Everybody knows that God protects drunks, little boys and the United States of America, and the how and why is many times a mystery. The survival of drunks, little boys and the United States depends on it. This fortunate providence works despite everything government bureaucrats can sometimes do to thwart it.
The FBI, we now learn, put a human asset — that’s bureaucratic speak for “a person” — in direct contact with Osama bin Laden in 1993, nearly a decade before his evil disciples brought down the World Trade Center, and learned that he was working to get the money to finance attacks on the United States.
The information the FBI collected from the “asset” was so detailed, so specific that it enabled U.S. law enforcement agents to thwart an Islamic plot against a Masonic lodge in Los Angeles.
This triumph, either of intelligence gathering or of good fortune, could have prevented the spectacular events of Sept. 11, 200l, that killed 3,000 Americans and others. But the information never got to anyone in authority who treated it as important.
The fact that the FBI had put an “asset” in contact with Osama bin Laden was withheld from the official investigators of the Sept. 11 attacks. The 500 pages of the result of the official inquiry includes not a word about it.
The intelligence coup was neither disclosed nor publicly celebrated by the FBI, and was disclosed inadvertently only 17 years later in the trial of an unrelated discrimination lawsuit in a nearly empty courtroom.
“It was the only [occasion] I know in the bureau where we had a source right in al Qaeda, directly involved,” Edward J. Curran, a former top official in the Los Angeles office of the FBI, testified in that lawsuit. His testimony escaped the notice of absent reporters and terrorism specialists and was disclosed Wednesday by Guy Taylor and John Solomon in this newspaper, alerted to the existence of the record in the course of an investigation of the origins of al Qaeda.
Several members of the Sept. 11 commission told The Times they were “floored” that the disclosure is only now emerging and say it raises questions about what else the public might not have been told about the origins of al Qaeda and its early interest in attacking targets in the United States.
“This is just one more of these examples that will go into the conspiracy theorists’ notebooks, who say the authorities are not telling us everything,” says Peter Hoekstra, the former Republican representative from Michigan, who chaired the House intelligence committee from 2004 to 2007. “That’s bad for the intelligence community. It’s bad for law enforcement and it’s bad for government.”
Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman from Indiana who co-chaired the 9/11 commission, says he does not remember the FBI telling the commission of the existence of the “asset,” either. Michael P. Kortan, assistant director of the FBI, says “the FBI made all relevant information available to the 9/11 commission and the joint intelligence community inquiry.”
But who got to define “relevant”? This was a serious breakdown in communication, and the nation deserves now to know what happened, and how, and maybe why. Stephen Kohn, the lawyer for the plaintiff in that discrimination lawsuit, suggests that it’s because the FBI doesn’t want to give his client, Bassem Youssef, credit for establishing the contact. Mr. Youssef accused the agency of blocking him from his job because his superiors thought he was a Muslim. He is in fact a Coptic Christian.
The nation is entitled to know, to reprise the spirit of the crucial question in an earlier famous investigation, “What did certain officials at the FBI know, and when did they know it?” And why did they keep it to themselves?