The latest wrinkle is a nasty public spat between the National Geographic Channel, which plans to broadcast “Triple Cross: Bin Laden’s Spy in America” on Aug. 28, and author Peter Lance, whose new book forms the basis of the documentary.
Lance is an Emmy-winning former reporter-producer for ABC News. His book, “Triple Cross,” which will be released in September, accuses law enforcement officials of negligence in tracking down Ali Mohamed, an alleged al-Qaeda agent in the United States for years before Sept. 11. The book says Mohamed was hired by the CIA and worked for the FBI, all the while providing information to the terrorists. The book also contains, according to Lance, “a major new insight” into why the Pentagon killed the Able Danger operation in April 2000.
It involves the discovery by Able Danger operatives that Ali Mohamed was a member of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle. Mohamed turned up in FBI surveillance photos as early as 1989, training radical Muslims who would go on to assassinate Jewish militant Meir Kahane and detonate a truck bomb at the World Trade Center. He not only avoided arrest, but managed to become an FBI informant while smuggling bin Laden in and out of Afghanistan, writing most of the al-Qaeda terrorist manual and helping plan attacks on American troops in Somalia and U.S. embassies in Africa. Finally arrested in 1998, Mohamed cut a deal with the Justice Department, and his whereabouts remain shrouded, unknown.
”The FBI allowed the chief spy for al-Qaeda to operate right under their noses,” Lance said. ”They let him plan the bombings of the embassies in Africa right under their noses. Two hundred twenty-four people were killed and more than 4,000 wounded because of their negligence.”
Lance contends that when Pentagon officials realized how embarrassing it would be if it were revealed that bin Laden’s spy had stolen top-secret intelligence (including the positions of all Green Beret and SEAL units worldwide), they decided to bury the entire Able Danger program. Lance further states that his book also contains evidence that Patrick Fitzgerald (of later Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame fame) covered up key al-Qaeda intelligence in 1996, when he was then an assistant U.S. attorney in New York. To Lance, Fitzgerald was “one of the principal players in the government’s negligence, who engaged in an affirmative coverup of key al-Qaeda-related intelligence in 1996.”
Lance believes “Fitzgerald was hopelessly outgunned by Mohamed, a hardened al-Qaeda spy, who was bin Laden’s personal security advisor.” Despite two face-to-face meetings with Mohamed, whom Fitzgerald called “the most dangerous man I’ve ever met,” he left him on the street, which allowed Mohamed — who actually planned the surveillance for the African Embassy bombings — to help pull off that simultaneous act of terror in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998, in which 224 died and more than 4,000 were injured.
There is also a chilling tie-in in the book to the airliner-bombing plot revealed last week by the British intelligence. Much of the key intelligence that Fitzgerald helped to bury in 1996 was directly related to the Bojinka plot, a scheme by original WTC bomber and 9/11 architect Ramzi Yousef to smuggle small improvised explosive devices aboard up to a dozen U.S. bound jumbo jets exiting Asia.
Fitzgerald went on become both U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois and special prosecutor in the CIA leak probe. After allowing Ali Mohamed to operate with virtual impunity for years, Fitzgerald finally arrested him post-bombing in 1998. But then he cut a deal with him that allowed Mohamed to enter witness protection and avoid the death penalty.
Lance contends that this was to spare the government from embarrassment, since Ali Mohamed had been an FBI informant since 1992. Yet despite three years in federal custody, Fitzgerald and his elite FBI squad members were unable to extract the 9/11 plot from Mohamed, who was so close to bin Laden that he lived in the Saudi billionaire’s house after moving him and his family from Afghanistan to Khartoum in 1992.
The revelations, says Lance, proved “too hot to handle” for the National Geographic Channel, which is two-thirds owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp (which also owns Lance’s publisher, HarperCollins). “The Feds have gotten to them, there is no doubt,” Lance told me in an interview. “National Geographic has abandoned the truth and acquiesced to pressure from the government.”
Television critic Glenn Garvin first reported the flap in a Miami Herald piece that characterized Lance’s reaction to the program as a “watered-down whitewash” that was “like doing ‘Schindler’s List’ from Hitler’s perspective.”
Able Danger insiders had figured the documentary to be controversial, but no one expected open warfare to break out between Lance and his broadcasters prior to its airing. Lance, who was originally slated to narrate the film, is so angry at what he sees as the program’s shift in direction and emphasis that he now refuses to back it at all.
At least one source interviewed for the documentary — House Armed Services Committee vice chairman Curt Weldon, who has spearheaded congressional efforts to get to the bottom of the Able Danger affair — has asked to be removed from the program. “We didn’t think National Geographic was doing a 100 percent job,” says Weldon’s chief of staff, Russ Caso. “We felt we weren’t looking at an unbiased piece.” And National Geographic’s producers now won’t even let Lance see the final cut unless he signs what they call a “nondisparagement agreement.”
The public pissing match between Lance and his putative broadcaster is virtually without precedent. ”It’s probably happened before,” John Ford, executive vice president of programming at National Geographic Channel, told the Herald. “But I can’t tell you when. I certainly don’t know of a case.” Ford strongly denies the documentary is a whitewash and says the network still stands behind it despite Lance’s attack. But Lance is having none of it: “They hijacked my work,” he says, “The documentary is now skewed so much in favor of the feds that it actually distorts the facts of the story.” National Geographic’s executive vice president of programming, John Ford, said the film’s producers never intended to base the documentary solely on the book — something Lance hotly disputes.
“Let me set the record straight on the allegations made by John Ford,” he says. “First, in the Miami Herald piece, Ford lied to Glenn Garvin when he said that ‘Peter wanted us to include accusations and conclusions … that we could not independently verify, and we weren’t willing to do that.’”
“The film is also based on our own independent research,” says Ford. He alsotold United Press International that Lance “wants this show to reflect his own personal conclusions,” and that he is “using this controversy to promote his book.”
“The second lie is that the documentary ‘was never supposed to be based solely’ on my book,” says Lance. “The truth is that from the beginning Nat Geo hired me to do a documentary exclusively based on my work. This was my show from start to finish. But now we’re at a point where a major cable network, reporting on an issue of national importance, is backtracking on proof of how the FBI folded on the road to 9/11. What’s worse, in a few days this documentary will air with my name on it!” Lance concludes, “This is a ridiculous lie, since they’ve cut me out of the process and rolled over in favor of the feds.”
Despite Lance’s vehement protestations, National Geographic executives like Ford are undeterred and say that the show must and will go on — especially given the upcoming fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. ”It exposes how different parts of the U.S. national security apparatus failed to connect the dots on Ali Mohamed over a decade and a half,” Ford said. “It’s like a Tom Clancy thriller, but true.”
What’s also true is that many questions still remain unanswered about the actual Able Danger program, what it found, and what reaction higher-ups everywhere from Pentagon brass to FBI officials to the 9/11 Commission had when Able Danger operatives attempted to inform them of its findings.
Why, for example, were three planned meetings with the FBI canceled at the last minute, thus preventing the bureau from hearing evidence that may have helped them “connect the dots” before the terror attacks? Why was the guided missile destroyer USS Cole sent to refuel at the port of Aden, Yemen, in October 2000, despite the fact that Able Danger had identified Aden as the location of an active al-Qaeda cell? Why did Special Operation Command chief Peter Schoomaker (now Army chief of staff) apparently do nothing after Able Danger analysts personally briefed him about the danger in Yemen just two days before a suicide bomb attack blew a 40-by-40-foot hole in the side of the Cole, killing 17 crew members and injuring 39 others?
Further, why was veteran intelligence analyst-operative Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer’s career derailed and reputation besmirched after he tried to alert an unwilling 9/11 Commission to Able Danger’s findings? What has happened to the Department of Defense’s own inspector general’s investigation into the scapegoating of Shaffer — originally slated to be completed and made public in May? Whatever happened to Arlen Specter’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Able Danger, originally scheduled for last September and then “postponed for the Jewish holidays?” And why were the entire 2.5 terabytes of Able Danger data destroyed, along with a pre-9/11 link chart that identified four eventual hijackers and even had a photograph of Mohammed Atta?
And what about reports that the Able Danger program was reconstituted after the data purge by a classified Raytheon “skunk works” program in Garland, Texas? Or that the entire data-mining effort was then taken “black,” hidden deep inside the intelligence bureaucracy and expanded into what later morphed into Total Information Awareness, NSA warrantless surveillance, and in fact the government’s ongoing illegal and unconstitutional spying on huge quantities of domestic telephone calls and emails? Conspiracy … or something more? The plot ever thickens