Philip Shenon: Investigation shows FBI Headquarters had linked Moussaoui to al-Qaeda but didn’t share info that would have allowed computer search


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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, today in Toronto. Of all the things that came out in the investigations of what happened around the 9/11 events, perhaps one of the most mind-boggling is what happened in Minneapolis, where the FBI was informed and then arrested a man, Zacarias Moussaoui, who was taking flight lessons. This led them to think that he could be involved in a plot apparently as specific, they thought, as to take a plane and hit the World Trade Center. Now new information, as a result of the work of Philip Shenon, investigative reporter, shows how even more mind-boggling this what is called missed opportunity was. Now joining us from our studio in Washington is Philip Shenon. He’s an investigative reporter, as I said. He spent 1981 to 2008 with The New York Times. He’s the author of the book The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. And he’s a regular contributor to Newsweek magazine and The Daily Beast. Thanks for joining us, Philip. So, Philip, can you remind us of the basic facts of the Minneapolis case? And then, what did you find that was new?

PHILIP SHENON, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Well, in mid-August 2001, the FBI got a call from a Minneapolis flight school, and some of the instructors there thought they had a terrorist on their hands. They had a guy who wanted to learn in just a matter of days how to fly a 747. The instructors, as I say, thought they had a terrorist. They called the FBI. The FBI agent who responded got very excited about this, really thought that there was a serious terrorist threat here, but just couldn’t get anybody at FBI headquarters in Washington to pay any attention to this, even [though], as they’ve warned specifically, they thought that this guy, Zacarias Moussaoui, might actually try to crash a plane into the World Trade Center. And what we now know is that the FBI headquarters in Washington had much more evidence than we ever knew before to suggest just how dangerous this guy was.

JAY: And this is important, because one of the reasons the headquarters didn’t give the Minneapolis FBI officials the right to use a warrant to go check out Moussaoui’s computer is they hadn’t proven there was a connection. But your investigation shows that they actually did know there was a connection.

SHENON: [incompr.] these crazy misconnects in FBI headquarters. But without going into all the details (because they’re complicated), the big legal question in August 2001, in order to get a search warrant to go through Moussaoui’s laptop and his other belongings, is that you had to show that he was somehow tied to al-Qaeda. And FBI headquarters says there just wasn’t any evidence of it, so you can’t have your search warrant; just deport the guy. It turns out that just a few months before 9/11, at the seniormost level of the FBI, the connection between Moussaoui and his group and al-Qaeda was made very clearly, and there was a warning that groups that Moussaoui was tied to might be working with al-Qaeda on terrorist attacks in 2001. Yet this memo that outlined all this is never shared with the headquarters supervisors who are dealing with Minneapolis in the summer of 2001. And, again, this is just one more crazily missed dot in the summer of 2001.

JAY: So if we try to go behind the logic of many of these examples–as you said, there are so many of these, quote, missed dots. In your book, for example, there’s the lack of investigation into the whole role of the Saudis in this. You kind of tease it in your book that they start to unravel that string. But as we know from the congressional report, the congressional investigation, who–and they–Bob Graham, the cochair of that, says the main divergence they had with the 9/11 Commission was the lack of pursuing the Saudi connection. And then there are so many other examples of where intelligence in fact did exist about what was happening, and was either closed down, not acted on, lack of communication. But does there–is there–do you find there’s some kind of pattern here that’s more than just bungling?

SHENON: I think there is a clear pattern of incompetence at every level of the FBI, of the CIA, and other law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies that should have been paying attention. You know, people seem to forget sometimes that this happened in the dead of summer in 2001 when a lot of people were on vacation, a lot of people just weren’t paying attention to their jobs in ways they should have. And the thing about 9/11 and the plot is that there was a lot of evidence what al-Qaeda was up to in the summer of 2001, there was a lot of specific dots that could be connected that summer, yet people were just too lazy or just too incompetent to connect them.

JAY: But if you go into some of the specific examples–well, like, let me talk about a couple here. George Tenet says that he tells President Bush in his first national security briefing, if I remember this correctly, the number one security threat to the United States is bin Laden and al-Qaeda. What happens? They demote Richard Clarke: instead of having your antiterrorism czar at the principals level and essentially at cabinet meetings, Clark can’t get in front of the principals group. And in the summer–and he tells the 9/11 Commission, our hair was on fire and nobody would pay attention to us. Then you’ve got the acting director of the FBI, Pickard, tells Ashcroft that bin Laden and al-Qaeda is the threat we need to pay attention to, and Ashcroft says, we’re not interested. And I interviewed Coleen Rowley, as I know you did, and Coleen Rowley says that pervaded the culture of the FBI, that conversation with Ashcroft, which is, we’re not really interested in all of this. I mean, what do you make of all this when you start to connect all these dots?

SHENON: Well, I think it’s very clear that the Bush administration, which, remember, had only come to office, you know, several months before 9/11, they just couldn’t see al-Qaeda as the threat that others seemed to see it as. You know, George Bush and Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld came to Washington believing that the big threat were governments, states like Iraq and North Korea. They just couldn’t imagine that these guys sitting in a cave in Afghanistan could really be a threat they needed to worry about urgently, even as the CIA and Richard Clarke and others were saying that this was the big threat that they needed to pay attention to. They just couldn’t, as I say, focus on al-Qaeda as a threat until the day of 9/11.

JAY: What do you make of the whole Saudi connection in this? Like, we know how close the Bush family was to Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador at the time to the United States. The Saudis later, including, I believe, Bandar, but certainly the Saudi security chief, after 9/11, said–actually said, we, the Saudi intelligence agency, were trying to tell the administration and American intelligence agencies that we were tracking people in the United States and we thought there was a threat, and they didn’t want to know. I mean, there’s–I mean, I don’t understand how these guys–like, you have Ashcroft: how could he not be interested in the guy who’s number one on the FBI Most Wanted list? This seems like more.

SHENON: It seems like more, but I’m not so convinced it is more. I think John Ashcroft, who, again, was pretty new in his job as attorney general, terrorism just wasn’t his focus. He was much more interested in loosening gun laws in the United States and working, you know, against abortion rights. He just couldn’t get so interested in what he didn’t see as an imminent threat, al-Qaeda.

JAY: So in terms of the Saudi connection, though, there seems to be a real closing down of that investigation. You know, Bob Graham really complains about it. Richard Clarke recently–I guess it’s not directly connected, but he talks about how the FBI didn’t–I mean, sorry, the CIA didn’t tell the FBI or him about two what became 9/11 conspirators who had been in the country for a year. This whole issue of the exploration of how active at least some members of the Saudi royal family and government were in the plot, is this not a whole area that simply hasn’t come to the surface properly?

SHENON: I think that’s absolutely true. And you know, there’s one vital document that is still secret all these years later after 9/11 that I think many of us would really like to see, which is a report by congressional investigators of connections between Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 plot. This document was put under seal by the Bush administration. The Obama administration has made no effort to unseal it, to make it public. And I think there are a tremendous number of questions about whether there were elements of the Saudi government, not necessarily the royal family itself or the king, but elements of the Saudi government that were aware of something like the 9/11 plot and went out of their way to try to provide help to the hijackers while they were in the United States before the plot was carried out.

JAY: Well, The LA Times reported that they talked to someone who had seen those redacted pages–I think it’s 28 pages–and that it was a list of actual names of people that the investigators thought–Saudi names that they thought had direct connections with the 9/11 conspirators. And Bob Graham has been quoted several places that he thought it should have been made public and that the White House closed it down. I mean, what sense do you get, after poring over all this 9/11 Commission work, of just why Bush was so intent on closing this down?

SHENON: Because this was all tremendously embarrassing, if not damning, to a government that provides this country with an awful lot of its oil, you know, that they thought that a document or investigations that would embarrass the Saudi government would do damage to American foreign policy and might damage the oil supply from Saudi Arabia. I think it’s almost as simple as that.

JAY: I think the facts are clear: there was a culture created from the White House through Ashcroft that permeated down to the CIA, and particularly to the FBI, that we’re not interested, we don’t really want to know, it’s not our priority. You don’t think there’s any other intent there?

SHENON: Are you asking whether or not there was some sort of inside job?

JAY: Well, I’m asking is that–”inside job” only in the sense that there were so many attempts by Mossad, by Jordanian intelligence, by Egyptian intelligence, apparently by Saudi intelligence, there were so many attempts from within the American intelligence services that they knew something was coming, and there’s such a culture of we don’t want to know that that culture’s more than just we have other priorities.

SHENON: If you’ve got more evidence of it, I welcome it. I just think that a new administration had come to office earlier that year, that they just didn’t see terrorism as the big priority. Clearly, George Bush personally did not see this as a big priority, and his incuriosity about terrorist threats in the spring and summer of 2001 did pervade the rest of the government. Clearly, Condoleezza Rice, who was at the center of so much of this, just couldn’t get focused on terrorism, in large part because her boss was just not focused on terrorism.

JAY: And after ten years later and you’ve been through so much of this material, is there some questions left in your mind other than–we discussed the Saudi–of questions that need to be further investigated that you think the various inquiries have not dealt with? What’s left for you?

SHENON: Well, in many ways I think the biggest scoop of my book was the fact that, you know, much of the raw intelligence in government archives about terrorist threats before 9/11 rested at the National Security Agency, the NSA, which is the big, you know, satellite eavesdropping agency. The 9/11 Commission really fell down on the job on that. It really never got into those archives to see what other terrorist threats had been known to the government before 9/11. And as best I can tell, nobody has gone in since to look at those records. And I suspect there is a lot of important, fascinating, explosive information that may be resting in those archives that somebody someday should go back in and take a look at.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Philip. His book, again, is The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. And thank you again, Philip. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Philip Shenon

Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter and bestselling author, based in Washington D.C. Almost all of his career was spent at The New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1981 until May 2008. He left the paper a few weeks after his first book, “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation,” hit the bestsellers lists of both The New York Times and The Washington Post. The book, a behind-the-scenes history of the 9/11 commission, was hailed by reviewers as “mesmerizing” (The New York Times), “stunning” and “spellbinding” (Publishers Weekly) and a “rich slice of investigative journalism” (The Observer, London). He is now a regular contributor to Newsweek magazine and its sister website, The Daily Beast. At The Times, he was a foreign correspondent, reporting from scores of countries across six continents, and held several of the most important reporting assignments in the paper’s Washington bureau, including the State Department, the Pentagon, the Justice Department and Congress. He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from The Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Shenon joined The Times as an assistant to the columnist James Reston, the paper’s former Washington bureau chief and executive editor, a few days after graduation from Brown University in 1981. Shenon was born in San Francisco and now lives in Washington D.C.