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Good Agent, Bad Agent: Robert Mueller and 9-11

Photo by Medill DC | CC BY 2.0

Robert Mueller, the former FBI director named special counsel for the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election, is depicted as an iconic G-man: serious, patrician, and totally incorruptible. But in reality, it’s a little different. As with FBI Agent Dale Cooper in the latest iteration of “Twin Peaks,” there is a Good Mueller and a Bad Mueller. We’ve heard a lot about the good-guy Mueller, but nothing much about his bad side. And there is a bad side–though it’s not the one that Trump supporters would have us think.

The President’s loyal minions, following a familiar pattern, have been busy building an advance smear campaign against Mueller, claiming that he has it out for the poor, innocent Donald and is determined to bring him down due to pre-existing biases. In fact, if Mueller is indeed biased, it is toward preserving the institutions of government, including the White House, as well as his beloved FBI, even at the expense of making public the full truth. At least, that’s how he behaved the last time he was involved in a major national crisis–namely, the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Mueller, a Republican, was appointed by George W. Bush to head the FBI, and took the helm on September 4, 2001, one week before the terrorist attacks.  So he can hardly be blamed for the failure of the FBI (along with the CIA and other U.S. and allied intelligence agencies) to detect and respond to numerous warning signs that the attacks were coming, including the arrival of many of the future perpetrators to the United States.

The same cannot be said for Mueller’s role in the subsequent coverup of FBI and White House bungling during the run up to 9/11. Six months after the attacks, Congress convened the Joint Senate-House Inquiry into Intelligence Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001. Headed by Florida Democratic Senator Bob Graham, the inquiry was more thorough and penetrating than the later official 9/11 Commission would ever be.

Among other things, the Joint Inquiry learned of the involvement of a paid FBI informant with two of the future hijackers: Khalid Al Mindhar, who had fought for Al Qaeda in Bosnia and Chechnya and trained in Bin Laden’s Afghan training camps, and Nawaf Al Hazmi, who had battle experience in Bosnia, Chechyna, and Afghanistan. According to the Joint Inquiry report, the NSA and CIA at the time had available enough information to connect the two men with Osama Bin Laden.

The CIA, however, failed to share its information with the FBI, and did not place the two men on any watch lists. So Al Mindhar and Al Hamzi flew to Los Angeles in early 2000 (shortly after attending an Al Qaeda summit in Malaysia), and were routinely admitted into the United States on tourist visas. They traveled to San Diego, where they got Social Security cards, credits cards, and driver licenses, and bought a car, as well as a season pass to Sea World. They soon began taking flight lessons. They also had contact with a radical imam and a local Saudi national who were both being watched by the FBI. And they actually rented a room in the home of Abdusattar Shaikh, who was a retired English professor, a leader of the local mosque–and a paid informant for the FBI’s San Diego office, charged with monitoring the city’s Saudi community.

As the Joint Inquiry report would reveal, by mid-2001 U.S. intelligence agencies had ample evidence of possible terrorist plans to use hijacked airplanes as bombs, but had done little to act on this threat. In July 2001, the CIA had passed on the names of Al Mindhar and Al Hamzi to the FBI office in New York–though not the office in San Diego. Shaikh had apparently done nothing to warn the Bureau about any possible danger from his tenants. And no one had warned the airlines or the FAA not to let these men get on planes. So on the morning of September 11, Al Mindhar and Al Hamzi boarded American Airlines Flight 77 at Dulles Airport and helped crash it into the Pentagon.

While the San Diego scenario was the most extreme, there was other evidence of the FBI allowing future 9/11 perpetrators to slip through its fingers. By the time it issued its report, the Joint Inquiry had found that five of the hijackers “may have had contact with a total of 14 people who had come to the FBI’s attention during counterterrorism or counterintelligence investigations prior to September 11, 2001. Four of those 14 were the focus of FBI investigations during the time that the hijackers were in the United States.… Despite their proximity to FBI targets and at least one FBI source, the future hijackers successfully eluded FBI attention.”

Yet in testimony before the Joint Inquiry on June 18, 2002, FBI director Mueller said,  that “while here [in America] the hijackers effectively operated without suspicion, triggering nothing that would have alerted law enforcement and doing nothing that exposed them to domestic coverage.” There is no way of knowing whether Mueller was lying or just ignorant.

Subsequently, Senator Graham set out to subpoena the informant to testify before the Joint Inquiry. The FBI refused to cooperate, blocked the Inquiry’s efforts to interview the informant, and it appears to have arranged for a private attorney to represent him. Despite insisting that the informant had done nothing wrong, the Bureau at one point suggested the Inquiry give him immunity, which Graham refused to do.

As Graham would later describe in is book Intelligence Matters, the FBI also “insisted that we could not, even in the most sanitized manner, tell the American people that an FBI informant had a relationship with two of the hijackers.” The Bureau opposed public hearings on the subject and deleted any references to the situation from drafts of the Joint Inquiry’s unclassified report. It took more than a year for the Bureau allow a version of the story to appear in the public report, and even then it was heavily redacted.

Only years later, Graham writes, did information provided by FBI staffers confirm what he had long suspected: that the FBI carried out its resistance and obfuscation on direct instructions from the White House. Whether Bush and Company were eager to downplay any further connections to their friends the Saudis, or just protect itself from the fallout of such an obvious intelligence failure, will likely never be known.

So much for Robert Mueller remaining above the political fray. And so much for the Bureau’s supposed independence and incorruptibility. The latter, clearly, has always been a myth. From its earliest days it was a highly politicized–and relentlessly reactionary–agency, made all the more so by the colossal power of J. Edgar Hoover. Its mission has always been at heart a deeply reactionary one, dedicated to protecting the republic from whatever it perceived as a threat, including all forms of dissent and unrest–from communists to civil rights leaders.

What does all this bode for the current moment? Normally, it would seem that Mueller’s instinct would be to try to preserve some semblance of the current order, up to and including the presidency. But with Trump now locked in a knock down drag out struggle with the intelligence agencies–what some people like to call “the Deep State”–Mueller and his intelligence cronies may find it in the best interests of the status quo–and, of course, themselves–to throw the President under the bus and one way Mueller could do so is by cutting some sort of deal with Congress, specifically with the legislature’s true power broker, Mitch McConnell, to turn on Trump and run him out of office.

As Agent Cooper said of his own famous investigation into the death of Laura Palmer, “I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”

Note: More detail, and complete sources, on the FBI informant scandal and the Joint Inquiry’s investigation can be found in my book The 5 Unanswered Questions About 9/11.