While producing our investigative podcast “Who Is Rich Blee?“, intended to be released on Sunday, our team managed to deduce the likely identities of two CIA employees at the heart of a notorious failure in the run up to the September 11th tragedy.
Savvy internet searches based on minimal background details helped us determine candidates for the two CIA employees. When the names were used by our interviewers repeatedly during interviews and never corrected by the interviewees, we began to feel more certain. Ironically, it was the response from CIA that provided final confirmation.
On Thursday, we submitted our script to CIA along with a request to interview the two employees. We wanted to be fair in giving them a chance to tell their sides of the story. Instead, the Agency sent us a message threatening that if we went forward with the names included in the piece that it would be a potential violation of federal criminal law.
A prominent civil liberties attorney has advised us that the law cited, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, has never been used to convict a journalist. The law pertains to government employees who violate their security clearances, certainly not those who find “classified information” in open-source materials posted on the Net.
The threat of prosecution under this act may be a baseless attempt by CIA to intimidate journalists exposing wrongdoing by their employees. Or it may announce an intention by the U.S. government to dangerously expand precedent in the application of this law. That would certainly be in line with a general anti-transparency movement in recent years.
Editor’s Note: Follow-up to the story we ran 9/11/11 announcing the CIA’s threats of the SecrecyKills.com team. More documentation and an excellent piece from former FBI attorney Coleen Rowley can be found at SecrecyKills.com.
In January 2000, a 27-year-old female desk officer working in Rich Blee’s Bin Laden Station, called “Michael” in the Commission Report, was placed in charge of an operation to track several known Al Qaeda terrorists to a meeting in Malaysia.
Learning that one of the men, a future Flight 77 hijacker, possessed a visa allowing him entry to the U.S., FBI agent Doug Miller, working at CIA, drafted a warning to his FBI bosses. According to the Justice Department’s Inspector General, it was Michael who directly ordered Miller to hold off on sending the cable, what turned out to be a permanent “hold off.” A few hours later, she sent a misleading email throughout CIA stating that the visa info had been shared with FBI. It seems circumstantially clear she knew this to be untrue, as only two days later, another FBI agent at CIA named Mark Rossini describes having a heated conversation with her in which she instructed him, “This is not a matter for the FBI. When we want them to know, we’ll let them know. And you’re not going to say anything.”
“Its one of the most troubling aspects of our entire report, that particular thing,” revealed the 9/11 Commission chairman Tom Kean to us in 2008. Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, who first broke the CIA withholding story in 2002, goes even further. “That was a pretty stunning intelligence lapse. Probably one of the biggest intelligence lapses of our time.”
In an interview we released in part in August, the former counterterror adviser to the President, Richard Clarke, claimed the information about the travel of two future hijackers to the U.S. had not just been withheld from FBI but also from the White House. Former CIA agent Bob Baer confirmed to us that whoever was in charge of the Mihdhar surveillance op (which we know to be Michael) would by standard protocol have held direct responsibility for sending this fax to Clarke.
Michael’s direct supervisor was a redhead who the Associated Press identified by her middle name “Frances” in a story earlier this year. Sometime after the bombing of the USS Cole in late 2000, we’re told Frances became Deputy Chief of Bin Laden Station, where circumstantial evidence connects her to the continued withholding of information from FBI investigators regarding this same future 9/11 hijacker, who by that time was known to be connected to the suspected Cole mastermind. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright told us he feels this amounted to obstruction of justice in the criminal investigation of the death of seventeen U.S. military men.
Frances reportedly told investigators working for Congress in 2002 that it was she who physically walked a copy of the terrorist’s U.S. visa to the FBI, a statement proven false by a later check of the log books at headquarters. Former intelligence committee staff director Eleanor Hill told us her team found no documentary evidence showing that FBI had ever been told. Michael also apparently failed to inform Hill’s investigation or the one conducted shortly thereafter by Justice’s Inspector General that she had blocked Doug Miller from sending a warning cable and had ordered Mark Rossini not to tell the Bureau.
The AP reported that Frances was also at the center of “the el-Masri incident,” in which an innocent German citizen was kidnapped by CIA in 2003 and held under terrible conditions without charges for five months in a secret Afghan prison. The AP characterized it as “one of the biggest diplomatic embarrassments of the U.S. war on terrorism.” It was no doubt something more to el-Masri. We have confirmed that Frances is the person described in New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side as having flown in to watch the waterboarding of terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammad without being assigned to do so. “Its not supposed to be entertainment,” superiors were said to have told her.
In late 2009, a Jordanian double agent with a suicide vest was brought into a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, exploding himself and killing seven CIA personnel. It was the deadliest day for the Agency in over two decades. The security failure has been widely criticized. A source informs us that the internal investigation into that matter singles out Frances and the then-head of CTC for interfering with the instincts of the Base Chief on the ground. “They told her not to search the source, that it would offend him,” claims our source.
The CIA has told us we would be irresponsible to identify these two individuals working in the fight against Al Qaeda. We believe it is irresponsible for the CIA to leave them in such positions given the results of their previous work in this area. This is a public safety issue. Despite CIA’s protestations that these may be covert operatives, two sources have informed us that they are presently working from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
“A lot of these people who withheld this information were not covert operatives,” former Middle East case officer Bob Baer remarked, explaining that as analysts their names were not classified before 9/11. “There was no reason to hide their names. They are out there in the public. You can find them in data and credit checks and the rest of it… They certainly could have been brought before the House or the Senate in closed session and an explanation and a report put out there.”
“Frances” and “Michael” reported to Bin Laden Station Deputy Chief Tom Wilshere and Chief of Station Richard Blee, who himself reported to Counter-Terrorist Center chief Cofer Black and CIA Director George Tenet. The actions of the whole group are explored in our investigative podcast.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states that “journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know” and should “be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.” The day that journalists’ exposés of wrongdoing within government agencies require the approval of those government agencies before release, that is the day that transparency and accountability are lost.
We have done nothing wrong. In fact, we have done some excellent investigative journalism, mostly unpaid, and were ready to release it for free as a kind of public service. The CIA have now put us in a position where we must choose between participating in their decade-long protection of these individuals at the expense of public safety or possibly facing prosecution. We are weighing our options and deciding what is right and best for all concerned. We will release our decision and some version of the investigative podcast in the coming days.
THE WHO IS RICH BLEE? TEAM (http://www.secrecykills.com/)