Thursday, February 22, 2007

Today's Reading Assignment

...from Edward Jay Epstein at Mr. Epstein, a noted investigative reporter whose career has spanned four decades, is working on a book about the 9-11 Commission, and he finds both their work and tactics lacking. For example, Epstein notes that the commission never root funding "source" for the attacks on America in 2001, and the panel never bothered to corroborate accounts of the pre-9-11 conspiracy, provided almost exclusively by captured terrorists Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and Ramzi Binalshib. Both assert that the 9-11 attacks were a "contained" conspiracy, and offered no evidence that "lead" hijacker Mohammed Atta met with anyone else--or received outside assistance--during his extensive foreign travels before the plot unfolded.

But what if KSM and Binalshib lied to their CIA interrogators? Did the spy agency--and eventually, the 9-11 commissioners, ignore evidence of outside support for the hijackers, which facilitated the attacks that followed? In his OpinionJournal piece, Mr. Epstein points an accusatory finger at both the commissioners and the intelligence community, citing the work of Spain's top terror magistrate, Judge Baltazar Garzon. For years, Judge Garzon has been investigating the alleged ties between Al Qaida and a Spanish Islamist cell, and he produced an exhaustive report on that relationship almost four years ago. Garzon's report strongly refutes the 9-11 Commission's assertions regarding external support for the hijackers and their plot:

Mr. Garzon has produced a 697-page investigative report for Madrid's central court in September 2003, which charges that the Spanish cell--through its connections to Mohamed Atta's Hamburg cell and some of the pilots it recruited--helped plan, finance and support the 9/11 attacks.

In an interview, Mr. Garzon explained to me through an interpreter that the support of the Spanish cell began in the early days of the plot and continued up until the attack. He described evidence that ranged from video tapes that Spanish police had confiscated from the home of one of the Spanish conspirators, which methodically surveyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center from five different angles in the late 1990s, to a phone call intercepted by Spanish intelligence in August 2001 (at a time when the hijackers were buying tickets on the planes they planned to commandeer), in which an operative in London informed Yarkas that associates in "classes" had now "entered the aviation field," and were beheading "the bird." After drawing a diagram for me on a blackboard of how the Spanish cell connected to Atta's and Binalshibh's recruiters in Germany, he said it was "supporting the operation at every level."

For the record, the 9-11 Commission doesn't deny that Atta and Binalshibh traveled to Spain. Instead, they blithely accept statements from the captured terrorists that Binalshibh and Atta never met with anyone else during their trips to Spain. But once again, evidence compiled by Spanish authorities paints a different picture. Mr. Epstein notes that during the one week that Atta and Binalshibh were together in Spain, they literally dropped from sight for five days in July 2001. During that period, no credit card receipts, cell phone calls or hotel registrations can be traced to either terrorist, suggesting that the two men were probably sequestered in an Al Qaida-affiliated safe house. Judge Garzon believes that final planning for the 9-11 attacks was conducted in Spain, with the assistance of local terrorist facilitators.

But you won't see any of that in the 9-11 Commission Report, which describes Al Qaida as an isolated, almost monolithic organization. Not surprisingly, Mr. Epstein finds serious flaws in how the commission arrived at that conclusion, and the evidence used to support it:

"Yet if Mr. Garzon is correct about the Spanish connection to 9/11, it is not only the effectiveness of the CIA's interrogation of its al Qaeda prisoners that is called into question. The information from Binalshibh, KSM and other detainees was used to fill in the missing pieces of the jigsaw, and those gaps concerned the contacts the 9/11 conspirators might have had with others wishing to harm America. By saying that no one else was involved--not in Spain, Iran, Hezbollah, Malaysia, Iraq, the Czech Republic or Pakistan--these detainees allowed the 9/11 Commission to complete its picture of al Qaeda as a solitary entity."

"Yet to come to its conclusion on this most fundamental issue, the commission was prohibited from seeing any of the detainees whose accounts it relied on. Nor was it allowed even to question the CIA interrogators to determine the way that information was obtained. The commission's joint chairmen themselves later acknowledged that they "had no way of evaluating the credibility of detainee information." So when Judge Garzon comes up with evidence that runs counter to detainees' claims, cracks begin to emerge in the entire picture."

And, for good measure, here's another fissue in the evidentary picture and the commission's resulting conclusions. U.S. intelligence agencies maintain relationships with virtually all of their western counterparts, including Spain. According to Judge Garza, Spanish security services began monitoring that particular Islamist cell in the mid-1990s. Someone needs to ask how much of the information developed in Spain was shared with the CIA, the National Security Agency, or other intelligence organizations. Congress--and the American public--have a right to know whether there a breakdown in the relationship, i.e., the Spainards didn't provide information on this particular cell and its ties to other, suspected terrorists. Or was it a case where Spain provided information on the group--and it was simply ignored.

This is not a call for the 9-11 Commission to be empaneled again. The focus and tone of their "report" suggests that the commission had little desire to investigate intelligence failures before the Bush Administration entered office. But Epstein's revelations from Spain provide another reminder of the commission's short-comings, and the political biases inherent in its inquiry. I'm looking forward to Epstein's book; it should be a useful footnote to the panel's "official" findings.

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