In a well-produced audio documentary released on Sept. 20, independent producers John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski attempt to trace the 9/11 intelligence failure to its source.
Titled “Who is Rich Blee?” the production is a model of fairness the producers’ pampered peers in the major media would do well to emulate. It deserves more attention than it has gotten.
That much said, if “Rich Blee” has one failing it is this: As with so many other explorations of 9/11, the producers do not even consider the possibility of Iraqi involvement in that day’s events.
What makes the failure troubling is that “Rich Blee” centers on a critical planning session in which Iraqi involvement is undeniable, an al-Qaida summit in Malaysia in January 2000.
As shall be seen, the producers do not explore an Iraqi connection because many, if not all, of their interview subjects have a vested interest in ignoring that connection.
To their credit, however, the producers have done an impressive job of lining up interviews. Subjects include Clinton anti-terror czar Richard Clarke, 9/11 commission Chairman Tom Kean and, most productively, FBI agent Mark Rossini who had been assigned at the time to Alec Station, the CIA station tasked with tracking al-Qaida.
With some justification, the producers argue that Alec Station head Rich Blee and his CIA colleagues suffered no adverse consequences for the inarguable intelligence breakdown that allowed September 11 to unfold as it did.
Central to this breakdown was Alec Station’s inexplicable reluctance to alert the FBI, among others, to the arrival of two known al-Qaida terrorists, Khalid Muhammad Abdallah al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, into the United States in January 2000.
The outspoken Richard Clarke was among those kept in the dark, and he strongly suggests that the withholding of information was deliberate.
Not everyone agrees. Although then-CIA head George Tenet and other CIA personnel refused to be interviewed, they blasted Clarke in a written response, calling his claim “reckless and profoundly wrong.”
Writes Tenet et al., “In early 2000, a number of more junior personnel (including FBI agents on detail to CIA) did see travel information on individuals who later became hijackers, but the significance of the data was not adequately recognized at the time.”
The producers work their way through a maze of information to establish whether Tenet’s or Clarke’s version of events is closer to the truth. A “Part II” to this production is in the works and will likely answer the question. To this point, however, the producers have made no mention of Iraq.
In the way of background, Alec Station had been tracking Mihdhar from Yemen where he helped man the al-Qaida switchboard. There, Mihdhar got the word on a meeting in Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur in the first week of January 2000.
This was a critical meeting. FBI agent Jack Cloonan describes it as likely “the first organizational meeting for, god knows, 9/11 and god knows what else.”
What “Rich Blee” fails to do, however, is mention the most controversial of all reported attendees, an Iraqi named Ahmed Hikmat Shakir.
Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard has done the best reporting on Shakir, who was apparently working as a “greeter” for Malaysian Airlines. He had gotten the job, or so he said, through a contact at the Iraqi embassy.
Shakir’s contact at the Iraqi embassy controlled his schedule. He had Shakir on the job on Jan. 5, 2000. This was the day Mihdhar arrived in Kuala Lumpur.
Unlike most VIP greeters, Shakir did not simply escort his guest to the car but rather climbed in after Mihdhar and drove away with him to the site of the summit.
Three days later, Mihdhar and Hamzi left Kuala Lumpur for Bangkok and eventually Los Angeles. Twenty months later, Midhar and Hamzi, as well as Hazmi’s brother, Salem, would secure their moment of infamy when they helped commandeer American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
Six days after September 11, Shakir was captured in Qatar. He had on his person contact info for several al-Qaida luminaries, among them Musab Yasin.
Yasin is the brother of Abdul Rahman Yasin, the Iraqi who helped Ramzi Yousef mix the chemicals for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. After the bombing, he and Yousef fled New York, Yasin for Baghdad where he was given safe haven.
Despite all the evidence against him, Shakir was released in October 2001. He promptly boarded a plane for Baghdad but was detained by Jordanian intelligence at a stopover in Amman, Jordan.
According to Hayes, the CIA officials who interrogated an uncooperative Shakir in Jordan thought his counter-interrogation techniques so sophisticated he had likely learned them from intelligence training.
In February 2004, a political science professor on leave to work at the Pentagon found the name of a Lt. Col. Ahmed Hikmat Shakir on Saddam Hussein’s security force, the Fedayeen Saddam.
This finding, of course, led to much denial in official Washington that this was the same Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. Aram Roston, writing in the New York Observer, typified that denial.
Says Roston, “It was a desperate push to tie the Iraqi dictator to 9/11 and it failed, notably because whatever Mr. Shakir was, he was no Iraqi agent and he was no fedayeen officer.”
The evidence Roston cites to disprove Shakir’s fedayeen status is that Shakir was chubby and purportedly gay and that his name is not mentioned in the official 9/11 Report.
For that matter, WTC bomber Abdul Rahman Yasin is not mentioned in the 9/11 Report either, although his partner Yousef was mentioned on 13 different pages.
What Roston does not deny, nor does anyone else, is that Shakir was an Iraqi and that he was at the Kuala Lumpur summit. That his name, like Yasin’s, is not mentioned in the report should have made Roston suspicious, not complacent.
Whatever Shakir’s background, the Iraqi government pressured the Jordanians to release him. Convinced that Shakir worked for Iraqi intelligence, the Jordanians proposed to the CIA that he could be “turned.”
For reasons unknown, the CIA agreed and allowed Shakir to return to Iraq allegedly as a double-agent. He has not been heard from since.
Almost no one in Washington wanted to hear from Shakir. One reason is the CIA’s institutional bias against the idea of state-sponsored terrorism.
A second, of course, is that once the Bush White House showed an interest in attacking Iraq, virtually all of Washington, the media especially, worked to disprove any Iraq-al-Qaida connection if only to discredit Bush.
Clarke, in particular, has made a lucrative career of Bush bashing. “There’s absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al-Qaida, ever,” said Clarke in an absurdly definitive March 2004 interview.
And yet in 1999, to justify the Clinton-ordered destruction of al Shifa chemical plant in the Sudan, Clarke told the Washington Post of intelligence that connected al-Qaida to the “Iraqi nerve gas experts.”
This followed the 1998 indictment by the Clinton Justice Department of Osama bin Laden, which read in part: “Al-Qaida reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al-Qaida would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al-Qaida would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq.”
In fact, until the Bush administration began to move against Iraq, the media accepted as a given what ABC News in 1999 called “bin Laden’s long relationship with the Iraqis.”
If in Part II Duffy and Nowosielski hope to show why the CIA dropped the ball on Mihdhar and Hamzi, they will have to talk honestly about Iraq, and to do that, they may have to find some new interview subjects to lead them there.