Authors: Tim Weiner
On May 7, 1993, Salem had a long conversation with one of the Blind Sheikh’s most trusted aides, a Sudanese native named Siddig Ali. He learned that the sheikh wanted his men to blow up the United Nations—“the big house,” he called it. Salem then consulted with the cleric himself. On May 23, the informant arrived at the sheikh’s apartment in Jersey City, carrying a briefcase wired for sound.
“I wish to know in regards to the United Nations, do we consider it the house of the devil?” Salem said. “Because my strike is a devastating one, not a screw-up like the one that took place at the Trade Center …”
The sheikh responded: “Find a plan, find a plan … to inflict damage, inflict damage on the American army itself. But the United Nations … will be a disadvantage for the Muslims. It will harm them deeply.”
“So forget about the United Nations?”
“We keep it in the army.”
On May 27, Siddig told Salem that the United Nations plot was back on. And he had two new targets: the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the lifelines connecting Manhattan to mainland America. The plan was to hit all three landmarks at once.
The big house, I will take care of it,” Siddig said. “There will be five minutes between each of them. Boom! God, the whole world! Boom! This will drive the whole world crazy.”
The key conspirators met at a safe house in Queens on the evening of June 23, 1993. The building was wired for video and sound by the FBI. They started filling fifty-five-gallon oil drums with fuel oil and ammonium nitrate fertilizer, a basic recipe for homemade terrorist bombs since the 1970s. Or so they thought: Salem had sabotaged the saboteurs by supplying them with $150 worth of Scotts Super Turf Builder, a fertilizer with no explosive force.
The arrests were swift—with one exception.
The Blind Sheikh took refuge at a Brooklyn mosque. The argument over how to handle him caused great consternation at the FBI. No one in command authority wanted to make the case against him. From Sessions
on down, to a man they demurred. They thought it best to ask President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to extradite him. It would be so much easier to deport the sheikh—to make him disappear back into the Egyptian prison where he once belonged. The assistant director in charge of the FBI in New York, James Fox, was most adamantly against prosecuting the case in court.
The FBI’s leaders knew an indictment would raise some harsh questions. Street agents and their superiors in New York had known about the World Trade Center bombers for many months. The terrorist task force had held the Nosair diary in its hands—and never read it. The FBI had placed Salem as an informer among the jihadis fourteen months before the bombing—and let him go.
Attorney General Reno had to stiffen their collective spine. At the end of an hour of debate with the leaders of the FBI and her top prosecutors, she tapped her knuckles on a conference table, knocking on wood, and decided to indict the sheikh on a charge of seditious conspiracy, a statute invoked very rarely since the Red raids of 1920.
The attorney general also advised the president to dismiss William Sessions as the director of the FBI for his “serious deficiencies in judgment.” The Sessions years had ended with a disastrous confrontation between hundreds of FBI agents, including the hostage rescue force, and a millennial Christian sect, the Branch Davidians, in Waco, Texas. The FBI had used tear gas against the barricaded and heavily armed group, giving its leader the apocalypse he desired. Eighty of the Davidians, including twenty-five children, had died in the fire that followed. Judge Sessions let Janet Reno take the blame.
To his enduring sorrow, Bill Clinton chose yet another pious judge to run the Bureau. Louis J. Freeh had been a good FBI agent for six years and a first-rate prosecutor for a decade before he donned his black robes and ascended to the bench in 1991, at the precocious age of forty-one. He was arguably the best-qualified FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover; he thought Clinton was the most talented politician since Richard Nixon.
That made their mutual contempt all the more tragic. It undermined the FBI and ultimately damaged the United States.
FLAWS IN THE ARMOR
Louis Freeh was sworn in as the fifth director of the FBI on September 1, 1993, he turned in his White House pass. He refused to enter the Oval Office. His reasons were pure and simple. Freeh regarded President Clinton not as commander in chief but as the subject of a criminal case.
The FBI had opened the first of a never-ending series of investigations into Clinton’s personal and political conduct. As a consequence, Freeh found it extraordinarily difficult to talk to Clinton on any matter. Over the course of Clinton’s eight years in office, the two men spoke no more than five or six times, face-to-face or on the phone.
He came to believe that I was trying to undo his presidency,” Freeh wrote in a memoir. The director soon regretted accepting his appointment at the FBI. But he would not leave for fear that the president would replace him with a political hack.
Freeh knew the estrangement undermined the FBI. “The lost resources and lost time alone were monumental,” he wrote. “So much that should have been straightforward became problematic in the extreme.” But he felt compelled to keep a distance from the president. It deepened as the years went by. It became a danger to the United States.
One of the greatest flaws that our government now faces,” warned James Steinberg, the deputy national security adviser, was an FBI that stood in silence and isolation, “totally disconnected from the president or the White House.”
The chief counterterrorism aides at the National Security Council, Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, found Freeh “extraordinarily unresponsive” to their growing fears of a terrorist attack. “His mistrust of the White House grew so strong that it seems to have blinded him,” they wrote. But
they knew that Clinton could do nothing about it: “The one remedy available to the President by law, dismissing Freeh, was a political impossibility. A chief executive who was being investigated by the FBI could not fire the FBI director: it would be another Saturday Night Massacre, the second coming of Richard Nixon.”
Freeh, who had finished law school in the final months of the Watergate scandal, came to conclude that Clinton was worse than Nixon. The director’s sense of virtue, highly developed since his days as an altar boy, served as a cleansing force after the reign of Judge Sessions, and his reverence for the Bureau, rooted in his six years as a street agent, ran deep. But they did not sanctify the FBI. His cultivation of Congress brought the Bureau a billion-dollar budget increase and thousands of new agents. But it did not make the FBI a more powerful institution of government. Freeh was personally incorruptible. But the FBI was not.
Freeh infuriated the White House almost every day for more than seven years. One case among many was the FBI’s immense investigation into allegations that China’s intelligence services had bought political influence at the White House through illegal campaign contributions.
When President Clinton expressed disbelief at the allegations, Freeh responded that the White House was lying.
The Bureau spent far more time and energy on the case than it did on any terrorism investigation during the Clinton years. It brought several criminal charges against Chinese contributors, some of whom were influence peddlers without particular ideologies or politics. But Freeh’s FBI managed to bury the fact that its most highly valued source on Chinese espionage in the United States, a politically wired California woman named Katrina Leung, had been spying for China throughout the 1980s and 1990s. All the while, she was having sex with the special agent in charge of her case, a top supervisor of the FBI’s China Squad, James J. Smith—and occasionally with a leading FBI counterintelligence expert on China, William Cleveland. The Bureau paid Leung more than $1.7 million for her work as an intelligence asset.
The FBI suspected for the better part of a decade that Leung was a double agent. But no one wanted to embarrass the Bureau. The case festered for years. Not until after Freeh’s departure was it clear that the Chinese, Russian, and Cuban intelligence services all had penetrated the FBI in the 1990s.
So had a member of the world’s most dangerous and least-known terrorist
organization. His name was Ali Mohamed. Al-Qaeda had a double agent posing as an informer for the FBI.
AKE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE SUFFER
The United States did not suffer a single terrorist attack, foreign or domestic, in 1994. But the threat of a catastrophic blow against the nation became part of the everyday life of the FBI at the start of 1995.
Merely solving this type of crime is not enough,” Freeh told Congress in a written statement at the time. “It is equally important that the FBI thwart terrorism before such acts can be perpetrated.” But without intelligence, the Bureau would have to depend on blind luck and shoe leather.
On the night of January 6, 1995, Ramzi Yousef, the architect of the World Trade Center bomb, was in a sixth-floor apartment in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, cooking chemicals with his colleague Abdul Hakim Murad. At about 10:45
, a security guard saw the two men running downstairs, carrying their shoes. Smoke poured from their apartment window. Murad was arrested, but Yousef escaped and caught a flight out of Manila.
The police searched the apartment and found a smoldering bomb factory—chemicals, timers, batteries, fuses—along with documents and a laptop computer. The data, locked in encrypted files, took many days to decode and decipher. But they confirmed Murad’s confession to the most ambitious plot in the annals of international terrorism.
The Manila plan was code-named Bojinka. Yousef and five of his allies intended to place sophisticated time bombs aboard a dozen 747s—United, Delta, and Northwest flights bound for the United States from Manila, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Bangkok, and Taipei. Each man would board a flight, leave on its first stopover, and catch another connection. A few hours later, the bombs would bring down the 747s over the Pacific. If the flights were full and the plot went off as planned, roughly 3,500 people would die over the course of a day, as the bombs exploded one by one.
The United States announced a $2 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Yousef. Three weeks later, one of his cohorts cashed in.
On February 7, the Pakistani military intelligence service, in the company of a handful of armed State Department security officers, arrested Yousef at a bed-and-breakfast not far from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. The next day, three FBI agents flew him back to the United States. On the
plane, Yousef proudly claimed credit for the World Trade Center bombing. Lew Schiliro, the FBI’s top agent in New York, met the flight and escorted a blindfolded Yousef onto a helicopter. They were headed for the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan.
The night was clear and cold. The helicopter banked over New York Harbor. “
We allowed him to remove the blindfold,” Schiliro remembered. “He focused his eyes as the helicopter was adjacent to the World Trade Center. One of the agents that was onboard the helicopter said to Mr. Yousef that the World Trade Center was still standing. And in no uncertain terms, Yousef’s response was ‘It would not have been, had we had more money.’ ”
On March 20, a millennial Japanese cult called Aum Shinrikyo, led by a blind guru claiming to be Jesus Christ incarnate, released vials of homemade nerve gas inside five subway cars in Toyko. Fifteen people were killed, dozens blinded, and thousands injured. Aum Shinrikyo had thousands of members, controlled tens of millions of dollars, and already had conducted attempts at mass murder using anthrax and botulism. But not a single American intelligence officer knew anything about the cult.
On April 12, the police in Manila turned Abdul Hakim Murad over to FBI special agents Frank Pellegrino and Tom Donlon. Their captive spoke freely to the agents as they flew to Alaska, refueled, and took off for New York. He was a Kuwaiti who had attended two flight schools in the United States; he had dreamed of hijacking a plane in Washington and crashing it into the headquarters of the CIA. Murad told the FBI agents that he had been working on the Bojinka plot with Ramzi Yousef for six months. He said the goal was “
to make the American people and the American government suffer” for the foreign policy of the United States in the Middle East.
On April 19, a rented Ryder truck loaded with 4,800 pounds of fuel oil and ammonium nitrate blew up the nine-story federal government headquarters in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Terrorism experts on television immediately blamed the attack on Islamic fundamentalists. But the perpetrator was a patriotic American. A right-wing militant named Timothy McVeigh had chosen the second anniversary of the Branch Davidian disaster in Texas to attack an outpost of the government of the United States. A highway patrolman arrested McVeigh ninety minutes after the explosion. He was speeding down the interstate with a gun in his glove box and no license plates on his car. The FBI found the axle of his rented
truck, with its telltale vehicle identification number, two blocks from the blast. The evidence was ironclad within two days, though the FBI relentlessly conducted twenty-five thousand interviews over the next two years. The Oklahoma City bombing was by far the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the United States. The explosion killed 168 people and wounded 850.