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August 27, 2005
Able Danger: Trouble In River City

Earlier this evening, I did a quick post on a passage in Kenneth Timmerman's new book Countdown to Crisis that matches up to the timeframe when Captain Scott Phillpott went to the 9/11 Commission to insist that his secret datamining unit had identified Mohammed Atta as a potential al-Qaeda terrorist in early 2000. Timmerman, whose book came out prior to the Able Danger revelations, notes that 9/11 Commission report author and staff director Philip Zelikow called his subordinates in for a meeting at that same point in time to review explosive new information that tied Iran to al-Qaeda.

In my last post, the analyst who first reviewed the documents reacted by saying, "There's trouble in River City," a line from the musical The Music Man, a story about a lovable con artist who delivers in the end. Reading further into Timmerman's Chapter 24 will give the impression that the reference might apply well to the Commission and its report. The story of these documents highlight the manner in which the Commission acted to protect predetermined narratives, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, for motives which appear at best murky and at worst partisan to their core.

Timmerman writes that the CIA had communicated repeatedly to the Commission what he calls The Concept: Iran had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, and especially 9/11. Nothing would shake them from that belief, not evidence nor intelligence, both of which turned up in spades. It sounds quite familiar to the same meme about al-Qaeda and Iraq; despite the numerous connections between Saddam and al-Qaeda, the official line remained that AQ conducted the attacks entirely on their own, without Iraqi assistance. Any evidence or intel to the contrary got dismissed or completely ignored.

So it was with the fresh documents discovered by Zelikow's team at the time Phillpott told them about Able Danger. Their team leader on intel, an old CIA hand, spent his Sunday reviewing these explosive documents:

What the team leader found that Sunday morning was nothing less than a complete documented record of operational ties between Iran and al-Qaeda for the critical months just prior to September 11. "The documents showed Iran was facilitating the travel of al-Qaeda operatives, ordering Iranian border inspectors not to put telltale stamps on their passports, thus keeping their travel documents clean," the team leader told me. "The Iranians were fully aware that they were helping operatives who were part of an organization preparing attacks against the United States." ...

Most troubling among the seventy-five documents the team read that Sunday morning in July were masses of reports on Iranian intelligence operative Imad Mugniyeh, who is described in the 9/11 Commission Report as "a senior Hezbollah operative." The raw reporting showed that well before 9/11, the United States had hard intelligence that the Tehran regime had appointed Mugniyeh as the point man for operational contacts with Bin Laden's men. That coincided with the information Zakeri brought to the CIA in Baku four months before the attack.

If anyone had been on the radar screen of U.S. intelligence collectors, it was Imad Mugniyeh. Before 9/11, he had killed more Americans than any other terrorist. Putting Mugniyeh together with bin Laden was like throwing a match onto a pile of oil-soaked rags. And yet no alarm bells seemed to have gone off. Mugniyeh is not even named in he final commission report.

In fact, not much of this material makes it into the report at all. Mugniyeh didn't make the cut, despite evidence that he facilitated more than half of the muscle hijackers' entry during the late spring of 2001 into the United States for their 9/11 attacks. This, the CIA rationalized, only proved that the hijackers traveled through Iran, and not to Iran. However, that still leaves an open question about why their passports did not reflect those visits -- a question that the Commission never bothers to bring up, let alone answer.

Nor does the Commission bring up another story that Timmerman reveals in his book (pages 7-9). On July 26, 2001, an Iranian intelligence agent walked into the American embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, and asked to see the CIA chief. He finally talks to two CIA functionaries: "Joan", who assesses his story and decides it needs further review, and "George", a CIA case handler who laughs Zakeri out of the embassy. The story?

There's going to be a big attack on America on the twentieth of Shahrivar, Zakeri insisted. That's the date my boss told us to be ready. Six people who have been trained as pilots have just left Iran.

George consulted a calendar that gave the corresponding Western dates. So we're talking about September 10, right? I'll mark my date book, he added sarcastically. He paid Zakeri a few hundred dollars for his time and sent him away.

July 26 came just two weeks after Mohammed Atta met with Ramzi Binalshibh in Madrid to finalize the date for the 9/11 attacks. At that meeting, Binalshibh pressed Atta to pick a date, as Osama bin Laden needed to send the information through the network in time for everyone to prepare for the operation. Atta said he needed five or six weeks before he could coordinate well enough for a particular date, and only promised a week's notice -- or so Binalshibh told the FBI (Commission report, page 244):

Binalshibh says he told Atta that Bin Ladin wanted the attacks carried out as soon as possible. Bin Ladin, Binalshibh conveyed, was worried about having so many operatives in the United States.Atta replied that he could not yet provide a date because he was too busy organizing the arriving hijackers and still needed to coordinate the timing of the flights so that the crashes would occur simultaneously. Atta said he required about five to six weeks before he could provide an attack date. Binalshibh advised Atta that Bin Ladin had directed that the other operatives not be informed of the date until the last minute.Atta was to provide Binalshibh with advance notice of at least a week or two so that Binalshibh could travel to Afghanistan and report the date personally to Bin Ladin.

However, two weeks later Zakeri had the date for the attacks and a good description of the method to be used. The CIA handler misinterpreted 20 Shahrivar; in fact, that date came out to 11 September. None of this gets any mention in the 9/11 Commission report either, despite the testimony from Zakeri being read out in a German court in January 2004. When Timmerman checked out Zakeri's stories against known data, it came up correct. However, when Timmerman contacted the CIA about Zakeri, they reacted uncharacteristically hostile to Zakeri -- but they refused to answer when asked about the July 26, 2001 meeting.

So what did the Commission finally report about the wealth of evidence about Iranian involvement in the 9/11 plot? Nothing, or close enough to it. In the end, it covered less than a page of the 500+ pages of the report, and concluded thus:

In sum, there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.There also is circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers into Iran in November 2000. However,we cannot rule out the possibility of a remarkable coincidencethat is, that Hezbollah was actually focusing on some other group of individuals traveling from Saudi Arabia during this same time frame, rather than the future hijackers.

We have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.At the time of their travel through Iran, the al Qaeda operatives themselves were probably not aware of the specific details of their future operation.

Like the Atta visit to Prague, for which the Czech government provided intelligence which they insist to this day is accurate, the Commission chose to minimize or ignore evidence and intelligence that would lead Americans to believe that any state had a role in facilitating al-Qaeda in its attack on 9/11. They went out of their way to reach a conclusion that would encourage the US to discount the role of state sponsorship of terrorism, rather than point out that more than one state had some operational ties to the 9/11 conspiracy.

Whether or not Able Danger provided these records to the Commission staffers will probably remain a mystery. Certainly no other intelligence officials have come forward to claim that they delivered seventy-five documents detailing the connections between the hijackers and Iranian intelligence and government officials, and those types of connections might well have been part of the information that a data-mining project like Able Danger would dig up. Captain Phillpott's visit might have provoked a suddenly worried Zelikow to revisit the Pentagon materials sent over after his first Able Danger request, which may have resulted in the discovery of these assessments "buried at the bottom of a huge stack of highly classified documents on other subjects".

We do know one thing after almost three weeks of Able Danger revelations -- the Commission report has no credibility as a truthful analysis of the forces behind 9/11 and our information prior to the attacks.

UPDATE: It turns out that I'm not the first to note Chapter 24 of Timmerman's book. Dafydd ab Hugh noted this all the way back on July 5th ... uh ... at Captain's Quarters. In an e-mail to me reminding me of my own blog, Dafydd suggests a new slogan for CQ: "Captain's Quarters is so dad-burned fast, we even scoop ourselves!"

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 27, 2005 10:37 PM

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