Peter Lance interview with 1115
Here's the transcript:
We have been following the work of author/investigative journalist Peter Lance since the spectacular 1000 YEARS FOR REVENGE was released in 2003. If you haven’t read it (or its follow up COVER UP), we highly recommend that you catch up. We’ve previously interviewed Lance upon the publication of 1000 YEARS FOR REVENGE here and COVER UP here.
Lance’s new book TRIPLE CROSS: How bin Laden’s Master Spy Penetrated the CIA, the Green Berets, and the FBI - and Why Patrick Fitzgerald Failed to Stop Him is out now. As we’ve come to expect from Lance, it is full of startling revelations and infuriating tales of incompetence, dereliction of duty, and willful cover-your-ass behavior by the very people charged with protecting this country. Lance has again granted us an extended interview in which he explains his methods and findings over his last five years of research.
Matt Cohen: One phrase often heard since 9/11 is “9/11 changed everything.” The timeline in TRIPLE CROSS starts 20 years earlier with the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, and continues through the killing of Rabbi Meier Kahane in New York in 1990.
The subject of the book, Ali Mohamed was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group that killed Sadat, and trained the men (man) who murdered Kahane, with some of the training even showing up on FBI surveillance photographs from a shooting range in Calverton, Long Island (as early as 1989).
Was 9/11 really necessary before it became a bad idea to let Ali Mohamed into the Army - and an elite and highly secure unit, at that - and allow him to operate as a CIA asset?
Peter Lance: In order to answer that question in depth, we need to track back a bit.
TRIPLE CROSS is the last book in my 9/11 investigative trilogy. All three books have sought to answer that question: was 9/11 necessary? By focusing on the New York Office of the FBI (NYO) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), the two bin Laden “offices of origin.”
Keep in mind that up until 9/11 the U.S. conducted the “war on terror” almost entirely as a series of legal prosecutions investigated by the NYO through its Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and Foreign Counterintelligence (FCI) squads and prosecuted by the Assistant U.S. Attorneys of the SDNY.
In 1000 YEARS FOR REVENGE I documented gross negligence by the NYO and JTTF in failing to stop Ramzi Yousef, the original WTC bomber who set the 1,500 pound urea-nitrate/fuel oil device in 1993. I also proved that it was Yousef who set in motion the “planes as missiles” plot in Manila in 1994 and that after his capture in 1995, the plot was merely executed by his uncle Khalid Shaikh Mohamed (KSM), the man the FBI calls the 9/11 “mastermind.”
In 1000 YEARS FOR REVENGE I pointed out multiple opportunities for the JTTF and other NYO investigators to interdict al Qaeda’s juggernaut from the murder of Kahane on Nov 5th, 1990 right up through September 11th.
It was Ali Mohamed who trained the first WTC bombing cell for Yousef. It was Ali Mohamed who trained Egyptian El Sayyid Nosair who killed Rabbi Meier Kahane in 1990. He also trained Clement Rodney Hampton El, an American Muslim who was convicted in 1995 in the “Day of Terror” plot to blow up the bridges and tunnels into Manhattan.
MC: In your two previous books you went beyond proof of gross negligence in the FBI and Justice Department and actually documented obstruction of justice. We cover negligence and obstruction every day, but most of that gets shrugged off as “politics as usual.” When it comes to the FBI/Justice Department, the goal should be to keep the country safe, yet they are just as bad as the politicians who run the show.
PL: In COVER UP – I proved that officials of the NYO and SDNY had actually buried a treasure trove of al Qaeda related evidence from Ramzi Yousef that they had obtained in 1996 from a mob informant who occupied the cell next to Yousef at the Metropolitan Correctional Center – the MCC in Lower Manhattan. Much of that intel was contained on a series of FBI #302 memos that can be accessed on my website.
They include a bomb recipe from Yousef which discusses the use of acetone peroxide as an explosive chemical. You will recall that acetone peroxide was the essential chemical that was to be used in the trans-Atlantic airliner bombing plot uncovered last August by MI-5 – a plot that both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times reported was a mirror image of Ramzi Yousef’s failed 1995 Bojinka plot. So I proved in COVER UP that ten year earlier the Feds in the FBI’s NYO and the SDNY buried key intelligence that could have alerted counter terrorism officials worldwide of such a plot a decade before.
MC: That sounds like it has chilling relevance to the terror threat climate today?
PL: Absolutely. When you have to take your shoes off before getting on an airline flight, it’s not because of Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber.” It’s because in a “wet test” for the Bojinka plot aboard Philippine Airlines Flight #434 on December 11th, 1994, Yousef had smuggled the 9 volt batteries for his Casio-nitro “bomb trigger” in the heels of his shoes.
The reason there is now a restriction on carrying liquids and gels on flights is because of Yousef – the same restrictions were used for months in Asia in 1995 when his Bojinka plot to blow up a dozen airliners over the Pacific was first exposed.
Most of this (absent the August plot) was reported in COVER UP, published in 2004.
MC: But you still had a number of unanswered questions.
PL: That’s right. And the 9/11 Commission – before which I testified – told only a fragment of the full story – focusing on the years 1998 forward. In fact, a former SDNY prosecutor named Dietrich Snell, — who had prosecuted Yousef for Bojinka in 1996 — became the senior counsel to the Commission in charge of determining the “origin of the plot.”
This was the single most important determination the Commission could make because, if you can’t pinpoint when the “planes as missiles” plot began, you can’t fairly hold U.S. counterterrorism officials accountable for failing to prevent it.
Snell had prosecuted Yousef in the case where that 1996 treasure trove of intelligence was buried. So he was a walking conflict of interest. It was Snell, indeed, who took my “testimony” on March 15th, 2004 in a windowless conference room at 26 Federal Plaza – the HQ of the FBI’s NYO where the Commission had offices.
In the end, Snell reduced the reams of once classified material I gave the Commission from the Philippines National Police to a footnote in the final report. And then he pushed the plot original forward two years from Manila to Afghanistan, claiming falsely that KSM had merely “pitched” the plot to bin Laden and that, at the time he wasn’t even a member of al Qaeda.
What was Snell’s authority in the 9/11 Commission Report – the last official report on the biggest mass murder in U.S. history? Khalid Shaikh Mohammed himself – his word alone – after having been tortured and water boarded following his capture in March 2003. To me this was like taking the word of David Berkowitz for when he did the first Son of Sam Murder. KSM was UTTERLY unreliable as a witness and yet Snell fixed the plot origin allegedly based on KSM’s word.
MC: Why would he do that?
PL: I believe to remove KSM’s nephew Ramzi from the plot and thus relieve the two “offices of origin” from culpability for not stopping 9/11. Because, as I prove definitively in 1000 YEARS FOR REVENGE, the JTTF could have stopped Yousef in 1992 – when George H.W. Bush was in the White House. And if they had – they would have stopped 9/11 because Yousef was the criminal genius behind its origin –
An outside the box thinker and engineer trained in Wales who went from building WMDs to be transported to a target by truck like the original WTC device, to these ingenious little “bomb triggers” which, when planted above the fuel tank of a 747, would blow down, acting as “blasting caps” to turn the entire aircraft itself into a bomb.
That was the intent of Bojinka. But for an Act of God – a fire in Yousef’s Manila bomb factory – he might have pulled it off in 1995.
MC: But why would responsible FBI and DOJ officials bury evidence of Yousef’s connection to the 9/11 plot or this 1996 “treasure trove?”
PL: The answers are in COVER UP. But I needed further proof to connect the dots and that’s why I woke up one day and realized that Ali Mohamed was the real key.
Mohamed, an ex-Egyptian Army Major and commando who spoke four languages including Hebrew and had two psychology degrees, was the chosen spy of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad EIJ) as early as 1984. Mohamed penetrated the CIA in Hamburg in 1994, then al-Zawahiri vectored in toward the U.S.
By 1989 after the EIJ had merged into al Qaeda, Ali Mohamed who had enlisted in the U.S. Army and gotten himself stationed at the JFK Special Warfare Center (SWC) at Fort Bragg – was stealing top secret documents and coming up weekends to New York where he trained – as noted: El Sayyid Nosair who murdered Kahane, Mohammed Salameh and Mahmoud Abouhalima, later convicted in Yousef’s WTC bombing and Clement Rodney Hampton El, a U.S. Muslim later convicted by Patrick Fitzgerald and Andrew C. McCarthy in the 1995 “Day of Terror” case.
MC: So you’re saying that Ali Mohamed by the mid 90’s was on Patrick Fitzgerald’s radar?
PL: Mohamed had been named as an unindicted co-conspirator along with bin Laden, his brother in law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa and 168 others and yet, I was astonished to discover that Ali Mohamed has been working as an FBI informant from 1992 – snookering the two “offices of origin” the way he’s snookered the Green Berets.
After taking a long time to answer your question – the reason, I concluded that the Feds allowed him to operate with such impunity – is that they first thought they could turn him and later, they were terrified that his years of eating the FBI’s lunch would come out if he ever got on the stand so they stuck their fingers in the leaking dike and hoped that it would hold. But it didn’t – and the African Embassy bombings, which Mohamed had personally planned and helped to execute, were the immediate result.
MC: In your reporting, did you come across any theories as to what the government is doing with Mohamed now?
PL: After the Embassy bombings in early August 1998, the Feds took a month to arrest Mohamed. They then held him for 9 months in the MCC on a John Doe warrant, terrified that word of his years of duplicity would get out. They negotiated with him and his lawyers for almost 2 years and finally cut a plea deal in October 2000 which spared him the death penalty.
But as best as I could determine all they got in return was his silence. He’s never seen the light of day in a courtroom – even though under the exception to the Rule Against Hearsay for co-conspirator testimony he would have been the best possible witness for Patrick Fitzgerald to put on the stand in February, 2001 when he commenced U.S. vs. bin Laden, the African Embassy bombing case.
In fact, Ali was never called to testify because as defense lawyers told me, the Feds didn’t want defense counsel peeling back the layers and showing how from the 1984 CIA penetration to the 2 years at Fort Bragg and the six years from 1992 that Ali was interacting with the FBI and federal prosecutors, nobody seemed to realize that he was al Qaeda’s perfect spy – this…
· Despite the fact that as early as 1993 he’d confessed to his west coast control Agent John Zent that he was working for somebody named bin Laden and an organization called al Qaeda that was bent on overthrowing the Saudi Government
· Despite the fact that Andrew McCarthy met face to face with Ali in December 1994 around the time he’d named him as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Day of Terror case and Ali had told him that he was merely running a scuba diving business in Kenya.
· Despite the fact that from 1996 on Squad I-49, the bin Laden Squad in the NYO had a wiretap on the Nairobi phone of Wadih El-Hage, one of the primary bombing plotters, whom Ali was staying with in Kenya.
· Despite the fact that in August 1997, Dan Coleman, a key special agent in I-49, which Patrick Fitzgerald was directing, searched El-Hage’s house and found Ali Mohamed’s phone number and address in Sacramento, California where he was living.
· Despite the fact that in October, 1997 Fitzgerald and two I-49 agents including Jack Cloonan met Ali at a restaurant in Sacramento and tried, in vain, to turn him. At that meeting Ali said that he “loved” bin Laden and that he didn’t need a fatwa or religious degree to attack the U.S. (his adopted country). He also said that he had multiple sleepers that he could make operational on a moment’s notice and that he himself could disappear.
· Despite the fact that after that meeting Fitzgerald turned to Cloonan and declared Ali the most dangerous man he had ever met and vowed not to leave him “on the street.” And yet he did for another 10 months only to have the bombs go off in Kenya and Tanzania – a plot that was more Ali Mohamed’s than any other single al Qaeda operative.
MC: What did the Feds get in return for cutting this deal with Mohamed?
PL: Basically, they got Ali Mohamed’s silence. In return for that Ali Mohamed exists today in a form of custodial witness protection. He has never been sentenced for his crimes and the Judge at his plea hearing in 2000 even raised the possibility that he would someday be released.
MC: Why did he get this special treatment?
PL: Because as I wrote in TRIPLE CROSS in the poker game between the hunters and the hunted Ali held all the face cards.
As soon as they locked him up he knew that he was in the cat bird’s seat because the Feds would rather not bring him to justice than be embarrassed at how he’d eaten their lunches for years.
MC: But as you suggest that decision had catastrophic consequences
PL: Clearly. First because if Ali’s 14 year terror spree had been fully exposed in early 2001 that intelligence on al Qaeda’s bench strength, taken together with all of the other intel that was bombarding U.S. agencies in the spring and summer of 2001 might have alerted the Feds to the 9/11 plot –
Second because Ali himself knew every detail of the plot and the Feds, in giving him a pass, failed to get it out of him.
Worse – I prove in the book in the case of Sphinx Trading that Fitzgerald and McCarthy were onto a mailbox store in Jersey City (where El Sayyid Nosair – the Kahane killer had a mailbox)
as early as 1990.
MC: You write about Sphinx Trading as a sort of epicenter of terror. Yet either no one put the pieces together, or didn’t want to.
PL: Fitzgerald and McCarthy had named Waleed al-Noor, the store’s co-incorporator to that same unindicted co conspirators list that Ali and bin Laden were on in 1994/1995.
Where do you think two of the 9/11 muscle hijackers (al-Midhar and al-Hazmi) got their fake ID’s in July of 2001? Sphinx Trading.
As I detailed on the Huffington Post on November 17th, all the Feds had to do was treat Sphinx the way they’d treated John Gotti’s Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry Street and they would have been right in the middle of the “planes as missiles” plot.
MC: At what point in your research of this book did you uncover Fitzgerald’s links to Mohamed?
PL: As I noted in the story of Sphinx, Fitzgerald and McCarthy were onto Ali as early as 1994.
In January, 1996, Fitzgerald began directing I-49 in the NYO as a dedicated “bin Laden Squad”. Lawrence Wright in THE LOOMING TOWER covers some of this ground, but he does zero critical analysis of these FBI agents. He just takes their word at face value.
What I’ve done is analyzed their stories against a massive database that I’ve been building for five years that includes dozens of books, more than 10,000 open source news articles, more than 45,000 pages of trial transcripts and dozens of interviews with sources inside and retired from the FBI and the DOJ.
One of my most stunning findings – and there’s a seven page Affirmation sworn to by Fitzgerald and dated June 25th, 1999 – it’s an appendix in TRIPLE CROSS. In it he tried to explain why he buried that treasure trove of intel from Ramzi Yousef in 1996 – including proof of an active al Qaeda cell in NYC – by calling it a “hoax” and a “scam.”
Well I found the wiseguy, John Napoli whom Fitzgerald cites as the primary source for that “hoax” and “scam” story and he categorically denied it.
There are some people who might consider Fitzgerald’s suppression of that evidence as obstruction of justice. The problem is that it would take a federal prosecutor from the Justice Department to make that determination.
Do you see how the dog starts to chase his tail here?
MC: To people who don’t follow such things very closely, Fitzgerald’s media coverage during the Plame investigation seemed to come out of nowhere. But it was always the same people vouching for his integrity and tenacity that drove the narrative. Shouldn’t something as big as his cover up of Mohamed have come out when Fitzgerald was in the headlines every day?
PL: I was able to make these connections after five years of seven day weeks and fourteen hour days. I also had not only the capability – with a J.D. and classical training as an investigative reporter with ABC News – but I had the will –
I kept the mass card of Ronnie Bucca on the wall next to my desk each day as I worked. He was the incredibly heroic FDNY Fire Marshal whose story I told in 1000 YEARS FOR REVENGE. Not only had he been predicting for years that al Qaeda and Yousef’s people would return to hit “The Towers,” but on 9/11 he died on the 78th floor of the South Tower trying to save lives and beat back the flames.
I invite any of your readers to sample the detail that I put into this epic story. They can download a pdf of the 32 page color, illustrated time line in the middle of the book by going to peterlance.com. They can also sample some of the heretofore classified DOJ documents in the book and download pdf’s of some of the FBI 302’s.
Anyone that takes half an hour to read that time line will tell you that a daily deadline reporter – even one with the will – could never have uncovered the story of Fitzgerald’s negligence and intent in the midst of the CIA leak coverage.
MC: In 1000 Years, and Cover Up you exposed a multitude of mistakes and acts of willful subterfuge on the part of FBI/CIA agents and prosecutors, but with the exception of Special Agent in Charge Carson Dunbar’s disastrous intervention into the case of informant Emad Salem, Triple Cross is the first time you’ve really written about anyone in positions of real power.
Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, who has been under attack since 9/11 for her infamous “wall memo” on investigations vs. intelligence gathering, comes under your microscope, but not for the reasons she has up to now. Others in the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s office are called into question as well. Isn’t it the job of supervisors and management to analyze the work product of their organizations and look for the kinds of conflict and incompetence you have illustrated in three successive books?
PL: Sure it’s their job – but even the best managers, as I found – began covering up the incompetence and negligence years earlier. Sen. Chuck Grassley at a Judiciary Committee hearing in September, 2005 called it “the oldest excuse inside the Beltway – CYA.”
What I’ve documented in my three books isn’t some big “Oliver Stone conspiracy.” It’s the repeated failure of the best and the brightest in the FBI and the DOJ to do their jobs and then, when confronted with the consequences of the negligence – like the attacks on the WTC, the Embassies and the U.S.S. Cole – to prevent the American public from getting a true picture of just how at risk they really are from al Qaeda.
MC: You tie the Pentagon’s data-mining project “Able Danger” into the larger cover-up. When the story of Able Danger first broke in 2005, it was typically a very polarizing subject, due in no small part to its source, Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon. But even discounting Weldon’s role, Army Lt Colonel Anthony Shaffer seems to be a very credible witness who has certainly suffered some serious retribution for his public statements. Not much remains of Able Danger’s findings, but you include a link chart in Triple Cross that seems to prove they were onto something. How does Able Danger fit in with the rest of your reporting?
PL: Able Danger was a data mining operation commenced in December, 1999 on the orders of Gen. Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Gen. Pete Schoomaker, head of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
More than a year after the Embassy bombings, they realized that the U.S. military would eventually have “boots on the ground” against al Qaeda, so they commenced a massive “dating mining” operation. Here’s an excerpt from TRIPLE CROSS to give you an idea of how it worked citing an extensive interview I did with Col. Shaffer, whom I consider impeccably honest.
“The operation’s data-mining center was located at the Land Information Warfare Activity (LIWA) at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Known as ‘spook central,’ Fort Belvoir housed the Information Dominance Center—a building full of army intelligence “geeks,” whose bullpen area was designed to look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek.
“The lead LIWA analyst running the data mine was Dr. Eileen Priesser, a double Ph.D. The operations officer was a decorated U.S. Navy captain named Scott Phillpott. Army Major Eric Kleinsmith was LIWA’s intelligence chief. J.D. Smith and Jacob L. Boesen, working as a contract analysts from Orion Scientific, designed many of the link charts in which the “deep data points” connecting the key al Qaeda players were represented graphically.
“’You would ask them, for example, to look at Khalid Shaikh Mohammed,’ says Shaffer, ‘and these search engines would scour the internet 24/7 looking at any number of open-source databases, from credit reporting agencies to court records and news stories to Lloyd’s of London insurance records. You name it. Once a known associate of KSM was found, they would go through the same process for that individual.’
“One IDC analyst I spoke to described it as ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon on steroids.”
“Told to ‘Start with the words ‘Al Qaeda’ and go,’ the LIWA data crunchers began an initial harvest in December 1999. The data grew fast and exponentially, and before long it amounted to two terabytes—equal to about 9 percent of the books in the Library of Congress. “It was a mile wide and an inch deep,” says Kleinsmith. “Naturally only a small percentage of the data related to terrorism,” says Tony, ‘So we would have to neck it down —cull it — until we had some substantive hits.’
Within months, Operation Able Danger had uncovered some astonishing intelligence.
“’We found active an al Qaeda cell in the U.S linked to radical Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman,’” says Shaffer, now a lieutenant colonel. ‘That was most frightening—that as late as early 2000 we detected that kind of al Qaeda presence here.’
“Examining Sheikh Rahman’s Brooklyn cell—which operated out of Ali Mohamed’s old stomping grounds, the al Farooq mosque—the LIWA analysts made another alarming discovery.
“We identified lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, who flew UA 175 into the South Tower of the Trade Center, and two of the muscle hijackers aboard AA 77, which hit the Pentagon,’ says Shaffer. That linkage was made months before any of the other Big Five intelligence agencies would trip to their presence.
Coming as it did in early 2000, the identification of Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi was a crucial find for the SOCOM operation.
“Of all the 9/11 hijackers, these two Saudis had the longest records of al Qaeda involvement, and beginning in January 2000, they soon became the most visible of the 19 operatives. In fact, the two failed pilots appeared on the radar of the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI so many times in the eighteen months before 9/11 that the U.S. intelligence community had multiple opportunities to thwart the plot.
“Al-Midhar and Al-Hazmi were the poster boys who came to symbolize the “stove piping” between U.S. agencies in their failure to share intelligence before 9/11.
“Until now, most of the blame for failure to track the two Saudis has been leveled at the Central Intelligence Agency. As recently as August 2006, in his 9/11 book THE LOOMING TOWER, New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright charged that the CIA’s hoarding of intelligence on al Midhar, al Hazmi, and another key al Qaeda operative ‘may, in effect, have allowed the September 11 plot to proceed.’
“But even if the FBI had received no help from any other agency, we’ve uncovered compelling evidence that the agents of Squad I-49 should have tripped to the presence of the two hijackers in the U.S. months before they flew AA Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
Atta himself came into the U.S. on or about June 3rd, 2000, and we know that the Able Danger unit swept INS lists – so it is entirely conceivable that they I.D.’d him as Shaffer and Phillpott claimed they did. In fact, Atta rented a room in Brooklyn using his own name. He wasn’t as highly visible as al Midhar and al Hazmi were in San Diego, but his presence could have easily been detected given the kind of sweep Able Danger was doing.
MC: With the reports over the last few years of the government listening to domestic calls without even easily obtainable (and retroactive) warrants, tracing money via the SWIFT bank transfer system in contravention of the laws in Europe, and other quasi-legal intelligence gathering methods, do you have any doubt that a program identical to Able Danger is up and running? And if so, how do you balance privacy with the government’s need to know? Wouldn’t a good example of the conundrum a situation like the FBI going after the Times reporters who broke the domestic spying story or even Judy Miller’s time in prison for defying Fitzgerald?
PL: In my opinion there is a huge difference between doing data mining sweeps of open source data, as was done by Able Danger and then honing down the links related to known terrorists – such as declared members of al Qaeda and spying on U.S. citizens via wiretaps – or chilling reporters with subpoenas – both of which undermine the constitutional underpinnings of this nation.
Here’s the difference: there is no harm in the detection of raw intelligence with a potential connection to terrorism, especially if the intel is collected from open source data bases where an individual would have no reasonable expectation of privacy.
The harm is in the long term storage of data on what are known as U.S. persons – a term defined by Executive Order 12333, an intelligence directive signed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan after the Senate and House hearings into CIA domestic spying abuses in the late 1970s.
“The EO,” as it’s known, was designed to prevent the Pentagon from storing data indefinitely on “U.S. persons,” a term defined to include American citizens, U.S. corporations; even permanent resident aliens.
That kind of storage can produce Gestapo-like files on American citizens, and legal aliens and that is something I would fight tooth and nail against.
But making connections on known terrorists using open source data is not only legal but necessary to thwart the al Qaeda threat. And, in fact, there are two enormous exceptions in EO 12333 for data collected from open sources and terrorism related intelligence.
What we have to fear – and I think Patrick Fitzgerald’s conduct in the CIA leak case represents this problem at its extreme – is the Government interfering with the press in pursuit of an investigation.
The fact that Fitzgerald put Judith Miller away for 85 days is shocking – no matter how you might feel about her flawed reporting on Iraqi intel in the lead up to war. She’s still a reporter and needs to be able to protect her confidential sources.
Clearly we need a federal shield law that protects not only daily deadline print and electronic media journalists, but historians and writers like me who report on the internet and in book form on matters of public interest.
MC: What is your opinion of Fitzgerald’s conduct of the CIA leak case?
PL: Consider this excerpt from TRIPLE CROSS on my sense of how Fitzgerald has already chilled the New York Times, arguably the greatest paper in America:
The determination of whether or not the Bush White House used its media influence to spank a critic who accused the administration of cooking the intelligence books in the lead-up to the war, and put a CIA employee (of any status) at risk, is a question worthy of investigation. If Patrick Fitzgerald botched it through negligence or intent, he ought to be held accountable. There seems to be bipartisan dissatisfaction about the way he’s run the leak probe.
But until he issues other indictments, or backs out of the Libby case and shuts down the grand jury, he deserves the benefit of the doubt on whether his investigation will ever yield the full truth on the Plame-Wilson outing.
Having said that, one thing is very clear: whether he’s uncovered a convictable crime in the leak, Fitzgerald has chilled the press, and that may well be his most damaging legacy.
As recently as September 18, writing in the New York Observer, Michael Calderone noted that a number of New York Times reporters have had to adopt the techniques of drug dealers—literally resorting to disposable cell phones and erasable notes in their efforts to avoid subpoenas and “shake” the Feds.
In a 2006 memo, Times executive editor Bill Keller reportedly cited “the persistent legal perils that confront us.” On September 18, 2006 Keller found himself on the cover of New York magazine in a story headlined “Times Under Siege.” It detailed a December 2005 meeting at the White House in which Keller was confronted by the president, former counsel Harriet Miers, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and former National Security Agency director (now CIA director) Michael Hayden. For a year, the Times had delayed publication of a story that the NSA had been monitoring the phone calls of U.S. citizens without court authorized warrants.
The December meeting in the Oval Office signaled a showdown over the possible publication of the piece. At one point in the meeting, according to reporter Joe Hagen, “Bush issued an emphatic warning: If [the Times] revealed the secret program to the public and there was another terrorist attack on American soil, the Paper of Record would be implicated. ‘The basic message,’ recalls Keller, ‘was ‘You’ll have blood on your hands.’’”
Eleven days after that meeting on December 16, the Times ran a story at the top left of its front page headlined “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts.” It was written by reporters James Risen, who had done such seminal work on Ali Mohamed, and Eric Lichtblau, who was among the first reporters to reveal the failure of the Trilogy project at the FBI. That first piece, and their ongoing coverage of the NSA wiretap story, earned Risen and Litchblau the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. It also locked the “Grey Lady,” as the Times is known, in a war with the White House that only escalated after the publication on June 23, 2006, of another piece by Lichtblau and Risen (with reporter Barclay Walsh) revealing a secret Bush administration program to examine the bank records of thousands of Americans.
The White House campaign against the Times has led to a grand jury probe of the NSA wiretap leak, and calls by conservative columnists to charge Keller and other Times editors under the Espionage Act.
“The main worry these days is not libel, proving that you actually quoted something accurately,” said Craig Witney, the standard’s editor for the Times, “It’s being subpoenaed.”
Indeed, on August 12, 2006, in researching the Able Danger issue for this book, I placed a call to New York Times reporter Phil Shenon, who (with Douglas Jehl) was among the first to break the data-mining story a year earlier. There was a Fitzgerald-related angle that I wanted to pursue.
Shannon’s response? “Peter, I’m sorry but I can’t discuss anything that might even remotely involve [Patrick] Fitzgerald. He’s subpoenaed my records.”
Last month, in another case involving former Times reporter Judith Miller, a New York appeals court ruled that Fitzgerald could seize her phone records, as well as Shenon’s, in connection with their reporting on Islamic charities.
As an author, I can only wonder whether hypersensitivity to Fitzgerald’s tactics will cause the New York Times or other major media outlets to avoid coverage of the findings in this book. Time will tell.
MC: When the British government broke up a terror cell last summer based on the “bojinka” plot (smuggling liquid explosives and crude digital watch timers onto airlines) originally conceived by Ramzi Yousef in 1994 and live-tested on Philippines Air Lines flight in December of that year, what did it say about our security that government officials expressed surprise and the TSA immediately banned liquids on planes despite the method being 12 years old?
PL: The trans-Atlantic airliner plot was a mirror image of Ramzi Yousef’s Bojinka plot. The primary explosive was to have been manufactured using acetone peroxide. Go to peterlance.com and click #302s and scroll to the bottom of the right hand column to a note from Yousef to Scarpa Jr. in 1996 entitled “How to Smuggle Explosives Into An Airplane.” He cites the use of acetone peroxide.
This was part of the treasure trove of intel from Yousef buried by Patrick Fitzgerald and other Feds in that ends/means decision to save those six mob cases in 1996. Ask yourself which is the greatest worry: that al Qaeda would seek to resurrect a failed plot or that it took MI-5 to detect it because our own FBI and Justice Department are in denial over the Bojinka Yousef-Scarpa Jr. intel.
MC: Also in the area of things I learned first from reading your books is the case of Lindley DeVecchio, the former FBI agent who has figured prominently in your books as corrupt, even providing names and locations to one of his assets knowing that the information would lead to murder. How satisfying was it to have your work lead in part to DeVecchio’s arrest on murder charges? What do you know about the status of that case given the conflict of interest inherent if the Justice Department takes over the prosecution?
PL: “Allegedly corrupt,” since he has not yet been tried on those murder charges stemming – in some part from my research in COVER UP. It is satisfying to me as a journalist to know that I’m capable of uncovering truths, long buried and that there are some government officials that will respond to the truth. But it’s sad that it took the Brooklyn D.A. to open this investigation vs. the Feds themselves. It’s another measure of how the FBI and DOJ routinely circles the wagons in defense of their errors vs. admitting them and attempting to change the system.
MC: After writing about cover-ups, what was it like to become the victim of one when Justice Department officials convinced the National Geographic Channel to withhold interview transcripts that they were contractually obligated to share with you?
PL: In answer to that question I would like to refer your readers to the Huffington Post that I did on the subject.
In effect, the National Geographic Channel acquiesced to a hijacking of my research, but worse, they whitewashed virtually all of my critical findings about how the FBI failed to stop Ali Mohamed. They told half the story – only the fascinating Ali Mohamed part, not the second and most important part of the story about how Patrick Fitzgerald and some key Feds in Squad I-49 failed to stop Ali Mohamed. One of those Feds was Jack Cloonan, who the National Geographic Channel and the producer Towers Productions effective used to replace me as the narrative voice of a documentary they had contracted with me (via Towers Productions Inc.) to be based ENTIRELY on my enterprise reporting.
Fortunately I’ve got the COMPLETE story in TRIPLE CROSS available online and at bookstores everywhere.
MC: In the preface of Triple Cross, you explain that is was your son’s (then in high school) proximity to the World Trade Center and the loss of FDNY marshal Ronnie Bucca on 9/11 that pulled you back into investigative journalism to explore how that day came to pass. How have the last five years affected your outlook, do you feel that this time was well spent, and what would you do differently if you had the chance?
PL: I don’t have a single regret. I feel privileged to be able to use the skills I’ve developed over 30+ years as an investigative reporter to cover the most important story of our era and to cover it in the kind of depth any daily deadline reporter can only dream of.
My hope is that people will find TRIPLE CROSS and then go back and access my first two books (1000 YEARS FOR REVENGE and COVER UP) books, that I hope won’t only educate them to the al Qaeda threat but make them smart about how utterly the FBI and Justice Department played catch up all of those years – from the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in February, 1989 up through 9/11 and beyond.
The only change will come when the public is sufficiently informed, then angered and finally motivated to act. The first step is getting the intelligence to the people and TRIPLE CROSS does that – naming names and focusing the laser beam of accountability like no other book relating to the greatest mass murder in U.S. history – the ultimate “cold case,” 9/11.