One week before the September 11 commission was scheduled to send its final report to the printers in July 2004, Philip D. Zelikow, the commission’s staff director, gathered members together for an unusual briefing.
Commission staff members had discovered a document from a U.S. intelligenceagencythat described in detail Iran’s ties to al Qaeda, he said. It had been buried at the bottom of a huge stack of highly classified documents on other subjects that had been delivered to a special high-security reading room in an undisclosed location in Washington. The document summarized the findings of seventy-five distinct intelligence reports.
The commissioners realized that if their report was published and word of the missing documents leaked out later, it would discredit their entire investigation, so they ordered staff to make a last-minute panic run. Mr. Zelikow arranged to have his team review the 75 documents in person the following morning — Sunday — at seven-thirty.
Everything the CIA had been telling the commission up until that point was absolutely cut and dried: There was no connection between al Qaeda and Iran. None, no way. Nada. This was “the Concept,” and the intelligence community was wedded to it. “We found perplexing the settled CIA position … that there was no meaningful connection at all between al Qaeda and Iran,” one commissioner told me when I asked him about this incident.
The documents the team began reading that Sunday morning told a whole different story. The brief, two-page summary that appeared in the September 11 commission’s final report gives no idea of the scope of the material the CIA had been sitting on, or the sheer number of intelligence reports. That story has never been told until now.
What the team found that Sunday morning was nothing less than a complete documented record of operational ties between Iran and al Qaeda for the critical months just prior to September 11. “The documents showed Iran was facilitating the travel of al Qaeda operatives, ordering Iranian border inspectors not to put telltale stamps on their passports, thus keeping their travel documents clean,” the team leader, a former CIA analyst, told me. “The Iranians were fully aware that they were helping operatives who were part of an organization preparing attacks against the United States.”
The U.S. intelligence community was also aware of the help Iran was providing Osama bin Laden’s men. But because the analysts were driven by the Concept, they consistently downplayed that relationship. “Old School Ties” was the dismissive title of one post-September 11 analytical report issued by the CIA’s counterterrorism center that summarized the early days of bin Laden’s cooperation with Iran. These reports showed that, as the team leader told me, “by late 1993, early 1994 there had been a handshake between bin Laden and Iran.” A handshake and operational cooperation.
Most troubling were masses of reports on Iranian intelligence operative Imad Mugniyeh, whom the September 11 commission report obliquely refers to as “a senior Hezbollah operative.” The raw reporting showed that well before September 11, the United States had hard intelligence that the Tehran regime had appointed Mugniyeh as the point man for operational contacts with bin Laden’s men. That coincided with information an Iranian defector brought to the CIA four months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Before September 11, Mugniyeh had killed more Americans than any other terrorist. Putting him together with bin Laden was like throwing a match onto a pile of oil-soaked rags. And yet no alarm bells seem to have gone off. Mugniyeh is not even named in the final commission report.
The source reports showed that Mugniyeh coordinated the travel of eight to ten of the “muscle hijackers” between Saudi Arabia, Beirut and Iran in October and November 2000, and personally traveled with one hijacker from Saudi Arabia to Beirut before his trip on to Iran.
Frustrated by their late discovery of the documents, which prevented them from investigating further, the authors of the September 11 commission report’s chapter 7 resorted to irony. It was always possible that so much coordination was simply a “remarkable coincidence” and that “Hezbollah was actually focusing on some other group of individuals traveling from Saudi Arabia during this same time frame, rather than the future hijackers.”
Even in its post-September 11 reporting, which then CIA director George Tenet tried unsuccessfully to prevent the commission from reviewing, the CIA simply assumed that the hijackers were traveling through Iran, not to Iran, my sources on the commission said. It was the Concept again. The fact that Mugniyeh had become al Qaeda’s travel agent never hit home. “Every time they came up with a smoking gun, the analysts came back and said, yes, that’s interesting, but it’s not actionable,” one commissioner told me. It was the supreme putdown.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is author of “Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran,” from which this is excerpted.