By CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM(Cont'd) What Did Israel Know in Advance of the 9/11 AttackThu Mar 8, 2007 16:19(Cont'd) What Did Israel Know in Advance of the 9/11 Attack
By CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM
In such a scenario, the CIA would either have worked actively with the Israelis or quietly abetted an independent operation on U.S. soil. In his 9/11 investigative book, The Looming Tower, author Lawrence Wright notes that FBI counterterrorism agents, infuriated at the CIA's failure to fully share information about Mihdhar and Hazmi, speculated that "the agency was shielding Mihdhar and Hazmi because it hoped to recruit them". The two al-Qaeda men, Wright notes, "must have seemed like attractive opportunities; however, once they entered the United States they were the province of the FBI..." Wright further observes that the CIA's reticence to share its information was due to a fear "that prosecutions resulting from specific intelligence might compromise its relationship with foreign services". When in the spring of 2002 the scenario of CIA's domestic subcontracting to foreign intelligence was posed to the veteran CIA/NSA intelligence operative, with whom I spoke extensively, the operative didn't reject it out of hand. The operative noted that in recent years the CIA's human intelligence assets, known as "humint" - spooks on the ground who conduct surveillances, make contacts, and infiltrate the enemy - had been "eviscerated" in favor of the NSA's far less perilous "sigint", or signals intelligence program, the remote interception of electronic communications. As a result, "U.S. intelligence finds itself going back to sources that you may not necessarily like to go back to, but are required to", the veteran intelligence operative said. "We don't like the fact, but our humint structures are gone. Israeli intel's humint is as strong as ever. If you have an intel gap, those gaps are not closed overnight. It takes years and years of diligent work, a high degree of security, talented and dedicated people, willing management and a steady hand. It is not a fun business, and it's certainly not one without its dangers. If you lose that capability, well organizations find themselves having to make a pact with the devil. The problem [in U.S. intel] is very great".
If such an understanding did exist between CIA and Mossad with regard to al-Qaeda's U.S. operatives, the complicity would explain a number of oddities: it would explain the CIA's nearly incoherent, and perhaps purposely deceptive, reconstruction of events as to how Mihdhar and Hazmi joined the watch list; it might even explain the apparent brazenness of the Israeli New Jersey cell celebrating on the morning of 9/11 (protected under the CIA wing, they were free to behave as they pleased). It would also explain the assertion in one of the leading Israeli dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth, that in the months prior to 9/11, when the Israeli "art students" were being identified and rounded up, the CIA "actively promoted their expulsion". The implication in the Yedioth Ahronoth article was that the CIA was simply being careless, not trying to spirit the Israelis safely out of the country. At this point we cannot be certain.
Israeli spying against the U.S. is of course hotly denied by both governments. In 2002, responding to my own questions about the "art students", Israeli embassy spokesman Mark Regev issued a blanket denial. "Israel does not spy on the United States", Regev told me. The pronouncements from officialdom are strictly pro forma, as it is no secret that spying by Israel on the United States has been wide-ranging and unabashed. A 1996 General Accounting Office report, for example, found that Israel "conducts the most aggressive espionage operation against the United States of any U.S. ally". More recently, a former intelligence official told the Los Angeles Times in 2004 that "[t]here is a huge, aggressive, ongoing set of Israeli activities directed against the United States". It is also routine that Israeli spying is ignored or downplayed by the U.S. government (the case of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, sentenced to life in prison in 1986, is a dramatic exception). According to the American Prospect, over the last 20 years at least six sealed indictments have been issued against individuals allegedly spying "on Israel's behalf", but the cases were resolved "through diplomatic and intelligence channels" rather than a public airing in the courts. Career Justice Department and intelligence officials who track Israeli espionage told the Prospect of "long-standing frustration among investigators and prosecutors who feel that cases that could have been made successfully against Israeli spies were never brought to trial, or that the investigations were shut down prematurely".
The Questions That Await Answers
Remarkably, the Urban Moving Systems Israelis, when interrogated by the FBI, explained their motives for "celebration" on the New Jersey waterfront a celebration that consisted of cheering, smiling, shooting film with still and video cameras and, according to the FBI, "high-fiving" - in the Machiavellian light of geopolitics. "Their explanation of why they were happy", FBI spokesman Margolin told me, "was that the United States would now have to commit itself to fighting [Middle East] terrorism, that Americans would have an understanding and empathy for Israel's circumstances, and that the attacks were ultimately a good thing for Israel". When reporters on the morning of 9/11 asked former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the effect the attacks would have on Israeli- American relations, he responded with a similar gut analysis: "It's very good", he remarked. Then he amended the statement: "Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy [for Israel from Americans]".
What is perhaps most damning is that the Israelis' celebration on the New Jersey waterfront occurred in the first sixteen minutes after the initial crash, when no one was aware this was a terrorist attack. In other words, from the time the first plane hit the north tower, at 8:46 a.m., to the time the second plane hit the south tower, at 9:02 a.m., the overwhelming assumption of news outlets and government officials was that the plane's impact was simply a terrible accident. It was only after the second plane hit that suspicions were aroused. Yet if the men were cheering for political reasons, as they reportedly told the FBI, they obviously believed they were witnessing a terrorist act, and not an accident.
After returning safely to Israel in the late autumn of 2001, three of the five New Jersey Israelis spoke on a national talk show that winter. Oded Ellner, who on the afternoon of September 11 had, like his compatriots, protested to arresting officer Sgt. Dennis Rivelli that "we're Israeli", admitted to the interviewer: "We are coming from a country that experiences terror daily. Our purpose was to document the event". By his own admission, then, Ellner stood on the New Jersey waterfront documenting with film and video a terrorist act before anyone knew it was a terrorist act.
One obvious question among many comes to mind: If these men were trained as professional spies, why did they exhibit such outright oafishness at the moment of truth on the waterfront? The ABC network source close to the 20/20 report noted one of the more disturbing explanations proffered by counterintelligence investigators at the FBI: "The Israelis felt that in some way their intelligence had worked out - i.e., they were celebrating their own acumen and ability as intelligence agents".
The questions abound: Did the Urban Moving Systems Israelis, ready to "document the event", arrive at the waterfront before the first plane came in from the north? And if they arrived right after, why did they believe it was a terrorist attack? What about the strange tale of the "art students"? Could they have been mere hustlers, as they claimed, who ended up repeatedly crossing paths with federal agents and living next door to most of the 9/11 hijackers by coincidence? Did the Israeli authorities find out more about the impending attacks than they shared with their U.S. counterparts? Or did the Israeli spies on the ground only intercept vague chatter that, in their view, did not warrant breaking cover to share the information? On the other hand, did the U.S. government receive more advance information about the attacks from Israeli authorities than it is willing to admit? What about the 9/11 Commission's eliding of reported Israeli warnings that may have led to the watch- listing of Mihdhar and Hazmi? Were the Israeli warnings purposely washed from the historical record? Did the CIA know more about pre-9/11 Israeli spying than it has admitted?
The unfortunate fact is that the truth may never be uncovered, not by officialdom, and certainly not by a passive press. James Bamford, who in a coup of reporting during the 1980s revealed the inner workings of the NSA in The Puzzle Palace, points to the "key problem": "The Israelis were all sent out of the country", he says. "There's no nexus left. The FBI just can't go knocking on doors in Israel. They need to work with the State Department. They need letters rogatory, where you ask a government of a foreign country to get answers from citizens in that country". The Israeli government will not likely comply. So any investigation "is now that much more complicated", says Bamford. He recalls a story he produced for ABC News concerning two murder suspects -- U.S. citizens - who fled to Israel and fought extradition for ten years. "The Israelis did nothing about it until I went to Israel, knocking on doors, and finally found the two suspects. I think it'd be a great idea to go over and knock on their doors", says Bamford.
The suspects are gone. The trail is cold. Yet many of the key facts and promising leads sit freely on the web, in the archives, safe in the news-morgues at 20/20 and The Forward and Die Zeit. An investigator close to the matter says it reminds him of the Antonioni film "Blow-Up", a movie about a photographer who discovers the evidence of a covered-up murder hidden before his very eyes in the frame of an enlarged photograph. It's a mystery that no one appears eager to solve.
The Kuala Lumpur Deceit: a CIA Cover Up by Christopher Ketcham
Ketcham's Story: Coming in From the Cold by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair
Christopher Ketcham is a freelance journalist who has written for Harper's and Salon. Many of his writings, including his groundbreaking story on the Israeli art students, can be read on his website www.christopherketcham.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com
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