• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

WASHINGTON — When he watched the planes hit the Twin Towers on 9-11, former
FBI translator Behrooz Sarshar says he “immediately” remembered a tip about
an al-Qaida plot the bureau got from an informant more than four months
before the terror group attacked America.

Though he won’t divulge details of the tip or discuss the sources and
methods behind it, arguing they are still highly classified, Sarshar
confirmed in an exclusive interview that he recently briefed three 9-11
Commission investigators about it, href="/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=37781">as WorldNetDaily first reported
March 28.

He says he met Feb. 12 with Lance Cole, Chris Healey and one other
commission investigator in a secure room here on K Street. During the more
than two-hour classified meeting, he says he told them the name of the
informant.

Part of the independent panel’s mandate is to investigate leads U.S. law
enforcement may have missed before the terrorist attacks, which killed 2,745
Americans.

The 66-year-old Sarshar, who had Top Secret clearance when he left the
bureau in November 2002, also briefed congressional investigators in the
Senate Hart Building on Feb. 13. That meeting was not classified.

Sources familiar with the briefing say the FBI informant told two FBI agents
from the Washington field office in April 2001 that his sources in
Afghanistan had heard of an al-Qaida plot to attack America in a suicide
mission involving planes. Sarshar, fluent in Farsi, acted as an interpreter
at the meeting, held at a Washington-area residence.

The asset, an Iranian immigrant who worked in the shah’s intelligence
services, had been on the FBI’s payroll for at least a decade, and was
considered reliable. He travels abroad and is said to maintain good Afghan
contacts. Iran shares its eastern border with Afghanistan.

Both FBI agents took notes, and the case agent who worked with Sarshar filed
a report with his squad supervisor, Thomas Frields. It’s not clear if the
information was teletyped to headquarters, however.

Frields, now retired from the bureau, says the case is too “sensitive” to
discuss.

“It involves very sensitive matters that took place while I was an on-duty
agent, and I have absolutely nothing to say,” said Frields, reached at his
Washington-area consulting office.

Two former colleagues described Frields as “solid” and “meticulous,” and
said they have no doubt he would have notified headquarters if he thought
the information was credible.

The headquarters official in charge of counterterrorism at the time was FBI
assistant director Dale Watson, also retired and now working for the same
consulting firm as Frields. He did not return phone calls.

Former FBI directors Thomas Pickard and Louis Freeh are scheduled to testify
next week before the 9-11 Commission. Pickard replaced Freeh as acting
director in June 2001.

On 9-11, as soon as the shock of the attacks wore off, Sarshar’s mind raced
back to the meeting with the informant.

“I immediately remembered the source,” he said last week during an interview
at a Northern Virginia coffee shop.

“But I didn’t discuss it [with the two agents], because I was sure they also
were kind of surprised this had happened,” he said. “And I didn’t want to
discuss it because I was sure that they had done their job.”

However, he says he spoke with other linguists at the Washington field
office about the informant’s tip, which in hindsight had been very hot.

Some familiar with Sarshar’s briefings last month say the tip cited major
cities with skyscrapers, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

But a veteran FBI source says the tip at the time was not that specific, and
has been sensationalized since 9-11. He says the information did not include
cities. Nor was there any indication when the attacks might occur.

“At the time it sounded unbelievable,” he said. “People in Afghanistan being
trained to fly jumbo jets to attack America just seemed unbelievable.
Camels, maybe. But not planes.”

America, as well as Europe, were mentioned as targets by the informant, however, knowledgeable sources confirm. And he suggested that al-Qaida agents, already in place inside America, were being trained as pilots.

Before the suicide plane attacks, the FBI failed to act on other clues that
al-Qaida was planning aviation-related terrorism inside America.

In July 2001, for example, an FBI agent in Phoenix warned headquarters that
an “inordinate number” of Middle Eastern men sympathetic to al-Qaida were
taking local flying lessons. And in August, a FBI supervisor in Minneapolis
told headquarters that he worried a foreign flight student he had in custody
on visa violations — Zacarias Moussaoui — might be part of a plot to “take
control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center.”

If those two pieces of information had been combined with the broader
informant’s tip, the FBI might have been able to see the outline of the
plot, a source familiar with Sarshar’s briefings said.

“Those three pieces together make a big piece” of the puzzle, he said.

White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has maintained the
administration could not have predicted al-Qaida terrorists “would try to
use an airplane as a missile.” She is said to have recently revised her
statement in private talks with the 9-11 Commission, however. She testifies
publicly Thursday.

Watson, for his part, has argued that the FBI has been unfairly blamed for
dropping the ball on 9-11. He compared the bureau to a soccer goalie who
blocks 99 shots out of a 100 and only gets credit for the miss.

Such explanations don’t satisfy families of 9-11 victims — and they
shouldn’t, says FBI counterintelligence veteran I.C. Smith, who left the
bureau in 1998. He thinks 9-11 could have been stopped.

“They’ve all said there’s nothing we could have done anyway,” he said.
“Well, that is wrong, wrong, wrong.”

“If FBI agents had been allowed to interview those Middle Eastern students
at the flight schools, there is no doubt in my mind they could have
disrupted them,” Smith explained. “We would have found them overstaying
their visas and booted them out of the country.”

In his July memo, the Phoenix agent had asked headquarters for “authority to
obtain visa information on persons seeking to attend flight schools.” But
supervisors there had closed the matter the next month without taking
action.

Told of the 9-11 plot tip, Smith said, “I’m convinced there’s more
information in the FBI.” He’s writing a soon-to-be-published book that takes
the bureau, and Watson in particular, to task for counterterrorism failures.

Another FBI veteran said the informant’s lead likely joined the thousands of
others buried and never investigated at the “Federal Bureau of Information.”

Sarshar, who worked more than seven years for the FBI, says he asked the Senate Judiciary Committee for immunity to testify about the informant’s tip and other FBI matters. He says the FBI warned him: “If you talk about these things, you’ll be locked up.” Republican staffer John Drake and Democratic counsel Tara Magner told him they would look into it after he met with them, he says.

Tracy Schmaler, a Judiciary spokeswoman, confirmed the meeting took place,
but stopped short of specifics.

Also attending the Feb. 13 meeting on the Hill, which lasted about
two-and-a-half hours, were Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband in the
World Trade Center attacks, and Sibel Dinez Edmonds, a former contract
linguist for the FBI, who was hired after 9-11.

Edmonds, who translated Farsi, Turkish and Azerbaijani recordings and
documents at the Washington field office, has told both congressional and
9-11 investigators that many terror-related intercepts have not been
translated accurately because of anti-American bias and incompetence among
some Middle Eastern translators. Sources say she was asked to retranslate a
9-11-related document that also may have held clues to the plot.

It was Edmonds who coaxed Sarshar to brief the 9-11 Commission. He met with
investigators the day after she did. Her Feb. 11 classified briefing took
place in a SCIF, or sensitive compartmented-information facility, set up in
commission offices on D Street.

Commission Chairman Thomas Kean confirmed the panel’s meeting with Edmonds.
“We’ve had all her testimony and it’s under investigation,” he said Sunday
on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Also, Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton appeared to confirm the panel’s meeting
with Sarshar the following day. “We’ve talked to people she’s identified,”
he said on the same show.

Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg would neither confirm nor deny his
briefing. “It’s our policy that we cannot talk about people we interview,”
he said.

Sarshar says the commission has not contacted him since his briefing. He
says investigators indicated they’d call him back to testify with the
informant.

The FBI source cautioned that Edmonds sued the bureau after it fired her in
2002 for undisclosed reasons.

But the FBI terminated her contract only after she filed internal complaints
against a supervisor in the language unit, Edmonds asserted. href="/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=37826">And senior FBI officials have
nonetheless confirmed some of her charges in private hearings on the Hill,
according to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the Senate
Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, also a Judiciary
member.

Grassley, moreover, has called Edmonds “very credible.”

A former Grassley investigator says he found Sarshar credible, too.

“We thought he was a pretty credible guy,” said former Senate Judiciary
Committee investigator Kris Kolesnik, who interviewed Sarshar nearly two
years ago as an investigator for a Washington public-interest law firm
handling federal whistleblower cases.

Sarshar, a political refugee from Iran who joined the FBI in 1995, says he
has testified seven times in federal court against FBI suspects, more than
any other translator on the Farsi board. He says his life was threatened
once after testimony he gave sealed a drug conviction. He also has worked on
terrorism cases related to Mujahedin el-Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian dissident
group that has killed Americans.

In Iran, he was a colonel in the national police force under the shah, as
well as president of Iran’s judo federation, until the 1979 revolution, when
he was forced to flee the country.

The FBI insider, however, cautioned that Sarshar was placed on
administrative leave just before he resigned. He says the department’s
Office of Professional Responsibility had been investigating him since 2000.

Sarshar, a level GS-12 employee, acknowledged that the bureau notified him
in October 2002 it was putting him on leave, but he says that it was with
pay. He decided at that point to resign anyway. He declined to elaborate.

But he says he pleaded his case to the Justice Department inspector general.
He says he met with an official there in January. The meeting lasted
four-and-a-half hours, he says, and covered classified information that
included the informant’s tip about 9-11.

Despite pre-9-11 slips, Sarshar insists the FBI “is still the best law
enforcement agency in the world.”

Edmonds, 33, also took her case to the inspector general. That was two years
ago, she complains. The IG’s office still hasn’t released any findings from
its investigation.

Previous stories:

FBI informant revealed 9-11 plot in April 2001

Senator demands hearings on FBI translator crisis

Backlog of untranslated Arabic swamps FBI

FBI mandates Muslim-sensitivity training for agents

FBI whistleblower: Arab translators cheered 9-11

Jews need not apply to fight terror at FBI

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.