Deconstructing the 9/11 Dot Disconnection: a book review by Erik Larson
Disconnecting the Dots: How CIA and FBI officials enabled 9/11 and evaded government investigations, by Kevin Fenton. Waltersville, OR: Trine Day, 2011. 416 pages.
“Enabling 9/11 was a job done at the office, with memos” (15).
It is a non-controversial fact that the NSA, CIA and FBI missed a number of opportunities to disrupt the 9/11 plot. Many, but not all, of these failures were documented by the four main investigations that dealt with pre-9/11 intelligence failures: those by the Congressional Joint Inquiry, the 9/11 Commission, the Department of Justice Inspector General and the CIA Inspector General. The best-known investigation, the 9/11 Commission, ultimately concluded that 9/11 was preceded by “four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management” (339). This is the narrative largely held to by mainstream politicians and media, but these explanations do not credibly account for what happened at the NSA, CIA and FBI in the years, months and weeks leading up to 9/11. This has been demonstrated by a number of researchers, but Kevin Fenton’s* book, Disconnecting the Dots, has the most comprehensive documentation and in-depth analysis to date. Primarily using the official reports, the available source records and some reporting by mainstream media and journalists, Fenton documents how specific CIA and FBI officials engaged in deliberate efforts to protect the 9/11 plot from discovery and disruption by FBI investigators, and that the most probable explanation is that this was done in order to enable the 9/11 attacks.
One of Fenton’s major strengths is that he limits himself to his area of expertise; Disconnecting the Dots is narrowly focused on the pre-9/11 intelligence failures and the official investigations of these failures. The book is a complex and dense compilation of interrelated names, dates, bits of information and sequences of events, a situation that is unavoidable due to the complex nature of the subject. Fortunately for the reader, Fenton’s style and presentation are simple and lucid, which helps make the complicated and often unclear nature of the subject more easily understood. Whenever possible, he names those responsible for the decisions and actions being examined, though this is sometimes impossible due to the limited amount of information that has been made public. Whenever a particularly complex set of issues or series of events have been examined in a chapter, Fenton provides a summary at the end of that chapter, and at a number of points in the book he summarizes what can be understood from the pattern of facts presented up to that point. His analysis considers the full range of available evidence, assesses the quality of individual pieces and does not go beyond the evidence. When he does draw conclusions they are generally conservative and understated, and he is careful to address other possible explanations for the evidence.
The way the book is structured is useful. It is composed of 50 short chapters plus a prologue and epilogue, two appendixes, a section with copies of supporting documents, a selected bibliography and an index. The book proceeds largely in chronological order, with each chapter focused on a particular development in the chain of events leading to 9/11, or on the way subsequent investigations dealt with these things. The chapter titles are derived from revealing and significant statements, mostly from official sources, that convey the subject or main idea of that chapter. Footnotes are used instead of endnotes; for every statement of fact, the reader can simply look to the bottom of that page to see what the source is.
Fenton begins his book in 1996, which is when the NSA began surveillance of Osama bin Laden associate Ahmed al-Hada’s Al Qaeda safe house and communications hub in Yemen. The NSA did not willingly share this intelligence with the CIA or the FBI at first. The CIA discovered the NSA surveillance by accident, and bin Laden unit (Alec Station) chief Michael Scheuer fought hard to get transcripts from NSA, but was only briefly successful. The CIA began independently monitoring the Yemen hub, but was apparently only able to intercept the incoming side of communications. According to one report, however, at some point it managed to bug the house. After Scheuer was replaced by Richard Blee, the NSA agreed to allow the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (of which Alec Station was a part) to detail officers to NSA to review transcripts, but the CTC only detailed one officer, and only for a brief period of time in 2000. The plots for the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa (over 200 dead, 4000 injured), the 2000 attack on the USS Cole (17 US sailors killed) and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (nearly 3000 dead) all involved communications to this hub and persons associated with it, yet intelligence from NSA or CIA monitoring was not used to thwart any of these plots.
The NSA monitored calls made by alleged 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi to the Yemen hub during their time in the US. It has been reported that NSA was technologically incapable of tracing the US end of calls and was simultaneously reluctant to do so because of FISA restrictions on monitoring calls that have one end in the US. Besides the internal contradiction, these claims are dubious because the FBI was able to create a map of Al Qaeda’s global network based on Yemen hub intercepts, and because NSA could have easily obtained authorization under FISA law at the time. Fenton also devotes a chapter to the NSA’s pre-9/11 warrantless monitoring which was done in conjunction with the major telecommunications providers, a clearly illegal program which apparently has never been investigated. Another chapter examines DOD SOCOM’s Able Danger data-mining program, which reportedly identified Mohammed Atta and other alleged operatives in the US prior to 9/11.
The bulk of Fenton’s book is devoted to CIA and FBI failures, and principally concerning the presence in the US of Almihdhar and Alhazmi. This is partly because investigations of NSA activities by the Joint Inquiry and 9/11 Commission were superficial, and very little information about what they did learn has been made public. It is also because the CIA and FBI’s failures are so significant. The ‘failures’ were not a small number of isolated mistakes spread among many people in a large bureaucracy, and concerning people unknown to the CIA. Rather, a small number of people at the CIA, principally in Alec Station, repeatedly performed in ways that facilitated the activities of a small number of Al Qaeda operatives who had already been linked to Yemen hub and the 1998 US embassy bombings; a high profile, mass-casualty attack on US interests.
According to Fenton’s research, two figures clearly bear great responsibility for obstructing the FBI and national security principals regarding Almihdhar and Alhazmi; these are former Alec Station chief Richard Blee and one of his deputy chiefs, Tom Wilshere (aka Tom Wilshire). Obstructive actions by their subordinates and personnel at other CIA stations are also documented. On multiple separate occasions in 2000 and 2001 when it was brought to his attention, Wilshere failed to watchlist Almihdhar and Alhazmi, and failed to notify the FBI that they possessed US visas and had traveled to the US. On at least one occasion, January 5, 2000, Wilshere explicitly instructed, through his subordinate “Michelle,” that an FBI detailee to the CIA, Doug Miller, was not to notify the FBI about Almihdhar’s US visa. This demonstrates that both Miller and Wilshere recognized the significance of this information at the time. Additional evidence that this was recognized as significant is the fact that Michelle then sent a cable to several CIA stations informing them that the US visa information had been passed to the FBI, though it had not. In May 2001, Wilshere was detailed to the FBI’s International Terrorist Operations Section (ITOS) where he worked directly with section head Michael Rolince. While there, he continued to withhold information from the FBI, and also undermined FBI agents attempting to open criminal investigations into Zacharias Moussaoui and Almihdhar, which would almost certainly have led to the disruption of the 9/11 plot.
The clearest documentary evidence implicates Wilshere and certain CIA subordinates and colleagues (FBI analyst Dina Corsi is involved in a number of significant incidents of obstruction, including the provision of false information to FBI agents, and so are other FBI officials), but much of the evidence implicating Wilshere indirectly implicates Blee. For instance, Blee was almost certainly one of the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) officials that received three July 2001 emails from Wilshere that demonstrated his awareness and understanding of the links between Alhmidar and Khallad bin Attash, and between them and an impending massive attack on US interests.
Direct evidence of wrongdoing on Blee’s part includes his falsely informing Black and Tenet on two occasions that surveillance of Al Qaeda operatives at the Kuala Lumpur meeting was ongoing, when officially it had stopped. Also, there is no record of Blee informing his superiors, CTC Director Cofer Black and DCI George Tenet, about Almihdhar and Alhazmi’s travel to the US, or about Almidhar’s return to the US, which Wilshere officially learned of on August 22, and may have learned of in early July, and would have informed Blee about. Fenton considers that Blee may have been hiding this information from them and they may have been ignorant of it, or that they may have indicated to Blee that they did not want an official record of their awareness of certain information, which could later implicate them in wrongdoing.
It is difficult to believe Tenet and Black were unaware of Almihdhar and Alhazmi’s US travel, but there’s no documentary evidence or witness testimony that they were. The CIA IG executive summary states that in early 2000 some 50-60 personnel at CIA, from managers to junior employees, at HQ and foreign stations, read one or more of six cables pertaining to the US travel. After 9/11, both Tenet and Black made false statements under oath that had the effect of shielding Blee and others from accountability. Fenton observes that while they may have been involved in facilitating 9/11, these lies may have stemmed from a calculus that covering up served larger interests, such as protecting the CIA from being disrupted during the ‘war on terror’, and preserving their own status and reputations.
In attempting to explain the facts (I’ve provide an incomplete summary of a small number of those included in Fenton’s book), some observers have maintained that incompetence, negligence, interagency mistrust and rivalries, and personality conflicts played a role in the pre-9/11 obstruction. Others, including former Bush administration counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, have suggested that the CIA’s failure to pass on information to the FBI and high level national security principals was an effort to prevent interference with a CIA operation to penetrate Al Qaeda operations in the US, perhaps to develop intelligence on their network or to recruit operatives as double agents. Some have alleged that alleged 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi were Saudi agents before or after joining Al Qaeda, and ultimately double or triple-crossed their handlers. Still others have proposed that some in the Saudi royal family and GID desired an attack on the US, and provided financial and other assistance. According to these views, the failure of official investigations to get at the ‘whole truth,’ can be explained as stemming from the Establishment’s desire to protect important foreign relations, and to prevent embarrassment, distraction and/or the exposure of an illegal but well-intentioned CIA operation during a time when the full resources of these agencies, plus Saudi oil, were needed to defend the US and fight the ‘war on terror.’
Fenton convincingly demonstrates that these explanations also cannot credibly account for the full range of facts on the public record, and that the most probable scenario is that Blee and/or Wilshere and possibly others intentionally facilitated the 9/11 attacks, with the cooperation of subordinates who may have been unaware of the true purpose of their actions. If the goal was simply to develop intelligence on al Qaeda’s US network or recruit operatives as double agents, then the 9/11 plot could have been disrupted prior to the attacks. Almihdhar and Alhazmi’s activities in the US would have been monitored, and logistical elements of the plot plus most or all of the other members of the network would have become apparent, given the relatively poor security procedures followed by the alleged hijackers.
Some have suggested that the CIA’s sharing of some information with the FBI, State and INS after August 22 is evidence the CIA had stopped protecting Almihdhar and Alhazmi. However, this idea is undermined by the fact that Wilshere and Corsi, in particular, withheld other information, and worked to prevent the opening of a criminal investigation, which was both permissible and justified, despite false information to the contrary provided by Corsi. Again, there is nothing in the public record to indicate Blee passed on the information about the presence of Almihdhar and Alhazmi in the US to his superiors. These are not the actions of officials who are trying to prevent an attack on the US.
Many in the US government national security structure, including Blee and Wilshere, were aware in July and August 2001 that a large-scale spectacular attack against US interests was in the works; the infamous July 10 Rice-Tenet-Black-Blee meeting makes this clear, and the August 6 PDB indicates the plot could be targeting US cities and involve hijacked planes. Those shielding Almihdhar and Alhazmi would have known they were playing with fire, and that they could get burnt should their illegal operation be uncovered by the investigations that could be expected to follow such a massive and destructive intelligence failure.
Instead, many of those involved in obstructing FBI investigations were promoted after 9/11, including Blee, who replaced Gary Berntsen as the CIA station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan (a premier front in the so-called ‘war on terror’) shortly before the failure to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. Blee also played a role in the development and management of rendition, interrogation and torture programs under the Bush administration. Fenton notes that while some of those involved in these programs may have believed they were important for US national security, others would certainly have understood that torture often produces false confessions and could be used to extract confessions useful for making a case for linking Iraq to 9/11. Indeed, false confessions were used in exactly this way. CIA control of access to prisoners would also prevent the FBI from asking questions and possibly receiving information regarding the CIA’s pre-9/11 failures.
How the four investigations dealt with the intelligence failures is also a major focus of Fenton’s book. His strongest criticism is of the DOJ IG and the 9/11 Commission reports, though he notes problems with all four official investigations. A critique of the full CIA IG report is not possible as only an executive summary has been released, but as Fenton observes, the report was rewritten under pressure from then DCI Porter Goss. Problems include conflicts of interest, failure to pursue lines of inquiry pointing to malfeasance, apparent acceptance at face value of witness inability to recall key events, allowing agency ‘minders’ to be present during interviews, and omissions and distortions of key evidence.
In some cases the public reports name certain people (usually with an alias) in connection with specific mistakes made, but in other cases they do not. In some cases errors are implicitly documented but not acknowledged as such, while in other cases they are overtly acknowledged but explained away, noted superficially in passing, or relegated to an endnote. In some cases, important evidence is entirely omitted. For instance, there is no mention, let alone discussion, in the redacted Joint Inquiry report, the unclassified DOJ IG report, or the 9/11 Commission Report, of Wilshere’s July 23 email, which clearly demonstrated that, during a time in which he had been obstructing FBI investigations and would continue to do so, Wilshere understood that bin Attash and Almihdhar would be involved in the next attack, which was widely believed would be massive. The official reports did not conclude that any of the ‘failures’ were intentional, but it is not apparent from the reports whether this line of investigation was even pursued. No one at NSA, CIA or FBI has been held accountable as a result of these investigations, even for negligence or incompetence.
Fenton gives special attention to the work of Barbara Grewe, a principal investigator of CIA-FBI issues for both the DOJ and 9/11 Commission. The presence of minders is an obvious conflict of interest, and some 9/11 Commission staffers formally objected to this, concluding that witnesses were being intimidated and that minders were otherwise interfering with interviews, but Grewe asserted to the Commissioners that minders were not causing problems. Grewe conducted or was involved interviews of many key witnesses, such as Richard Blee, Tom Wilshere and Dina Corsi, and drafted the related sections of the reports, which contain a number of significant omissions, distortions, discrepancies and contradictions.
Fenton also notes the influence of Philip Zelikow regarding certain aspects of the 9/11 Commission investigation and its final report. Zelikow was the Commission’s executive director, though he had extensive conflicts of interest, including a personal friendship with George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice. Zelikow reportedly exercised great control over the choice of staff, the direction of the investigation and the drafting of the final report. It is difficult to see how certain omissions and distortions in the official reports can be anything other than deliberate efforts to manipulate official and public perception of the 9/11 events.
Fenton concludes the documentary record raises serious questions about the conduct of personnel at NSA and FBI, but what can be clearly established is that Blee and Wilshere were working to protect Almihdhar and Alhazmi from discovery and arrest by the FBI. In doing so, they were assisted by the actions of CIA and FBI colleagues and subordinates, some or all whom may have been misled about the purpose of their actions. Tenet and Black may have been involved, but there is no hard evidence they were aware, prior to 9/11, of efforts to protect Almihdhar and Alhazmi. Following 9/11, they protected those whose ‘failures’ contributed to 9/11, including by making false statements under oath. The official investigations were inadequate, and the public reports are misleading in many respects. These may be evidence of a cover up.
Fenton does not assert that the motives of either Blee or Wilshere can be determined by the evidence made public so far. The question as to why they did what they did remains, with the purpose of facilitating the 9/11 attacks being the most probable explanation that, in Fenton’s opinion, is supported by the public evidence. He notes that a great deal of documentary evidence remains suppressed, and states the public will have a clearer understanding of 9/11 when certain records are made public. He believes, however, that a truly independent inquiry would be needed to get to the whole truth about the intelligence failures surrounding 9/11.
I agree with Fenton that a new investigation into 9/11 is needed. It seems unlikely, though, that Blee was the highest-level person involved in a plot to protect the 9/11 hijackers in order to enable 9/11. In my view, it is more probable that Blee himself would have been installed, recruited or manipulated by, or working in conjunction with, a covert and powerful insider network that sought a 9/11 event as a catalyst for wars to control regions with geo-strategic resources in declining supply as global demand rises; establish a US national security state; secure massive long-term public spending on the military-corporate complex; and renew and extend the global power of the US as their empire. In his prologue and epilogue, Fenton acknowledges this possibility, but it is not something he believes can be concluded is a fact, based on the public evidence. It is noteworthy that this was the pre-9/11 agenda of the Project for the New American Century, many of whose members became principals in the George W. Bush administration, and that this ‘coincidence’ was not examined by the 9/11 Commission or the mainstream media. There is other indirect and circumstantial evidence for a plot larger than Blee and Wilshere surrounding the intelligence failures, as well as evidence concerning other aspects of the 9/11 events, as well as the big picture. As this evidence is either below Fenton’s standards or outside his area of expertise, he’s unwilling to base conclusions on it.
I don’t have any particular expertise, but I do think this evidence is considerable. For instance, someone might have been able to predict that the Bush administration would wage a war on Al Qaeda following a mass-casualty attack on US soil. They might also have known that a pretext for such a war was desired. It does not seem likely, however, that a CIA station chief – an important but not high-level position - could be confident that they would not simultaneously be made a scapegoat if their unit was directly responsible for failing to prevent a successful Al Qaeda attack on US soil, let alone not held accountable for willfully obstructing the FBI from doing so, as the documentary record indicates happened. Rather, it seems likely that Blee would have required assurance that he would be protected from any fallout over CIA’s failure to prevent the attacks; on his own authority he did not have the power to derail official inquiries and turn them into the whitewashes they ultimately turned out to be.
CIA personnel not under Blee’s command – at stations in Yemen, Bangkok and Pakistan – acted in ways that are difficult to explain as anything other than deliberate attempts to conceal information about Almihdhar and Alhazmi from the FBI, and from personnel at other CIA stations, such as the one in Kuala Lumpur. And, as Fenton documents, FBI HQ personnel Dave Frasca, Michael Maltbie and Rita Flack, along with Tom Wilshere, consistently undermined the attempts of Minneapolis FBI agents to investigate Moussaoui. Fenton notes that it isn’t clear whose idea it was to do so. However, as he also observes, it was obvious at the time to other FBI and CIA personnel that Moussaoui was a threat, and that HQ’s stated reasons for blocking a criminal or FISA investigation were bogus. It seems likely this would have been obvious to Frasca, Maltbie and Flack. They had reason to understand what they were doing was wrong, potentially criminal, and that a terrorist attack might be the result. It seems unlikely they would simply trust the judgment of Wilshere, a recently-transferred CIA manager. The CIA was an agency with which the FBI had a long history of inconsistent cooperation and some level of rivalry. As Wilshere and Blee would be personally unable to protect them from any fallout, it defies my imagination how they could have been convinced to go along with these efforts, unless they knew they would be rewarded in some way, and protected from any fallout.
Other examples, noted by Fenton, include surveillance of Al Qaeda operatives in the US by Saudi and Israeli intelligence; the shut down of Able Danger; the NSA’s pre-9/11 warrantless monitoring of US persons; and the failure of four separate official investigations to conclude there was wrongdoing, despite documenting evidence of it. All of these things individually are difficult to explain if Blee is the highest-level person with full knowledge of a goal to enable 9/11. When considered together, it is difficult to believe these are a coincidence; that Blee got lucky, over and over. However, none of this is direct evidence, and conceivably the whole truth is more complex. A full investigation is in order.
In the epilogue, Fenton acknowledges the existence of many other unanswered 9/11 questions. He questions whether there was a relationship between the failures outlined in the book and other “alleged failures” surrounding 9/11 – specifically the failure to intercept any of the hijacked airliners over a nearly two hour period – and states the only way this can be resolved is with a “new, credible investigation” (394). Assuming there is a relationship – and coincidence/luck seems unlikely – then a plot to facilitate 9/11 must have existed which was much larger than Blee. However, these other areas are outside of Fenton’s area of expertise, and, being cautious and conservative regarding a very serious matter, he only points to these as areas deserving of closer scrutiny, and does not render prior judgment on what a full investigation might uncover. In my view, his credibility is enhanced by his refusal to do so. He supports a credible investigation, and that is what is needed.
If someone wants to gain a broader understanding of 9/11, I would recommend visiting the site Fenton contributes to, HistoryCommons.org, in particular the section called The Complete 9/11 Timeline. Two other very useful web-based resources are 911Research.WTC7.net and 911Review.COM. Three credible books dealing with a broader focus are: The Complete 9/11 Timeline by Paul Thompson; The Road to 9/11 by Peter Dale Scott; and The War on Truth by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed.
Disconnecting the Dots is a valuable aid to those seeking to understand what happened at NSA, CIA and FBI leading up to 9/11, who was involved, what evidence is available, and what are some of the lines of investigation that need to be pursued. This book is also useful for understanding how this information and these questions fit into the whole of the events surrounding and intersecting 9/11, for those who are familiar with, or will research other areas of 9/11. One will not gain a broad understanding of the entirety of the problems with the official 9/11 conspiracy theory from this book, but, by itself, it disproves the Establishment’s explanation of 9/11 and proposes a much more probable explanation. It is clear that a new investigation is called for simply based on the evidence and analysis presented in it. Any new investigation cannot itself be considered credible if it does not account for the facts in the contexts Fenton presents them, does not pursue the questions he raises, and does not conduct itself in a transparent manner, including by compelling those named to testify in public under oath, and by making the underlying records public.
*Disclosure: Kevin Fenton and I are both contributors to HistoryCommons.org. In addition, many of the 9/11 Commission records that Fenton cites in Disconnecting the Dots were obtained by me, from the National Archives.
An interview I conducted with Fenton on August 8, 2011 is kindly being hosted by Jeff Hill at PumpItOut.com: