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Could WikiLeaks Have Helped Thwart 9/11?

Posted: 10/22/10 04:15 PM ET

"Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity." ~ Lord Acton

Bogdan Dzakovic and I co-wrote an op-ed "WikiLeaks and 9/11: What if?" for the Los Angeles Times that was published one week ago and that got a number of people thinking about the issue of governmental secrecy. We had originally written a much longer, more complete version in connection with the 9/11 anniversary. There's hardly room in newsprint, however, for the number of words it takes to clearly explain a situation or argument sufficiently, especially when the idea seems counterintuitive. Our longer version would have answered many of the questions and criticisms that got posted about our op-ed so I thought it would be good to publish the original version.

The discussion about secrecy is quite relevant given huge breaking news about WikiLeaks, both good and bad, including that its online fundraising mechanisms have been cut off, that the site may soon post 400,000 of Iraq War intelligence reports, that WL founder Julian Assange has recently been denied a residence permit in Sweden and that the Pentagon's team of 120 analysts has thus far been unable to identify any actual physical harm that has befallen any Afghan civilians or US troops as a result of WL's making public the Afghanistan War documents. This, despite Defense Secretary Gates' and Admiral Mullen's harsh warnings -- see "How propaganda is disseminated: WikiLeaks Edition."

Anyway, this is for those who had further questions after reading our shorter "What If?" op-ed:

Could WikiLeaks Have Helped Thwart 9/11?

By Bogdan Dzakovic and Coleen Rowley

After more than nine years since the 9/11 attacks, there is an important new question: Could the website WikiLeaks, which enables whistleblowers to post sensitive information anonymously, help prevent another 9/11-type catastrophe? Does the world need this kind of alternative for those who learn sensitive information that becomes bottled up in bureaucracy, but could save lives if made publicly available?

One way to seek answers to such key questions would be to start with a retrospective look at who knew what before 9/11. What might have happened -- or not happened -- had WikiLeaks been available to make public the burgeoning evidence of our increased vulnerability to an imminent terrorist attack from the air? We speak from the following two experiences.

The Case of Zacarias Moussaoui

As special agent/legal counsel at the FBI's Minneapolis Division, Coleen Rowley was privileged to work with a number of tenacious field agents. Harry Samit, an especially astute agent, working with an INS agent, identified Zacarias Moussaoui as a terrorist suspect in mid-August 2001. Samit immediately sent FBI Headquarters a multi-page report on the facts of the case, and asked for authority to perform an emergency search of Moussaoui's laptop computer and other personal effects. Headquarters said no.

The FBI's joint terrorism task force in Minneapolis detained Moussaoui on Aug. 16, 2001. Flight school pilots acting as whistleblowers had given the FBI, against the wishes of their airline employer, detailed information making Moussaoui the most suspicious student they had ever encountered.

French intelligence quickly supplied further background, confirming Moussaoui's fighting for a "foreign power" -- Chechnyan rebels, whose leader was reportedly connected to al Qaeda. By Aug. 23, the case was deemed so suspicious that it was briefed in detail to Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, with a PowerPoint slide titled: "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly."

FBI Special Agent Samit would later testify at Moussaoui's trial that he believed the actions of his FBI superiors in Washington constituted "criminal negligence." I was close enough to this case to be able to agree with Samit.

What if Samit had decided that it was his higher duty as a public servant to do all possible to protect his fellow citizens, and that, thwarted as he was by careerists in Washington, he could only accomplish this by going public. Samit had routinely given the report on Moussaoui a SECRET classification. But he would need to excerpt only enough to dislodge the airlines, the Federal Aviation Agency, and oblivious Americans from their collective stupor.

This, of course, was the pre-WikiLeaks era, and I doubt that the option of going public would have even occurred to Samit -- or to his immediate supervisor in Minneapolis, even though the latter pulled out all the stops in pleading with FBI Headquarters for permission to move against Moussaoui. The supervisor went so far as to warn Washington that he was "trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center." (Yes, he was that prescient and specific.)

The 9/11 Commission concluded that Moussaoui was most likely being primed as a Sept. 11 replacement pilot and that the hijackers probably would have postponed their strike if his arrest had been announced. Nine years later, these two FBI officials should be asked how they feel now about having strictly obeyed all the classification rules and remained mum on the alarming information they had on Moussaoui.

The Tombstone Agency

There are several other examples of conscientious -- but unheeded and thus unsung -- security officials who did their jobs prior to 9/11, but were repeatedly frustrated by careerist risk-avoiders at more senior levels. Suffice it to adduce just one more example.

In the months before 9/11, Federal Air Marshal Bogdan Dzakovic led a Federal Aviation Administration's "Red Team" tasked with determining how easy it would be to penetrate airport security for hijackings. The team succeeded 90 percent of the time in uncovering weaknesses in airport and airline security that could enable hijackers to smuggle weapons aboard and seize control of airplanes. But his team's reports were ignored and suppressed. And right after 9/11, the FAA Red Team was shut down.

"FAA had the moniker 'Tombstone Agency,' and the reason they had that moniker is they never did anything until people got killed," Dzakovic later explained.

• "We went through official FAA channels, but because we were rocking the boat and didn't support the tombstone mentality, we were ostracized; the higher-ups didn't do anything.

• "We appealed to the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Transportation; they didn't do anything.

• "We then went to the General Accounting Office, to its aviation section; they didn't do anything.

• "We started going to members of Congress on the various committees that oversaw the FAA and the aviation industry; they didn't do anything."

Testifying before the 9/11 Commission, Dzakovic summed up his experience:

The Red Team was extraordinarily successful in killing large numbers of innocent people in the simulated attacks... [and yet] we were ordered not to write up our reports and not to retest airports where we found particularly egregious vulnerabilities... Finally, the FAA started providing advance notification of when we would be conducting our "undercover" tests and what we would be checking.


Dzakovic later expressed undisguised "contempt... for the bureaucrats and politicians who could have prevented 9/11 but didn't." Adding further bureaucratic insult to injury, the 9/11 Commission did not see fit to include any of his testimony in its report.

In February of 2003 the United States Office of Special Counsel (which investigates federal government whistleblower allegations) concluded in response to Dzakovic's case that the FAA executed its aviation security mission in a manner that, "... was a substantial and specific danger to public safety..." This critical fact was also omitted from the 9/11 Commission's final report.

Dzakovic recently answered THE question: "If WikiLeaks were open for business prior to 9/11, would you have considered asking it to make public your findings regarding the likelihood that terrorists might easily succeed in mounting a major operation involving airplanes?" He answered:

After having all the official doors slammed in my face in the lead-up to 9/11, yes indeed, I would have gone to WikiLeaks as a last resort. I would have highlighted not only the vulnerabilities in airline and airport security, but also what I recognized from my own study as the rising tide of terrorism that required immediate security improvements. I do believe there is a chance that the history of these last nine years may well have been quite different, had I done so.


From what is now known about the brick walls Dzakovic and his Red Team ran into, the disbanding of the Red Team itself, AND the subsequent 9/11 Commission whitewash -- not to mention the Moussaoui case -- the questions posed in our first paragraph seem to answer themselves. In our view, it is a no-brainer that ALL of us would have been better served if FAA and FBI officials had decided to take advantage of a site like WikiLeaks to warn their fellow citizens, rather than continue to try to move a moribund federal bureaucracy and lethargic Congress to act.

As for now and the future, to the degree WikiLeaks can establish a reputation for confidentiality and efficiency, and can dodge retaliatory measures by the Pentagon and other cyber warriors, the more likely it will be that, next time, patriots like Dzakovic and Samit will be inclined to resort to the ether as the most accessible and expeditious way to issue warnings for the public at large, in hopes of heading off needless loss of life.

Getting the Information Out

When Rowley wrote her memo of May 21, 2002, to the FBI Director, exposing some of the FBI's internal roadblocks and failures to share information and showing that the attacks on 9/11 might have been prevented or minimized, she did not intend it to become public. In retrospect, it was better that it did leak (apparently from Congress). She's grateful to Senators Charles Grassley, Patrick Leahy and Paul Wellstone for making sure the FBI director did not fire her over the affair when it hit the media.

Although the Rowley memo was 13-pages long, it merely touched the tip of an iceberg of miscues. Even more egregious failures to share information within the FBI were subsequently identified by the Department of Justice's Inspector General (who launched a comprehensive two year investigation because of the memo).

The nearly 400-page IG Report ("A Review of the FBI's Handling of Intelligence Information Related to the September 11 Attacks, November 2004)," released in full publicly in June 2006, focused on three major professional lapses: the Moussaoui affair; a July 2001 FBI report from its office in Phoenix, identifying terrorist suspects in flight schools there; and the arrival in California of two of the al Qaeda hijackers -- Al Mihdhar and Al Hazmi. The CIA was tracking the two, but was derelict in notifying the FBI of all it knew.

The IG report identified missteps by several FBI components, while attributing the overall failure mostly to widespread misinterpretations regarding "the wall" -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) wall created in 1978 to separate intelligence from criminal matters. After the IG report, it was discovered that relevant information was deliberately withheld from such post 9/11 official inquiries and that other debilitating problems included intra- and inter-agency turf battles and friction between personalities (see "The Path to 9/11: Lost Warnings and Fatal Errors".) Many officials knew all this -- chapter and verse; their continuing silence facilitated covering up some of the earlier cover-ups. Several received promotions.

As for pre-9/11, hundreds were aware of the misfeasance/malfeasance/ineptitude, yet no one took steps to make the consequent dangers known to the American people. The conclusion that 9/11 could and should have been prevented grew stronger after the many internal-agency problems and those failures to share information among the various agencies, aviation industries, and the general public eventually became known.

What Little Was Needed

Most troubling to us in the case of 9/11 is the realization of how little information-sharing with the public and the airlines it would have taken to sound the alarm -- perhaps with a headline atop a brief news story or a notice on TV. Such might have heightened vigilance and prompted action, for example, by airline ticket agents and airport security officers who encountered hijacker Mohammed Atta and other hijackers on the morning of 9/11. Nine of the 19 hijackers aroused suspicions during airport screening.

But airport personnel had not been given the alert information available to senior officials, and the media had not been expressing much concern at the time over a possible terrorist attack.
Too bad. A ticket agent said later that Atta had aroused his suspicions to the extent that the ticket agent later sought therapy for not having stopped the terrorist. Additional warning information might have resulted in stopping other hijackers before they emplaned.

This points up one major difference between enabling terrorists, as on 9/11, and thwarting them, as in the case of Ahmed Ressam, the so-called "Millennium Bomber." In December 1999, warnings of terrorist activity were widely publicized, engendering heightened watchfulness among citizens and officials alike. Such was the case with U.S. customs inspector Diana Dean, who on the cold evening of Dec. 14, 1999, insisted on a "secondary Customs search" and caught Ressam trying to enter Washington state by ferry from Canada with a trunk full of explosives.

On Dec. 13, Ressam rented a Chrysler sedan, and hid explosives and related components in the wheel well in the trunk. The next day he successfully passed through U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service checks in Victoria, Canada, and drove onto the last ferry to Port Angeles, Washington.

When the ferry docked in Port Angeles that evening, Ressam saw to it that his car would be the last one to disembark. Inspector Dean thought he was acting a bit strange; she insisted on another search of Ressam's car. Explosive experts later concluded that the material in his trunk would have been enough to produce a blast 40x that of the average car bomb. It was ultimately determined that Ressam intended to detonate the explosives at the Los Angeles International Airport to celebrate the millennium.

The main point of including this history is this: Inspector Dean had seen no classified intelligence reports suggesting a heightened threat of terrorism. Rather, she had been sensitized by the widespread public airing of warnings about what terrorists might be planning to mark the new millennium.

By way of contrast, before 9/11, neither the American people nor the airlines were privy to the same level of public information. So, again, the question: How much publicity would it have taken to induce these airlines to take seriously the copious classified warnings they blithely ignored about the lack of on-board security? Might they have decided it would be in their own interest to make an investment of the few hundred dollars required to secure the cockpit door on airliners, as the Israeli airline El Al had already done?

9/11 Commission Observations

Although the 9/11 Commission report left a lot to be desired, it does repeatedly conclude, correctly in our opinion, that undue secrecy, the failures to share information within and between government agencies and, more important, the failures to share more information with the media and the public were factors at least as important as the "failure to connect the dots" within the bureaucracy.

You can connect your own dots by reading some of the Commission report excerpts below as to how things might have been very different if WikiLeaks had been around in 2001 providing an outlet to release more information to the public -- especially embarrassing information like that uncovered by the FAA Red Team. The Commission found that:

Between May 2001 and September 11, there was very little in newspapers or on television to heighten anyone's concern about terrorism. Front-page stories touching on the subject dealt with the windup of trials dealing with the East Africa embassy bombings and Ressam. All this reportage looked backward, describing problems satisfactorily resolved. Back-page notices told of tightened security at embassies and military installations abroad and government cautions against travel to the Arabian Peninsula. All the rest was secret. (See other key passages from 9-11 Commission Report )

From "The Trial of Zacarias Moussaoui: An Account by Douglas O. Linder," 2006:

Perhaps the most effective defense evidence came in the form of a videotape played for the [Moussaoui] jury showing Thomas J. Pickens [sic; actual last name is Pickard)], acting director of the F.B.I. at the time of the attack. Asked whether 9/11 would have been prevented if he knew that: (1) Moussaoui was taking flying lessons; (2) Two Al Qaeda terrorists were loose in the country; and (3) Substantial numbers of Middle Eastern men were enrolling in American flight schools and might be part of a hijacking plot, "Pickens" hesitated. "I don't know," the acting director testified, "with all the information that the F.B.I. collects, whether we would have had the ability to hone in specifically on those three items."


If you can get beyond the initial shock at Picken's/Pickard's "I-don't-know" response, a very instructive insight awaits. It has to do with the self-defeating, growing problem that we'll call burying-the-needle-by-pouring-more-hay-on-the-stack. The haystack keeps increasing exponentially. Thus, odd as Pickard's answer might seem, it veers on the credible that under the deluge of hay, intelligence analysts might be unable to ferret out those three otherwise obvious needles and put them together.

And yet, making public just one of the three pieces of information might have prompted the 9/11 terrorists to postpone or cancel the attack.

Finding the Needles

The haystack problem keeps getting worse. This cartoon (drawn by Ben Sargent, Austin American-Statesman and Universal Press Syndicate) is only funny to those who don't appreciate how it reflects the current reality.

An extensively-researched, three-part series "Top Secret America" co-written by Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Dana Priest and William Arkin recently exposed how the intelligence community metastasized in the years after 9/11 into a massive but confused "Security-Surveillance Complex" -- little brother to the more familiar Military Industrial Complex. Adding more and more private contractors, the new complex now comprises 854,000 intelligence analysts and operatives, private contractors and consultants holding TOP SECRET clearances with little if any central direction.

Never mind the already daunting find-needle-in-haystack challenge, it's easier for those in "Top Secret America" to simply add to the collected clutter. The money is good, and nifty names can be imagined to disguise the reality of what is most often the case -- more hay being added. Acronyms like "NIMD: Novel Intelligence from Massive Data" win budget dollars by promising the impossible, all the while vacuuming up and storing non-relevant personal data into hundreds of burgeoning intelligence databanks -- electronic haystacks with few or no findable needles.

Positioning acronyms onto elaborate TOP SECRET organizational charts and giving contracting officers threat information and analysis to adorn their computer document files and bookshelves are not likely to help much to identify real "terrorists." And compartmentalizing all this classified data into exclusive, "need to know" categories engenders turf battles and other competition among the multitudinous security- and intelligence-related agencies and contractors for taxpayer money -- and builds still new walls, to boot.

Can You Handle the Truth?

Because information is power, there will always be those desperately trying to control it for their own purposes. Equally unfortunate, the secrecy compulsion dovetails with the common (but foolish and lazy) tendency among Americans to decide that what they don't know can't hurt them.

But average people ARE actually the ones with a "need to know" about heightened threats to security, since they are usually the first to spot suspicious activity. Consider that alert flight attendants and passengers stopped both the shoe and underpant bombers, and it was an inquisitive street vendor who alerted police to the "Times Square bomb." AND average people are the ones who do get hurt.

If it is true that the 9/11 attacks succeeded because of a lack of information sharing, as the 9/11 Commission and security experts have repeatedly argued, then what the national security community has done since 9/11 is to compound the problem. Overclassification, redundancy, and a new maze of turf walls, as unveiled by the Washington Post, define the massive security-surveillance system in which 854,000 TOP SECRET officials and contractors now operate.

Can we avoid the conclusion that we should be thankful that WikiLeaks has come on the scene?

Bogdan Dzakovic began his career in 1987 working as a Special Agent for the Security Division of the Federal Aviation Administration. He's a former Team Leader of the Federal Air Marshal Service as well as the FAA Red Team who filed a formal whistleblower disclosure against the FAA for ignoring the terrorist threat and the aviation security vulnerabilities that the Red Team documented. For the past nine years he has been relegated to doing entry level staff work for the TSA.

Coleen Rowley, a FBI special agent for almost 24 years, was legal counsel to the FBI Field Office in Minneapolis from 1990 to 2003. She wrote a "whistleblower" memo in May 2002 and testified to the Senate Judiciary on some of the FBI's pre 9-11 failures. She retired at the end of 2004, and now writes and speaks on ethical decision-making and balancing civil liberties with the need for effective investigation