9/11: 20 Years: Truth, Justice, Healing.

Interview with former FBI Special Agent, Mark Rossini

A tragedy as massive as September 11th, 2001 has left behind generational grief. But the 20-year emotional shrapnel wounds from that attack might have been reduced if the full truth about the attack had been told, and if justice had been served.

Mark Rossini, the former Special FBI Agent to the CIA’s bin Laden Station that tracked Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda associates in the years leading up to 9 -11, knows how that terrible day in history could have been avoided. It’s an unloadable burden because until there is full disclosure, he remains haunted by what he knew.

“9 -11 was a crime; a mass murder of American citizens, and our leaders and the judicial system failed us,” says Rossini. “The 2004 9 -11 Commission avoided holding accountable the people who failed us in their fiduciary responsibility. And that’s why the wound continues to suppurate.”

While stationed at the CIA’s bin Laden Station, Rossini received notification in January 2000 that two well-known al-Qaeda operatives, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, had been issued multiple-entry US visas. Recognizing the danger this posed, he requested permission from CIA employee, Michael Casey, to report the information to FBI headquarters, and to John O’Neill, in particular, the Special Agent in charge of National Security in New York at the time. He received this stern response:

“It’s not a matter for the FBI. When and if we want the FBI to know, we will tell them. You are not to tell them.” It was Rossini’s first major reckoning of the wall of secrecy between the CIA and FBI.

Al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar arrived in Los Angeles in January 2000 without any interception from any counter-terrorism unit. Only on August 23, 2001 – less than three weeks before 9 -11 – did the CIA send a routine, low-priority message to the FBI that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were in the USA and needed to be found.

“Nowhere in the message,” says Rossini, “did they label it urgent, even though these were two known terrorists who had attended al-Qaeda’s Malaysia Summit meeting in 2000. By August 23, 2001, it was too late. The two al-Qaeda operatives had slipped into oblivion, whereas had the FBI been informed about the Malaysia Summit and the men’s arrival 19 months before 9 -11, we could have immediately followed them from LAX, arrested them or disrupted them. Over 50 people in the CIA had known about these two men for well over a year, and they did nothing about it.”

20 months after arriving on US soil, al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were the hijackers that slammed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Shortly afterwards, their fellow hijackers slammed American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 into the World Trade Centers’ Twin Towers. Almost 3,000 innocent Americans lost their lives. John O’Neill perished on the 48th floor of one of those towers. Rossini was shattered. O’Neill had the will and the expertise to stop the hijackers – had the proper channels of communication been followed – and had he received this pertinent information on time. O’Neill’s legacy and the tragic missteps are powerfully portrayed in the 2018 television series, ‘The Looming Tower’, which is available on HULU. The evil that unfolded that day could have been prevented.

In 2004 at the 9 -11 Commission of Inquiry, there were allegations that the evidence provided by the CIA’s Alfreda Bikowsky, was not correct, calling into question the accuracy of her testimony. She asserted that the intelligence about al-Mihdhar being issued a US visa – was walked over from the CIA’s office to FBI Headquarters specifically. The FBI’s mandatory logbook, which records all visitors coming in and out of the building, does not reflect this.

After 9 -11, congressional investigators interrogated Rossini about his work at the CIA’s bin Laden unit, but he was instructed by the CIA not to divulge any information to the investigators. He bore the weight of that silence with the unfathomably deep regrets he carried – until 2004 – when he finally unloaded the truth to an FBI internal inquiry panel. His interview was recorded and has not been made public.

When Rossini and his FBI colleague, Douglas Miller, saw the Malaysia cable – they requested the CIA’s permission to inform the FBI that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar had multiple-entry visas to the USA. Rossini’s mental anguish is clearly visible as he details the errors:

“Why was the Central Intelligence Report (CIR) drafted by Special Agent Doug Miller, which contained information about the al-Qaeda “Terror Summit” in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in January 2000, suppressed and not sent to the FBI? And why was I threatened if I relayed that information to the FBI? 50 CIA members saw a critical piece of intelligence which they should have given to the FBI so that we could do our job of tracking Islamist radicals. We would have followed these two men, intercepted them, and derailed their plan to harm Americans. Al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar floated through Los Angeles International Airport with ease, and they moved around the country for 18 months while the information was firewalled. When the CIA eventually sent the information to the FBI on August 23, 2001 with no priority stamp on it, it was too late to find them. They had vanished off the radar.”

When the CIA’s Tom Wilshire was giving testimony at the 9 -11 Commission, he was directly asked why the information about al-Mihdhar was not given to the FBI in 2000. He is on record saying: “we were overwhelmed and it fell through the cracks.”

“What we do know is that government officials decided not to inform a lawfully constituted body, created by Congress and the President, to investigate one of the greatest tragedies to confront this country. We call that obstruction.” – Thomas H. Kean & Lee H. Hamilton, January 2, 2008, Chair & Vice Chair of the 9-11 Commission.

The tension between the CIA and the FBI is long standing. Rossini makes a point of clarifying that the CIA, in his opinion, generally does exceptionally great work. But when it came to 9 -11, their situation was complicated:

“The CIA is an extension of the US Administration. Their explicit task is to carry out the will and policies of the Administration – no matter which party is in power. When it comes to American Foreign Policy, our relationship with Saudi Arabia is deemed critical because our economy is dependent on the uninterrupted flow of crude oil – which is pegged to the US Dollar. Oil runs the world’s economy, and because the price of a barrel of oil is pegged to the US Dollar, our currency is regarded as the world’s premium currency. That fact keeps the US economy buoyed. So, the CIA has to comply with the Administration’s orders to keep the Saudis happy, and so they let the Saudis run a unilateral intelligence operation in the USA to keep al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi on the radar. The Saudi agent assigned to that task was Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national in the employ of the Saudi Consulate in San Diego where he was stationed, and where the two al-Qaeda operatives settled in January 2000.”

That sacrosanct relationship between the USA and Saudi Arabia was manipulated in preparation for the 9 -11 attacks. Al-Qaeda purposefully chose Saudi hijackers to commit the atrocities because they knew that Saudi nationals would have a favorable advantage attaining visas to enter the United States. The CIA appeared to work in concert with the Saudi Mabahith by formulating a high-risk plan of working with the al-Qaeda members in the hopes that they, the Mabahith, could turn them into counter spies for the Mabahith and consequently the CIA. But the problem was that the Saudis knew a lot more than they were sharing.

Al-Bayoumi first met the hijackers al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi at a restaurant in Culver City on the same day they arrived at LAX, which was January 15th, 2000. Al-Bayoumi told the 9 -11 Commission investigators that it was a “chance accidental meeting”. That information does not appear to be accurate. Al-Bayoumi appeared to go into LA that day, specifically to that restaurant with the predetermined purpose of meeting al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi. He then took the hijackers back to his home in San Diego, and set them up in an apartment across the street from his. Al-Bayoumi claims he did this to help fellow traveling Muslims but the evidence seems to support a different conclusion.

Rossini continues, “The CIA’s partnership with the Saudi Mabahith was a delusional operation that failed seismically. The plan involved getting close to dangerous people in the hopes that they could persuade them to join their side. Had the FBI been involved, and we should have been involved, we would have terminated the charade by addressing the immediate danger. We would have intercepted and arrested people without the Hollywood web of intrigue or the political machinations. And that’s the conflict of interests. The CIA didn’t want us (the FBI) to round up anybody since the Saudis would have been embarrassed, and the Administration would have had to do a lot of explaining to the American people and to the Saudis.”

Richard Clarke, the Chief Counter Terrorism Advisor for the National Security Council during that time, agrees with Rossini. In May 2016, Clarke said, “the CIA attempted to recruit Mihdhar and Hazmi in California.” It was standard policy with any Saudis who were suspected of extremism. Once the CIA identified someone who was on the path to radicalization, they worked hand-in-hand with the Saudis on a ‘readjustment’ program.

The veracity of the situation should have been evident when top government officials were notified in the year leading up to 9 -11 that a large number of Middle Eastern men had enlisted flying lessons at various flight schools across the country. A warning bell should have burst their eardrums when they were informed that the men only wanted to learn how to fly the airplanes straightly. They were not interested in landing the airplanes – or taking off. They pressured their instructors to skip over those parts.

Al-Qaeda’s malicious plans were rapidly gaining momentum after bin Laden announced to the world his intention to kill Americans. In 1997, somebody walked into the US Embassy in Kenya and reportedly told an embassy official that al-Qaeda was planning an attack there. That official reported it to the CIA in Washington DC immediately. There appears to have been no follow-up, and in 1998, al-Qaeda terrorists bombed the embassy – killing 300 people and severely injuring over 5,000 innocent Kenyans. Rossini spent nearly 3 months in Kenya on the investigation and his regrets are voiced again as he says, “There was no commission of inquiry after the bombings to determine why it happened, given the fact that the CIA had been monitoring the East African cell of al-Qaeda since 1996.”

On October 12, 2000, suicide attackers used a boat filled with explosives to crash into the USS Cole that was stationed off the coast of Yemen. Seventeen sailors were killed and 37 injured. Al-Qaeda was using mobile, combustible equipment to kill US citizens. The FBI’s John O’Neill went straight to Yemen to locate and charge the culprits, but he was allegedly hamstrung by the US Ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, because it has been asserted that her priorities were to not upset the Yemenis. Bodine immediately commanded that O’Neill’s men put away their ‘long guns’, even though this made his agents highly vulnerable in hostile territory. Their little pistols were practically useless since Kalashnikovs and other machine guns are prolific in Yemeni streets. O’Neill’s return to Yemen to continue the investigation – was blocked – a critical time frame within ten months of 9 -11 in which life-saving information could have been uncovered, given O’Neill’s determination and ability to round up bad guys.

“Someone has to come clean and explain why there was a concerted, illegal effort to withhold information from the FBI – in defiance of Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 signed in 1981.”

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s Military Commander, had masterminded the previous 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Clearly, al-Qaeda was targeting any landmark that symbolized American power. In 1996, he pitched the idea to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan that utilizing aviation was the best method of killing thousands of Americans. The previous year, all USA airlines were grounded when police in Manila uncovered a plot by Ramzi Yousef to blow up a dozen US airliners while they were flying over the Pacific. There was consistent intelligence that pointed to al-Qaeda wanting to use aviation methods for maximum destruction while Khalid Sheik Mohammed was masterminding his second attack on the World Trade Center. Of the eventual 19 hijackers being prepped for 9 -11, fifteen of them were Saudis, and they were moving about the USA freely. Had the FBI been informed about the first two in January 2000, they would have been able to learn the identity of the whole cell of terrorists.

Rossini speaks passionately when dissecting the details of al-Mihdhar’s movements before 9 -11.

“After al-Mihdhar arrived in the USA in January 2000, he settled in San Diego. He then left to go back to Yemen in June 2000 for the birth of his baby. The NSA and CIA were listening to his phone calls and that is how they had learned about the 2000 Malaysian Summit Meeting in the first place. The CIA even had photographs of his passport. They’d also found out that al-Mihdhar visited Afghanistan in early 2001. Why was he allowed to re-enter the USA on July 4, 2001 via John F. Kennedy Airport? Why wasn’t he put on a watch list, detained upon entry, and turned over to the FBI at that point? During this phase outside of the USA, he apparently lost his Saudi passport and received a new one in which Saudi authorities had implanted an electronic chip that identified him as an al-Qaeda affiliate who was dangerous to the Kingdom. But somehow the Saudi Mabahith ‘lost’ him and informed the CIA that they’d lost him. That was a critical moment in which the FBI should have been notified immediately. The CIA waited until late August 2001 to ask for the FBI’s help in finding him. There were so many lost opportunities with al-Mihdhar including when he went to the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for a new visa. That would have been a critically opportune time for FBI intervention. What adds insult to injury, the CIA did bring photographs of al-Qaeda operatives over to the FBI in June 2001 but withheld all the information they knew about them and the Malaysia Summit. It was as if they were testing our team – to see if we had any information. They remained tight lipped – sharing nothing!”

When the CIA’s Tom Wilshire was giving testimony at the 9 -11 Commission, he was directly asked why the information about al-Mihdhar was not given to the FBI in 2000. He is on record saying: “we were overwhelmed and it fell through the cracks.”

Rossini views that testimony as incredulous. “How could it have ‘fallen through the cracks’ if that person had written in July 2001 about another attendee at the 2000 Malaysia Summit named Khallad bin Attash – a person referred to as ‘a major league killer’. So if a ‘major league killer’ was at the Malaysian Summit along with al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, why was the FBI not notified immediately of every detail and holding? I don’t buy any of those excuses.”

“Someone has to come clean and explain why there was a concerted, illegal effort to withhold information from the FBI – in defiance of Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 signed in 1981. The order states: ‘Timely and accurate information about the activities, capabilities, plans, and intentions of foreign powers, organizations and persons – essential to the national security of the US – must be shared to insure that the US is safeguarded. ALL national security departments and agencies must co-operate fully.’ This should have been a Criminal Negligence Homicide case, but instead, it turned into an evasive piece of inaccurate story-telling.”

“To add insult to the death stack of almost 3,000 Americans, some of our leaders decided to deflect the narrative to Iraq – to a guy named Saddam Hussein – who had nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda. Contrary to misinformation, he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction either. We went to war, killed the Sunni leader in Iraq, and inadvertently created a mega Shiite empire that has come back to bite us,” emphasizes Rossini.

“9 -11 was criminal negligence”, Rossini confirms emphatically. “After the fact, when a crime is committed, the prosecutor pursues the case with precision detail. An investigative necessity is finding out exactly what happened and who was responsible. That never happened after 9 -11. Investigators let it rest at ‘al-Qaeda is responsible’. The people who withheld the critical intelligence about al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar needed to have been held accountable for a failing that cost thousands of lives.”

Rossini proposes a solution to insure that something like 9 -11 never happens again: “We need to stop politicizing counter terrorism efforts. There needs to be constructive unification between our intelligence agencies; the sharing of vital information. When you combine the breadth of skills across the agencies, you produce considerably more enhanced collaborative results. The FBI and CIA should have unlimited domestic and international capabilities, and they should be unencumbered by political intrusion.”

There are few interviews I’ve conducted wherein a person’s soul is so visibly altered, so visibly pulverized. The pain that Rossini carries goes way beyond post-traumatic stress. He lives with a heaviness of heart that wakes him up at night, and that’s because the human soul can never find peace without truth and justice.

Let’s do better going forward. Just as the world resolved after World War II to never allow a travesty of that magnitude to occur again, let the 20-year anniversary of 9 -11 be a strong resolve to hold the people who possess the keys to keeping us safe – accountable. Knowledge and experience accrues wisdom – and those valuable components are critical in preventing another massive American tragedy. As for Mark Rossini: he’s ready to put his extensive knowledge and experience to good use. His heart has never been more motivated and more ready to keep Americans safe.

To read Rossini’s full report on 9/11, go to:

Disclaimer: * Mark Rossini did not confirm nor deny any of the CIA personnel named in this article. He is bound by applicable laws to not divulge the names of any persons who may or may not be current or former members of the CIA. *The author of this article accessed the names of CIA personnel from publicly available records including the 9-11 Commission of Inquiry, The Terror Routes, The Looming Tower, and Road to 9-11. The opinions expressed in this article may not represent the opinions of this publication.