Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • And Justice For All

    Word spread quickly through the Charleston Naval Station last June: a big-time terrorist was headed for the brig. An entire wing of the base's military lockup was emptied out. And when the prisoner arrived--31-year-old Jose Padilla--he was placed in an isolation cell with a lamp burning 24 hours a day and a phalanx of guards around the clock. One inmate asked a guard what exactly Padilla had been charged with. "He's not charged with anything," the guard shot back. "We're just holding him." The prisoner was baffled. "How the hell can you do that?" he asked.Quite easily, it turns out. Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly accused Padilla--a.k.a. Abdullah al-Muhajir--of being a Qaeda operative who was actively "plotting" to set off a radiological bomb when he flew into Chicago's O'Hare Airport from Zurich four months ago. Inside the U.S. intelligence community, sources tell NEWSWEEK, there were high-level doubts about Ashcroft's dramatic announcement of an ongoing plot from the very...
  • Looking For A Link

    Top Bush officials, eager to bolster their case for an invasion of Iraq, want the FBI to give them more ammunition. Last week Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, an Iraq hawk, summoned two FBI officials to brief him on claims by Czech intelligence that 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met last year in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. Wolfowitz wanted the FBI to endorse the Czech account to show ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. But when FBI counterterrorism chief Pat D'Amuro and a case agent expressed skepticism, Wolfowitz vigorously challenged them, says one source. The sole evidence for the alleged meeting is the uncorroborated claim of a Czech informant. The informant says he saw Atta meeting with an Iraqi spy on April 9, 2001. But the FBI can't find any evidence--such as airline or passport records--that Atta was in Prague that day. (The bureau has found credit-card receipts putting Atta in Florida two days earlier.) The case agent called the meeting "unlikely...
  • The Case Against Moussaoui: Internal Doubts

    Attorney General John Ashcroft was about to announce the U.S. government's biggest legal victory yet in the war on terrorism last week--until events in an Alexandria, Va., courtroom brought the well-laid plans to an abrupt halt. Expecting Zacarias Moussaoui to plead guilty to charges of involvement in the 9-11 conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Ashcroft aides were busily crafting a celebratory statement. The idea was for the A.G. to break off from a party dedicating a new Justice Department courtyard and then read the proclamation for the TV cameras--just in time for the network news.But the erratic Moussaoui put a damper on the festivities when he suddenly withdrew his guilty plea after U.S. Judge Leonie Brinkema told him he had to admit direct participation in the 9-11 plot. This, Moussaoui said, he couldn't do because of his "obligation toward my creator, Allah." Now the case will go to trial Sept. 30. Justice officials say they are confident it won't...
  • Probing Or Protecting?

    How tough will the House-Senate intelligence panel investigating the 9-11 attacks be on the FBI and CIA? Questions are being raised about Thomas A. Kelley, a former FBI deputy general counsel who is overseeing the panel's probe into the bureau's performance. NEWSWEEK has learned that Sen. Charles Grassley, an FBI critic, recently wrote panel leaders about Kelley's role. For years, Kelley was the FBI's point man for outside inquiries into the bureau's conduct at Ruby Ridge and Waco. In that capacity, sources say, Kelley was twice referred for Justice Department disciplinary inquiries after investigators complained he was obstructing probes. In one 1996 incident, sources say, Kelley allegedly told one investigator seeking documents about Ruby Ridge that it was "not a good career move." Kelley denied any effort at intimidation. A few years later Kelley's failure to turn over Waco documents prompted Waco counsel, former senator John Danforth, to order a search of the FBI general counsel...
  • The Lindh Case E-Mails

    When John Ashcroft announced the indictment of John Walker Lindh, the attorney general said the rights of the 20-year-old "American Taliban" had been "carefully, scrupulously honored." But inside the Justice Department, not everybody was convinced. Even as prosecutors began preparing criminal charges against Lindh last December, the department's own ethics advisers were raising red flags. Internal e-mails, obtained by NEWSWEEK, show that two Justice ethics lawyers concluded FBI plans to interrogate Lindh without the presence of a lawyer would violate the department's ethical guidelines and are "not authorized by law." When Justice lawyers later learned the interview had taken place anyway, they worried that it might not be usable in court.The e-mails also show that some Justice lawyers viewed the evidence against Lindh as less serious than public portrayals of him as a devotee of Osama bin Laden. "At present we have no knowledge that he did anything other than join the Taliban," one...
  • The Hijackers We Let Escape

    The CIA tracked two suspected terrorists to a Qaeda summit in Malaysia in January 2000, then looked on as they re-entered America and began preparations for September 11. Why didn't somebody try to stop them? Inside what may be the worst intelligence failure of all. A NEWSWEEK exclusive.
  • Terrorism: Unheeded Warnings

    The FBI has insisted it had no advance warning about the 9-11 attacks. But internal documents suggest there were more concerns inside the bureau's field offices than Washington has acknowledged. One FBI memo, written by a Phoenix agent in July 2001, warned about suspicious activities by Middle Eastern men at an Arizona flight school. Last week, in little-noticed testimony before a Senate panel, FBI Director Robert Mueller referred to another internal document that may prove more explosive: notes by a Minneapolis agent worrying that French Moroccan flight student Zacarias Moussaoui might be planning to "fly something into the World Trade Center."The notes are especially eerie because Moussaoui faces charges that he was part of the 9-11 plot. Sources say the notes Mueller referred to were written in early September 2001--days before the attack. The author was part of a counter- terrorism team desperately trying to figure out what Moussaoui was up to. He had been arrested in August on...
  • Homeland: Can Card Save The Incredible Shrinking

    Emphasizing that he wanted the entire U.S. government mobilized to prevent future attacks, President George W. Bush after September 11 created a new White House office to ride herd on federal agencies, and installed his pal Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as the homeland-security "czar." But eight months later, after repeated clashes with other agency chiefs and a chorus of criticism from Capitol Hill, top White House staffers have concluded that Ridge's office isn't working. In an effort to fix the problem, NEWSWEEK has learned, White House chief of staff Andrew Card has assigned a small team to study possible alternatives--ranging from eliminating the post altogether to transforming it into a separate cabinet-level department with Ridge in charge. "Everything is on the table," said one Bush staffer.The White House initiated the review reluctantly--and only after complaints that Ridge lacked any clout and was rapidly losing influence inside the Beltway. Sources say Ridge himself did...
  • Fbi: Rules For Informants

    Hoping to make it easier for the FBI to infiltrate terrorist groups, the Justice Department is drafting new rules giving field agents more leeway in how they deal with confidential informants, NEWSWEEK has learned. The new regs could be controversial. They ease up on tight restrictions imposed by former attorney general Janet Reno after one of the biggest scandals in FBI history: the Boston field office's protection of two notorious mobsters who, while serving as informants, murdered nearly two dozen rival gang members. The Reno regs required agents to read potential informants "verbatim" a long list of instructions. Among them: the FBI "cannot promise or guarantee" your anonymity in court and "you have no immunity or protection" from getting prosecuted for illegal conduct. As soon as the regs went into effect early last year, officials claim, dozens of FBI informants got cold feet, causing valuable intelligence to dry up. Although FBI officials say a few of the lost informants were...
  • Selling The Saudis In A 'Favorable' Light

    Concerned about "tracking polls" showing that its "favorable" rating with the American public has yet to climb back to pre-9-11 levels, the Saudi Arabian government has launched a multimillion-dollar ad blitz designed to portray the kingdom as a close partner with the United States in the war on terror. "The People of Saudi Arabia... Allies Against Terrorism," reads one ad that features President Bush touting Saudi "cooperation" against Osama bin Laden. "Allies for Peace," proclaims another commercial featuring Saudi kings meeting with U.S. presidents dating back to FDR. The TV and radio ads paper over differences between the Saudis and the Bush administration and avoid sensitive subjects that might not play well with an American audience, such as the Saudis' staunch support for the Palestinians in the Mideast crisis or the 15 Saudis who served as hijackers on 9-11.The ads are the latest phase in a sophisticated image makeover ordered up last year by Adel Al-Jubair, 39, the U.S....
  • The Phantom Link To Iraq

    Did September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta meet with an Iraqi agent in the months before the terrorist attack? Last fall the Czech government provided the CIA with intelligence suggesting that just such a rendezvous had taken place. The Czechs claimed that Atta, the ringleader of the hijackers, made a special trip to Prague in April 2001, where he met the agent at the Iraqi Embassy. The story of the "Iraqi connection" spread rapidly through Washington. Advocates of U.S. action to topple Saddam Hussein seized on the account to bolster their arguments. New York Times columnist William Safire proclaimed the meeting an "undisputed fact" connecting Saddam to September 11. When Vice President Dick Cheney flew to the Middle East last month, a "senior U.S. official" on the trip referred to "meetings that have been made public" between Atta and Iraqi intelligence. "This story has taken on a life of its own," says a U.S. intelligence official.It shouldn't have. NEWSWEEK has learned that a few...
  • Hugo's Close Call

    People power it wasn't. Although more than 200,000 antigovernment protesters marched through the streets of Caracas--some to their deaths--the short-lived April 11-12 coup against President Hugo Chavez was secretly hatched by two small but powerful groups: senior military officers and several of the country's richest businessmen. The leaders of the putsch had extensive ties to the U.S. political and economic establishment. At the vortex of the whole mess was the billionaire television magnate Gustavo Cisneros, a fishing buddy of former president George H. W. Bush and king of a business empire stretching from the United States to the Southern Cone.The failed coup's repercussions have only begun. Although most leaders in the region immediately condemned it as an assault on constitutional rule, the White House equivocated, blaming Chavez for the crisis and raising painful questions about the sincerity of the Bush administration's commitment to democracy in Latin America. Worse, the...
  • The Phantom Link To Iraq

    Did September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta meet with an Iraqi agent in the months before the terrorist attack? Last fall, the Czech government provided the CIA with intelli­gence suggesting that just such a rendezvous had taken place. The Czechs claimed that Atta, the ringleader of the hijackers, made a special trip to Prague in April 2001, where he met the agent at the Iraqi Embassy.The story of the "Iraqi connection" spread rapidly through Washington. Advocates of U.S. action to topple Saddam Hussein seized on the account to bolster their arguments. New York Times columnist William Safire proclaimed the meeting an "undisputed fact" connecting Saddam to September 11. When Vice President Dick Cheney flew to the Middle East last month, a "senior U.S. official" on the trip referred to "meetings that have been made public" between Atta and Iraqi intelligence. "This story has taken on a life of its own," says a U.S. intelligence official. It shouldn't have. NEWSWEEK has learned that a few...
  • Should This Man Die?

    In the months leading up to September 11, Zacarias Moussaoui was trying desperately to learn how to fly. He went to flight school in Norman, Okla., and when instructors there decided he had almost no aptitude for handling a light plane, he moved on to Minnesota seeking practice time on a flight simulator for a Boeing 747. After he was busted on immigration charges, French authorities told the FBI that Moussaoui was a known Islamic militant. The FBI says it later found evidence that Moussaoui got $14,000 in cash from a key operative of the Qaeda cell in Hamburg, Germany, that organized the 9-11 attacks. And when he saw the ruins of the World Trade Center from the air as he was being flown back to New York by federal agents after the attacks, Moussaoui allegedly yelled, "F--k America! F--k you, America!" in jubilation.But should he die for it? Sometime later this year Moussaoui will go on trial in Alexandria, Va., for allegedly taking part in the 9-11 conspiracy--and if he is...
  • Winks, Nods &Amp; Corporate Cash

    In Washington, lobbyist Ed Gillespie is known for his big-dollar clients--he was a $700,000-a-year consultant to Enron--and his tight relationship with the Bush White House. So when Gillespie started calling the leaders of conservative interest groups last spring, asking them to join an independent advocacy group to promote the president's energy plan, they figured Gillespie was discreetly doing the White House's bidding. "Administration officials generally don't ask for support directly," says American Conservative Union president David Keene. "It's more a wink and a nod. Everyone knows Ed is close to them, so a wink and a nod is all it takes." ...
  • Monica Speaks

    It seems like eons ago-though it was only four years-when Monica Lewinsky was the biggest story of the day. This Sunday, HBO airs a two-hour documentary, "Monica in Black and White." A fresh look at the Clinton impeachment saga told through the eyes of the world's most famous former intern, it is a surprisingly engrossing recasting of the story. ...
  • The Enron Effect

    It was like the surgeon general's accepting a public-health award named after Typhoid Mary. Here was Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, renowned for rectitude, accepting the Enron Award for Distinguished Public Service. This wasn't during Enron's glory days, when the company had a stock-market value in the tens of billions, but on Nov. 13. That was only a few days after Enron endured a public disgrace by admitting that it had filed five years' worth of misleading financial reports. And it was three weeks after Greenspan had gotten a call from Enron chairman Kenneth Lay, who desperately wanted Greenspan to intervene with credit-rating agencies to help the stricken company survive. ...
  • Wen Ho Lee: A Scientist's Secrets

    Shy, diminutive and seemingly clueless, Wen Ho Lee sat quietly in the interrogation room as two FBI agents leaned on him to confess. It was March 7, 1999, the day after The New York Times proclaimed a sensational espionage scandal at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The agents, under pressure from Washington, were desperate to get Lee to admit to stealing sensitive nuclear secrets. When he proclaimed himself innocent, they tried falsely telling him that he had flunked a polygraph on whether he was a Chinese spy. ...
  • The White House Is Divided Over Walker

    While President George W. Bush weighs a decision on the fate of American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, administration officials are sharply divided over what charges to bring against him--and where to bring them, knowledgeable sources have told NEWSWEEK.Attorney General John Ashcroft met with Bush yesterday and recommended that Walker be tried in federal court with providing material support to a terrorist organization--a crime that until recently carried a penalty of 10 years in prison. The newly signed Patriot Act raises the penalties for this offense to 15 years in prison, or life if the defendant's actions resulted in anybody's death. It is unclear which version of the law would apply in Walker's case.But an administration source told NEWSWEEK today that "the situation is still fluid." With some advisors urging alternative approaches, Bush might still decide to defer a final decision for further investigation by the FBI into Walker's conduct during the six months he spent...
  • The Final Word?

    After spending nearly $1 million, a consortium of big news organizations last week rendered what it once thought would be final word on last year's bitterly contested Florida recount.The decision: a split verdict.To the chagrin of Democratic partisans, the consortium proclaimed Bush still would have won the apparently limited statewide recount underway last December 9 even if the U.S. Supreme Court had not swooped in and stopped it. But if all disputed ballots had been manually counted--something, ironically, neither side had even asked for--Al Gore could have eked out a narrow victory.That, at least, is how the story got played last week in front page stories in The New York Times, Washington Post and other newspapers that participated in this curious historical exercise. (Newsweek was briefly part of the consortium but dropped out because of scheduling conflicts before the project was completed.)But is that really the last word?Don't count on it.Buried deep in the files of the...
  • Hard Questions About An Iraqi Connection

    In investigating the Sept. 11 attack, few tasks are more difficult--and potentially more ominous--than unraveling the role of a mysterious Iraqi official named Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. Until last spring, al-Ani was listed as the chief of consular affairs at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague. But last month U.S. officials were told by Czech intelligence that al-Ani had been spotted having a number of meetings with Mohamed Atta, the suspected hijack ringleader, near the Iraqi Embassy during a visit Atta made to the Czech Republic in April 2001.The report prompted tense debate within the Bush administration over possible Iraqi involvement in the attack. Al-Ani is believed to be a hardened Iraqi intelligence agent. In late April the Czech Foreign Ministry called in Iraq's mission chief in Prague and demanded that al-Ani leave the country within 48 hours. Why? U.S. and Czech officials told NEWSWEEK that al-Ani had been spotted "casing" and photographing the Radio Free Europe building...
  • Student Cleared In Anthrax Case

    A 23-year-old Florida Atlantic University student who was being sought for questioning yesterday in the investigation into anthrax contamination in a newspaper building in South Florida has been cleared of any involvement in the case, FBI officials said today.The FBI tracked down the student late Monday on the campus of the Boca Raton, Fla., school after top editors and officials of American Media, the firm that publishes most of the nation's supermarket tabloids, told agents about an e-mail he sent to all employees of the company upon the end of his internship at the company last August. The apparently jocular e-mail, which one American Media official described as "peculiar," suggested he was leaving behind a "surprise" for his former colleagues.After interviewing the student in the offices of the university police, FBI agents concluded he played no role in the anthrax outbreak, an FBI official told NEWSWEEK. Bob Nichols, a university spokesman, said the student's interview was ...
  • 'I Can't Just Sit Back'

    The moment is still frozen in Ted Olson's mind. The U.S. Solicitor General was sitting in his office-watching with horror the news of the World Trade Center on TV-and fretting about the safety of his wife, Barbara. Barely an hour earlier, he had spoken to her just before she boarded her American Airlines flight to Los Angeles from Washington's Dulles airport. Now Ted Olson was terrified: Could Barbara's plane have been hijacked to New York? Could that have been the one that just crashed into the second tower of the World Trade Center? Then the phone rang. It was Barbara calling collect. "My first reaction was, 'Thank God, you're OK'," he recalled.What happened next-how Barbara Olson, the feisty conservative author and TV pundit, informed her husband that her plane too was being hijacked-has become one of the multitude of harrowing stories that surround the events of Sept. 11. As Olson related to NEWSWEEK, Barbara was calm and collected as she told him how hijackers had used...
  • Colombia: Man Without A Plan

    Fred Ayres, once an unlikely linchpin for U.S. policy in Colombia, has now become a perfect symbol of Washington's failures there. The owner of a foundering Georgia-based aviation firm, Ayres had just filed for protection under bankruptcy laws last year when the State Department awarded him a $22 million contract to supply nine Turbo-Thrush airplanes badly needed for counternarcotics missions. Ayres's armor-plated planes were supposed to be used to spray chemical herbicides over Colombia's burgeoning coca and opium crops. But they won't be getting off the ground any time soon--if ever. A few weeks ago, just when the first planes were to be delivered, Ayres's chief creditor foreclosed. Now, says Ayres, his half-built planes "are just sitting there on the assembly line" gathering dust. "I feel terrible about this."Not as bad as some U.S. drug warriors. Many of them fear that Plan Colombia, the $1.3 billion program to combat drug traffic from the Andean nation, may be as bankrupt as...
  • Exclusive: A Pardon Overheard

    Bill Clinton's political antennae were, as always, on high alert. On Jan. 8, with less than two weeks to go in his presidency, Clinton was speaking on the phone with the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The subject: a possible pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich. "I know quite a few things about that," Clinton interjected as soon as Barak raised the matter. He had already gotten a long memo on it, Clinton explained, and he was "working on it." But Clinton also understood there were risks, possibly big ones. "It's best that we not say much about that," Clinton advised Barak on the subject of Rich. The Israeli leader understood. "OK, I'm not mentioning it anyplace," he replied.The two leaders had no reason to believe their confidential chat would ever become public. Yet the Clinton-Barak telephone call that evening, like all conversations between U.S. presidents and foreign heads of state, was monitored by a team of note takers sitting at computers in the White House...
  • The Interview

    Newsweek's Michael Isikoff sat down with Rep. Condit and his attorney, Abbe Lowell, in Modesto, California on Aug. 24. Excerpts from the interview follow:NEWSWEEK: What message did you not get across in your interview with Connie Chung?GARY CONDIT: There were a couple of areas. First of all, I would like to have been clear how disheartened and heartbroken I am that it's been four months and we haven't been able to find Chandra. I would have liked to have been able to make a statement about that.What kind of statement?I feel very saddened and heartbroken that we have gone four months and that we spent a lot of effort, time, and we haven't been able to come up with any major leads or find out where she's gone. It saddens me that that's occurred that way. The other thing was the Levys-my heart goes out to the Levys. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for them. I don't know exactly how it feels, because I don't think anyone would know that doesn't have a missing child, but I do have...
  • Condit Fights Back

    Frustrated and disheartened about his first prime-time television appearance, a weary Rep. Gary Condit complained today that he never got the chance to tell the country how "saddened and heartbroken" he is over the disappearance of missing intern Chandra Levy. But in a 1-hour-and-45-minute interview with NEWSWEEK, his longest with any news organization to date, Condit's expressions of sympathy and regret over Levy's fate evolved into anger and even sarcasm-focused primarily on the news media for turning the case into a "soap-opera scandal to keep their ratings up."Even while one of Condit's senior advisors today acknowledged that the congressman and Levy had been having an intimate affair, Condit again repeatedly refused to publicly confirm the nature of the relationship to NEWSWEEK, insisting that his was a "principled position." Said Condit: "The press is not entitled to know everything about my private life or the private life of any other member of Congress," he said. "You're...
  • The Battle Over Chandra

    With No Suspects And Few Clues, The Parents Of A Missing Intern Try To Keep The Heat On The Congressman And The Cops. Inside The Probe--And The Spin Wars.
  • An Affair To Remember

    Gary Condit was, at last, in the mood to talk. Sitting calmly with police investigators in the Washington offices of his lawyer late Friday night, the California congressman spoke the words the police, and the rest of the country, had been waiting to hear: yes, he told them, he and Chandra Levy had been romantically involved. In the weeks since the Washington intern disappeared without a trace, Condit had awkwardly but adamantly dodged questions about the nature of his relationship with Levy, allowing only that they were "friends." His staff "totally" denied any romance. Condit had talked with the cops twice before, but both times they'd come away disappointed by his evasive answers. One frustrated investigator called the congressman's slippery responses "Clintonesque." But in this, his third formal interview, Condit's demeanor was visibly changed. According to law-enforcement sources, he was "apologetic" for not responding more completely in the earlier encounters. He suggested...
  • Periscope

    Despite White House hopes that he would stay longer, NEWSWEEK has learned outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh has set a firm departure date: June 19. But so far, the White House hasn't settled on a successor, and some aides are not satisfied they've conducted a thorough enough search. The two leading contenders for the job are Robert Mueller, U.S. attorney in San Francisco, and George Terwilliger, deputy attorney general under Bush Sr. A top White House aide says Sterling Johnson, a federal judge and former N.Y. special prosecutor, is also in the running. But some Bush officials worry that none of the candidates have the public stature or proven management skills needed in light of recent bureau foul-ups. "There's a feeling we need a Mr. Fix-it," said one official.Most insiders believe Mueller has the edge, largely because Attorney General John Ashcroft--whose recommendation likely carries considerable weight--seems to like him. Mueller served as acting deputy during his first few...