11 terror attacks. But last week Bush aides were suddenly pushing to make it happen as quickly as possible. Why the new urgency? Electoral politics, say congressional negotiators. During intense bargaining last week, White House aides expressed alarm about the 18-month timetable for the commission. "You know that's going to take this right into the election," one said. White House aides said they fear "leaks" designed to harm George W. Bush could be dribbled out in the summer of '04 by Democratic commissioners. The concern has intensified because an upcoming report by a joint House-Senate inquiry into 9-11 is expected to criticize the administration for refusing to turn over documents and declassify intelligence briefings given to Bush. A senior White House official acknowledged the concerns about election-year leaks, but argued there could be bipartisan embarrassments. "There's no...
  • 9-11 Hijackers: A Saudi Money Trail?

    The FBI is investigating whether the Saudi Arabian government--using the bank account of the wife of a senior Saudi diplomat--sent tens of thousands of dollars to two Saudi students in the United States who provided assistance to two of the September 11 hijackers, according to law-enforcement sources.The bureau, they say, has uncovered financial records showing a steady stream of payments to the family of one of the students, Omar Al Bayoumi. The money moved into the family's bank account beginning in early 2000, just a few months after hijackers Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi arrived in Los Angeles from an Al Qaeda planning summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, according to the sources. Within days of the terrorists' arrival in the United State, Al Bayoumi befriended the two men who would eventually hijack American Flight 77, throwing them a welcoming party in San Diego and guaranteeing their lease on an apartment next door to his own. Al Bayoumi also paid $1,500 to cover the first...
  • A Mounting Toll

    The gunshot rangout in the night. Benny Oberoi, a 22-year-old clerk at a liquor store in Silver Spring, Md., dropped to the ground. It was about 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 14, and at the time police said they had nothing to go on. In the wake of the sniper shootings, law-enforcement authorities now think the shot was fired by either John Allen Muhammad or his protege, John Lee Malvo. What the authorities are not saying publicly is that there was, in fact, a witness that night. Robert Wilkerson Jr., 19, was pushing shopping carts at the strip mall's Safeway when he heard the shot--and saw a dark Chevy Caprice slowly pull out. Wilkerson told the police, but the tip was ignored or overlooked. "When everyone kept talking about a white box truck, I kept wondering why the police weren't looking for this car," Wilkerson's father told NEWSWEEK.The bloody trail keeps lengthening, the what-ifs keep mounting up. By the end of last week, the sniper suspects had been linked by law enforcement to 20...
  • A Wide World Of Trouble

    George Tenet could not have been more plain-spoken. "They are coming after us," the CIA director warned last week, on the edge of his seat, glaring. "The threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was last summer--the summer before 9-11." Tenet's words were unnerving; it was almost as if a year of "war on terror" had not happened. His warning came amid a week of new terror mysteries: a horrific mass murder in Bali, a killing of a Marine in Kuwait, a Philippine bus bombing, an attempted hijacking in Morocco. Al Qaeda, Tenet said, has "reconstituted" (and is presumably no longer "hiding in caves," as President George W. Bush likes to say). Tenet said he'd talk to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge that day about raising the nation's official threat level.Which raises another mystery: why, the morning after Tenet's disturbing testimony before Congress, Ridge and his staff declined to notch up the national terror-warning system from yellow (or elevated) to orange ...
  • Investigators, Keep Out

    Dick Cheney played a behind-the-scenes role last week in derailing an agreement to create an independent commission to investigate the 9-11 attacks. Last month the White House endorsed the formation of the panel. But on Thursday, hours after congressional negotiators hailed a final deal over the scope and powers of a 9-11 panel, Cheney called House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Porter Goss, sources told NEWSWEEK. Later that day Goss told a closed-door conference committee he couldn't accept the deal, citing instructions from "above my pay grade," sources say. Goss later said he was referring to other House leaders, not Cheney. Goss wouldn't discuss his call from the VP but said it wasn't the "determining factor" in his stand.Cheney's office said the VP's only instruction to Goss was to "keep negotiating," and Bushies insist they still hope to hammer out a new deal before Congress goes home this week. One obstacle: subpoena power. Last week's proposed deal would allow any five...
  • Ashcroft's Baghdad Connection

    When the White House released its Sept. 12 "white paper" detailing Saddam Hussein's "support for international terrorism," it caused more than a little discomfort in some quarters of Washington.The 27-page document--entitled "A Decade of Deception and Defiance"--made no mention of any Iraqi ties to Osama bin Laden. But it did highlight Saddam's backing of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), an obscure Iranian dissident group that has gathered surprising support among members of Congress in past years. One of those supporters, the documents show, is a top commander in President Bush's war on terrorism: Attorney General John Ashcroft, who became involved with the MKO while a Republican senator from Missouri.The case of Ashcroft and the MKO shows just how murky fighting terrorism can sometimes get. State Department officials first designated the MKO a "foreign terrorist organization" in 1997, accusing the Baghdad-based group of a long series of bombings, guerilla cross-border...
  • Exclusive: The Informant Who Lived With The Hijackers

    At first, FBI director Bob Mueller insisted there was nothing the bureau could have done to penetrate the 9-11 plot. That account has been modified over time--and now may change again. NEWSWEEK has learned that one of the bureau's informants had a close relationship with two of the hijackers: he was their roommate.The connection, just discovered by congressional investigators, has stunned some top counterterrorism officials and raised new concerns about the information-sharing among U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. The two hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, were hardly unknown to the intelligence community. The CIA was first alerted to them in January 2000, when the two Saudi nationals showed up at a Qaeda "summit" in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. FBI officials have argued internally for months that if the CIA had more quickly passed along everything it knew about the two men, the bureau could have hunted them down more aggressively.But both agencies can share...
  • Scandal: Still Going

    A long-running federal probe into President Bill Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich may be heating up. The politically sensitive investigation hasn't received any public attention for some time. But sources say there has been a flurry of testimony before a New York grand jury in recent months.One figure in the prosecutors' cross hairs, NEWSWEEK has learned, is Democratic Party fund-raiser Beth Dozoretz. A close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton's, Dozoretz pledged to raise $1 million for the Clinton library and later played a key role lobbying Clinton to grant the pardon. Dozoretz has already twice testified before the grand jury. When prosecutors recently asked her to return a third time, sources say, Dozoretz balked. Her lawyer says she will invoke the Fifth Amendment. One area of interest to the prosecutors: a secret airport meeting that Dozoretz had with Avner Azulay, a former Mossad agent who was quarterbacking Rich's efforts to win the pardon. The...