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Who Is Rich Blee?

September 21, 2011
SecrecyKills.com [website no longer exists]

Despite threats of prosecution from the CIA, the makers of 9/11: Press For Truth have released their new documentary podcast Who Is Rich Blee?

Two names have been censored after threats of federal prosecution by CIA in an unprecedented use of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Where censorship occurs, the names are listed in brackets [].

Who is Richard Blee?

 

Image of text: Who is Rich Blee?

Two names have been censored after threats of federal prosecution by CIA in an unprecedented use of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Where censorship occurs, the names are listed in brackets [].

WHO IS RICH BLEE? – PART 1 OF 2

Premiere date 9.20.2011

Host

The Central Intelligence Agency was created after World War II by President Truman for the express purpose of preventing future Pearl Harbors. A little more than fifty years later, that Agency experienced its greatest failure when an attack on domestic soil killed thousands of Americans. Truman was famous for the sign on his desk that read, “The buck stops here.” Given that the 9/11 attack was attributed to Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization, one might argue that the buck stopped at the CIA’s Bin Laden Station – responsible for all matters Al Qaeda-related – and the manager responsible for it, Richard Blee. Yet his first name appears only a handful of times in the various government investigation reports that have followed, and often in ways so obscure that it’s difficult to understand who he was and what he did. His full name never appeared in the mainstream media until one month ago when we released our interview with Richard Clarke to the press and forced the first public statement ever from this man. We’ve titled this investigative podcast “Who Is Rich Blee?” For a decade now, that is a question that hasn’t been so much as asked, much less answered. During the next hour, we’ll get as close as any one has gotten to answering it. It’s a story of secrecy taken to an absurd extreme and the repeated tragic consequences. [intro music]

Prologue.

Host

It was July 2004. The 9/11 Commission had completed its work. The families of the victims filled a cramped hearing room in downtown D.C., about to be the first to read their definitively titled Final Report. Kristen Breitweiser, one of the “Jersey Widows” who has been instrumental in the push to create this blue-ribbon independent investigation, surreptitiously opened her copy directly to a page containing an explosive footnote.

Lorie Van Auken

Well, Kristen was the one who turned to footnote 44.

Host

That’s Jersey widow Lorie Van Auken,

Lorie Van Auken

Ironically, she was the one who had always been really interested in the Al Hazmi/ Mihdhar story… in following those two hijackers that were on Flight 77, who ended up in San Diego. And she suspected that they had been followed by intelligence services in the United States… And I was sitting next to her, and she turns to me and says “Oh my god, look at this.”

Host

The moment is captured in an iconic New York Times photo. The two women, eyes wide, mouths agape. Kristen later devoted a full chapter of her memoir out of the damning information buried here in the fine print below Chapter Six. Reading that chapter later started us on this investigation.

Tom Kean

[RORY: Can you please open up the report and read the page that’s marked?] OK. [Exhale. Page shuffling.] Footnote 44. The CIA cable.

Host

This is the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Tom Kean, about to read the text of the footnote in question for our colleague Rory O’Connor and myself. It’s three years ago. We’re sitting in his Jersey office, our first interview.

Tom Kean

“Activities of Bin Laden Associate Khalid Revealed.” January 4th, 2000. His Saudi passport — which contained a visa for travel to the United States – was photocopied and forwarded to CIA headquarters. This information was not shared with FBI headquarters until August 2001.

An FBI agent detailed to the Bin Laden Unit at CIA attempted to share this information with colleagues at FBI headquarters. A CIA desk officer instructed him not to send the cable with this information. Several hours later, this same desk officer drafted a cable distributed solely within CIA alleging that the visa documents had been shared with the FBI.

She admits she did not personally share the information and cannot identify who told her they had been shared. We were unable to locate anyone who claimed to have shared the information. Contemporaneous documents contradict the claim that they were shared.

Host

In plain English, what it says is that the CIA knew a year and a half before the attacks that a known Al Qaeda bad guy named Khalid Al Mihdhar was likely heading to the United States and didn’t tell FBI or INS. Mihdhar – as we’ll refer to him from here on – would be one of the first two 9/11 hijackers to arrive for the plot, the one reportedly closest to Bin Laden himself.

But that’s not the new part. Michael Isikoff broke that in a 2002 Newsweek cover story: “The Hijackers the CIA Let Escape.”

Michael Isikoff

That story did get a decent amount of traction at the time. I don’t know if it ever really caught on quite the way certainly I hoped it would… That was a pretty stunning intelligence lapse, probably one of the biggest intelligence lapses of our time.

Host

Isikoff had relied for his story on leaks from the first 9/11 investigation, performed by the intelligence committees of Congress. It’s commonly called the Joint Inquiry, or the “JICI,” run by staff director Eleanor Hill.

Eleanor Hill

The story of Mihdhar and Hazmi, which is one we really did develop. This story had not come out until we put it together from the files and our interviews and the work we did…

Host

While developing that story from scratch, they came upon info inside CIA from the year 2000 about Mihdhar’s US visa and his associate Nawaf Al Hazmi’s arrival in Los Angeles. Another Flight 77 hijacker.

Eleanor Hill

There were some people who believed that that information was passed. And we did our best to track that down. The Agency couldn’t come up with anything to confirm it. We couldn’t come up with anything in the FBI to confirm it. Whether they forgot or believed someone else did it, really believed it had been passed.

Host

Hill and her investigator were able to find no evidence to support the CIA’s claim that the information had been shared with the FBI. With so little known at the time, it was easy to accept CIA officers’ claims that this failure was a mistake.

Eleanor Hill

Ya know, it’s a tragic story really, because it’s a lot of people who made the same mistake and unfortunately for the country, it was a terribly costly mistake.

Host

Now, let’s jump forward a couple years, back into that small Commission hearing room. Kristen and Lorie stared transfixed at footnote 44 to Chapter Six, revealing two shocking new pieces of information.

The first new piece: it wasn’t just a failure to pass the information. It was an order by a CIA desk officer not to tell FBI.

The second new piece: that same CIA desk officer misled her own Agency into believing the info had been shared with FBI.

Reading this, the women immediately grasped the significance.

Lorie Van Auken

So basically something was goin’ on besides just honest mistakes. Ya know, there was something else goin’ on here. And the footnote 44 is just the little window into some of this story which as you crack it open further and further more heinousness comes pouring in.

Host

In the years that have followed, that window has been opened wider and wider. First by the Justice Department Inspector General’s report. Then by some excellent journalism from authors like Lawrence Wright and James Bamford. And other details divulged by government insiders, including the former CIA Director himself, George Tenet, in his memoir.

What follows may sound very trivial – who read what cable when. Why should we care? Because it turns out these cables and actions we’ll describe were the best chance to stop the 9/11 attacks and save nearly 3,000 lives. In fact, the more we learn, the more remarkable it seems the attacks weren’t stopped.

This podcast is the first of a two-part investigation we call Who Is Rich Blee? I’m Ray Nowosielski. [And I’m John Duffy, and we’re recording this from Austin, Texas.]

For ten years now, Rich Blee has managed to avoid public scrutiny for his actions inside CIA. Secrecy allowed him to escape accountability and move on to other positions at CIA. He was placed in charge of the CIA’s efforts in Afghanistan in December 2001, when Bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora to live in Pakistan, a mistake not rectified until earlier this year.

We’re told Blee and many of his employees you’ll hear about in this story are connected to the controversial renditions and detainee abuses. While he was Station Chief of Kabul, at least one detainee died from being mistreated. After all that, he was even offered a promotion to Baghdad Station Chief during the Iraq War, but instead he opted to retire.

His story will finally be told today, as best as we can lift the veil of secrecy. Secrecy can be found everywhere in this story, causing tragedy, covering up history, preventing accountability, and ultimately allowing additional tragedies. Blee is the face of the story, but the theme can be seen in both those who worked for him and those he reported to at CIA. The theme goes beyond 9/11 too. The lesson is far more timely today than ever before. Government secrecy often does not promote national security, as we’ve all been told. It does not keep us safe. Just the opposite. Secrecy kills.

[intro music]

Act One.

Host

We completed our documentary “Press For Truth” in 2006, chronicling the struggle of the 9/11 families to push for the Commission. At that time, we hoped to be done with the subject. The event was beginning to fade into history. But the information in footnote 44 stirred us like it had the Jersey Widows. The mystery it presented was too much to ignore.

What you’re listening to was intended to be another theatrical documentary, an atmospheric big budget piece in the style of an Errol Morris flick. After being told by nearly every outfit that funds such things that there was no audience for this subject, we settled on conducting interviews intermittently between other projects and day jobs, largely unfunded.

We got our first interview when my boss Rory O’Connor ran into Tom Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission, at one of those rarified Manhattan cocktail parties in 2008. Rory introduced himself as a journalist – he’d produced for 48 Hours and PBS Frontline, among other things.

Having met the former New Jersey governor once before, he asked if Kean remembered him. Kean – keep in mind, the man’s a former politician – responded that of course he remembered him, from their interview a few years back.

Rory had never interviewed him but saw the mistake as an opportunity and quickly asked if he might interview him again, for a new project. And that is how we found ourselves discussing footnote 44 in the offices of the man whose commission we had been so critical of in our first movie.

Tom Kean

[RORY: Does this not suggest something more than careless oversight?]

Oh, it wasn’t careless oversight. It was purposeful. No question about that in mind. It was purposeful. But it was purposeful, we believe, because these agencies had been brought up to hold everything tight… The conclusion that we came to was that in the DNA of these organizations was secrecy. And secrecy to the point of ya don’t share it with anybody…

[RORY: Well, beyond not sharing, it was actually lying.]

Yeah. Oh yeah. It’s, it’s – hey, does it surprise you the CIA was brought up to lie?

[RORY: It surprises me that the CIA is lying to the FBI.]

It’s outrageous really. I mean, the idea that that information was left out of something that was so essential for the FBI, whose job it is to work within the United States and track these people. Ya know, it’s one of the most troubling aspects of our entire report, that particular thing.

Host

We did not ask, at the time, why one of the most troubling aspects of his entire report was not included in the body of the Report, but only as a footnote. We regretted that afterward. Had they chosen to tell the Rich Blee story in full, they would have been able to illustrate their finding that secrecy was a root cause of 9/11. Instead, it seemed they had let themselves fall victim to the culture of secrecy.

Tom Kean

Ya got a secret, ya keep it. And ya don’t tell anybody.

Host

Some of the people involved in the footnote 44 incident would later tell us they were never even interviewed by the Commission. That along with the wording of the footnote made us suspect that the Commission had relied almost entirely on the ongoing investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General for the details of this aspect of their report.

We would not know much of what we know today if not for the Inspector General Report, a heavily redacted unclassified version of which was released a year later. And it should be noted that the report might not exist but for a government whistleblower. They credit prominent FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley’s concerns raised publicly in May 2002 about Bureau’s handling of certain pre-9/11 info as the impetus for FBI Director Mueller instructing them to investigate.

One year into their investigation, the Justice Department was wrapping up its work when it discovered the title of a document the CIA had not turned over to its investigation. That document was the warning drafted by the FBI agent inside CIA, the footnote 44 warning. This discovery forced the Justice team to delay the completion of their report in order to go back and re-interview the people inside the Al Qaeda office of CIA, something that we’re told they were not happy about, since no one involved had mentioned it to them. Mark Rossini was one of those re-interviewed by the Justice Department’s Inspector General team.

Mark Rossini

The air in Washington, the feeling, was that somebody’s gonna be made to pay for this… That group of housewives from New Jersey who have been valiantly leading a fight to get to the bottom of this. There was fear of that. There’s no question about it. [Oh yeah?] Well, YEAH. A big fear… So at the time we were told, you have to go speak to DOJ OIG or Joint Congressional Inquiry. And CIA OIG. And you’re offered no protection… You could not have a lawyer present. At all. [Not allowed.] No! No, no right to counsel, with no guarantee that what you said would not be used against you.

[RAY: So that seems to explain why no one who spoke to OIG had any memory of any event that occurred ever. (Laughs.)]

It seems to explain that we were cautious in what we said.

Host

The DOJ OIG – the Justice Department’s Inspector General Report, caught the attention of a British man living in the Czech Republic named Kevin Fenton.

Kevin Fenton

Well there seemed to be information in there which, if you were able to put it together, it would tell you something. You would have a deeper understanding… But partly because of the way it was changed from the classified to the unclassified version, it was all kind of disembodied, and I didn’t really grasp the whole of it.

Host

Fenton has broken more ground on this story than nearly all of our most prominent journalists, though he doesn’t consider himself one.

Kevin Fenton

No, no, no, no, no. Doing the stuff with History Commons, I thought of myself as an amateur contemporary historian.

Host

History Commons bills itself as an open-content participatory journalism web application. Almost every reporter working the terrorism beat has at one time or another turned for research to the site’s 9/11 Timeline, started by Paul Thompson.

Kevin Fenton

So I was reading through the DOJ IG Report, and I thought, I don’t really understand this, but I’m gonna turn it into timeline entries and put it into the History Commons. And I thought, well there’s a tremendous amount of information there. It’s like 400 pages. So I thought, I’ll do it by character.

Host

He noticed that one CIA character, given the bland alias “John,” seemed to come up again and again in the failures.

Kevin Fenton

And previously I’d assumed the intelligence failures before 9/11 were committed by a wide variety of officials. But when I saw that John was involved all the way through. I just thought, this can’t be a coincidence. This John character, he’s gonna be kinda interesting, and we need to focus on him.

Host

Around the same time, John’s alias was ripped away by New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright, his real name exposed: Tom Wilshere.

Lawrence Wright

Remember, that was at the time of the Valerie Plame affair, when even knowing the names could get you in trouble. And could get my sources in trouble. But I named the names.

Host

Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Looming Tower serves as an indispensable companion to the Justice Department’s Inspector General Report in understanding the full the story, showed to extend beyond just the footnote 44 incident of January 2000, continuing right on through the Cole bombing investigation by the terrorist squad of the FBI’s New York office –and up to 9/11.

Lawrence Wright

The guys in the I-49 Squad would have a hard time forgiving certain people in the CIA…

Host

The I-49 squad is an unusual combination of prosecutors and FBI investigators working together to combat terrorism, and it increasingly focused on bin Laden in the late 1990s. At the urging of one well-respected senior agent there, Pat D’Amuro, the former squad members cooperated en masse with Wright’s book. It was a deliberate effort to set the record straight five years after the attacks.

Lawrence Wright

I talked to a lot of guys on that squad. And they, they wanted to talk because they felt burned by history. No one had worked harder than those guys to try to stop Al Qaeda. And in many respects they feel that they might have been able to do it if they’d only been given the information.

Host

In 2008, a few months after our interview with the Commission Chairman, the FBI agent at the center of footnote 44, the one who had tried to warn the Bureau, came forward ready to speak to journalist James Bamford, along with another agent, Mark Rossini. But they were denied permission by the new head of FBI Public Affairs, former ABC News reporter John Miller.

James Bamford

We met with him at his office. He said he didn’t want to injure his relationship with the Public Affairs office in CIA. I said, Well who cares? What’s that got to do with anything? It’s the American public paying your salary, the American public that ought to know this information. So who cares if you’re friends with the CIA guy? But the argument didn’t work. So I never got to interview Doug Miller and only got to interview Rossini after he left the FBI.

[DUFFY: He was fired from the FBI, right?]

Yeah, he was fired.

Host

Mark Rossini resigned after being brought up on charges for improperly accessing FBI files in order to help a private detective friend of his actress girlfriend. His nearly-two-decade-long career with the Bureau ended in disgrace, and he was later sentenced to a year’s probation and a $5,000 fine. Rossini’s misfortune became Bamford’s lucky break.

James Bamford

I interviewed him the day after he was fired.

Host

Like Bamford, we received zero cooperation from the US government on this story. Public Affairs offices turned down our interview requests and felt no need to give an explanation. We were told at times that we had to submit Freedom of Information Act requests for information that had once been on agency web sites. The stories you are about to hear could not have been able to be told even a few years ago, when the participants were still employed in government.

Mark Rossini

[Phone rings.] Hello, this is Mark Rossini. [CHIT CHAT.]

Host

Thanks to an introduction from Bamford, we were speaking to our first insider, an FBI man inside CIA, someone finally in a position to tell what happened.

Mark Rossini

[DUFFY: That’s the story we’re essentially exploring.]

That’s the story. That’s the 9/11 story.

(music)

Mark Rossini

I arrived at Alec in January of ’99.

Host

A few months after the US Embassy bombings in 1998, FBI counterterror man John O’Neill hand-picked his friend Rossini to move down from New York City to Langley, Virginia, to be his eyes and ears inside CIA headquarters. This was standard practice, for the FBI to detail counterterror agents to CIA offices and vice versa. It was done to create an environment of cooperation.

If you’ve never heard of FBI man John O’Neill, a good place to begin would be the excellent Frontline special ‘The Man Who Knew’ by Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, available at PBS.com. O’Neill has attained a kind of legendary status, doggedly pursuing Al Qaeda at a time when few really understood the threat, only to be killed by them at the World Trade Center.

Thirteen years later, Mark Rossini becomes our eyes and ears into that place and time, our spy within the spy agency.

Mark Rossini

It was just a nondescript door on a corridor… And when you went through our door, you basically were in another station, Alec Station.

Host

There are some basics you need to know about CIA before we go any further: Every capital city in the world has its own secret CIA station, each made up of around a dozen or more case officers, depending on the importance of the region, reporting to a Chief of Station. These stations fell within the Directorate of Operations, the DO.

All the information pouring in from all those Stations needed to be analyzed and assembled into reports useful to the CIA Director and policymakers in Washington like the White House. That job was done by analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence, the DI.

If you think of it like a high school, then the DO people are the jocks and the DI people are the nerds. Into this mix, during the Reagan era, came the CounterTerrorism Center, the CTC. Technically falling within DO, it straddled both worlds and all regions, acknowledging the transnationality of terrorism.

Mark Rossini

Alec Station was designed to report directly to the DCI, directly to George. When Tenet created it, it was meant to transcend the politics of DI, DO, and CTC.

Host

But the Station immediately became the baby of its first Chief, a DI guy named Mike Scheuer – he even codenamed it “Alec” after his son — and he filled it starting in 1996 with fellow DI analysts. There were only one or two case officers from the DO.

Mark Rossini

It was all made up of DI people, analysts that Mike Scheuer had brought over with him… And all of them were his people. They used to refer to them as the Scheuer family, like the Manson family, because they were all fiercely dedicated to him. And all very, very bright people. Very, very bright people.

Host

Opening that unmarked door on the nondescript corridor, Alec Station was an 1800 square foot room, about 60 by 30, filled with around fifty of those analysts working in open cubicles. Rossini’s window looked directly west. He says he could often see the incoming thunderstorms.

And unfortunately, it is in Alec Station where we will find most of the people responsible for the failure to pay proper attention to hijackers Hamzi and Mihdhar – and thus the best chance to stop 9/11 and save nearly 3,000 lives.

Mark Rossini

We worked in a very small environment. And Al Qaeda being a very small group of people that we were interested in. So it sounds almost far fetched but anything and everything was coordinated between everybody. And you couldn’t look at one subject without being involved with another, or looking in another person’s area.

Host

Not long after Rossini arrived, a young SOO – that’s staff operations officer – named Jennifer Lynn Matthews approached him at lunch.

Mark Rossini

She was my first friend there. She came up to me after my second week there. We were in line at the cafeteria. She said, ‘OK Rossini, what’d you do wrong?’ See everyone knows that people who get detailed to other agencies made a mistake. They fucked up. I said, ‘I didn’t do a goddamn thing wrong. I have an impeccable record’… I said, ‘I’m O’Neill’s hand-picked guy.’

Host

Each staff operations officer holds what’s called a “ticket” on a particular region or subject. Jen Matthews had the ticket on Southeast Asia, meaning she was in charge of anything Al Qaeda-related that happened in that region.

Rossini also got to know another young staff operations officer, one he did not feel the same kind of instant connection with. A twenty-seven year old woman: [Michael C.].

Mark Rossini

Well, I mean, she was pleasant enough. [Laughs.] Pleasant enough. But very Agency-centric. Very forceful in her position. A real fighter, in many respects. Comes from a legacy Agency family. Many members of her family had been and perhaps still are in the Agency. A true Agency brat.

Host

[Michael], who Rossini refers to here by her Justice Department Inspector General’s Report alias “Michelle,” shared one of the most important tickets in all of Alec Station with Deputy Chief Tom Wilshere.

Mark Rossini

Tom is a very intense individual. Very bright. Very hard driven guy. A vociferous reader. And equally fast typer. He types so fast he makes a lot of errors because he’s just so crazy to get his thought out…

Host

Tom Wilshere worked Hezbollah issues for the Agency in the ‘90s and made a lot of allies in the FBI. Rossini thinks he was Scheuer’s Deputy Chief since the start of Alec Station.

Mark Rossini

Well I know Michelle and Wilshere, they had the proverbial ticket on Yemen. They were the ones most involved with Yemen and the Yemeni cell.

Host

Despite the shared ticket, [Michael]’s direct superior was technically a middle-aged supervisor with red hair named [Frances B.].

Mark Rossini

The redhead’s job was – she was just a very senior, senior analyst that Scheuer had brought over, that had been a loyalist to Scheuer for many years. She was like the go-to person for all things analytical, writing reports, etc. But she was Michelle’s boss. On paper. But it wouldn’t be unusual for Michelle to go directly to Wilshere. No, not at all.

[RAY: Close with Wilshere?]

Oh very close. Very, very close. Yeah. Very close. Yeah.

Host

Rossini threw himself into his work and minded his own business. He got used to the drive between Washington, D.C., and New York, as he usually worked at least one day a week with the I-49 Squad back at the FBI’s New York branch.

A few months passed. One day, the word came in that Mike Scheuer was suddenly gone. For the first time since its creation three years earlier, the CIA’s bin Laden unit would be getting a new Chief of Station. This time, a DO guy… Richard Earl Blee.

Mark Rossini

Rich came directly from George’s inner staff. What he did for him on his staff, I don’t know. But when they got rid of Michael Scheuer, that’s when they brought in Blee. April 99.

[music]

The full name and details of this man known only as Richard in government investigation reports remained almost a total mystery until a few new details in 2007 allowed Kevin Fenton to piece it together.

Kevin Fenton

Blee made some enemies at the CIA… And when he came up for the position of Station Chief in Baghdad… Ken Silverstein at Harpers wrote an Internet post about him, and we got some more information from that. And the key thing was that Silverstein wrote that he was the child of a former CIA officer.

And then George Tenet wrote his book 2007, “At the Center of the Storm.” And George Tenet didn’t refer to him as Richard or Rich. He referred to him as Rich B., giving the initial of his real surname. So then, we were looking for somebody named Richard whose surname began with B and who was the child of a controversial former CIA officer. And there are very, very few people who meet that criterion.

Host

The leading candidate became the son of Richard Bissell, the famed architect of the Bay of Pigs invasion. And then, in 2009, 9/11 Commission records began to be released.

Tom Kean

We’ve tried to make all that stuff public. At the request of the government, we put a five year seal on most of it… The one thing the Commission felt, and I feel very strongly, is that most government secrets shouldn’t be secrets.

Host

Fenton noticed the hand-written notes on one document.

Kevin Fenton

And it said something like, “Nobody anticipated what Al Qaeda would do. Well, except Clarke, Black, and Blee.” And it just hit me, “Oh, Blee, this must be this Rich B. guy.”

Host

In recent years, the government has tried to claim that even material like this, now in the public domain, is still classified until they say it’s not classified, as we’ve seen most prominently with the WikiLeaks cables. But Fenton stuck his neck out and blogged the name.

Kevin Fenton

Well, I mean, I’ve thought about it a bit, and I think that if someone has done something wrong, then to hell with it… Um, I think if I learned the identity of a CIA officer who hadn’t done anything wrong, then I would keep it secret. Because I’ve got no reason to do that.

Host

We too are choosing to release the names [Frances B.] and [Michael C.] for the first time in this podcast, for the same reasons. We want to emphasize that no source of ours leaked the names to us. As interviewees provided background details about the mysterious unnamed red-head and the young staff operations officer, we were able to use those details in conjunction with Internet searches to hash out likely candidates for their identities.

Then, during interviews with those in a position to know, we would simply mention the names of candidates like Blee, [Frances], and [Michael] in a question. Such as, “Did Rich Blee and George Tenet seem to have a cozy relationship?” All it took was a simple response of “Yes, yes they did,” for us to get our confirmation.

Mark Rossini

There was a get-to-know period, but I think across the board… Ya know, Rich obviously was a through and through Agency guy, and when he first came on the scene, the loyalty transferred to Rich as well, yeah, they were very loyal to Rich. No question about it. ‘Cos he had come from the 7th floor and his father was an agency legend, so to speak, in the old Soviet espionage days…

Host

It appears Rich was actually born on a CIA assignment, on October 14, 1957, in Pretoria, South Africa, while his father David Blee was there undercover. By that time his forty-one-year-old dad had already spent a decade at the Agency, having first served in the World War II Office of Strategic Services spying on the Japanese and then at the launch of the CIA after the war.

Rich’s mother Margaret had been a school teacher in Venice, California. Born a full four years later than the rest of his four siblings, like an afterthought, he spent his early years attending the American Embassy School in India while his father was Chief of his first Station in New Delhi. David established his reputation when he helped smuggle the dughter of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to asylum in the US, ensuring future promotions. The only known photo of Richard Blee is from a school yearbook during this period, nine years old reading a book with his classmates.

In 1968, Rich’s father was given the entire Middle East to run. The family moved back to the US, to a house in a Bethesda, Maryland, neighborhood literally across the Chesapeake from CIA headquarters.

As Rich grew up, his father David climbed up the CIA ladder. In 1968, David was given the entire Middle East to run. Rich’s CIA career started by 1984, when he was 26 years old, and he worked for the U.S Embassy in the Central African Republic. David Blee was back at headquarters in the role of Deputy Director of CounterIntelligence. He retired the following year.

A couple years later, Rich was in Niger. After that Algeria, age 35, during the bloody civil war between the government and Islamic guerrillas. Around the time George Tenet became Deputy Director at CIA, Rich was appointed to an Iraqi task force to destabilize Saddam Hussein’s government. When President Clinton made Tenet his new CIA Director in July ’97, Tenet brought Rich up to the 7th floor with him – where all the CIA’s top brass had offices – to work as one of his deputies’ executive assistants, just in time for Rich’s 40th birthday. Later that year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Agency, Rich watched Tenet award his father a medal at a ceremony to honor the Agency’s fifty most important trailblazers.

The day Richard Blee walked into Alec Station, he was 41, five years younger than his father had been when he took his first Chief of Station position.

Mark Rossini

He came from a legacy family in the Agency, and clearly he carried that gravitas or that weight with that. And having come from the 7th floor, this was a guy who clearly had direct communication to George. And that says a lot about a person who could get things done.

Host

Blee’s arrival at Alec Station in April 1999 was just one part in personnel shake-up that year signaling a shift to a terrorism focus at CIA in the wake of the 1998 US Embassy bombings.

Down a corridor and across the courtyard, in the basement of the newer steel and glass building of CIA, the CounterTerrorist Center was taken over by a man named Cofer Black, another DO guy with a reputation for embracing covert operations.

Richard Clarke

[RAY: Why were those guys brought into those positions at that period of time?]

Well, because the people who were running the CIA CounterTerrorism Center prior to the change-up were very ineffective. I was complaining about them. I was urging George Tenet to change the leadership at CTC, and he did. We then together developed The Plan.

Host

That’s Richard Clarke. Bill Clinton had recently placed him in a newly-created position, White House Counterterror ‘Tsar,’ technically the highest counterterror post in the US government. Clarke’s previous experience had been in Ronald Reagan’s State Department, then an appointment by the first President Bush to chair the CounterTerrorism Security Group at the National Security Council.

He says the new people at CIA were good choices for what Tenet wanted to do.

Richard Clarke

When Cofer Black became head of the CounterTerrorism Center at CIA, he was aghast that they didn’t have sources inside Al Qaeda. And moreover, they had never tried to have sources inside Al Qaeda, because they thought it was too hard. So he told me, right after he became director of the CounterTerrorism Center, “I’m gonna try to get sources in Al Qaeda.”

Host

A man with thick horn-rimmed glasses and a scowl whose name sounds like a Harry Potter villain, Black had previously been Chief of Station in the Sudan at the time when Osama Bin Laden was based there.

Richard Clarke

Cofer Black had a reputation for being hard-charging. He had done a good job in Sudan… Ya know, most CIA agents in those days didn’t like to get their fingers dirty. They liked to work under diplomatic cover in embassies and go to cocktail parties and recruit Soviet spies. Cofer Black had been in the back alleys of Khartoum… And Rich Blee understood how CIA worked because he had been sitting right next to George Tenet as his aide… Certainly George Tenet, certainly Cofer Black, and his top supervisors within the CounterTerror Center – all got it. They understood Al Qaeda was a big threat. They were motivated. And they were really trying hard.

Host

Blee occupied one of the three private offices inside Alec Station, the one right next to Tom Wilshere’s. Mark Rossini says that on Blee’s first week as Chief, he called him in.

Mark Rossini

Ya know, he and I sat down and, very pleasant. He always treated me very fairly, very nice. And he told me, I want you to be more operational, travel more, do more stuff in the field. I had no problem with that. But O’Neill did not want that. He wanted me to stay there. Because he said if you’re not there, then I don’t know what’s going on… And that led to a confrontation between O’Neill and Blee.

Host

It appears the tensions that existed between Mike Scheuer’s Alec Station and John O’Neill’s New York office would continue under Blee.

(music)

Coming up, now that we know the key players, we can understand who dropped the ball when the CIA discovered Al Qaeda terrorist Khalid al-Mihdhar had a visa to come to the US – and then kept that information from the people who could have stopped him. Rossini is joined by another FBI agent, Doug Miller, and the two find themselves battling with [Michael] about whether then can tell their bosses that Al Qaeda terrorist Mihdhar is heading to the United States. Stick around.

[THEME SONG]

Act Two.

Host

You’re listening to Who Is Rich Blee?, the first of a two-part investigative podcast. I’m John Duffy. [And I’m Ray Nowosielski.]

For Rich Blee’s Alec Station, the new millennium started strong with an exquisitely complex counterterror operation. A young staff operations officer, [Michael], reporting to [Frances] and Tom Wilshere, almost flawlessly coordinates with six CIA Stations, enlisting the help of the local authorities of eight countries to track suspected terrorists across the globe, breaking into a hotel room, secretly copying travel documents, videotaping and photographing meetings, pulling hard drives from Internet cafes, and even attempting to ‘flip’ the terrorists’ hired driver. For his part, Blee gave regular briefings on the progress to his CIA bosses and the White House. It was a spectacular example of modern spycraft that suddenly and inexplicably fizzled out. And no one, we’re told, ever thought about it again.

But before we can get to that, let’s meet Doug Miller.

Mark Rossini

My colleague Doug Miller, he came over in late spring of ’99. He was from Washington field office, obviously I was from New York. And we got along instantly well. Doug and I to this day are still very close.

Host

We called up Doug Miller at the Buffalo, New York FBI office where he currently works. He sounded freaked to hear from us and asked to call back. A minute later, from another line, he instructed us to go through the media office, though he pointed out they’d turned down the past four or five media requests for him. He said he wished he could speak, as it’s something he feels pretty strongly about, but unless we were in a position to pay his mortgage, send his child to college, then fund his retirement, he simply couldn’t.

Mark Rossini

He’s very bright. A CPA by training. Great analytical brain. Asks very, very relevant questions. And very dedicated. And an emotional guy. A family man, very close to his parents and sisters and brothers. Just an all around good human being.

Host

Rossini says that while Miller and he were treated like outsiders, the same was not true of a third FBI employee there.

Mark Rossini

We were the only two FBI agents at Alec Station. There was an FBI analyst from the Washington field office there.

Host

Young FBI analyst Maggie Gillespie had arrived in April ’98, before Rossini.

Mark Rossini

And the Agency people loved her. Maggie was treated from the beginning like a real CIA employee… I mean, she wrote CIRs. She wrote TDs. She actually got the ticket, if you will, on a case, or a subject, and followed it… She was treated like a full member, whereas Doug and I were not. We were outsiders, and we were always going to be treated as outsiders… Well of course, it was all women too. [Laughs.] Doug and I were like the only two guys there. Really. Besides Rich and Wilshere. We were the only two men.

Host

That year, Rossini says Wilshere and [Michael] took a trip together to Yemen. As Rossini understands it, they went to talk with government authorities about the jihadists they had inside their borders. It seems likely they discussed perhaps the most important source for Al Qaeda intelligence in the US government at that time, a three-story house in a rural area outside Sana’a. This house was an Al-Qaeda communications center operated by a personal friend of Osama bin Laden, a man named Ahmed al-Hada – who also just happens to be Khalid al-Mihdhar’s father-in-law.

The CIA had been aware of calls going into this house since 1996, using a satellite station built specifically for this purpose in Madagascar. Wilshere and [Michael] also received summaries of calls provided by the NSA, monitoring the phone by satellite. The FBI learned about the house two years later during an interrogation of one of the US Embassy bombers. They immediately turned the info over to NSA and CIA, who apparently acted like it was new information.

Jack Cloonan

I mean if ya got one of the guys that’s supposed to blow himself up. And he fails. And he’s calling this number in Sana’a, Yemen. That’s a hot number. I mean that’s a great lead. That’s pretty critical. It’s arguably, in my view, one of the most important leads ever…

Host

Beginning in 1998, Jack Cloonan’s I-49 Squad used NSA surveillance reports on calls to and from the house to map the Al Qaeda network. It is the surveillance of this house that tips off the CIA to Mihdhar’s movements, ultimately allowing them access to his travel documents, and starting a chain of tragic events still murky with deception and intrigue.

(music)

Mark Rossini

Well that was a very intense, intense period. Working all the time. Never going home.

Host

At the beginning of December, intelligence led the Clinton White House to believe Al Qaeda was coordinating spectacular worldwide attacks for sometime around New Year’s. Twenty-seven men, a number of them American citizens, were arrested in Jordan with several tons of TNT. Shortly thereafter, Ahmed Ressam was caught smuggling explosives across the border into the US from Canada, with the Los Angeles airport as his admitted bombing target.

Given the clear signs of a domestic US aspect of the attacks, Bill Clinton was said to have taken a personal interest. The job of disrupting Al Qaeda was coordinated by his National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and his new counterterror ‘tsar’ Richard Clarke. FBI agents from John O’Neill’s New York office began interrogations of suspects and overseas investigations.

At CIA, Cofer Black’s CounterTerrorist Center and Blee’s Alec Station were keeping their ears to the ground, looking for any small signs of a plot.

Mark Rossini

We read everything every day. We all scanned the traffic and read the cables… Ya know, the first thing you look at is the title and the station it’s coming in from, and you read it. You see if it’s of any value.

Host

The CounterTerrorist Center and Alec Station were putting any pertinent information into terror threat updates included in Clinton’s daily briefings. CIA Director George Tenet made regular trips to the White House himself, likely with his top Al Qaeda man Rich Blee giving the briefings, as he would later do during the summer of threat before 9/11.

Deputy Chief Tom Wilshere and [Michael] were no doubt keeping close tabs on Al Qaeda’s primary telephone switchboard, the house in Yemen. Two days before New Year’s, the NSA provided a report: “Activities of Bin Laden Associates.” A man named Khalid who was living at the house received a call from a man in Malaysia summoning him and two other men, Nawaf, in Pakistan, and another, Salem, to a meeting in Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur in the first week of January.

Mark Rossini

I remember we were all just aware. I can’t say exactly how. It’s just one of those things where you work at a place long enough you know the personalities. We were all just very curious about this summit in Malaysia. Why were these people going there?… But very compartmentalized, and being run by “Michelle.”

Host

[Michael] and her team – which according to Rossini should have included Wilshere, [Frances], and FBI analyst Maggie Gillespie – quickly connected the three travelers to a support element for the US Embassy bombings and agreed that they may be traveling to Kuala Lumpur for something nefarious. Rossini’s friend Jen Matthews, with the Southeast Asia ticket, was kept in the loop. Though not made aware of the Kuala Lumpur activity at the time, FBI agent Jack Cloonan became aware of it not long after. He says knowing about an organizational meeting of Al Qaeda anywhere in the world was rare. It was what counterterror people always dreamed about.

Jack Cloonan

Ya know, the meeting that took place in Kuala Lumpur is, like we like to say now in hindsight, it was the organizational meeting. It might have been the first organizational meeting for, godknows, 9/11 and godknows what else was discussed.

Host

It may seem that we know a lot about the meeting, but there’s a lot we still don’t. More details were known within 24 hours about the operation that reportedly killed Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, than are known almost 12 years later about the 9/11 organizational meeting monitored on behalf of CIA.

Cole Investigator

[RAY: Who are you aware attended the meeting?]

Well, there’s Khalid Al Mihdhar and Nawaf Al Hazmi. There’s a guy or two who are down in Guantanamo Bay now. I’m aware of Khallad Bin Attash. Those are the people in Malaysia.

Host

That’s one of the FBI’s Cole bombing investigators, speaking on background. We need to consider though that he and virtually everyone else we spoke with have had to rely, like the rest of us, on what the CIA says happened at the meeting.

News reports over the years have included other big Al Qaeda figures too.

Jack Cloonan

[RAY: I believe Hambali, Ramzi bin al-Shibh was there, Nashiri…]

[Laughs.] It’s like the Who’s Who… I mean this is like, to put all these players in one location at one point – it’s just hard to believe. I mean, how fortuitous.

Host

And then there’s the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed – often known by his initials KSM.

Cole Investigators

No, no, no. KSM was not there.

Host

Everyone we asked said they were certain KSM was not at the meeting because, if he had been, it would have been a big, big deal. There was a two million dollar reward out for his arrest as a co-conspirator in an airplane bombing plot with his nephew, the 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef.

But when WikiLeaks released those State Department cables – the ones we were never supposed to see but for alleged leaker Private Bradley Manning – there were a batch of documents detailing intelligence of prisoners held in Guantanamo. Hambali’s file states that he facilitated KSM spending a week at a condominium in the Sungai Long district of Kuala Lumpur with future 9/11 hijackers Mihdhar and Hazmi. The Malaysia summit is the only period that appears to fit the timeline for all three men to be in the Sungai Long condo where the summit occurred.

Of course, all these alleged attendees have been down in Guantanamo for years. We could ask them about the Malaysia summit, except the CIA won’t let us. Even the 9/11 Commission wasn’t allowed to.

Tom Kean

We felt we got good cooperation from the CIA on all points except one, the detainees. They wouldn’t let us talk to them.

Host

The surveillance photos from the meeting would also tell the story. Where are they? The people we spoke to all seem to have seen the same three or four photos provided by CIA after the attacks.

Mark Rossini

I remember seeing a bunch of photos. Three, four, five. How many, I don’t recollect… But there could be a lot more… They were pretty good. Some of them were close ups, like they were taken like knee level up into the guy’s face. Whoever took the photos got really close, the ones I saw. I don’t remember seeing any distance photos, but.. I remember they were standing by a tree in a park. I remember one photo was almost like someone walking by with a camera, right two feet from them, taking a picture into his face.

Host

Are we supposed to believe Malaysian intelligence monitored a three day meeting but didn’t shoot more than a roll of film? Media reports say there were many more, and even video footage. Did the Congressional Inquiry or the Commission ever get to see these pictures or video?

Host

FBI manager Jack Cloonan has a source he says filled him in on the meeting.

Jack Cloonan

They were trying to get the Malaysian intelligence service to get into that meeting. They probably wanted to get a mic in there. Maybe CCTV coverage. Most importantly would have been a mic to understand what was going on. What was being said. But that didn’t happen, to the best of my knowledge.

Host

Why didn’t that happen?

Bob Baer

It takes months to get an audio operation up. You just can’t do it. You need approvals and equipment.

Host

Bob Baer spent 21 years in the CIA’s DO, considered perhaps the best on the ground field officer in the Middle East according to legendary journalist Seymour Hersh. If you saw the movie Syriana, George Clooney’s character was based on Baer. He retired just before the events detailed here.

Bob Baer

I mean ideally you’d like to put audio in a room, but that involves drilling holes and surveilling. It can’t be done overnight. It’s not like 24.

(music)

Host

Perhaps that’s true, if the summit attendees stayed holed up in their condominium for all four days. However, the attendees had two drivers to take them around Kuala Lumpur, and they used them. They ate at restaurants, spent hours at Internet cafes, and some stayed at hotels. They used cell phones and a pay phone located just in front of the condominium complex. Two of them took separate flights out of the country and returned before the summit was over – a golden opportunity to find their full names from flight manifests and immigration stops that apparently was missed.

They were videotaped on the first day of the summit, but only the first day. It has never been explained why the video surveillance stopped. Rossini has said the photos taken outside must have been taken from only a few feet away – certainly close enough to record voices – yet apparently the one day of video did not record any audio. In 2003, the US Treasury Department mentioned in a press release about Hambali that the summit video included footage of hijackers Hazmi and Mihdhar standing next to Hambali. A FBI report from 1999 shows the FBI knew by this time that Hambali was involved in Bojinka, a 1995 plot masterminded by KSM that nearly killed 4,000 people. Malaysian intelligence later claimed they recognized Hambali during the summit since he was a long-time Malaysian resident.

Yet, for all that, the CIA has never said they were able to get the full names of any of the summit attendees at the time. For instance, they say they still didn’t know what Nawaf al-Hazmi’s last name was by the time the summit was over, even though al-Hazmi was traveling using his real name. It is known US intelligence already had photographs of KSM, Hambali, and al-Nashiri before the summit, but supposedly the CIA never recognized any of them.

It wasn’t just that Malaysian intelligence wasn’t able to get audio inside the condominium: either the surveillance was a total disaster, or the CIA hasn’t been honest about what was learned. The summit was considered so important as it was happening that Rich Blee was giving daily updates to cabinet-level officials like the CIA director, FBI director, and the National Security Adviser. But Malaysian officials later claimed they were never given clear instructions, so their agents focused their efforts on monitoring the local hosts instead of the summit attendees. And even though the Malaysians updated the CIA daily, this apparently was never rectified in the four days the summit took place. Author James Bamford has called Alec Station’s handling of the summit surveillance a “train wreck in slow motion.”

Host

We need to jump backward a little here, to Tuesday, a few days before the summit began. While Mihdhar was on his way to the Kuala Lumpur meeting, he had a long layover in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. When he stepped out of his hotel room at the Nihal Hotel for a while, agents presumably working on orders from [Michael] broke into his room and searched his things. Among them, they found his passport and photocopied it. That according to Lawrence Wright…

Lawrence Wright

All I can tell you is I learned that from someone in a position to know inside Alec Station.

Host

The CIA Station in the United Arab Emirates sent a copy to Alec and Riyadh Station in Saudi Arabia in a cable with a dramatic title: “Activities of Bin Ladin Associate Khalid Revealed.” Mihdhar possesses a visa allowing him entry to the United States.

We asked FBI I-49 Squad supervisor Jack Cloonan how common it was to see a known Al Qaeda terrorist heading toward the US.

Jack Cloonan

That’s what you were always looking for! I mean, that’s what everything was always promulgated on. I mean, you were always looking for the threat to the United States. And who was coming in. We knew from talking to other cooperatives what a price that Bin Laden and Zawahiri put on getting people in Al Qaeda with a US passport and with the ability to travel to the United States.

Mark Rossini

[RAY: They make it sound like there was so much going on at the time that this was not recognized…]

No, that was the thing going on at the time. That’s the whole point. Yeah, there was a lot going on at the time, but this was it, that was the thing going on at the time that was making us all nervous.

Jack Cloonan

I mean we knew from dealing with Wadih El Hage, dealing with Ihab Ali, dealing with L’Houssaine Kherchtou, with Jamal Ahmed Al-Fadl. Each of them would tell you the value of Al Qaeda getting someone into the United States or somebody with a US passport of visa. This was critical.

Host

The next morning, Wednesday, 6 a.m., a second cable came into CTC and Alec from the CIA Station in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Deputy Chief Tom Wilshere was among the first to read it.

Mark Rossini

Well the cable came in. They had gone back to the consulate in Jeddah, pulled his visa papers, and of course attached to the cable were all the information about him and that he had implied that he wished to go to the United States.

Host

FBI agent Doug Miller arrived at work around 9 a.m. and found the two cables waiting for him as he turned on his computer.

Mark Rossini

Everything is there for everybody to see. Remember, it comes over the system, the electronic cable system. There’s really no restrictions. Everyone has access to everything.

Host

Within fifteen minutes, Miller began writing a warning to the FBI.

Mark Rossini

And then my colleague Doug Miller took it upon himself to write a CIR, a Central Intelligence Report. To inform the FBI about this meeting in Malaysia, in particular and because one of the people there, a suspected terrorist, had intentions to travel to the US. That was his intent.

Host

The report was addressed to Miller’s boss back at FBI headquarters, Deborah Stafford, the head of the Bureau’s Bin Laden Unit. Rossini also addressed it to his own home FBI office in New York, the domain of John O’Neill.

The message describes Mihdhar’s travel to Malaysia, the links between his home in Yemen and the US Embassy bombings. It explains that photos of the Malaysia meeting have been taken and will be sent to FBI later. And, the coup de grace, that Mihdhar holds a multiple entry visa for the US, where he plans to stay in New York for three months.

Miller requested that Alec Station receive feedback on any intelligence uncovered in the FBI’s investigation. He attached the two CIA cables.

Mark Rossini

So the way it works over there is you write a communication, and then it goes into an electronic queue to be approved along the line to be released.

Host

At this point, something unusual happened. Normally, according to the Justice IG Report, the drafter, Doug Miller, would himself coordinate the communication in the computer system so that designated persons in charge of approving its release are notified.

But in this case, without Miller notifying anyone, [Michael] accessed his draft report – within less than an hour of his writing it, as if she were on the look-out for it. Wilshere later acknowledged to investigators that this was not standard operating procedure.

About forty-five minutes after [Michael] read Miller’s draft warning to the FBI, the other Deputy Station Chief, the one from FBI headquarters, Ed Goetz, also accessed Miller’s draft warning to FBI. Goetz worked out of the third private office in Alec Station. The funny thing about this is that, at that time, Goetz hadn’t yet opened the two CIA cables about Mihdhar’s US visa. The Justice Department’s Inspector General’s Report noted that Goetz, as Deputy Chief, has the authority himself to immediately release it for electronic dissemination, but he did not.

Another four and a half hours passed. At four p.m., [Michael] reopened the draft message to add a note for Miller: “Pls hold off for now per Tom Wilshere.”

Now here’s another strange thing. According to the Justice Department investigation, which had the ability after the fact to see the precise moment each item was accessed by whom in the computer system, Tom Wilshere never accessed Doug Miller’s draft cable. So how did he know to tell [Michael] to order the draft held off?

It appears that she had been on the look-out for any messages coming from the FBI detailees that morning. Once she saw Miller’s cable, she immediately went to her close colleague Tom Wilshere to discuss it. Perhaps her immediate supervisor [Frances] was in the mix as well? And FBI Deputy Chief Ed Goetz was also let in on the conversation.

Two obvious questions: One. What was their operational plan in withholding Mihdhar’s planned travel to the US from FBI? And two. On whose orders?

[music]

Pasquale D’Amuro

I’m cautious about saying it, because you have to deal with the facts, but I had heard that Blee stopped it from coming over, that Blee and Wilshere had had the conversation and stopped it.

Host

Pat D’Amuro spent much of his twenty-six-year FBI career working counterterrorism. After 9/11, he was appointed Inspector in Charge of the FBI’s investigation into the attacks. By the time he retired from the Bureau, he was Executive Assistant Director for Counterterrorism and Counterintelligence. He wouldn’t share his source on the Blee information, though he said he learned it around the time of the 9/11 Commission hearings, in early 2004.

Pasquale D’Amuro

What I didn’t know was that Blee and Wilshere had had conversations going back to 2000 about not sharing that with FBI HQ and NYFO…  I believe they were well aware of it and did not share…  and then when they come over were part of the decision-making process at Langley not to share that with FBI.

Host

Later that Wednesday, two more cables came into the CounterTerrorism Center and Alec Station discussing Mihdhar’s visa, now a total of four. At 6:30 p.m., Tom Wilshere re-read the first cable from the United Arab Emirates and then read the second cable from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

A half hour later, Wilshere’s subordinate and friend [Michael] sent a lengthy message to several CIA stations around the world. It stated: “We need to continue efforts to identify these travelers and their activities… to determine if there is any true threat posed.”

She then devoted an entire paragraph to Mihdhar, and that paragraph included a statement that misleads the entire CIA: [Michael] asserted that a physical copy of Mihdhar’s travel documents, including a US visa, has been copied and passed to the FBI for further investigation.

When later asked by government investigators who had told her that a physical copy of Mihdhar’s visa was passed, she claimed she could not remember. There was a lot of that going around at the time, including from Rossini and Miller.

But we do know that [Michael]’s immediate supervisor, the red-headed [Frances], later told the Congressional Inquiry that she – [Frances] – was the one who had taken the visa down to FBI headquarters.

Mark Rossini

As I understand it, she had said that she physically went down to FBI headquarters and hand-delivered the cable and/or spoke to somebody at the FBI, at ITOS, about Malaysia, about the bad guys having come to the US.

Host

When Congressional investigators and FBI personnel inquired into the FBI log books at headquarters, they could find no record of this person’s entry during that time period – or ever.

Mark Rossini

Everybody at FBI headquarters, even if you’re from another field office, you need to physically put your name on a piece of paper like in a ledger, and there was no record of that person ever – ever – having come to FBI headquarters.

Host

Asked about her misstatement, as we’ll carefully call it, [Frances]’ only subsequent explanation, recounted by an FBI agent to James Bamford, was that she “may have faxed it down – I don’t remember.”

An anonymous source at FBI put it to us like this: She “fuckin’ lied.”

Dale Watson was the top man at counterterror for the FBI at this time, first chief of the newly commissioned CounterTerror Division. Watson was close with George Tenet and Cofer Black after previously being detailed to the CIA’s CounterTerror Center himself. We asked him how the CIA was supposed to update the FBI.

Dale Watson

Two ways, probably a cable traffic over to us, and then we had people over at CTC that were embedded there, just as the Agency had people embedded in our Bin Laden Unit, so…

Host

And how often was Watson receiving updates during the Millennium period, when the Malaysia summit took place?

Dale Watson

Oh, the Millennium, while it was going on, it was probably every hour on the hour… And at the same time that that happened, the CIA forced a guy to come over to the FBI Counterterrorism Center.

Host

The guy CIA forced into FBI Counterterrorism Center was a CIA CounterTerrorism Center agent still known only as Rob. The Congressional Inquiry said that Rob was assigned there to fix communication problems between the CIA and the FBI.

The same evening that [Michael] was telling the CIA internally that the FBI had been made aware of al-Mihdhar’s visa, Rob was at the FBI updating a supervisor about the Malaysia meeting. The supervisor did not know why Rob briefed him, since he was not Rob’s designated point of contact. He adamantly told the Justice Department investigation that the Mihdhar visa was not mentioned in their conversation.

The next morning, Thursday, Rob briefed a different FBI agent with details on Mihdhar’s travel and the ongoing Malaysia summit. Again, the agent was not Rob’s designated point of contact.

When Rob was emailed by another CIA agent who has been asked by an FBI colleague for an update on Mihdhar, Rob began series of emails explaining that he’d already updated FBI. The last email, which he titled “Malaysia – For the Record,” was CC’d to Tom Wilshere, Maggie Gillespie, and other unknowns at Alec Station. Rob wrote: “In case FBI starts to complain later… below is exactly what I briefed them on.” The email mentions Mihdhar’s transit through Dubai, his arrival in Kuala Lumpur, his activities in Malaysia – everything except his US visa.

The updates that Rob provided Stafford’s employees on Wednesday night and Thursday morning were sent by those men upstairs where they were included in two updates that Thursday to the FBI Director and top FBI officials. These are apparently the only two mentions of Malaysia and Mihdhar’s travel ever found in FBI records. There are NO mentions of his visa to the US, which is the one fact that would have gotten the FBI involved in looking for and stopping him.

The next day, Friday, was the last day of the Millennium threat period, and the last day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Inside Alec Station, Mark Rossini and Doug Miller find themselves with one less FBI ally, as their Deputy Chief from the Bureau Ed Goetz has been diagnosed with cancer and left the day before.

Mark Rossini

Eddie basically left January 5th or January 6th… Right on that day. Either a day or two before or right after, Eddie left. So it was just Doug and I… We had no senior Bureau person inside Alec Station. It was just Doug and I.

Host

It had been two days now, and Doug Miller’s draft message to FBI still hadn’t moved. Without Ed Goetz there to help him resolve the problem, Rossini says Miller turned to him.

Mark Rossini

Obviously me being the more senior agent, Doug comes to me… Just came up to my little cubicle area and said, “Hey, I don’t know what the fuck is goin’ on.” Or words to that effect. Or, “Hey, can you help me out here. I don’t know why this thing isn’t moving.” So I said, “Sure, lemme go talk to Michelle.”

Host

Rossini walked up to [Michael]’s cubicle. Remember, he is calling her by the alias “Michelle” here.

Mark Rossini

And I say, “Hey, Doug’s cable, what’s goin’ on? It’s not goin’ out the door? Ya gotta send it to the Bureau. It’s not movin’. What’s happenin’?”

Host

Rossini says [Michael]’s reaction was not pleasant.

Mark Rossini

She got a little heated. She got a little heated… Put her hand on her hip and just said to me, “Listen, it’s not an FBI case. It’s not an FBI matter. When we want the FBI to know, we’ll let them know. And you’re not going to say anything.”

Host

The heated conversation seems to put the lie to her message throughout CIA two days before that the crucial information about the US visa had been shared with FBI.

Mark Rossini

[DUFFY: If she wrote that that afternoon but then two days later told you, paraphrasing, that ‘when we want the FBI to know, we’ll let them know…’]

We’ll let them know. Right. It’s not an FBI case.

[So clearly her internal cable must have been a lie. She must have known it was a lie.]

Host

Despite the multiple-entry US visa in Mihdhar’s passport, despite the entire threat period they just went through the previous week, and despite the apprehension about Ahmad Ressam and his trunk load of explosives headed for the Los Angeles airport within that same month, [Michael] insisted to Rossini that the next Al Qaeda attack would be in Malaysia. We asked Richard Clarke what she might have been talking about.

Richard Clarke

[DUFFY: Are you aware of specific intelligence that would have lead him to believe the next attack would be in Malaysia?]

No.

[RAY: There wasn’t a flood of intel coming in on Malaysia during the threat spike?]

No, the only thing we had on Malaysia was that they had the meeting in Malaysia.

[DUFFY: When this meeting was about to happen, was everyone who was being briefed on this meeting, was everyone who was being briefed on this meeting under the impression an attack was going to happen there?]

No.

Mark Rossini

I think, I can’t prove it, but I think that the belief was that the trip to America was just some kind of a diversion. Some kind of a ruse.

[DUFFY: You felt from what you’d seen and heard at Alec Station that that was a fair assessment, that the next attack would be in Southeast Asia?]

No, I didn’t think it was a fair assessment, but that was her assessment. And it was like, OK, if that’s your posture, if that’s your position – well, I don’t agree with it, because the guy’s got a visa to come to the US. But that was the end of it.

[music]

Host

After his argument with [Michael], Rossini printed a copy of Miller’s draft warning to FBI and put it in a file in his desk, as if he knew it might be important some day. He says to this day he doesn’t know why he did that.

None of the government investigation reports included Rossini’s story about this, probably because he didn’t tell any of them. But it’s supported at least circumstantially by the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s Report, which noted that his computer system showed he accessed Miller’s draft CIR on this Friday.

Host

The day after Rossini’s and [Michael]’s argument, a Saturday, Mihdhar, Hazmi, and Attash left the meeting in Malaysia and flew to Bangkok. We’re told Kuala Lumpur Station cabled Bangkok Station too late. In the words of the Commission, “The travelers disappeared into the streets of Bangkok.”

A week later, Mihdhar and Hazmi would be walking the streets of Los Angeles, flying into the same airport that only weeks before Ahmed Ressam had admitted to intending to blow up with the explosives in his trunk. Former CIA agent Bob Baer…

Bob Baer

If it came in too late, then it came in too late. You can’t mobilize a surveillance team at the airport. It doesn’t happen instantaneously. And the CIA doesn’t – you have to go to the local police. These things, unless there’s an international fugitive warrant, it’s hard to get the locals to look at something… It was a fuck up, what can I say. And with 20/20 hindsight, it was a particularly bad fuck up.

Host

If they lost Mihdhar and his companions, so be it. But why had they only attempted to keep tabs on those three terror meeting attendees?

Jack Cloonan

[RAY: We always wondered why they didn’t attempt to follow some of the other people listed as being there.]

How do you know they didn’t follow them?

[DUFFY: Well, we don’t, but…]

I mean, the stated line would be, “Ya know, we didn’t.” I just don’t buy it. And how do you prove a negative?

Host

Richard Clarke told us something similar.

Richard Clarke

I don’t think we can say what they didn’t do.

Host

In fact, Cloonan’s sources specifically informed him that others besides just Mihdhar, Hazmi, and Attash did get monitored following the meeting.

Jack Cloonan

And then when the meeting splits up, the groups go in two different directions. And I know there was surveillance put on the groups when they leave… I heard that they followed two groups. I thought one group went to Bangkok and I thought another group went some other place. That they followed them. That’s what I was told.

Host

If Cloonan’s source is correct, the CIA would have a lot to answer for. If they had followed Ramzi bin al-Shibh back to Germany, it should have led them to directly to 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta’s cell – a cell that was already being investigated and sometimes monitored by the German government. If Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri’s trail had been followed, then why wasn’t the Cole bombing prevented, since he is considered one of the two masterminds of that bombing that took place later in 2000? If Hambali had been followed, that might have uncovered the 9/11 plot. For instance, we now know Hambali was with KSM in Karachi, Pakistan, in the weeks right before 9/11, and he told an al-Qaeda operative to get his traveling done before the day of September 11. And if KSM was at the summit and had been followed… it goes without saying that following the actual 9/11 mastermind was an incredible lost opportunity.

(music)

That Thursday, after losing the terrorists, Bangkok Station sent a cable to the CounterTerrorism Center and Alec Station titled “Efforts to Locate al-Mihdhar.” FBI agent Doug Miller sent an email to Tom Wilshere, attaching his earlier draft warning that had been blocked, and he asked, “Is this a no-go, or should I remake it in some way?” Wilshere never responded.

The following day, Friday, Blee again gave Tenet and Black a briefing. It’s his second briefing on the surveillance operation since losing the two hijackers in Bangkok. A 9/11 Commission staff report said Blee told them that officials were continuing to track the suspicious individuals who had now dispersed to various countries. This, despite the cable from Bangkok Station the previous day saying they could not find the terrorists.

The 9/11 Commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, told us in an e-mail that he believed this implied that the person who prepared the slide was not fully up to date on the latest cable, but how could Blee not have been? And how could he have allowed this to go on twice? Zelikow did say the slide also did not include mention of Mihdhar’s US visa.

On Saturday, Mihdhar and Hazmi arrived in the US. Interestingly, the 9/11 Commission has claimed that when Mihdhar met KSM in Afghanistan months later, Mihdhar said that he and Hazmi felt they had been watched and followed on the flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles by unknown individuals. Were they right?

In any case, once the two hijackers were in the US, Blee gave no further incorrect updates about on-going surveillance. We are to believe that Tenet and Black never again asked about any of this.

Jack Cloonan later called the Malaysia summit surveillance opportunity “as good as it gets. … This is what you dream about.” Typically, such surveillance operations are followed by a TD – a Telegraphic Dissemination – which is a summary report to alert the rest of the US intelligence community on what happened. Someone within Alec Station should have written a Telegraphic Dissemination, but no one did. Author James Bamford has called this a “serious blunder.”

And at some point in the months after the summit, the CIA told Malaysian intelligence to stop watching the condominium where the summit had been held, so that’s what the Malaysians did. One Malaysian official later complained to Newsweek, “We couldn’t fathom it, really. There was no show of concern.” In September 2000, Zacarias Moussaoui stayed at that very same condominium and talked to his hosts about getting flight training in the US. Another chance to stop the 9/11 plot was lost.

Also, standard procedure would have been to put the known names of the summit attendees on a US watch list, so they could be discovered and tracked if any of them entered the US. This was not done, not now and not for another year and a half. Bamford calls this “incredible” and says Blee “completely dropped the ball.” There also was an international watch list, and the only possible summit attendee put on it later in the year was KSM.

In February, a foreign government – most likely Thailand – offered to help CIA in the search for Mihdhar in that country, but CIA turned the offer down, saying they were in the middle of an investigation to, quote, “determine what the subject is up to.” The subject, Mihdhar, was living in San Diego, California, by that time.

Finally, on March 5, 2000, a Sunday, the CIA’s Bangkok Station cabled both the CounterTerrorism Center and Alec Station that one of Mihdhar’s traveling companions, Nawaf Al Hazmi, had traveled with another person on a United Airlines flight to Los Angeles on January 15th. They also noted that it is unknown if and when Mihdhar may have departed. This cable is a response to a request from Kuala Lumpur station as to the whereabouts of Khalid al-Mihdhar, so it should have been easy to assume that he was al-Hazmi’s companion – they were sitting next to each other on the plane, and bought their plane tickets using their real names.

The Justice Department’s Inspector General’s Report notes that the three FBI detailees, Mark Rossini, Doug Miller, and Mark Rossini all accessed this cable. Because their investigation pertained to FBI failings, not CIA, it says nothing of [Michael], [Frances], Tom Wilshere, Rich Blee, or Cofer Black in this time frame.

Mark Rossini

I can’t explain why there was a hold off to tell the Bureau what happened. I can’t explain that… And in particular when it was determined that they did go on to the US. That they did go on to America.

Host

George Tenet himself was asked about this by the Congressional Intelligence Committees in 2002.

Joint Inquiry footage

GEORGE TENET: The cable that came in from the field at that time was labeled “information only,” and I know that nobody read that cable.

SENATOR LEVIN: But my question is do you know why the FBI was not notified of the fact that an al-Qa’ida operative now was known in March of the year 2000 to have entered the United States? Why did the CIA not specifically notify the FBI?

TENET: Sir, we weren’t aware of it when it came into headquarters. We couldn’t have notified them. Nobody read that cable in the March time frame.

LEVIN: So that the cable that said that al-Hazmi had entered the United States came to your headquarters, nobody read it?

TENET: Yes, sir. It was an information-only cable from the field and nobody read that information-only cable.

Host

Strangely, the Justice Department investigation did not go into an hour-by-hour look at who accessed the March 5 cable in the same way that they did with the Mihdhar visa cables, making it difficult to verify Tenet’s statement. If true, why had so many inside the CounterTerrorism Center and Alec Station paid attention to the visa cables but no one read the one about Hazmi entering the US.?

Mark Rossini

[RAY: Let me just ask you, in real time, did you read either of those two cables?]

I do have a recollection. My memory is a little fuzzy on that.

[RAY: Do you know for a fact that there were certain individuals within Alec that definitely read that cable in real time?]

Well, I can’t prove that they did or didn’t, but my gut – and remember, you’re talking about the people who have the ticket on the Yemen cell. Of course they would have to know. It’s their ticket. It’s their case.

[RAY: It was a pretty small office right… Are you all poppin’ by each other’s desks from time to time if you need something?]

Yeah, we all know each other, if –

[RAY: So there’s no way that Blee is just off in a bubble somewhere in his back office?]

No, it’s impossible. No, no, no, absolutely not. Everything there is computer driven. Everything is there seen by everybody. Everything comes in. That computer system is unique to anything I’ve ever seen in my life. As far as speed, ability, access.

Host

He’s referring to the CIA’s proprietary Hercules cable system. Rossini told us that they way it’s set up, the incoming cables would have been difficult for Cofer Black or Richard Blee to miss.

Mark Rossini

It’s right there in your face. You can’t miss it. It’s right there in your face. You can’t miss it. That’s the whole thing.

[RAY: Just as an outsider it seems impossible that someone could run Alec Station and not be aware of these multiple instances of…]

Exactly correct. And particularly something of such importance. Exactly correct.

[RAY: Obviously you weren’t sitting in Blee’s office or Black’s office or Tenet’s office. You can’t know exactly what they read. But, I mean, did at any time in 2000 or 2001 are you aware of any of those three receiving that info?]

Um, no, I could never attest to it, but it would be impossible for them – it would be impossible for Rich Blee or Cofer not to have known about it. George, different story. George encouraged people to work beneath him and do what ya gotta do. But it would be impossible for Blee to say he didn’t know about this. It would be impossible for Cofer to say he didn’t know about it.

(music)

Coming up in the final half hour: President Clinton’s counterterror ‘tsar’ Richard Clarke tells how at the same time Miller and Rossini were being blocked from telling FBI, he believes the CIA Director was ordering that same info kept from the White House. That’s in a minute, when our program continues.

[THEME MUSIC]

Act Three.

Host

You’re listening to the final half hour of Who Is Rich Blee?, the first of a two-part investigative podcast. I’m Ray Nowosielski. [And I’m John Duffy, and we’re coming to you from Austin, Texas.]

Back in August, we sent part of the interview with Richard Clarke that you’re about to hear to the press person at former CIA Director George Tenet’s publisher. Our hope was that he would be moved to set the record straight with an interview of his own. But our assumption was that we would never hear a reply. That’s been mostly the case with former CIA people.

Bill Harlow

Hi, this is Bill Harlow. I sent you an email yesterday with a statement from George Tenet, Cofer Black, and Rich Blee. Just wanted to make sure you received it…

Host

I have to admit I broke out in a cold sweat. We certainly hadn’t expected that within forty-eight hours the former CIA Director would reach out to the man with the reputation for being hard charging, Cofer Black, and also to our illusive and mysterious subject, Rich Blee. It’s not every day that three former CIA bigwigs who we’re investigating for possible wrongdoing acknowledge that they know we exist. In fact, it’s safe to say that’s never happened to us before.

The three refused to be interviewed, but they provided a one-page Joint Statement. We’ll examine that in a bit. But first, the interview that compelled them to respond…

Richard Clarke

The 9/11 Commission has gone over all of my e-mails, all of my files… and asked the CIA. The CIA admits they never told us. The CIA admits they never told the FBI, until August of 2001, when they knew about it over twelve months earlier. And it’s not as I originally thought, which is that one lowly CIA analyst got this information and somehow didn’t recognize the significance of it. No, 50 — 5-0 — CIA personnel knew about this.

Host

Clarke says he learned that fact and began to put it all together starting in mid-2007, when Congress forced the CIA to release the Executive Summary of their own Inspector General’s report on 9/11. That redacted summary states: “In the period January through March 2000, some 50 to 60 individuals read one or more of the six Agency cables containing travel information related to these terrorists.” The full report continues to be withheld from the public.

Richard Clarke

[DUFFY: So you obviously were aware of the Kuala Lumpur meeting as it happened?]

I was aware of the Kuala Lumpur meeting immediately after it happened. I was never informed that anyone at it had come to the United States.

[RAY: When they update you, is it really vague? Is it just “A number of people have–]

You have to understand, the way they update us at the White House is every morning I come in, I turn on my computer, and I get a hundred, a hundred fifty CIA reports. I’m not relying on somebody calling me and telling me things. I get a flood of CIA reports. And I never got a report to that effect.

Host

This was the first we’d heard alleged anywhere of purposeful CIA blocking of this information beyond FBI agents Miller and Rossini. So we asked for more detail on how the White House received reports from CIA.

Richard Clarke

What happens is when a CIA source reports in to a CIA case officer, the case officer then turns that into a temporary, preliminary report. The preliminary report is then sent into CIA headquarters where a reports officer converts it into English. And then it is automatically disseminated to a list of people. And it comes automatically to me in the White House, to people in the Defense Department, to people in the FBI. You have to intentionally stop it.

[DUFFY: They were stopped from getting to you and stopped from getting to the White House then?]

And stopped from getting to the FBI and the Defense Department… If there was a decision made to stop normal distribution with regard to this case, then people like Tom Wilshere would have known that.

[DUFFY: He reads it multiple times over the course of the next year… On these subsequent times, if he shook something loose, he had the full range of opportunity to alert you?]

He did, but he wouldn’t have to, because unless someone intervened to stop the normal automatic distribution, I would automatically get it.

Host

Former CIA Middle East case officer Bob Baer slightly disputes Clarke’s statement about the cables.

Bob Baer

Operational cable doesn’t automatically come to the White House. The decision needs to be made at the desk level… But I’m saying there were a 1000 cables a day that came in about Bin Laden. Or 10,000 for all I know. And you can’t send them all to the White House. There’s a reports officer whose analytical abilities may be good or may not be good. And she or he is the one who decides what to disseminate. And that’s what Clarke saw.

Richard Clarke

In addition, we had about every other day, a threat committee, where CIA and NSA and FBI and everybody else — DOD — would brief on the latest intelligence. They never briefed us. We must have had dozens, scores of threat committee meetings over the period of time when they knew these guys had entered the country, and they never mentioned it.

Host

Baer does agree with Clarke’s assessment that Rich Blee briefing the White House about the Kuala Lumpur meeting during the Millennium threat period but not mentioning the most stunning detail, the US visa., is suspicious.

Bob Baer

That makes it even worse. I mean, if they thought it was important enough to tell the White House about these meetings in Kuala Lumpur, if that was briefed orally, and it all comes down to the US visa, then that’s extremely… If White House people were being briefed on KL but not on the passport, that’s extremely suspic – you need answers.

Host

We asked about [Michael]’s standard operating procedure as the person running the Mihdhar operation.

Bob Baer

[RAY: Is she the person who would hold the responsibility if that was not turned into a Telegraphic Dissemination and passed up to the White House at that point?]

Yeah… She then would turn to, or herself would write a memo, to the National Security Council or the White House or in this case Clarke himself. “Richard Clarke, we’ve learned that Mihdhar has a US visa. It was issued on such and such a date in such and such a place. We’ve requested the actual visa application, and here’s what we’re doing about it.” And you put that in a memo and send it to the White House. Probably fax it to Clarke, or maybe you can do it electronically.

Host

But Clarke believes people like [Michael] or Tom Wilshere are small potatoes. Like Pat D’Amuro, he believes this goes straight to the top.

Richard Clarke

George Tenet followed all of the information about Al Qaeda in microscopic detail. He read raw intelligence reports before analysts in the CounterTerror Center did. And he would pick up the phone and call me at 7:30 in the morning to talk about them. There was no barrier between George Tenet and the CIA information machine when it came to Al Qaeda.

You gotta understand, my relationship with him — we were close friends. He called me several times a day. We shared the most trivial of information with each other. He would regularly call me with raw intelligence and say, “You gotta look at this. This is important.” And then I would call his analysts, five layers down, the people who knew the details, and say, “What do you think about it?”… He was giving me — as was the CIA CounterTerrorism Center — giving me a flood of information all the time… There was not a lack of information sharing between the CIA and me and my stuff… They told us everything accept this.

That means one thing to me: There was an intentional and very high level decision in the CIA not to let the White House know.

[DUFFY: How high level?]

I would think it would have to be made by the Director.

Host

On June 24, 2004, the FBI’s Deputy Director at the time of the footnote 44 incident, Tom Pickard, wrote a letter to the 9/11 Commission. That letter was intended for their eyes only, not the public, but the documents began to be released by the National Archives, and Pickard’s letter came out.

Writing about what he did or did not brief Attorney General John Ashcroft about in the summer of 2001 – and why – he volunteered a strange line of text that seemed to come out of nowhere. Pickard wrote: “I had not told the [Attorney General] about the meeting in Malaysia since I was told by FBI Assistant Director Dale Watson that there was a ‘close hold’ on that info. This means that it was not to be shared with anyone without the explicit approval of the CIA. I then strongly suggested that the [Attorney General] meet with George Tenet to get a full briefing on the matter.”

When Dale Watson agreed to interview with us, we had high hopes that we might finally learn what he had told Pickard about the CIA’s “close hold.”

Dale Watson

Close hold what? What did he say?

[RAY: He said a “close hold,” and he put it in parentheses, like it’s an official term or something. Close. Hold.]

Right, I understand what that is.

[RAY: Well what is a “close hold”]

Well, it’s just a term you use for “not to disseminate.” It’s not a classification, but you know, “This is a close hold. Information means ‘Don’t talk about it to anybody.’”… Ya know, I do not know the answer to that… If Pickard says that, I assume, I don’t know where he got that from. I’m not going to dispute and say, “That’s not true.” I don’t recall it.

Host

Did Pickard tell the 9/11 Commission something that was not true about the Malaysia meeting? Only Pickard is in a position to clarify, but he’s ignored our email request for an interview.

Greg Miller

[Voicemail message.] This is Greg Miller calling with the Washington Post. I was just hopin’ to get a transcript of the Richard Clarke comments that have surfaced publicly now…

[music]

The Richard Clarke interview and the Joint Statement from George Tenet, Cofer Black, and Rich Blee set up a high-profile he said/she said over two main issues: how high up the information went and who, if anyone, ordered it withheld.

Dale Watson

Quite honestly, with my relationship and me being assigned over there, I always took kinda the high road, and I said, ya know somethin’, I don’t believe that… I think it was probably a decision made at the lower level not to tell anybody. And if you’re tryin’ to say that Cofer and Tenet got together to keep us out of it, I don’t necessarily agree with that…

Host

Among FBI counterterror agents from the time, opinions seem to differ slightly depending on whether they worked out of John O’Neill’s New York office or out of headquarters in D.C., like Dale Watson:

Dale Watson

Ya know, I know Cofer. I know Tenet. I know those guys very well. And, if that occurred, that had to be down lower in the organizational than those guys. And for somebody to say that there was a conscious effort by those folks to do that, I just don’t believe that. I think if there was some conscious effort, it was probably at the Grade 14 level as we call it in the Bureau or the Grade 13 level not to tell people what was going on.

Host

Pat D’Amuro, on the other hand, doesn’t believe blame rests solely at the level of Blee and Wilshere.

Pasquale D’Amuro

There’s no doubt in my mind that that went up further in the Agency than just those two guys.  And why they didn’t send it over.  To this day, I don’t know why…

Host

Mike Rolince, the number two counterterror man at FBI at the time, who later worked directly with Tom Wilshere, finally chose not to interview with us after over a year of occasional back and forth e-mails, voice mails, and brief conversations. In response to Clarke’s interview, he e-mailed: “I know many buy into the conspiracy. Based on where I was, who I knew and what I knew, both then and now, I choose not to. I’m not saying I’m right and I’m not saying they are wrong. We may never know. I’ll leave it at that.” Vague, to be sure.

More vague still, upon closer inspection, is the carefully worded Joint Statement from Tenet, Black, and Blee, available in full at our web site SecrecyKills.com. Because of the language chosen, it’s difficult to determine what in fact they are denying.

For instance, they deny only that important information was intentionally withheld about the future hijackers travel – and that only in early 2000. What about the rest of the year and a half prior to 9/11?

They don’t say that they were unaware of the information until after 9/11. They say only that the record shows that they were unaware. Actually, that statement refers to the CIA Director and other senior CIA officials, so it may not include Cofer Black and Rich Blee.

They say Clarke’s speculation – to be included in the next part of this podcast – is utterly without foundation. However, they don’t deny that it is true.

Because so much of their Statement essentially relied on the findings of the 9/11 Commission, we went back to commission co-chair Tom Kean.

Tom Kean

They relied on — and they were the ones who were doing it? [Laughs.] And they relied on us?

[Do you remember how high up it got?]

Not that I remember, seven years later…

Host

The Joint Statement ends: “We testified under oath about what we did, what we knew and what we didn’t know, we stand by that testimony.” So the Commission’s opinion on that testimony would seem to be important. Various Commission officials, including the executive director, felt that, in the words of New York Times reporter Phil Shenon, “Tenet simply could not tell the truth to the Commission.”

Kean related one such story, in which Tenet denied, under oath, speaking with President Bush in the entire month of August 2001, a statement that turned out not to be true.

Tom Kean

Meetings with the President just don’t slip your mind.

[RORY: Did he misspeak?]

No, I don’t think he misspoke. I think he mislead… Tenet was a likeable guy. He got away with some stuff because people liked him.

Host

Kean suggested we talk to the 9/11 Commission’s executive director Philip Zelikow about how high up in CIA the information went. In Zelikow’s e-mail reply, he stated that without getting back into the old files, his memory on the issue was imprecise. However, “the material was in cable traffic that someone at Blee’s level might have read.”

We also asked the Congressional Inquiry’s staff director Eleanor Hill.

Eleanor Hill

I don’t specifically remember whether Tenet knew that or not but I would assume he probably did, but I don’t know that.

Host

She said she would need to check her files to find out for certain.

Eleanor Hill

We talked to a lot of people inside the CIA and FBI. And we obviously asked the same question you’re asking, which is the common sense question everybody that reads this says, “How could you have made the same mistake so many times? Why did these guys – and nobody reported this?”… We never had anybody say to us, it was intentional or some other nefarious thing going on… I think it’s a valid question, we just never saw anything that confirmed that that was what was happening… I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I’m saying we couldn’t conclude something like that happened unless we had pretty solid proof. And we didn’t have the proof that that happened.”

Richard Clarke

The people who investigated after the fact believed that there was a problem. Believed they never got to the bottom of it. But, if your theory is right that they were covering it up, they got away with it. Because neither the Congressional investigation nor the 9/11 Commission was able to pin it on them.

(music)

[At this point now, are you pissed? How are you left emotionally by this? Do you feel completely burned? All your efforts out the window?]

I am outraged and have been ever since I first learned that the CIA knew these two guys were in the country. But I believed for the longest time that it was one or two low-level CIA people who made the decision not to disseminate the information. Now that I know that 50 CIA officers knew this, and they included all sorts of CIA people who were regularly talking to me — yeah, saying I’m pissed doesn’t begin to describe it.

Host

Both Clarke and Mark Rossini lost their mutual close friend John O’Neill in the attacks that day. At some time later, Rossini was going through his files when he discovered the print-out he had made of Doug Miller’s draft warning to FBI.

Mark Rossini

And when I came across a photocopy of Doug’s communication that I had kept in my file… that’s when it, like, hit me… I remember talking to Kenny Maxwell about it.

Host

Ken Maxwell was the manager of I-49 Squad.

Mark Rossini

And I remember Kenny saying, ‘How could they not fuckin’ tell us about these guys havin’ a visa. How could they not have told us?’ And when Kenny said that, my heart just sank… because it came crashing back on me that I did know. I did know. And I followed the rules. And look what happens, when you follow the rules. And from then on, I didn’t give a shit about the rules anymore.

Host

As he said that, I wondered if that was what caused him to illegally access those files for his girlfriend, the incident that got him fired from the Bureau. I wondered if that was what was making him tell us way more than he should now.

Mark Rossini

If I could ever take back that. Or if I’d have just said to John, ya know, ‘This thing is happenin’. These guys in Kuala Lumpur. But I didn’t.

Jack Cloonan

But you actually have an honor trail here, ya know what I mean? Those documents, that CIR… that Doug Miller puts together, seconded by Rossini, I mean, that’s unambiguous. That stands on its own. So as long as history is here, we know that the FBI tried to do the right thing, understood the significance of it, understood the nexus in the United States, and for whatever reason, or reasons, the Agency makes the decision – it’s not an oversight, it’s a conscious decision not to share the information… And history will judge them on that. Those people involved in that have a lot to answer for, and they have not adequately answered it in my mind… If you look at this, it’s really just a handful of people. I don’t know how they sleep at night. I really don’t.

Bob Baer

What you’re missing here is someone saying, what was the purpose of not telling the FBI. I just don’t understand why they didn’t.

Jack Cloonan

You can’t tell me that you didn’t know about. You can’t tell me that you forgot. You can’t tell me that you spoke to agents – and then they have no recollection of it. You can’t tell me that you sent the information over via couriers, and there’s no record of it. Every place you go, all you can come up with is, “I don’t know.”

Host

One source claimed that after 9/11, [Michael] was quote-unquote “hidden” in Afghanistan to make her more difficult to interview by the subsequent government investigations. When I pointed out that Rich Blee was also sent to Afghanistan three months after the attacks, the source responded, “Yeah, and she went with him.”

We have confirmed that [Frances] is the red-headed CIA employee described in journalist Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side as having been reprimanded for including herself in the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed when she had not been officially assigned to do so. She was reportedly informed by superiors, “It’s not supposed to be entertainment.”

Jennifer Lynn Matthews was named for accountability in the CIA Inspector General’s Report on 9/11, according to a source who only accessed the portions pertaining to her. Despite this, she was made the Chief of Base in the Afghan city of Khost where she died in the suicide attack on that facility at the end of 2009. A source who had access to that CIA Inspector General’s Report informs us that [Frances] was named for accountability in that incident as well.

If this story feels a bit one-sided, that is the fault of these CIA officials, all of whom were explained what we were learning here and chose not to speak to us.

After they issued us the Joint Statement, we replied to Tenet’s PR man Bill Harlow with a detailed point by point explanation of this story and asked — no begged — that they help us tell an accurate story. We wrote: “If there are simple – even benign or admirable – explanations for those issues, I sincerely wish Mr. Tenet, et al, would break their media silence and simply provide those answers. I want them to realize that their failure to do so only appears to give credence to speculation like that in the Clarke interview.”

Back in 2009, John Duffy and I knocked on the door of Rich Blee’s last known apartment just outside D.C. on his birthday. We figured, who doesn’t answer the door on their birthday?

Footage

WOMAN: Hello?

DUFFY: We’re looking for Richard.

Host

It turned out the apartment had been vacated only two months before. Last week, working with Kevin Fenton of History Commons, we were able to figure out Rich Blee’s likely address. Ironically, it’s in Los Angeles, where I lived for the past year, directly behind one of my favorite hang-outs.

Bob Baer

When new stuff comes to light, everyone should come back. I hope your documentary does that.

Host

Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of the story. In the second podcast: The men from the meeting Malaysia go on to bomb a Navy ship, the USS Cole, and agents from John O’Neill’s New York office are assigned to investigate. As people in Rich Blee’s Alec Station continue playing games with the information about Mihdhar and others, wrongheaded secrecy becomes obstruction of justice in an FBI investigation.

Lawrence Wright

I have always felt that the CIA was guilty of obstruction in the investigation of the deaths of those seventeen sailors.

Host

And Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer reveals for the first time the role he believes George Tenet and Alec Station may have played in the shut down of the military’s Able Danger program, the one that identified Mihdhar and Hazmi and other hijackers inside the United States that same year.

Anthony Shaffer

[RAY: Did they play a big part in the shut down?]

It was not a small part.

Host

Then, in May 2001, Tom Wilshere is detailed – of all places – to the FBI where, after ordering Doug Miller not to send that message, he is made the Bureau’s top CIA liaison for counterterror. Wilshere re-accesses the March 5th cable that month, the one that says Hazmi has entered the United States.

Jack Cloonan

He’s got a lot to answer for in my opinion. This is pretty serious stuff.

Host

Throughout that summer of threat, Wilshere emails back and forth with the people in Alec Station, probably including [Frances], who has been promoted to Wilshere’s position of Deputy Chief, and Blee himself, warning that the men from the Malaysia meeting are major league killers who will likely be involved in the attack that appears to be coming, and Mihdhar should be of great interest given his connection to these people. He asks for permission to tell the FBI, permission apparently not granted.

Bob Baer

I always passed things to the FBI if I thought it was of interest. I didn’t ask permission. You had FBI agents in headquarters working in your unit, or they came around, or you called them up on the phone. I mean, that’s the way things are supposed to work.

Host

As the clock ticks down to 9/11, FBI analyst Maggie Gillespie re-discovers the March 5th cable – the same one Rossini says Wilshere and [Michael] must have read back in 2000, the same one Wilshere re-reads in May 2001 – and she finally alerts the FBI to begin a manhunt for Mihdhar and Hazmi in the US. Yet for the following three weeks, even with George Tenet’s hair on fire, no one at CIA places that information into the threat briefings for the White House.

Richard Clarke

There was not a lack of information sharing. They told us everything, except this.

Host

And after the attacks, secrecy protected Rich Blee, the people who worked for him, and his bosses at CIA, as they went on to be involved in other scandals over the past decade, from the failure to capture Bin Laden in Afghanistan to the bad intelligence that drove America to war in Iraq, from renditions and detainee abuses to Blackwater. And we’ll let you know where they’re all at today.

And we’ll end on one final thought from Richard Clarke.

Richard Clarke

John Helgerson, the Inspector General of the CIA, wrote a report which we have not been able to see, which has been still withheld from the public, even though there’s no reason not to give it to the public at this point, unless you’re covering your ass… You understand what the conclusion of that Inspector General’s Report? Official reprimands from the Director on down. What do you think it takes for a career CIA officer, like John Helgerson, the Inspector General, to recommend reprimands to the Director? What does it take in terms of malfeasance and misfeasance?… Does it seem like the information that the public knows about is sufficient for a reprimand of the CIA Director?

[THEME SONG]

Acknowledgments.

Host

Kevin Fenton was instrumental in the reporting for today’s program. Read his book on the subject Disconnecting the Dots released this summer, the definitive written account. Paul Thompson and Jon Gold at HistoryCommons.org also helped us – A LOT. Check out their web site’s 9/11 Timeline for more information on this subject than can possibly fit in your brain.

Thanks to Jason Leopold of Truthout, Scott Malone of BlackNET, Sibel Edmonds of Boiling Frogs Post, Ben Wizner of the ACLU’s National Security Project, Coleen Rowley, and Robert Schopmeyer. Google that name and check out his work into this subject.

Special thanks to Bill in Chicago, who funded our initial development on the project back in 2008, and Betsy in Philadelphia who funded our trip to the East Coast in 2009 to interview Richard Clarke and others.

Our consulting producers since the start of the project have been Rory O’Connor and Kyle F. Hence, two very good guys. Rory, who gave me my start, let us use the name of his Emmy-winning media company Globalvision when approaching interviewees, which added a certain clout.

Our directors of photography on the trip to the East Coast were Martina Radwan and Damian Salimeno. Our audio engineer was Patrick Thrasher. Original music written and composed by Ben Johnson. The Blee graphic was designed by Erik Potter, and the web site was created and run by Jon Roberts. Everyone worked almost entirely for free.

Who Is Rich Blee? is released by SecrecyKills.com, with next to no help from the mainstream media and absolutely no assistance from the U.S. government. Quite the opposite, actually.

I’m Ray Nowosielski. [And I’m John Duffy.] Be sure to check back to SecrecyKills.com for regular updates of raw interviews, email exchanges, original writing, and more.

See related:

FBI Agent Mark Rossini: The CIA Could Have Stopped 9/11

Did George Tenet Hide Key 9/11 Info?

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