The Agent

New Yorker issues have a tendency of piling up around my place when I travel or when I'm busy as I can never bring myself to toss them out. Sometimes that can seem like a tactical error, as in times like these when I'm moving and have to lug about 275 pounds of unread back issues to the recycling bins in the basement.

But lying on my bare mattress now (all the sheets, pillows, just about everything is packed in boxes), I'm glad I saved the July 10/17 issue from last month. In it was an article titled "The Agent," (PDF) an excerpt adapted from Lawrence Wright's new nonfiction book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

Though I'm exhausted from days of packing, the article, which I just finished reading at three in the morning, stunned me, introducing two characters and a story that will break your heart with how close we came to anticipating and perhaps stopping 9/11. We had all the puzzle pieces to assemble a picture of Al-Qaeda terrorists in our midst, but they were held by different U.S. intelligence agencies, and we couldn't assemble them into a picture of looming terror because of self-imposed bureaucratic walls that kept the CIA and FBI from sharing information. Our intelligence agencies, with their silly infighting, failed us.

Two charismatic characters are at the center of this story. Ali Soufan is the Agent, a Lebanese-American Muslim FBI agent whose Arabic language skills and tenacity made him one of our nation's leading assets in the fight against Al Qaeda. John O'Neill was the head of the F.B.I.'s National Security Division, figures more prominently in The Looming Tower, but also appears in "The Agent."

Soufan is the hero of "The Agent." O'Neill put in charge of investigating the bombing of the U.S.S.. cole in Aden, Yemen, in October, 2000. Soufan's investigation unearthed tracks that led back to Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The CIA, in the meantime, learned of an Al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia and learned of two Al-Qaeda operatives, Khaled al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. Mihdhar had a U.S. Visa. The CIA did not inform the FBI about the two of them, and so they slipped into the U.S. unnoticed. The CIA does not have authority to operate within the U.S., so once Mihdhar and Hazmi were on U.S. soil, they were the province of the FBI, or would have been, had the CIA alerted the FBI to their presence.

In June of 2001, Ali Soufan sat in a meeting with CIA colleagues and was shown photos from the secret meeting in Malaysia. Among those in the pictures were Mihdhar and Hazmi, but Soufan did not know of them yet, and the CIA shared little except to see if the FBI knew of them. Another photo of the Malaysia meeting, displaying an Al Qaeda jihadi named Khallad, was not shown. Soufan and his team had a huge file on Khallad, who they suspected of being one of the masterminds of the U.S.S. Cole bombing. Had the CIA shown Soufan that photo, he could have connected the dots.

On August 27th, 2001, Nawaf al-Hazmi and his brother Salem purchased airplane tickets for American Flight 77 on Mihdhar also purchased a ticket for that flight online. They did not bother disguising their names, as they were not on the FBI terrorist watchlist.

Twenty months after their arrival in Los Angeles, on September 11, 2001, Mihdhar and Hazmi went to Washington Dulles International Airport. Hazmi set off the metal detector at the airport and was hand-screened, and Hazmi and Mihdhar were both flagged for an additional security screening at the gate, but both passed and boarded American Flight 77. One hour into the flight, the hijacked Boeing 757 crashed into the Pentagon, killing all 64 on the flight and 125 people in the building.

Immediately after 9/11, Soufan was told to find out who had perpetrated the hijackings. On September 12, 2001, he was handed an envelope with full details of the meeting in Malaysia. When Soufan realized that the CIA had known that Mihdhar and Hazmi, two of the hijackers, had been living in the United States for 20 months, "he ran into the bathroom and threw up." Wright notes: "Soufan's disillusionment with the government was so profound that he eventually quite the bureau; in 2005, he became director of international operations for Giuliani Security and Safety, a company founded by Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York."

John O'Neill is an even greater tragic figure in the story of 9/11. His story is almost too unbelievable to be true. Perhaps no one in the FBI was more obsessed with the rising threat of Al Qaeda, but on August 22, 2001, O'Neill left the FBI after it was reported that his briefcase containing sensitive documents was stolen during an FBI conference in Florida. Though it was later found and though it was determined that none of the confidential material had been compromised, his career at the FBI was ruined.

O'Neill left to take a job as the head of security at The World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, just after American Airlines flight 11 flew into the north tower, John O'Neill received a call from his son who could see the smoke through a train window. O'Neill told his son he was fine and that he was going to assess the damage. After United Flight 175 hit the south tower, O'Neill called his girlfriend Valerie james, distraught. Yet later, at 9:25am, O'Neill called another woman he had been close to, Anne DiBattista, saying he was okay.

"The connection was good at the beginning," she recalled. "He was safe and outside. He said he was O.K. I said, 'Are you sure you're out of the building?' He told me he loved me. I knew he was going to go back in."

Another FBI agent, Wesley Wong, ran into O'Neill outside the north tower. She last saw him headed towards the south tower.

On September 28, 2001, O'Neill's body was found in the rubble of the World Trade Center. Wright reports:

...a thousand mourner gathered at St. Nicholas to say farewell. Many of them were agents and policemen and members of foreign intelligence services who had followed O'Neill into the war against terrorism long before it became a rallying cry for the nation. The hierarchy of the F.B.I attended, including the now retired director Louis Freeh. Richard Clarke, who says that he had not shed a tear since September 11th, suddenly broke down when the bagpipes played and the casket passed by.

For some reason, perhaps because I've come to adore New York City, I can't stop reading about 9/11. I've read the The 9/11 Commission Report in text form, and I'll probably reread it in its graphic adaptation. 9/11 and the events that led up to that day continue to haunt me, and Lawrence Wright's account The Looming Tower, which I've just begun, promises to be the best account to date. I'm not doing justice to his reporting here, so delve into "The Agent" if you want a sampling. Soufan is a fascinating character in many ways, particularly in his interrogation techniques, which demonstrate that torture is hardly the only way to extract information from suspects (torture has long been known to yield unreliable info). Soufan engages his subjects, demonstrates his knowledge and understanding of them and their cultural background, and uses his intelligence to checkmate them.

In the stories of Soufan, O'Neill, and bin Laden, there is a Syriana/Munich-style tragedy to be made. In fact, with its story of thwarted investigations and global conspiracies, it's the 9/11 movie I would have expected Oliver Stone to make, though from what I've heard his World Trade Center movie is a great departure for him.

Here is an online only interview with Lawrence Wright which came out at the same time as "The Agent." Here's a comprehensive list of Wright's articles for The New Yorker, including many on Al Qaeda. PBS Frontline came out with a documentary on O'Neill called "The Man Who Knew" and it's available online (Real Player and Windows Media).