This story was written by Jeffrey Kaye and Jason Leopold and originally published at Truthout.
Senior Pentagon officials scrubbed key details about a top-secret military intelligence unit’s efforts in tracking Osama bin Laden and suspected al-Qaeda terrorists from official reports they prepared for a Congressional committee probing the 9/11 terrorist attacks, new documents obtained by Truthout reveal.
Moreover, in what appears to be an attempt to cover up the military unit’s intelligence work, a September 2008 Defense Department (DoD) Inspector General’s (IG) report that probed complaints lodged by the former deputy chief of the military unit in question, the Asymmetrical Threats Division of Joint Forces Intelligence Command (JFIC), also known as DO5, about the crucial information withheld from Congress, claimed “the tracking of Usama Bin Ladin did not fall within JFIC’s mission.”
But the IG’s assertion is untrue, according to the documents obtained by Truthout, undercutting the official narrative about who knew what and when in the months leading up to 9/11.
Much of JFIC’s work on al-Qaeda and Bin Laden remains shrouded in secrecy and has not been cited in media reports revolving around pre-9/11 intelligence, which has focused heavily over the past decade on CIA and FBI “intelligence failures.” Only a few details about the military intelligence unit have surfaced since then, notably in two previous reports published recently by Truthout.
JFIC was the intelligence component of United States Joint Forces Command (JFCOM). In 2005, it was renamed the Joint Intelligence Command for Intelligence. Last month, JFCOM was shuttered, reportedly due to Pentagon budget cuts, and as a subcommand, JFIC was believed to have been disbanded along with it.
Truthout had previously reported that the deputy chief of JFIC’s Asymmetrical Threats Division, who is identified in government documents by the code name “Iron Man,” had produced “numerous original reports, with original imagery, measurements & signatures intelligence, or electronic intelligence, identifying probably [sic] and possible movements and locations of Usama bin Ladin and [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar.” The intelligence included “bin Ladin’s likely residence in Qandahar … evidently the house in which Khalid Shaykh Muhammed planned the 9/11 attacks.”
However, Iron Man, whose unit also developed original intelligence on al-Qaeda targets, which included the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the documents show, claimed JFIC was told to stop tracking Bin Laden, suspected al-Qaeda terrorists, and members of the Taliban some months prior to 9/11.
Iron Man further alleged that the orders his unit received, as well as the work it conducted, was knowingly withheld from investigators working for the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, who were tasked with probing the circumstances behind the 9/11 attacks.
When the DoD’s watchdog prepared its report following an investigation into Iron Man’s complaints, the IG concluded Iron Man’s most explosive allegations related to the withholding of intelligence from Congress was unfounded. But a close look at the report reveals it is rife with numerous factual errors.
The appendices in the IG’s report shows significant changes were made to JFIC’s original responses to Congressional investigators about its pre-9/11 intelligence work on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Bin Laden. The information regarding the military unit’s work turned over to Congress described a substantially attenuated picture of JFIC’s operations.
The report determined “operational information in response to the 9/11 Commission” about Asymmetrical Threats Division had not been withheld. Yet, Iron Man had charged the information was withheld from Congressional investigators probing the 9/11 attacks, not the independent 9/11 commission. The IG’s report repeatedly confused the two investigative bodies.
Additionally, while the IG did confirm that Asymmetrical Threats Division analysts were told to stop tracking Bin Laden, suspected al-Qaeda terrorists and members of the Taliban, the watchdog determined that the Asymmetrical Threat Division had “not completed original intelligence reporting” and that “JFIC did not” specifically have a “mission to track Usama bin Ladin or predict imminent US targets.” (Emphasis added.)
In attempting to refute Iron Man’s claims about JFIC’s work, the IG’s report stated, “the 9/11 Commission questions were very specific and asked for information which involved the ‘imminent attack’ or ‘hijackers involved.’ Evidence indicated that the JFIC did not have knowledge regarding imminent domestic targets prior to 9/11 or specific 9/11 hijacker operations.”
But Truthout has learned that the definition of “hijackers,” as perceived by the military intelligence unit, was overly restrictive. The definition of “hijackers” only referred to the hijackers in the planes and not the alleged planners, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or Bin Laden, which the intelligence unit considered to be part of the team of hijackers.
Messages left for Gary Comerford, a spokesman for the Inspector General, were not returned. Officials who helped prepare the report referred questions to Comerford’s office.
Revealing New Documents
Iron Man, who requested anonymity in order to protect his family’s privacy, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2006 seeking a copy of the complaint he filed with the IG, which was marked classified, and other secret documents pertaining to JFIC’s duties. He received a copy of his complaint in April, just a few weeks prior to the death of Bin Laden. That document, as well as the IG’s findings, formed the basis of Truthout’s two previous reports on JFIC’s activities.
Over the past month, Iron Man provided Truthout with other documents he received in response to his FOIA request, which shed additional light on JFIC’s work and calls into question the veracity of the IG’s investigation and conclusions into the charges Iron Man had leveled.
Iron Man provided Truthout with copies of a slide presentation that was used for a briefing held for the head of counterintelligence and counterterrorism at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). The date of the meeting could not be confirmed.
However, in summer 2000, the Asymmetrical Threats Division briefed “a DIA senior intelligence officer” on “The Search (for UBL Usama Bin Ladin]) – A CINC [Commander-in-chief] Level View.” According to Iron Man’s letter to the IG, “The briefing provided numerous examples and suggestions of how UBL was being hunted by JFIC and could be hunted by the IC [intelligence community].”
Iron Man would not provide the names of the individuals that the Asymmetrical Threats Division briefed because that information is classified. But the personnel included intelligence officials from CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, NCIS, NSA and high-level command officials at JFIC. The most senior official who was present at the briefing was Vice Adm. Martin J. Meyer, the deputy commander-in-chief of Joint Forces Command.
Vice Adm. Meyer is the military official who told Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, the commander of the Continental United States North American Aerospace Defense Command Region (CONR), and other high-level CONR staffers two weeks before the 9/11 attacks that “their concern about Osama bin Laden as a possible threat to America was unfounded and that, to repeat, ‘If everyone would just turn off CNN, there wouldn’t be a threat from Osama bin Laden.'”
Since Meyer was one of the individuals JFIC briefed on al-Qaeda’s interest in attacking targets in the United States it is difficult to comprehend why he would dismiss the threats.
What is clear, however, is that the slides Truthout obtained from Iron Man show that the military intelligence unit he was a part of actively pursued Bin Laden, contradicting the IG report’s conclusions.
Indeed, one of the slides explicitly states, “JFIC routinely supplements national agencies with original intelligence on UBL [Usama Bin Ladin] and Afghanistan.” (Emphasis added.)
Another slide, “NCIS Support to Joint Forces Intelligence Command and NCIS Field Office, Norfolk,” contains a description of Iron Man’s responsibilities as deputy chief of JFIC’s Asymmetric Threat Division.
The slide presentation further notes that the Asymmetrical Threats Division has “primary division focus” on both counterterrorism and military “force protection.” Moreover, the briefing slides state JFIC’s “Primary CT/force protection concerns” was “UBL [Usama Bin Ladin] and associated terrorist groups,” adding that its goal was to determine when Bin Laden and other terrorists would strike, “How they will strike” and “Where they will strike.”
According to the documents, Asymmetrical Threats Division personnel monitored open-source intelligence, national imagery data and sensitive compartmented intelligence, as well as worldwide counterterrorism and counterintelligence communications, including communications and electronic intelligence databases from the National Security Agency (NSA).
The information from the briefing backs up what Iron Man previously told Truthout: that Asymmetrical Threats Division “worked closely” with the counterterrorism office at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which collects, analyzes and distributes geospatial intelligence related to national security, or that, “upon request,” it provided information on terrorist movements to the CIA.
The Asymmetrical Threats Division had what is known as “gamma” security clearance, one of the slides noted, indicating analysts had access to extremely sensitive classified information, according to a description of the classification level by Matthew Aid in an unrelated New York Times report.
Another document Iron Man turned over to Truthout is a January 2001 confidential “Point Paper” that describes the Asymmetrical Threats Division as having “prepared numerous assessments of those cities most likely to be targeted by international and domestic terrorists,” confirming Iron Man’s claims that part of his unit’s work did consist of producing intelligence on domestic targets by terrorists.
Significant Changes Made to JFIC’s Official Response
Perhaps the most salient issue with the IG’s report is that it completely conceals the information that was withheld from Congressional investigators.
According to the report, on March 11, 2002, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice Adm. Thomas R. Wilson tasked JFCOM to provide it with information concerning its activities “in support of the 9/11 Commission.” As the IG’s report points out, the public law creating the 9/11 Commission was not effective until November 2002, so Vice Admiral Wilson can only be responding to a request from the Congressional joint inquiry and not the 9/11 Commission.
The IG’s report indicates JFCOM sent a “tasker” to JFIC two days later, indicating it was an urgent matter and the 13 items “derived from the original DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] tasker” were due by March 22.
A “JFIC senior naval officer,” the report states, gathered the information from the different departments within the military unit. The responses were then returned to JFCOM, where the Intelligence Director “reviewed the JFIC’s input prior to release” to the DIA Congressional Affairs Office on March 25, 2002.
The original JFIC response was scanned and printed as Appendix B of the IG report. According to the IG, the “original questions and answers to 13 questions that USJFCOM [United States Joint Forces Command] forwarded” to the Defense Intelligence Agency were also scanned and are printed as the report’s Appendix C. The scanned questions and answers that ultimately were sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Congressional Affairs Office and presumably on to Congressional investigators, are preceded by ten pages of superfluous material relating to JFIC actions taken after 9/11.
But the original questions and answers JFIC officials produced prior to March 22 (Appendix B) are not the same as the edited version that was sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency and Congress (Appendix C). Four questions and answers from Appendix C were deleted and one subsection and some of the other responses were scrubbed.
The IG report failed to highlight the difference and, indeed, the report still maintains the JFCOM version has “13 questions,” though four questions were omitted after another “review.”
There is no indication the scanned documents were redacted, which would have helped explain the omission, since the original material that was deleted and/or rewritten shows up unredacted in Appendix B.
According to the executive summary of the IG’s report, JFIC’s replies “were accurate and substantiated by our extensive review of available documentation and our 14 personnel interviews at all levels of Joint Forces Intelligence Command. We concluded that the Joint Forces Intelligence Command provided a timely and accurate reply in response to the 9/11 Commission. The United States Joint Forces Command forwarded the response to the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Congressional Affairs Office.”
JFlC’s original responses “were forwarded to the USJFCOM [United States Joint Forces Command]. The USJFCOM Intelligence Director reviewed the JFIC’s input prior to release to the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency].”
The report, however, fails to note that the JFCOM review removed substantial portions of JFIC’s replies to Congress.
What Was Missing
The missing portions largely relate to aspects of JFIC’s mission that had to do with the breadth and depth of its anti-terrorism work. For instance, in item one, JFCOM deleted the original JFIC reply that it conducted “in depth discussions about potential terrorist attacks since Dec. 00.”
The second item in the inquiry asked whether JFIC had information prior to 9/11 about “international terrorist cells operating in the United States.” While JFIC answered this question in the negative, in their original response JFIC indicated they maintained “global situational awareness for areas such as CONUS [Continental United States] outside of the USJFCOM [United States Joint Forces Command] AOR [area of responsibility.]” They briefed pertinent information” at morning briefings, “but we did not track it.” JFIC indicated the information “generally consisted of CIA and NSA reports.”
In the altered version of the response sent to Congress, the words “such as CONUS” are deleted, as is the reference to CIA and NSA reports. The edited version completely eliminates the fact that JFIC was keeping track of NSA and CIA reports of terrorist activity as it related to the United States. Indeed, later in the report, the fact that JFIC also maintained a “24-hour watch floor,” whose responsibility included monitoring of “worldwide events and terrorist issues,” was also deleted.
According to the original JFIC response, after 9/11, it officially did take on responsibility for tracking “potential threats to CONUS.” “As far as we know,” the JFIC original responses state, “JFIC is one of the few DoD entities attempting to track potential terrorist activities within CONUS.”
One of the missing items in the version of the JFIC answers sent to Congress concerned the names and positions of JFIC counterterror personnel. This was not redacted for classification purposes, as they appear in the IG report, Appendix B. Instead, back in 2002, the lack of any such names meant there was no one identifiable from JFIC to call as a witness.
At other points in the edited version of the JFIC responses, descriptions of the unit’s analytic work, in particular aspects that seem pertinent to Asymmetrical Threats Division’s work, are left out. It is noteworthy that even in the original JFIC response to the questionnaire, the mission JFIC was given was distorted.
According to the original inquiry response (and left out of the final version), “Prior to Sept. 11, JFIC did not have a robust counter-terrorism mission. We did do some analysis, but since it did not directly support Joint Forces Command’s AOR [area of responsibility], the analysts were directed to stop. As a result of this and normal military rotation, we did not have a large counter-terrorism analysis base to build on” after 9/11. (Emphasis added.)
Yet, in another portion of the original JFIC response and also deleted in the final version of the response, JFIC discusses its “process.” According to JFIC, while they do “not conduct unilateral collection” of intelligence in the United States, nor liaison with “foreign counterparts,” they do receive reports from “other agencies.” “JFIC’s process is to fuse all of the information that we have visibility on into one all-source threat picture,” the questionnaire stated, noting JFIC reviewed 2,275 messages daily from intelligence and military sources.
Subsequently, JFIC personnel decide what to do with this information, noting that sometimes they may “try to do further analysis (connect the dots, possibly produces a special analytic product), or … follow-up with the reporting agency.”
In a section erased from the JFIC response to Question 12 from Congressional investigators, JFIC describes their process as one of fusing “all of the information that we have visibility on into one all-source threat picture.” This is similar to Iron Man’s description of the Asymmetrical Threats Division in his complaint to the IG, when he described his former unit as “a forerunner of current all-source fusion centers…. able to develop and use all-source, original analysis in a manner probably then unprecedented within the intelligence community.”
If the report’s narrative sequence can be trusted, the JFCOM director either directly, or under his or her supervision, significantly altered the reply to Congressional Joint Inquiry investigators. Furthermore, due to the fact that items 7, 9, 11 and 13 are missing from the final document sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency it would have had to be apparent to the individual(s) reading that a chunk of information was missing.
While Congressional investigators were not provided with this intelligence on JFIC’s work, there were still other opportunities to pass the information along. In Spring 2002, a colleague informed Iron Man that none of the documents that could verify Asymmetrical Threats Division’s work was being sent to Congress.
The former deputy chief and later “Acting Chief” of Asymmetrical Threats Division contacted the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Congressional Affairs Office himself and offered to personally send the documentation, including the slides and “point paper.”
Those materials were subsequently sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency. Whether they made their way to Congress is unknown. The December 2002 unclassified Congressional Joint Inquiry report never mentions JFIC or Asymmetrical Threats Division or their work, nor does the 9/11 Commission Report published several years later.
Current and former lawmakers who worked on the Congressional committees probing the 9/11 attacks, including former Senator Bob Graham (D-Florida), did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment about whether they received any briefings about the military intelligence unit’s counterterrorism work pertaining to al-Qaeda, Bin Laden, and the Taliban.
Iron Man told Truthout, however, that he and his colleagues would “damn sure comment” on JFIC’s work if given the opportunity to speak with lawmakers.
But, Iron Man said, “the only manner in which any former DO5 [another name for JFIC] personnel could probably comment would be if requested by Congress/Congressional staff and permitted by DoD.”