A special panel recently authorized by Congress to review the FBI's efforts to reform itself in the aftermath of the 9/11 Commission report will examine the case of a mole the agency had in direct contact with Osama bin Laden during the early 1990s, a key congressman said Wednesday.
The existence of the FBI mole and his dealings with bin Laden were omitted from the official investigations into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but were disclosed in an exclusive report Wednesday morning in The Washington Times.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the FBI, said the panel would take a close look at what came of the human source that the FBI's Los Angeles field office cultivated in 1993. The source's contributions, which included helping thwart a terrorist plot in Los Angeles, were never mentioned in the more than 500-page official report published in 2004 by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
In an interview with The Times on Wednesday evening, Mr. Wolf said the details surrounding the source represent "exactly the type of activity" that the newly established panel will examine.
The panel, which is also being dubbed a "commission," was created in late January under language Mr. Wolf crafted for Congress' 2013 omnibus appropriations bill that President Obama ultimately signed into law.
Former Attorney General Edwin Meese, former Ambassador Tim Roemer, who also served in Congress, and longtime national security analyst and Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman have been appointed to serve on the commission, which also is tasked with probing the success and failure with which the FBI "is addressing the evolving threat of terrorism today."
"I cannot think of three more qualified individuals to serve on the commission," Mr. Wolf said in a Jan. 27 statement announcing the panel. "They are all men of integrity and have significant credibility and expertise on counterterrorism policy."
At the time, Mr. Meese said it "is imperative that as we move further away from the 9/11 attacks, we make sure the bureau is evolving to address the ever-changing threat from al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups."
It's a point that seems all the more pertinent in light of the revelations in The Times report, which homed in on testimony that Edward J. Curran, a former top official in the FBI's Los Angeles office, gave in a little-noticed employment dispute case involving a counterterrorism agent at the bureau.
As the case played out in federal court in 2010, Mr. Curran testified that the FBI had placed a human source in direct contact with bin Laden in 1993 and ascertained that the al Qaeda leader was looking to finance a terrorist attack in the United States.
The information the FBI gleaned back then was so specific that it helped thwart a terrorist plot against a Masonic lodge in Los Angeles, the court records reviewed by The Times show.
"It was the only source I know in the bureau where we had a source right in al Qaeda, directly involved," Mr. Curran told the court in support of the discrimination lawsuit filed against the bureau by his former agent, Bassem Youssef.
Mr. Curran gave the testimony in an essentially empty courtroom, and thus it escaped notice from the media or terrorism specialists. The Times was recently alerted to the existence of the testimony while working on a broader report about al Qaeda's origins.
Members of the Sept. 11 commission, congressional intelligence committees and terrorism analysts told The Times they are floored that the information is just now emerging publicly and that it raises questions about what else Americans might not have been told about the origins of al Qaeda and its early interest in attacking the United States.
The 9/11 Commission report broadly outlines how, during the early 1990s, bin Laden was seeking to expand al Qaeda globally — an effort that included "building alliances extended into the United States," and that "the Blind Sheikh, whom bin Laden admired, was also in the network."
But the report downplays the notion that bin Laden was actively plotting or seeking to finance any specific attacks inside the United States as far back as 1993 — two pieces of information that, according to Mr. Curran's testimony and contemporaneous documents, the FBI's Los Angeles field office corroborated at the time.
Alternatively, the report outlines how all of the attacks pursued by bin Laden during that period were against U.S. assets outside the United States.
With regard to the one attack inside the U.S. — the first World Trade Center bombing — the report says "bin Laden involvement is at best cloudy."
It remains to be seen whether the newly created commission might uncover information that will change that assessment.
Mr. Wolf told The Times on Wednesday evening that the commission's members will present findings to the Appropriations Committee in late March.
It is not the first time that Mr. Wolf has pushed for deeper insight into the evolution of al Qaeda and its relationship with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
In 1998, he authored language that resulted in the creation of the National Commission on Terrorism, also known as the Bremer Commission. That panel's final report, released in 2000 just months before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, highlighted the threat from bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Mr. Wolf reflected Wednesday on the chilling irony surrounding that report, the cover of which had a picture of the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York.
He said the goal for the new "commission is to look at everything, so we don't make a mistake and let something happen that could be prevented."
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