Sunday, September 25, 2005


Summer Book Report: Bob Graham's Intelligence Matters

Most people think that unraveling a complex historical event like 9/11 is a simple matter of convening a commission of honest, smart investigators. Experience does not substantiate that view. After 8 or so serious and searching investigations, there is still not unanimity that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise to FDR and the American military. While I think many of the bases for thinking FDR was in on it are poorly-founded, I imagine that most of those who hold the opposite opinion are sane, sincere and honest. So, it is not a surprise that after a couple of reasonably competent-- if outrageously delayed and presidentially-manipulated-- investigations of 9/11, there's still significant disagreement about what happened. The "Able Danger" kerfuffle is just the latest. While I suspect that AD will eventually be debunked in whole or in part, this back-and-forth is part of the normal historical process. That process involves forming a coherent picture using flawed elements from many sources. In understanding 9/11, Senator Bob Graham's book, Intelligence Matters is an essential book. This review should be useful even to hardened 9/11 junkies. (continued in comments)
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Certainly Graham is not unconflicted. He's a member of the wealthy, powerful family which controls the Washington Post. The Post appears to have strong connections to intelligence agencies. However, Graham is not a significant shareholder of the Post and according to Wikipedia has earned his millions dairy farming. He's an insider, tolerant of the corrupt Florida and DC political establishments, though probably not directly involved. His understanding of the Arab/Muslim world seems to be on a level that should be an embarrassment to any senior politician, but may actually represent high achievement for a member of the US Congress. The words of praise he has for the Nixonian Porter Goss are enough to make one gag. The book was probably written to launch a presidential campaign. Despite all of these potential flaws, the book is very much worth reading.

Let's start with the substantive criticisms. First, Graham apparently sees the so-called War on Terror as a 21st century cowboys v. savage Indians, calling the terrorists "a tribe of tribes," "not constrained by the global standards and values of the West." An editor should have caught the obvious contradiction in calling the preferred standards both global and Western. Graham should instead have said that Al Qaida, like many groups engaged in highly asymmetrical warfare, is not constrained by the Geneva Convention's prohibitions of conducting war against civilians, But then it would be obvious that this is a failing shared by the West.

More important, Graham does not appear to understand that Muslim extremism has multiple strands. It was not until the political strand was frustrated in initiating reforms and radicalized, notably by torture in Egyptian jails, that it made contact with the religious strand. Just as the American religious right was relatively innocuous before it merged with the corporate right, Muslim religious extremism was relatively innocuous before it made contact with the radicalized political strand. Breaking that dangerous alliance means ending US intransigence toward genuine reform in the Arab and Muslim world. It's certainly true that torture is not required to creat extremists. Indeed, a certain proportion of extremists such as Grover Norquist seem, like the 9/11 hijackers, to be simply well-to-do nihilists. But many of the footsoldiers are graduates of institutions like Abu Ghraib.

I also think Graham's simplistic view of the Arab/Muslim world leads him to weight the danger of Hezbollah too heavily. It is certainly a regional threat, and for this reason, Israel plays up the danger. But my sense is that Hezbollah is far more pragmatic and limited in vision than the phenomenon we call Al-Qaida. It is the apocalyptic vision, the mistaken belief that human beings are soldiers in a war between darkness and light that leads to madness like 9/11.

Graham also repeats the idiotic statement that "to them [terrorists], death and an afterlife in paradise are the highest goals of life." Is he familiar with the best-selling series, "Left Behind?" Graham mentions the abuses of the CIA and FBI uncovered by the Church Committee, but he also wants to see essentially unsupervised sharing of information between local law enforcement and the FBI and State Department. He describes the younger Bush's coup against Haitian president Aristide as "US troops presided over the dismissal" of Aristide. He has nothing to say about the CIA's role in promoting the Haitian "chaos, violence, and poverty" he deplores. One of Graham's comments bearing on Israel borders on the idiotic. In his description of Zakaria Mustapha Soubra, he says that Soubra had founded an organization that "advocates Muslim rule, espouses the killing of American citizens, and condemns US support for Israel." Law enforcement should have no interest in people's opinions on theocracy or foreign policy; advocacy of violence, yes.

Graham fails to identify who in the FBI denied the FISA warrant that would have allowed a search of Zacarias Moussaoui's computer and, like all investigators to date, seems incurious. The 9/11 Commission says that Tenet was briefed on Moussaoui, but that the information did not even make its way as high up the ladder as FBI Acting Director Pickard or Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Dale Watson; Assistant Director Rolince was told about it as a nuisance. Instead, the National Security Law Unit denied the request. Notice that "the wall" that right-wingers like to blame for the failure to prevent 911 did not prevent the flow of important information-- people did. The Grassley-Leahy committee blamed an unnamed "Supervisory Special Agent (SSA)... assigned to the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) " and claimed that he never gave the information to the National Security Law Unit. The RFU also shut down the Phoenix investigation.

It is reasonable to question whether John Ashcroft's policy led the RFU to believe that significant restrictions were to be placed on FISA warrants. Otherwise, we are left to wonder whether Al Qaida hasn't penetrated the RFU. The behavior of personnnel was so incompetent that it's hard to tell the difference. These people should be named publicly.

Graham misses a very important point. He says without further comment that Hani Hanjour was a terrible pilot, yet he got a license. This would seem to be a matter of interest to people seeking to disrupt terrorist activity: a breakdown in standards is what creates holes for terrorists to slip through. At least as of some years ago, it was widely believed in the Chinese community that citizenships could be bought. The corrupt US embassy in Saudi Arabia is another example of how one relatively low-level person, if standards are not maintained, can seriously compromise security. Safe and secure societies are societies in which people care for one another more than they care for money, societies in which performance is voluntarily monitored and systematically improved.
Yet despite these obvious biases and flaws, the book provides important-- essential information-- about 9/11. Among these are frank admissions of what everyone knows but the political establishment pretends it doesn't. For a member of the establishment to break ranks and tell the truth is a genuine service.

* "the administration of President George W. Bush has repeatedly hindered the full investigation"
* "September 11 was an avoidable tragedy."
* He presents evidence that the Administration's actions in hindering the investigation amount to a "cover-up" designed to protect "the agencies that failed" and Saudi Arabia.
* He calls for the "removal from office" of George Bush
* "Congresswoman Jane Harmon, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and one of the sharpest thinkers on American intelligence, calls [the CIA demographic] the 'white man from Yale' bias
* The discovery of cash payments to Saudi spy Omar al-Bayoumi "would draw a direct line between the terrorists and the government of al-Bayoumi, and trigger an attempted cover-up by the Bush Administration."
* "the CIA has been slow to recruit agents who 'look like' and understand the world we need to observe"
* The NSA computer system prior to 2000 was deficient. On January 24th of that year, it crashed, and required over 1 Billion dollars to remediate. Evidently the NSA took almost a year to admit the problem. The money was authorized on September 6, 2001.
* Bush has specific responsibility for failing to raise the alert level at airports in response to the presidential daily briefing.
* Information was leaked before 911 (Graham is too politic to name the man responsible) that led bin Laden to realize his phone was tapped and he changed up his communication system
* One disturbing point could be taken as an indication of Executive complicity in 9/11: "As a general rule, the SEIB (delivered to the Congress, the FAA, and other agencies) covers the same developments as the President's Daily Brief. The August 6 SEIB, however, did not."
* After 911, no one "adequately worked to identify what the PDB identified as al Qaida's American support network."
* Graham confirms that the movement of Saudi nationals after 911 was improper, since other private flights were grounded until later, and did not involve proper questioning, both of which points that the 911 Commission fudged.
* Graham hypothesized that the "infrastructure of [al Qaida] support] was probably maintained, at least in part, by a [::cough:: Saudi Arabia ::cough] nation-state."
* Graham says General Tommy Franks told him on February 19, 2002, that resources were being re-deployed away from Afghanistan into Iraq
* The FBI and CIA denied access to the August 6 PDB. The FBI forced congressional staff to work in an unhated, un-airconditioned office and did not supply their agents instructions on how to contact the committee. At the CIA, staff were given an office with glass walls in which to interview analsysts, creating a significant disincentive.
* When phrases from a secret NSA intercept of al Qaida communications were leaked to the press--genuinely exposing sources/methods--Cheney threatened to "terminate our assistance to the committee." Graham's comment: "Given the fact that the administration's support for our investigation had almost totally collapsed by that point, I thought the Vice-President's comments were disingenuous and pompous." Graham concluded that the Administration had probably done the leaking and Goss concurred.
* "FBI reports are notoriously poorly written"
* The FBI, for the first time in Graham's congressional service, refused to serve a subpoena on behalf of Congress to enable an interview of Professor Shaikh
* "a CIA memo dated August 2, 2002... concluded that there is 'incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists within the Saudi government.'" While this is vague enough not to amount to a smoking gun, transfers of cash from Saudi spy al Bayoumi to two of the hijackers are more or less dispositive.
* One thing I cannot tolerate if the politicization of intelligence....Dictatorships use intelligence to validate opinions. Democracies do not. I felt that in this case [of the National Intelligence estimate charging that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction], George Tenet was politicizing intelligence." Fascinatingly, the declassified version of the NIE was apparently prepared before the classified version. The classified version was far more skeptical, not to mention a lot less glossy.
* As the Iraq war vote loomed, "White House officials were regularly delaying the declassification of documents"
* Graham slams John Ashcroft for expediting "declassification of a document with the intent of damaging the credibility of former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick [of the 911 Commission] by falsely implying that she was the original author of the legal standard that created a wall between criminal and intelligence information [which in fact] had been reaffirmed by Attorney General Ashcroft himself."
* "Senior U.S. military officials were reluctant to use U.S. military assets to conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan or to support or participate in CIA operations directed against al-Qaeda before September 11."
* "The intelligence community depended heavily on foreign intelligence and law enforcement services [prior to 9/11]..."
* "Significant portions of virtually every section of the [Joint Committee's] report had been censored... there was one area that did not need to be kept secret, and this was the one area where the White House refused to relent. This was, not surprisingly, the section of the report that related to the Saudi government and the assistance that government gave to some and possibly all of the September 11 terrorists."
* The FBI put out an anonymous piece to the AP clearing al-Bayoumi of terrorism, then the FBI-- including Director Mueller-- told Graham the investigation wasn't closed. Then he said it was, that al-Bayoumi was cleared.Ashcraft effectively blocked a meeting between Graham and the agents.
* Graham catalogues 11 specific failing by Bush and says that "Any one of these things would warrant a leader's removal from office."
The synopsis follows.

One major focus of the book is the activities of Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, who received military experience in the Balkan wars. One of the Nairobi embassy bombers, Mohamed al-Owhali survived the blast, was captured, and provided the telephone number of an Al-Qaida logistics center. The NSA tapped it, and learned of a terrorist summit in Kuala Lampur. Al-Hazmi and al-Midhar were photographed. Yet the CIA turned over followup monitoring to the Malaysian Special branch, and failed to watchlist the suspected terrorists or even to notify State and the Immigration service. Ultimately, the hijackers obtained visas to the US through the corrupt Saudi Arabian embassy. It would later issue al-Midhar a visa for a passport with a different name.

Al-Hazmi and al-Midhar were greeted in the US by Saudi spymaster Omar al-Bayoumi, who was the conduit for huge unexplained sums of cash, including $400,000 paid to a Kurdish mosque. He paid two month's rent for their apartment, which was close by his. He introduced them to friends, who helped them them get driver's licenses and locate flight schools. Al-Hazmi lived in the house of an FBI informant, retired English Professor Abdussattar Shaikh for four months, visiting strip clubs and generally having a good time. Al-Hazmi sought a Mexican mail order bride and worked for a business whose manager was suspected of terrorist involvement. Their talents as pilots were so slender that their instructor called them "Dumb and Dumber."

Graham focused on one al-Hazmi and al-Midhar because none of the other hijackers were so obviously dangerous. Still, as we all know, an astute FBI agent in Phoenix linked Hani Hanjour to a local bin Laden devotee and proponent of violence, Zakaia Mustapha Soubra, founder of the Arizona al-Muharijoun. Atta was twice busted for speeding, and had allowed his visa to expire. Jarrah was stopped for speeding. Hanjour was such a bad pilot that his instructors inquired of the FAA whether his license was fake.

Aside: All of the above occurred on Clinton's watch. He bears responsibility for having made a terrible appointment for FBI head, Louis Freeh, and three doubtful appointments for CIA head: James Woolsey, John Deutch. and George Tenet (Tenet seems to have been a relatively good pick, familiar with the Agency and able to work with the people there, but also a professional brown noser). And the Republicans bear responsibility, too, for subverting Freeh into attacking Clinton, for refusing to let Clinton deal with the Balkans situation early on, for attacking Clinton when he took action against al Qaida.

Graham also says that despite the fact that post-Cold War intelligence budget shifts allowed a substantial increase in funding for counterterrorism, funding became too dependent on supplemental appropriations.

At this point, presidential responsibility shifts to Bush.

In the investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole, it was established that a planner of the Cole bombing was present at the Kuala Lampur meeting. This made it clear that the meeting was a high-level meeting, so the CIA re-examined the data. In one of the sillier misinterpretations of the restrictions of "the wall" between foreign and domestic intelligence, the CIA showed photographs of the participants of the Kuala Lampur meeting to the FBI on June 11. 2001, but refused to tell them why they had been photographed. Not unreasonably, the FBI said something like "P--s off."

The CIA finally got around to watchlisting four of the hijackers, including al-Midhar and al-Hazmi, on August 23rd. An analyst realized that al-Hazmi was in the US, and the CIA figured out with some additional labor that al-Midhar had returned to the US. The New York FBI (think John O'Neill) asked the field offices to track down al-Midhar, but FBI headquarters refused. They didn't even notify the field offices to ask their informants.

Thanks to a host of wildly suspicious behavior, Moussaoui was busted on a visa violation and a FISA warrant was requested. This was denied by the FBI's "Radical Fundamentalist Unit."

An astute Immigration officer named Jose Melendez-Peres flagged a potential hijacker, Mohammed al-Qahtani. Miraculously, despite pressure from fellow officers not to mess with a Saudi national, Melendez-P mailed Qahtani back to Saudi Arabia.

There are a number of very strange elements of the story that necessarily raise questions. Atta's bag, containing directions for the hijackers to crave death and to bring "knives, your will, your ID, your passport", was not loaded on the plane he expected to blow up. On Flight 11, the hijackers began by stabbing perhaps the only person on the plane likely to resist, a former Israeli soldier. The San Diego FBI either lost the record or tried to cover up the fact that al-Hazmi lived with an FBI informant. Such things will inevitably raise suspicions.
Reading between the lines, I think the book makes a good case that al Qaeda is the creature of the Saudi government.

It was probably created as an instrument to fight a covert war against the US should the US decide to occupy Saudi

Arabia. At some point, it slipped free of control. The darker interpretation is that Bush, like Roosevelt with Pearl

Harbor, let the plot go forward because it suited his goals, both in terms of enhancing his personal power and in terms

of obtaining a geostrategic advantage. Alternatively, perhaps Bush was not in on the plot, but concluded that there

was no advantage in holding the Saudi royals to account for it. In any event, unlike FDR he has covered up what

really happened. History will almost certainly judge him guilty of negligence at the very least, perhaps even of criminal complicity.

Graham would almost certainly agree: Worst. President. Ever.
Wow. Simply: Wow.
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