The New Yorker
Issue of 2006-07-10
This week in the magazine, Lawrence Wright tells, for the first time, the story of the F.B.I. agent who had the best chance of foiling the 9/11 plot. Here, with Amy Davidson, Wright talks about how turf wars with the C.I.A. got in the way. Wright’s book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” will be published by Knopf in August.
AMY DAVIDSON: The question your article asks is whether the C.I.A. stopped an F.B.I. agent from preventing 9/11. Let’s start with the F.B.I. agent. Who was he, and why was he remarkable?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: On 9/11, Ali Soufan, an Arab-American F.B.I. agent, was one of only eight agents in the F.B.I. who spoke Arabic, and the only one in New York City. He was absolutely invaluable to the bureau because of his skills, his innate talent, and his relentless nature. At the age of twenty-nine, he was appointed the chief agent in charge of investigating the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, in the harbor of Aden, Yemen, which killed seventeen American soldiers in October of 2000.
That was an Al Qaeda attack as well?
As it turned out—Soufan’s investigation proved that it was.
What could he have done to stop Osama bin Laden from attacking the World Trade Center?
People who were involved in the planning of the Cole bombing were connected to the people who planned 9/11. There was a meeting in Malaysia in January, 2000, where at least two of the 9/11 hijackers and the mastermind behind the Cole bombing, a man named Khallad, met with other Al Qaeda operatives. After that meeting, two of the hijackers flew to the United States and settled in San Diego. The C.I.A. knew about the meeting; the agency had had it monitored by Malaysia’s secret service, Special Branch, which took surveillance photos and sent them to the C.I.A. So the agency had in its file pictures of Khallad and of people who turned out to be among the hijackers. Had the C.I.A. told Soufan what it knew about the meeting, he might have uncovered the plot.
The C.I.A. knew that Soufan had an interest in this information?
Yes. He specifically asked the C.I.A. three times for information about the Cole bombers and their meetings in Malaysia and Southeast Asia—information that the C.I.A. had and knew was relevant to his Cole investigation but did not turn over to him.
Now, assuming that it wasn’t sheer ill will on the C.I.A.’s part, why would it withhold that information?
Well, there are various theories. One is that the C.I.A. simply wanted to hang on to the information for itself. The agency was afraid of disclosing something to the F.B.I. that would then come out in a trial. Once intelligence is made public, it’s no longer useful to the agency. There are people in the F.B.I. who believed that the C.I.A. had hoped to recruit, as informers, the two Al Qaeda cell members who arrived in America in 2000. It had nobody inside the Al Qaeda organization, and here were two members of the inner circle, in America. I think the most likely answer to your question is that the problem was a mix of personality clashes and the C.I.A. being overwhelmed by the number of threats that were coming in at that time.
In the article, you mention a policy that people referred to as “the Wall.” What was that?
The Wall stemmed from a 1995 law that sought to keep from criminal investigators information that was deemed to be relevant solely to foreign intelligence. It was originally designed to prevent such information from flowing out of the intelligence division of the F.B.I. into the hands of criminal prosecutors and into trials. But the bureau misinterpreted the law and used it to force its agents to withhold information from one another—even agents who were on the same squad. So if you have a criminal agent and an intelligence agent on the same squad, investigating the same crimes, one cannot disclose to the other what he knows.
Were there reasons for that divide? For instance, there’s a different standard for wiretapping suspects with links to terrorist organizations. Was there a concern that if the F.B.I. could use intelligence information in criminal investigations this would create a loophole that would allow it to evade civil-rights protections?
That’s exactly correct. There’s a different standard, a lower one, for obtaining wiretap information on foreign intelligence, and there was a fear in the Justice Department that F.B.I. agents would be tempted to label cases as being related to foreign intelligence rather than as criminal cases because it would be far easier to gain permission to surveil suspects. So the Justice Department erected the Wall. And the arbiter of what could be “thrown over the Wall,” in the bureaucratic parlance of the bureau, was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, fisa, which was passed in 1978.
You said that the F.B.I. misinterpreted the Wall, and so did the C.I.A. Was it a good idea that was misused and misunderstood, or was the whole idea a mistake?
I think it was a terrible idea from the beginning. Criminal agents and intelligence agents have always worked together. For instance, after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, there was a subsequent plot by Islamic extremists in New York to destroy the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and landmark buildings in the city, and it was intelligence wiretaps that uncovered the plan and the involvement of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. The wiretaps produced evidence that was used to convict the Sheikh in court. Had it not been for the free flow of information between the two halves of the bureau, it’s inconceivable that he could ever have been put on trial.
At the same time, the Justice Department never meant the Wall to be the phenomenon that it became. It was designed so that intelligence would be carefully monitored and not arbitrarily wind up in criminal prosecutions. No one intended the Wall to become an artificial device that restricted the flow of information to agents who badly needed access to certain kinds of intelligence. I should also mention that the Wall has now come down.
How did Soufan react when he realized what had happened—when he learned that the C.I.A. had this information?
Soufan finally received the information he’d been asking for on September 12, 2001. He was given the information in a manila envelope by the chief of the C.I.A. station in Yemen. And when he received the account of the Malaysia meeting, which he had been requesting for a year and a half, and saw that the agency had known for twenty months that the agents of Al Qaeda were in America, he ran into the bathroom and retched.
We’ve heard about the warnings that went unheeded before 9/11, and the famous Presidential daily intelligence briefing with the headline “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the U.S.” Do you think that a warning from Soufan would have been received differently? Or do you think it would have been lost in what we’ve come to call the “chatter” of missed signals before 9/11?
It might have been yet another failure on the part of the bureau. There’s no question that it had other opportunities, but none was as striking as this one. These were two Al Qaeda operatives inside America more than a year and a half before 9/11. Now, it’s conceivable, as one agent told me, that we might have followed them right up to the point where they got on the plane. But because of the connection of these two hijackers, Khaled al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, to bin Laden, and because there was already an indictment of bin Laden, the bureau had the authority to do what is called a full-field investigation on these men. That means that it had the authority to wiretap, to surveil them, to clone their computer hard drives—every single thing you can imagine, it had the authority to do. It could have easily disrupted the cell, at least, if not exposed the entire 9/11 plot. It was certainly its best opportunity, one that it wasn’t given.
Zacarias Moussaoui was recently shown to have done what you say the C.I.A. did: withholding information from the F.B.I. that might have allowed it to uncover the 9/11 plot. What do you think of his prosecution, in light of your reporting on this story?
It is a mystery to me that people in the C.I.A. have not been held accountable. The office of the inspector general in the Justice Department did two internal investigations, one of the F.B.I. and one of the C.I.A. The report on the F.B.I. was declassified and released to the public, and the F.B.I. took a lot of heat for the revelations about its pre-9/11 missteps. The report on the C.I.A. has not been released to the public. I believe that the story of Ali Soufan is part of what is in that report. I’d like to see it made public, so the full story can be told.
In your article, you describe Soufan’s interrogation techniques. He engaged the suspects; he won their respect; he debated them on theological issues. In interrogations he carried out just after 9/11, these techniques worked very well; he got crucial information about the hijackers and their connections. His methods were very different from the “extreme measures” that we’ve been hearing about—waterboarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation—and that are being justified on the grounds that they’re the only way to get this kind of information. Have we been given a false choice between abusing prisoners or letting something terrible happen?
Ali Soufan has shown that intelligent and careful interrogation can achieve real results. And it helps immensely, obviously, to have the language and cultural skills that he does. There are very few people in the American intelligence community that have his set of talents. The U.S. is known to have used these sorts of tactics you mention. The C.I.A.’s impulse has been to deliver Al Qaeda suspects to foreign intelligence agencies that could torture them and extract information the C.I.A. thought it couldn’t otherwise obtain. However, what this abuse has yielded from the top Al Qaeda lieutenants is questionable. And I think that’s because it’s untrustworthy information obtained under torture.
So the problem with torture isn’t just that it’s torture— that it compromises America ethically, morally—but that torture doesn’t always work.
It doesn’t work. It often is misleading, as in the case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, an Al Qaeda lieutenant who was tortured into saying that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda and had weapons of mass destruction. That was the information that the U.S. was trying to get out of him, and he gave it to the interrogators under torture, and that became part of the rationale for the U.S. going to war with Iraq—a disastrous consequence of choosing an unethical approach to gaining information.
You mentioned that Soufan was the only Arabic-speaking F.B.I. agent in New York, and one of only eight in the country. Why was that? This is a country of immigrants—there must be a large pool of native speakers to draw on.
There is a large pool, but, unfortunately, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. are very narrow cultures. The F.B.I., especially in the hierarchy, is made up largely of Irish and Italian men. You go to the seventh floor of the F.B.I. and you feel like you’ve walked back in time. It’s like being in a Cagney movie. And it was a real failure on their part not to have expanded to incorporate more American faces.
Soufan was spotted by a legendary F.B.I. official named John O’Neill, as you’ve mentioned. You wrote about O’Neill for The New Yorker in 2002. Who was he and how does he fit into this story?
John O’Neill was the head of the counterterrorism center in the New York office of the F.B.I. It became the nexus of America’s efforts to counter Al Qaeda. O’Neill was one of the first in the bureau to recognize the danger that Al Qaeda posed. And, through the force of his amazing personality, he made New York the center of America’s efforts to stop bin Laden. Early on, he recognized the talent that Ali Soufan brought to the table, and he drafted him to the I-49 squad in New York, which was devoted largely to stopping Al Qaeda. Under O’Neill, the New York squad was able to obtain the information that led to several successful terrorism convictions.
But, on 9/11, John O’Neill was no longer with the F.B.I.
In the summer of 2001, there was a damaging leak in the New York Times that exposed the fact that John O’Neill had taken classified information out of the bureau to an F.B.I. pre-retirement conference in Florida. His briefcase was stolen. It was discovered within hours and the information had not been touched, but because of this revelation he decided to retire. And he took a job as the head of security at the World Trade Center. He died on 9/11.
This week’s story is taken from your forthcoming book, “The Looming Tower.” There’s a lot in your book, of course, that’s not in your article.
That’s true. This is just a portion of a vast saga, beginning in 1948, with the arrival of Sayyid Qutb in America, and ending shortly after 9/11. It’s a story of the terrorists and the counter-terrorists, of two cultures in collision. It’s told equally from each side. Much of it has to do with the rise of radical Islam and our failed efforts to counter it. It’s told through the lives of four individuals: Osama bin Laden; Ayman al-Zawahiri, his deputy; Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence; and John O’Neill