KSM's Confession

Wall Street Journal

March 21, 2007

August \

by Edward Jay Epstein

Last week Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) admitted to having been responsible for planning no fewer than 28 acts of terrorism, including the horrific September 11 attacks, from "A to Z."

The sensational confession, made during a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay, raises a number of serious questions -- most pointedly about the decision of the 9/11 Commission to rely on the CIA for information about this terrorist leader, who was captured in 2003.

Although the 9/11 Commission identified KSM as a key witness in the World Trade Center and Pentagon, it never was allowed to question him or his CIA interrogators. Instead, the staff received briefings from a CIA "project manager" -- who was himself briefed by other CIA case officers on what KSM had putatively revealed during his interrogation. As the 9/11 Commission chairmen noted, this was "third-hand" information; but it allowed the CIA to fill in critical gaps in the commission's investigation. Now KSM's claims throw this reliance on the CIA into question.

Consider the Feb. 26, 1993, attack on the north tower of the World Trade Center. A 1,500 pound truck bomb was exploded by Islamist terrorists, intending to topple the building. Over 1,000 people were injured, and eventually five of the perpetrators, including the bomb-builder, Ramzi Yousef, were caught and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Yousef is a relative of KSM, and was involved with him in a subsequent plot to blow up U.S. airliners. Nevertheless, the 9/11 Commission concluded that KSM had played at most a "cameo role" in the 1993 attack, limited to providing Yousef with $600 and having a few phone conversations with him. And it based this conclusion largely on the CIA briefings of what KSM had said during his interrogation.

According to the CIA, for example, KSM had maintained that "Yousef never divulged to him the target of the attack." The 1993 WTC bombing, therefore, appeared unrelated to the 9/11 attack -- and so the 9/11 Commission had no need to investigate it, or the conspirators involved in it.

In his confession, however, KSM says that he was responsible for the WTC bombing. If so, both it and 9/11 are the work of the same mastermind -- and the planning, financing and support network that KSM used in the 1993 attack may be relevant to the 9/11 attack. Of especial interest are the escape routes used by Abdul Rahman Yasin and Ramzi Yousef, both of whom helped prepare the bomb and then fled America.

Yasin (who is not even mentioned in the 9/11 report) came to the U.S. from Iraq in 1992, at about the same time as Yousef, and then returned to Iraq via Jordan. Despite being indicted for the World Trade Center bombing, and put on the FBI's list of the most-wanted terrorist fugitives with a $5 million price on his head (increased to $25 million after 9/11), Iraqi authorities allowed Yasin to remain in Baghdad for 10 years (In 2003, after the U.S. invasion, he disappeared.)

His co-conspirator Yousef, who entered the U.S. under an alias on an Iraqi passport (switching passports to his Pakistani identity), escaped after the 1993 WTC bombing to Pakistan, where, after being involved in another bombing plot with KSM, he was arrested and is currently in a U.S. prison. But if indeed KSM had been behind the 1993 bombing -- and the 9/11 Commission had not been told the opposite by the CIA -- the question of what support KSM had in recruiting the conspirators and organizing the escape routes of the bomb makers would have become a far more pressing investigative issue for the commission.

Of course, KSM's credibility is a very big "if." He might have lied in his confession about his role in the 1993 WTC bombing; he might have lied to his CIA captors (which itself would say something about the effectiveness of their aggressive interrogation); or, in selecting bits and pieces out of their full context, the CIA project officer may have accidentally mis-briefed the 9/11 Commission staff.

But at the root of the problem is the failure of the commission itself to question KSM. This was not for lack of trying. The commission chairmen fully recognized the need to gain access to the author of 9/11, and took note that their staff was becoming "frustrated" at their inability to get information from KSM and other detainees. On Dec. 22, 2003 -- with less than seven months remaining before they had to deliver their report -- they brought the problem up with George Tenet, then CIA director. He told them, point blank, "You are not going to get access to these detainees."

The commission considered using its subpoena power, but was advised by its general counsel that since KSM was being held in a secret prison on foreign soil, it was unlikely that any court would enforce a subpoena. The commission also decided against taking the issue public, believing it could not win in a battle with the administration, at least in the time it had left. So, lacking any viable alternatives, it allowed the CIA to control the information it needed from KSM and other detainees.

The result is that basic issues concerning KSM's interrogation -- and the dozens of crucial citations in the 9/11 Report -- are now in such doubt that 9/11 Commissioner Bob Kerrey suggested last Sunday, in his Daily News column, that KSM be put on trial in New York, where presumably he could be properly cross-examined. While that remedy may be far-fetched, some resolution of this investigative failure is necessary.


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