Washington’s Darkest Secret
According to both the 9/11 Commission report and Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies, in the summer of 2001 former CIA director George Tenet raced around Washington clanging “alarm bells” to anyone who would listen about a possible al Qaeda attack on the United States. The CIA and the National Security Agency, which conducts worldwide electronic surveillance, had been picking up increasingly loud “chatter” about a major operation that was coming to fruition.
Information streamed into Washington indicating that Osama bin Laden was planning something big. George W. Bush received the now-famous President’s Daily Brief (PDB) document in August from the CIA with the headline warning that bin Laden planned to strike at the US. It was deemed to be so critical that Tenet flew to the Crawford ranch to review it with the president.
What made the electronic information so terrifying was that, at the time, a tiny number of people inside the U.S. government knew the electronic surveillance was confirming something the agency had already learned through its most closely-guarded secret and most-valuable resource: According to several former US intelligence officers, for close to a decade a CIA mole recruited from the ranks of Mujahadeen fighters who had battled the Russians in Afghanistan was buried deep inside al Qaeda, moving up through the ranks until he held a position close to the terrorist organization’s leadership.
Around the time the PDB warning was delivered to the president, sources said that the mole suddenly went silent. Coded reports -- on very rare occasions delivered personally to a CIA handler who snuck into Afghanistan but most often sent through a series of couriers via different routes which led eventually to a CIA safe house in Pakistan -- stopped arriving. From there, the messages were encoded again and sent to Washington either electronically or by diplomatic pouch where they were delivered to Tenet’s desk. Attempts to raise the agent proved futile and, eventually, the agency concluded that he had been discovered, most likely tortured and then killed if he did not die during interrogation.
The other possibility, discounted by some CIA sources, was that the mole had a change of heart about helping the Americans and simply “re-defected” back to bin Laden.
Rumors of the mole’s existence began circulating within national intelligence circles about the time that the 9/11 Commission report was released. At least three separate sources told essentially the same story about CIA’s infiltration of al Qaeda, and they -- along with information from other sources -- enabled the piecing together of this report. No one interviewed would allow their names to be used.
According to current and former CIA and national security officers interviewed for this article, all of whom insisted on anonymity as a condition for speaking, from at least the mid-1990s, the mole provided quality information on al Qaeda terrorist attack targets, tactics, bank accounts, recruiting, the location of training camps scattered throughout Afghanistan and elsewhere, and odd bits of tittle-tattle that helps intelligence analysts paint a picture of their target: Who’s who in al Qaeda, who’s on the way up, who is in disgrace, was bin Laden still riding horses with his boys every day, was his third wife still infuriating him by sneaking Coca Cola into the compound, who had been beheaded for some real or perceived act of disloyalty.
“It’s entirely possible that the source gave Washington hard intelligence on at least some terrorist attacks,” including 9/11, a former CIA official said on the condition of anonymity. “The dilemma for Langley (Virginia, where the CIA is headquartered) was what to do about it.
“If they used the information, in some cases lives might have been saved,” this source added, such as the USS Cole or the African embassy bombings, “but using it might have tipped Washington’s hand and bin Laden could have figured out that he had a traitor in his midst.”
Sacrificing lives to protect a secret is not new in intelligence circles or government. During World War II, when the British were intercepting and decoding all of Germany’s Enigma messages, often it kept vital information learned through what was called the Ultra secret from field commanders. If Allied forces suddenly changed a battle plan or moved around a coming German attack, eventually Berlin would have concluded that someone was reading Hitler’s mail and changed the Enigma code. The lives of perhaps thousands of Allied soldiers, fliers and seamen were lost to protect the greatest secret of the war.
Because so few people in government were aware of the existence of the al Qaeda mole, it is not known whether Presidents Clinton and Bush, or their national security chiefs, had been told about him.
But, according to one former CIA employee, “It is entirely likely that Tenet told Bush about the mole at that August meeting at the ranch, if the president didn’t already know. Why else would he suddenly race off to Texas on a weekend? Not just to talk about what (Condoleezza) Rice told the 9/11 Commission was something that the administration thought of as an historical recounting of old information. It doesn’t make sense.”
A second former intelligence officer said he harbored the same suspicions after news of the Tenet trip and the contents of the PDB became known publicly. “The DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) simply doesn’t interrupt the president’s vacation to chat about a relatively innocuous, two or three page report unless there was something extremely sensitive the president needed to know that Tenet didn’t want put on paper.”
The bigger question is not whether Tenet told Bush about the mole’s existence, but what the mole had told Washington about a forthcoming terrorist attack on American soil.
The Mole’s Origins.
Throughout the 1980s, CIA had a history of involvement with bin Laden. During the Afghan war against the former Soviet Union, when bin Laden was a rising star among the Mujahadeen fighters in the mountains, Washington was providing covert aid to him: Guns, ammunition, money, training and, sometimes, Special Forces advisors who lived in the caves alongside bin Laden’s soldiers.
In the late 1980s, bin Laden’s star as an anti-Soviet freedom fighter had risen so high in some circles in Washington that the CIA sponsored a fund raising and informational trip to the U.S. and Canada for him. Langley arranged visas, helped set up meetings in a number of cities for bin Laden, and paid for his ticket and hotels.
“He was quite charming and very articulate,” Eric Margolis, a Toronto Sun columnist who met bin Laden when he was in Mississauga, Ontario on one of his CIA-arranged stops, said on a television panel discussion in early 2002. Others who met bin Laden on the whistle stop tour said he was accompanied by one of his aides who served as a translator, and the same pair of hovering but friendly Americans introduced variously as “Mike and Jeff,” “Allan and Frank” or “Bill and Edward.” Undoubtedly, they were his CIA baby sitters and lamp lighters: Fixers who made sure that nothing happened to their charge, and who ensured that the CIA knew what he was doing and saying throughout every minute of the trip.
Former and current CIA officers interviewed over the past five weeks say it was likely that the mole was recruited during this period. “The company was pouring millions of dollars in cash and arms into Tora Bora,” said one former CIA station chief, “and there were Americans everywhere in the mountains with bin Laden’s fighters. Special Forces, spooks, a few mercenaries, freelance pilots, some journalists, aid workers. I’m positive a few talent scouts were in and out of the mountains, as well. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to identify a few possibilities and approach them with an offer.”
“It would be surprising only if the CIA didn’t try recruiting some people during the Afghan fighting,” said another former long-time agency employee who is now retired. “It needed insiders on the ground to keep us apprised of how things were going, provide hard intelligence … and he might be useful in the future.”
After the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan and bin Laden’s Mujahadeen fighters largely dispersed, the mole apparently returned home -- most likely Saudi Arabia, according to sources -- and “went to sleep” to use spy jargon for inactive sources who remain available for future service.
Awakening The Sleeper.
Sometime around the middle of the first Clinton term, bin Laden was re-assembling his old Mujahadeen warriors and creating al Qaeda with a new target: The West generally and the US specifically. The first training camp was established and once the CIA got wind of what bin Laden was doing, it reportedly chose to re-activate its agent. Osama bin Laden’s camp was populated at the time almost entirely by men who had fought alongside him in the Afghan war.
Because the mole had been in the Afghan mountains with bin Laden, he was welcomed with open arms by his former comrades. He rose quickly in the fledgling terrorist organization, partly because fighting in Afghanistan established his bona fides but also because he was university educated: Purportedly, he had an undergraduate degree from an American university and studied business and finance at the London School of Economics. He spoke Arabic and English well, and is said to have a basic understanding of French. At the time, there were few people in the camp who spoke anything but Arabic which meant that the mole held a unique position being able to monitor Western websites and pass along relevant information to bin Laden and his senior associates. Perhaps more important, thanks to his LSE education, he was able to explain how the Western banking system worked and, it is assumed, how to use and manipulate it to bin Laden’s advantage.
Still, he may have caused some off-and-on concern in Langley.
“The trouble with a mole like the one we’re rumored to have recruited,” a retired CIA employee explained, “is that while he’s being helpful to our side, he’s also helping the bad guys because that’s how he protects his cover.”
“You’re never quite sure where his real loyalty lies,” stated another former intelligence officer. “Is he sending us the real goods, or are we getting chicken feed and deliberately misleading information?”
If he was a bin Laden plant, then the information was no good; if he was pure, then what he could pass along was pure gold.
Sources say that to preserve secrecy, only three or four people inside the CIA knew of his existence: Tenet, a translator and a few very senior analysts. In fact, it appears as if Tenet was acting as the agent’s “case officer,” almost unheard of in the CIA. Besides analyzing incoming reports, the working group toiled constantly to verify the authenticity of the material they were receiving including looking for inconsistencies, contradictions and messages that were out of character from previous messages sent to Washington, or if the style of a new message differed from the mole’s style in previous messages.
“Looking for something out of character probably received the most attention,” one source who is familiar with the workings of moles in general said. “It’s about the best way the company can spot if a resource has been compromised and someone else is sending information.
“But from what I am told, the material was rated first class,” he continued, “and vetted as totally authentic.”
Contrary to the movie image of spies driving over-equipped SUVs to meetings in posh restaurants and accompanied by beautiful women, the reality is much grimier and considerably more dangerous.
The CIA’s mole in the bin Laden organization faced an especially hazardous situation. Bin Laden had informers within his camps and compounds in Afghanistan, and the Taliban was watching everyone, all of the time.
“The only thing I can compare it to is operating in Moscow during the worst of the cold war,” a one-time CIA agent with some experience working behind the old Iron Curtain explained. “It could take three days to actually get to an arranged meeting with someone and a week to leave or pick-up a message in a blind letter drop. You had to be absolutely certain that the KGB wasn’t around.
“What made it especially nerve-racking is that the one thing you knew for sure is that you never knew for certain” if the KGB had been shaken off the trail, he said.
It was difficult enough communicating with the mole when bin Laden was living in the safe harbor of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Once the war to oust the Taliban began and bin Laden took to the mountains, it became outrageously complex. For the most part, radio, telephone and e-mails were not used, largely because they aren’t terribly secure. Besides, the Taliban prohibited radios so using even a secret one was highly risky. The CIA didn’t like using e-mail, except in emergencies, because even the most secure e-mail route is relatively easy to hack.
The only alternative available was by hand, coded messages being taken by a succession of couriers from one dead letter drop to another until the last courier dropped the message off at a CIA safe house somewhere in Pakistan. Insiders say it had to have been an exceedingly complex operation.
“Security had to be the upper-most concern,” a source says. “The route was likely set up in a way that couriers did not know each other, and none of them ever had contact with the source.
“He would write a coded message and leave it somewhere safe, maybe wedged between two rocks in the mountains,” the individual surmised. “Then, he would leave a signal for the courier that there was a message to collect. It might have been some twigs laid in a certain pattern on the ground, maybe a small chalk mark on a nearby rock, perhaps a dead bird put in a certain way.”
The courier, seeing the signal, would collect the message and carry it to the next drop-off point where the process would be repeated several times before a message eventually made it to the Pakistan safe house. “As a result, it could take a week or longer for a message to travel from bin Laden’s camp to the company,” a CIA officer speculated. “Sending a message back to him might take even longer.”
To ensure safety, it is likely that several alternative routes were established, with different sets of couriers. But while the arrangement provided security at one level, it created potential problems at another.
“It must have been an unusually large operation,” a CIA insider stated. “That means there was a significant risk that someone along the line would be captured, killed, turned around, or compromised.”
But, clearly, the quality of the information being delivered was worth the effort and the risk.
Who Knew What, And When?
Obviously, the CIA considered the risk worthwhile as it ran the mole for a number of years.
Among all of the information gleaned from its resource, the most significant, unanswered question is what did the mole tell the CIA -- and what did George Tenet tell the president -- about the coming attacks on Sept. 10, the day before the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit. Did the mole tip off the CIA, and is that why Tenet made his mad dash for Texas with the PDB in August?
It has been reported elsewhere that Osama bin Laden said that he was involved in some of the planning for 9/11. It was bin Laden, for example, who vetoed a plan involving crashing 10 or more planes into buildings all over the United States at one time as being too complicated. He also approved the final plan although not specific targets, the men who were to carry it out and even suggested a few names to Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker and the field man responsible for overseeing the operation.
More to the point, bin Laden did this around the time of George Tenet’s Sunday trip to President Bush’s ranch in Texas.
Also, it was bin Laden who personally approved sending money to the US to fund the operation, and at least one published report traces the money from Atta’s Florida bank back through a series of European and Middle Eastern banks to a financial institution in Dubai, which was controlled by the man who killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. According to the French journalist Bernard-Henri Levy, that man also happened to be working for the Pakistani security services at the time he was helping bin Laden move money to Florida and Atta’s bank account, as well as when he ordered and helped carry out Pearl’s assassination.
Given the relatively senior position the mole occupied in bin Laden’s organization, it is likely that he knew and tipped off his CIA handlers about the coming attack.
“It’s unlikely that he knew a date or specific targets,” said one person familiar with how moles operate, especially because bin Laden did not know, “but he sure as hell knew that multiple planes were going to be crashed into several buildings, sometime in September.”
“If he didn’t,” claimed another former intelligence official, “then we were wasting whatever money the CIA was paying him. That’s why you work so hard to recruit and nurture a mole, hold their hands, educate their children if need be and wait so long for them to be in a position to help: To give you just this kind of critical information five or 10 or 20 years from now.”
Piecing together what was is known to be facts, what is speculated about by reliable insiders on what type of al Qaeda secrets were learned through the mole, the way moles are run by the agency and the remarkable coincidence of the timing between the Tenet-Bush meeting in Crawford, several hypothesis can be constructed.
1. The coming attack. It is viewed by insiders as entirely likely that the CIA director told President Bush in August that al Qaeda was planning an immediate attack using commercial airplanes as guided missiles. Tenet could not give the president targets or a date, but he did have a name: Mohammad Atta, and there was sufficient information available to beef up airport and cockpit security and do a much closer job of screening passengers as they boarded flights.
All of this could have been done without signaling to al Qaeda that the US had penetrated its innermost circles. For example, the government apparently knew of Atta and at least some of the others involved in the plot by sometime in late August. Their names could have been sent to every airline flying into the US, especially domestic carriers. “No one would have noticed a thing,” said a former CIA insider. “Just one more name on a list.”
2. A manhunt. Had the CIA given the name of Zacharias Moussaoui to the FBI, chances are that the request from the Minneapolis field office to get a warrant permitting searching Moussaoui’s computer would have been granted. The 9/11 Commission report severely reprimanded all of the nation’s intelligence agencies for not sharing more information, more quickly. But even with the stone walls between competing bureaucracies slowing the flow of information, the president could have -- and should have -- told the CIA director to get whatever information he has over to the FBI, and quickly.
“If the president couldn’t direct that action be taken, than either he is totally useless or the various agencies are really good at playing bureaucracy turf games,” said a retired CIA employee. “It sounds like there was some of each going on in August 2001.
Bush also could have directed Tenet to provide information to immigration officers. Without revealing to anyone why it was being done, a nationwide manhunt could have been launched for Atta and the others known to the government as being inside the US. After 9/11, it turned out that most of the hijackers had violated their visas, and could have been detained and deported. At least one person, Atta, was probably in violation of US banking laws and regulations. It could have been positioned as a routine immigration roundup, thus not tipping off anyone in Afghanistan or elsewhere that an insider was funneling information to Washington.
3. Likely targets. If someone told an ordinary citizen of average intelligence that terrorists plan to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings, it wouldn’t take them very long to come up with a likely list of targets a terrorist probably would want to hit that would shake the world: The World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Capitol and White House, perhaps the Sears Tower or the Standard Oil building in Chicago, maybe CIA headquarters. It’s not that long a list. From there, it would be relatively easy to figure out when during the day such an attack would be likely to cause the greatest harm, both to life and property as well as to the psyche of the city where the devastating attack took place.
Why was none of this done?
The reports from both the 9/11 Commission and the Silberman Commission blamed problems of terrorist attacks on US soil and the “dead wrong” assessment of WMDs in Iraq on a combination of locked-in conventional wisdom, bureaucratic turf wars, thick silo walls between government departments and agencies, and a handful of other reasons. Yet the 9/11 Commission was unequivocal in stating that it was within the government’s power to have prevented the horrific attacks that mild, sunny morning in September 2001.
But with the existence of a mole inside al Qaeda increasingly likely, then there is a much more serious, insidious and sinister possibility: That George W. Bush knew at least a month before the attacks that they were going to occur, and chose to do nothing to stop them.
The question for Americans -- especially those in Congress -- to ask is, “Why didn’t he?” Who stood to gain from the devastation and death? Who would benefit in the aftermath of the attacks? What would be the long-term opportunities that opened up, and for whom, by a successful al Qaeda attack on the United States?
The possible answers are almost too frightening to contemplate.
James Charles is a freelance investigative journalist and writer who lives in Toronto. His next book is Life In The Dominion: An Ex-Pat American’s Affectionate Look At Living In Canada. Reach him by e-mail at: TheCurmudgeon382@hotmail.com. Andrew Romack contributed reporting to this article. Copyright © 2005 by the author. All rights reserved. Permission is given for small portions of the article to be cited in other news articles providing that credit is given to the author and to DissidentVoice.org.
Other Articles by James Charles
House Plays Extreme Dodge Ball