During Thursday night's GOP debate NJ Governor Chris Christie attacked Sen. Rand Paul's criticism of warrantless NSA data gathering, saying that he would "make no apologies, ever, for protecting the lives and safety of the American people."
But when it comes to his anti-terrorism record, few people know that it was on Christie's watch as U.S. Attorney in Newark, that in, 2003 he threatened a local NJ Sheriff who uncovered a plot in which a Jersey City check cashing store (Sphinx Trading) provided the fake ID's for two of the 9/11 hijackers.
In fact Christie, who reminded Republicans during the debate that he'd been appointed by President Bush the day before 9/11, went so far in '03 as to actually threaten to arrest that Passaic County sheriff (whose office uncovered the fake ID scandal) and "shut down" his department. Such was the embarrassment to the FBI that Christie seemed bent on protecting -- despite the massive counter terrorism failure that the ID lapse revealed.
I first reported the significance of that counter terrorism breach in a 2006 Huffington Post headlined "Al Qaeda and The Mob: How The FBI Blew It on 9/11." The piece tells the story of how the FBI's New York Office (NYO) was onto Sphinx Trading, the al Qaeda-linked New Jersey check cashing store as early as 1990 when they discovered that El Sayyid Nosair, the killer of Rabbi Meir Kahane had a mailbox there.
In fact, in a 2010 piece for Tablet Magazine I argued that the assassination of Kahane, a conservative rabbi, may have been the first blood spilled by al Qaeda on American soil.
Sphinx was located in the same building as the al-Salaam mosque, dominated by Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called "prince of Jihad" who was convicted in the 1995 "Day of Terror Trial, an al Qaeda funded plot to blow up the bridges and tunnels into Manhattan, the U.N.; even the building at 26 Federal Plaza which houses the Bureau's NYO.
Flash forward to the summer of 2001 when Khalid AlMidhar and Nawaf AlHazmi, two of the "muscle hijackers" who flew AA Flight 77 into The Pentagon, got their fake ID's from Sphinx Trading.
Query: where was the FBI all those years and why didn't they keep a closer watch on what Emad Salem, the heroic ex-Egyptian Army officer who was the star witness against Sheikh Omar in the "Day of Terror" case, called "a nest of vipers?"
This excerpt from my 2009 HarperCollins investigative book "Triple Cross" documents how, after Sheriff Jerry Speziale, discovered that fact, which would have thrown negative critical light on the Feds post 9/11, Christie, as U.S. Attorney, literally threatened to shut down his office:
A MISSED CHANCE TO STOP THE 9/11 ATTACKS
While investigating the murder of Rabbi Meier Kahane, the FBI had discovered that El-Sayyid Nosair, Ali Mohamed's trainee, had kept a mailbox in Jersey City on the premises of Sphinx Trading, that check-cashing business at 2828 Kennedy Boulevard. Sphinx, which each year moved millions of dollars in funds between Islamic residents of northern New Jersey and the Middle East, was incorporated on December 15, 1987.
The original incorporators were Mohamed El-Atriss, a forty-six-year-old Egyptian, and Waleed Abu al-Noor. who was No. 130 on a list of 172 unindicted co-conspirators in the Day of Terror trial in 1995 and thus well known to the federal prosecutors in that case, Andrew McCarthy and Patrick Fitzgerald.
While El-Atriss later claimed he had nothing to do with Sphinx after the incorporation, he admitted under oath in a New Jersey state hearing after 9/11 that he had sold fake IDs to two of the 9/11 hijackers through his company All Services Plus, including the one (above) to Khalid al-Midhar: It lists a fictitious address on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.
Testimony at that same hearing suggested that El-Atriss may have been in contact with another senior hijacker in addition to the ones to whom he sold the IDs.
Fred Ernst, a detective with the Passiac, New Jersey, sheriff's department who investigated El-Atriss, said under oath:
"The FBI... provided information that indicates... (9/11 hijacker) Hani Hanjour, had contacted All Services Plus prior to the events of September 11th.
It's not indicated what those conversations contained, only that phone records between a prepaid cellular phone owned by Mr. Hanjour, had contacted Mr. El-Atriss on seven occasions."
The fake credentials were sent to mailboxes the hijackers maintained on the premises of Sphinx Trading--located four doors down from the blind Sheikh's al-Salaam Mosque at 2824 Kennedy Boulevard. 2824 was also the location of the "Jersey Jihad" office where al Qaeda master spy Ali Mohamed had screened his Fort Bragg training tapes for Nosair and the other World Trade Center bombing cell trainees back in the summer of 1989.
"The fact that this same location was where AlMidhar, in particular, got his bogus credentials, is not only shocking, it make me angry," says a former agent with the FBI's New York office.
"The JTTF in the NYO had this location back in 1990. In the mid-'90s they listed al-Noor, the co-owner, as a co-conspirator, unindicted in the plot to blow up the bridges and tunnels. And now we find out that this was the precise location where the most visible of all the hijackers in the U.S. got his ID? Incredible. All the Bureau's New York office had to do was sit on that place over the years and they would have broken right into the 9/11 plot."
But in testimony at that bail hearing, Detective Ernst indicated that the U.S. attorney's office in Newark had been openly hostile to the sheriff's investigation. In fact, on the day Ernst and fellow detectives had obtained search warrants and were planning to raid El-Atriss's home and business, Christopher Christie, the Newark U.S. Attorney telephoned Ernst's boss, Passiac County sheriff Jerry Speziale, and threatened that if he held a press conference attendant to the raids, he "would be arrested and the U.S. Attorney would...shut down the Sheriff's department."
Was this another attempt by the Feds to cover up an earlier embarrassment--their failure to connect the dots on Sphinx and thus uncover the hijackers?
A POLITICAL POST-SCRIPT
In 2010 Jerry Speziale abruptly resigned as Passaic County Sheriff during a re-election campaign in order to accept a $199,00 job as Deputy Superintendent of The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- the agency at the heart of the "Bridgegate" scandal.
Passaic County Democrats later called for a federal investigation to determine whether the new job (brokered by Christie's office) was a payoff to induce Speziale to leave the race.
According to this report by new jersey.com "In the immediate aftermath of Speziale's departure, Assemblyman Scott Rumana of Wayne, told The Record that he helped arrange the Port Authority job with the Christie administration. Rumana, who is also chairman of the Passaic County Republican Party, said he first met with Speziale around the time Governor Christie took office in January. Rumana said he and Speziale later met with Christie in his transition office in Trenton."
Could the appointment of the outspoken Speziale, a former NYPD detective, have been an attempt by Christie's camp to defuse any embarrassment the Sphinx Trading scandal might have in Christie's upcoming bid for the White House? That's a story we'll drill down on in the months ahead if Christie gains any real traction in the campaign.