For all the ways the September 11 attacks continue to shape US culture and foreign policy, the event is still shrouded in a surprising amount of mystery. A recently unearthed bombshell court filing offers some possible clarity on the questions that continue to surround the attacks and their aftermath — and yet, like similar bombshells in recent years, it’s been studiously ignored by the media and political establishment.
First reported by Rolling Stone contributing editor Seth Hettena on the Substack SpyTalk, the media project run by veteran former Newsweek national security reporter Jeff Stein, those potential answers come in the form of a signed affidavit from Guantanamo military commission investigator Don Canestraro. The affidavit outlines the findings of a 2016 investigation by Canestraro, a longtime veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), into Saudi and CIA complicity in the terrorist attacks, findings that are squarely at odds with the story given to the public in their wake.
Relaying the information gathered from dozens of interviews he conducted with former FBI and CIA personnel, members of the 9/11 Commission, and US government officials, Canestraro’s affidavit outlines a sequence of events that, if true, suggest a botched and illegal domestic CIA operation was at the heart of the intelligence failure that enabled the attacks. More than that, it suggests there was a concerted cover-up of the grave blunder after the fact by both the CIA and the George W. Bush administration.
Foiled by the CIA
The affidavit outlines the overlapping claims of numerous agents that the CIA impeded law enforcement efforts that could have prevented the attacks. Several former agents recalled being blocked by the agency from sharing intelligence about the hijackers with the rest of the FBI.
The CIA knew from wiretaps that two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Halid al-Mindhar, had multiple entry visas letting them travel to the United States, one former agent said, but didn’t pass it on to the bureau. Two other agents alleged that the CIA withheld information about the two men’s connection to the planner of the October 2000 al-Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole, which, if known, would have turned the case into a criminal investigation for the FBI to pursue.
One of those agents recalled a meeting with the CIA in which they were shown photos of three suspected terrorists, two of which would turn out to be future hijackers al-Hazmi and al-Mindhar. When the agent, referred to in the affidavit as CS-12, asked who was placing border crossing alerts on the suspects, which would have notified law enforcement about their entry into the United States, they were told no one was.
Later, when that same agent came across an electronic communication flagging that the two hijackers had entered the country, they were ordered to delete it immediately, because, having been obtained from intelligence sources, the dispatch could only be read by intelligence agents.
A “former senior FBI official” likewise told Canestraro that the CIA sat on the news that the hijackers had entered the United States in 2000. Why did the CIA so intensely gatekeep information on the future hijackers? That same official bluntly asserted that the agency was trying to recruit the two as intelligence sources. CS-12 recounted that he was frustrated in a conference call with FBI headquarters, in which they were ordered to “stand down” and stop looking for al-Mindhar, because the government was pursuing an intelligence gathering investigation on the suspect — something outside of the agent’s law enforcement remit.
In fact, multiple other witnesses told Canestraro that the CIA was hell-bent on infiltrating al-Qaeda. That includes not only two former FBI special agents, but also Bush’s chief counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke, who recalled that deputy CIA director Cofer Black told him prior to September 11 that the agency had no human intelligence sources in the terrorist group, and that “he was resolved to address this situation and penetrate Al Qaeda with informants,” Canestraro recounted.
It also included a former CIA official who had worked in the agency’s “Usama bin Laden [UBL] station,” tasked with keeping an eye on and combating the terrorist leader, who told Canestraro “there was extensive pressure from CIA management to develop human sources inside of Al-Qaeda,” according to the affidavit.
Though far from definitive, these allegations line up with theories about the lead-up to September 11 that have long floated around, including in Ray Nowosielski and John Duffy’s 2018 book, The Watchdogs Didn’t Bark: The CIA, NSA, and the Crimes of the War on Terror. Drawing similarly on claims from former officials and agents — some of whom, Hettena points out, almost certainly overlap with Canestraro’s own sources — Nowosielski and Duffy had at the time made a somewhat speculative case that a failed CIA recruitment effort had accidentally facilitated the attacks.
Friends in High Places
The disclosure may also shed further light on the role of the Saudi government, whose complicity in the attacks was confirmed last year in a declassified 2017 report from the FBI. According to Canestraro’s sources, since the CIA is legally barred from conducting intelligence operations on domestic soil, they circumvented this by having the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP), the principal Saudi intelligence agency with which the CIA had a close relationship, do their work for them.
What this meant in practice was that Omar al-Bayoumi — the Saudi national who helped the two hijackers settle in the United States and was revealed as a GIP asset in last year’s disclosures — was paid generously via the Saudi embassy. That embassy was run by Prince Bandar “Bush” bin Sultan Alsaud, nicknamed for his close relationship with the Bush family, and through whom al-Bayoumi was being paid to co-opt al-Hazmi and al-Mindhar by pretending he was in favor of their cause, so they could become CIA sources on the inside of al-Qaeda.
This is allegedly the context for al-Bayoumi’s highly suspicious chance meeting with the two hijackers in a Los Angeles restaurant, as well as the extraordinary assistance he lent them afterward, which included helping them get housing, bank accounts, and driver’s licenses, cosigning their lease, giving them financial help, and even paying their first month’s rent and security deposit. This was the theory Clarke put out publicly, disclosing to Canestraro that it earned him an angry phone call from then CIA director George Tenet, who didn’t deny the charge.
Of course, the CIA did not manage to recruit al-Hazmi and al-Mindhar. Instead, they and seventeen other al-Qaeda operators went on to hijack four commercial airliners and use them to carry out the worst terrorist attack on US soil, killing nearly three thousand people. If the testimony Canestraro gathered is accurate, it means the CIA inadvertently helped cause the very disaster they were trying to infiltrate al-Qaeda to prevent, all because of the opaque and unaccountable way the agency has become accustomed to working in.
What followed was a concerted cover-up by the CIA, FBI bigwigs, and the Bush administration more broadly, according to testimony outlined in the affidavit.
One former agent recalled the FBI faced “diplomatic pressure” not to investigate the Saudi links to the attacks, while another who was tasked with investigating leads after the attacks charged that agents were told not to interview Saudi nationals. When one former agent learned about the existence of a pre-9/11 FBI cable outlining information about the hijackers that had been blocked from distribution, he passed it on to the bureau’s deputy director for counterterrorism, Pasqual D’Amuro, who never mentioned it ever again — all before the agent was promoted out of the blue and moved, they suspected, to be silenced.
This cover-up allegedly extended to the 9/11 Commission, which was theoretically meant to get to the bottom of the intelligence failures that led to the attack. Clarke told Canestraro that Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the commission, had been specifically chosen by then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice “to prevent damage to the Bush administration by blocking the Commission’s line of inquiry into the Saudi connection,” according to the affidavit.
One former commission investigator who was tasked specifically with looking into that very matter alleged that Zelikow limited the number of witnesses they could interview and blocked the investigator’s attempts to obtain documents. They were ultimately fired by Zelikow for obtaining through unofficial channels a classified index to Congress’s inquiry, which revealed agency reports about the Saudis’ complicity, a “minor security violation” as they saw it that was really about blunting the commission’s inquiry into the Saudi role.
The CIA allegedly played a role in this too. One former FBI agent recalled learning that the CIA agent deployed to their FBI field office immediately after 9/11 was really there to look at FBI files and try to pin the blame on the bureau for the attacks. Another agent — identified by SpyTalk as likely being Mark Rossini, who was ultimately forced out of the FBI for leaking documents to an ex-girlfriend — recounted how CIA officials told them and their colleague prior to being interviewed by congressional investigators not to cooperate fully, because they were looking to “hang someone” for the attacks.
An officer sat in the room during the interview with investigators, leading the agent to leave out crucial and potentially damaging information in their testimony: that a report prepared by a colleague about the possible presence of hijackers al-Hazmi and al-Mindhar in the country had never been sent out to the rest of the FBI as intended, because it had been blocked by a CIA analyst — who subsequently lied that it had been passed on. The same FBI agent later overheard CIA director Tenet and director of operations James Pavitt discussing how keeping the CIA analyst from 9/11 Commission investigators had been a good idea.
Inside the House
Even accepting the picture painted by the affidavit leaves behind some loose ends. If Saudi intelligence was merely innocently doing the CIA’s bidding, why did FBI officials conclude that “there is a 50/50 chance [al-Bayoumi] had advanced knowledge the 9/11 attacks were to occur”? And if that’s the case, why didn’t al-Bayoumi act on this foreknowledge?
Still, the disclosures contained in Canestraro’s affidavit paint a compelling possible scenario for what went so terribly wrong in the lead-up to the September 11 attacks. They suggest that instead of the Saudi government, it was the United States’ own intelligence agency that played the leading role in shielding the 9/11 hijackers from detection and unwittingly facilitating their crime, all because of the agency’s extreme secrecy, and because it was acting outside the bounds of the law — far from the first or last such instance in the CIA’s history.
The agency then worked in concert with the Bush administration to cover all this up, with each using the screwup to launch several foolish wars, funnel more power and resources to themselves, and go on a spree of yet more lawbreaking.
But maybe the most astounding thing is that, just like last year, despite the magnitude of these allegations — and despite the colossal shadow the crime at hand cast over US society, and how it continues to drive both foreign and domestic policy for the worse — they’ve received little attention. At the time of writing, you can count the number of US outlets that have covered the affidavit on two hands: SpyTalk, Florida Bulldog, the Grayzone, RadarOnline, Breaking Points, Boing Boing, and this magazine, as well as Mumbai-based Firstpost, Free Press Kashmir, and the Beirut-based Al Mayadeen.
More than two decades later, there’s no price the US establishment won’t pay, no civil liberty it won’t bend, no effort it won’t go to prevent another September 11 — except, apparently, taking a critical eye to its own unaccountable intelligence agencies.