Attorney General contender carries 9/11 related baggage
Monday’s New York Times reported that former Deputy A.G. and 9/11 Commissioner Jamie Gorelick was a candidate for Attorney General in the new Obama Administration. Five-time Emmy winning investigative reporter Peter Lance details a shocking, but little known story about Gorelick involving the loss of a key al Qaeda operative. This is an excerpt from his 2006 HarperCollins book TRIPLE CROSS soon to be published in trade paperback.
On December 16th, 1994, agents in the FBI’s San Francisco office made an extraordinary seizure. Mohammed Jamal Khalifa (MJK) Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law and former roommate, was captured at a Holiday Inn in Morgan Hill, California. If this arrest had been fully investigated by the FBI and the Justice Department, it might have led to the seizure of 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and stopped the “planes as missiles” plot dead in its tracks. But what followed was series of missteps and bad decisions at the highest levels of the State and Justice departments that had a catastrophic impact on America’s ability to cut short bin Laden’s jihad against America.
At the center of the decision making at the time, was Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick.
Khalifa, 37, was born in Medina, Saudi Arabia. A short, wiry man with a close-cropped beard; his aliases included Abdul Bara, Abu Baraa, and Jimmy Jack. Khalifa was so close to the Saudi billionaire that he’d married bin Laden’s sister. From 1983 to 1991 he had been trusted by al Qaeda with running the Philippines branch of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), one of their key NGO’s with links to the Hamas terrorist organization.
The Philippines National Police (PNP) believed that via Konsonjaya, a Malaysian cutout company, Khalifa was bankrolling the Mania cell of KSM and his nephew Ramzi Yousef.
Ramzi, a master bomb maker later convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was also the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks, which his uncle Khalid Shaikh executed after Yousef’s arrest in 1995. That story is fully documented in my first HarperCollins investigative book: 1000 Years For Revenge: International Terrorism And the FBI (The Untold Story).
The other two principal cell members were Abdul Hakim Murad, a pilot trained in four U.S. flights schools in 1991-92 who was to be the lead pilot in the “planes operation” and Wali Khan Amin Shah, aka “the lion,” a veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviets who was beloved by bin Laden.
The PNP also suspected Khalifa of having “contacts with Islamic extremist and fundamentalist groups . . . in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Russia, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Romania, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Albania, the Netherlands and Morocco.” More significant, he also had ties to al Gamma’a Islamyah (IG), blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman’s Egyptian-based terror group. Khalifa’s business card was discovered in a search of the blind Sheikh’s residence the year before (1993) and he was one of 172 unindicted co-conspirators named by prosecutors Patrick Fitzgerald and Andrew McCarthy in the Day of Terror case, which was about to get underway in the Southern District of New York in early 1995.
At the time of his arrest in Morgan Hill, Khalifa was traveling with Mohammed Loay Bayazid, a.k.a. Abu Rida al-Suri, a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked in the Chicago office of the Benevolence International Foundation, an al Qaeda NGO. In the early 1990s, Bayazid, later identified as a founding member of al Qaeda, had attempted to obtain uranium for Osama bin Laden. Further, although Khalifa was carrying a Saudi passport, he’d flown into the Bay area from London carrying a Philippines Special Return Certificate indicating that he was heading back to Manila.
THE BIGGEST AL QAEDA FISH CAUGHT BY THE FEDS
With his direct connections to bin Laden, the blind Sheikh, KSM, Yousef and Wali Khan, Khalifa was the biggest al Qaeda fish the Feds had caught since Rahman himself in July 1993.
“It’s difficult to express just how many dots the FBI and Justice Department prosecutors could have connected with Khalifa, at the time of his arrest, given the contacts he had,” says Paul Thompson, terrorist researcher and author of The Terror Timeline, who has compiled a database of more than 20,000 open-source al Qaeda-related articles and court pleadings on the non-profit website History Commons.
After serving a search warrant on Khalifa, the Feds found files in his Newton PDA which listed one of his aliases Abu Baraa. That same name had been scrawled inside one of the bomb manuals carried by Mohammed Ajaj, a former al Fatah terrorist who had been convicted earlier in 1994 for the World Trade Center bombing.
Searching Khalifa’s belongings, the FBI and INS discovered Islamic literature tying him to IIRO. Also in the PDA were Wali Khan’s beeper number, and a number in Pakistan that Yousef had used to call Manila. Encrypted phone numbers tied to Khalifa’s NGO were later found on Yousef’s Toshiba laptop, and when Wali Khan was finally arrested, he was found to be carrying multiple numbers for MJK.
Given his links to Yousef’s cells in New York and Manila, Khalifa was the human linchpin who could have ultimately furnished the FBI with proof of Yousef’s second intended attack on the World Trade Center which KSM carried out on “Black Tuesday.”
Moreover, Khalifa was motivated to talk. At the time of his arrest in Morgan Hills, he was wanted in Jordan for a series of al Qaeda related bombings. As a State Department cable after his arrest stated: “FYI, Osama Bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal Khalifah [sic], was arrested in California on 12/16. REFTEL (reference telegram) refers to Khalifa as a known financier of terrorist operations and an officer of an Islamic NGO in the Philippines that is a known Hamas front. He is under indictment in Jordan in connection with a series of cinema bombings earlier this year.”
On the day of his arrest in mid-December 1994, the State Department designated Khalifa a “Deportable Alien.” A deputy assistant secretary of state issued a certificate of revocation for Khalifa’s visa for having “engaged in terrorist activity.”
A week later, on December 23rd , Philip C. Wilcox, Jr. the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, wrote to advise an immigration judge that Khalifa had “engaged in serious terrorist offenses” and that his release “would endanger U.S. national security.” (PDF link).
He noted that “in the last two days there has been a significant additional development in this matter. On December 21st the State Security Court in Jordan found Mohammed Jamal Khalifah guilty of the charges for which he was indicted and imposed a capital sentence.” After a four-month trial involving twenty-five suspected terrorists, the Jordanian’s had condemned Khalifa; and now in the safety of U.S. custody, he was facing execution if he returned to Amman.
The details on Khalifa’s Newton address book should have led the FBI directly to Ramzi Yousef, the world’s most wanted man—who, unbeknownst to the Feds, was responsible for a plot to blow up Philippines Airlines Flight 434 that went down just five days before Khalifa’s seizure, and who was now contemplating three mass-casualty terrorist attacks.
Further, for the two bin Laden offices or origin in New York, Khalifa’s web of associations should have underscored al Qaeda's direct command and control of Yousef’s New York and Philippines operations. As to what the Feds could expect to get out of MJK, his death sentence in Jordan meant that he was motivated to talk, rather than risk extradition.
KHALIFA’S EXTRADITION BACKED BY TWO TOP FEDS
Even if the Feds were savvy enough to see the value in questioning him, however, they never got the chance. On January 5, 1995, a decision was made by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and supported by Deputy A.G. Gorelick, that arguably ranks as one of the most profound intelligence errors committed by any U.S. official in the years leading up to 9/11.
“Jordan is aware of Mr. Khalifah’s presence in the United States,” Christopher wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno, “and has asked for our assistance in sending him to Jordan so that he may be brought to justice. To permit Mr. Khalifah to remain in the United States in these circumstances would potentially be seen as an affront to Jordan and at odds with many of the basic elements of our cooperative bilateral relationship [and] potentially undermine our longstanding and successful policy of international legal cooperation to bring about the prosecution of terrorists.”
Christopher’s legal theory seemed part of a determined effort by top officials at Justice and State to craft an exit for Khalifa.
Philip Wilcox’s letter of just two weeks before, and the certificate revoking MJK’s visa had cited him for “terrorist activity.” But according to Khalifa’s lawyer Marc Van Der Hout, “They dropped that halfway through his bond hearing. Then they [substituted] a charge that hadn’t been used before—enacted in 1990—that a person can be deported if the Secretary of State has reasons to believe the alien’s presence or activities could have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences. This is the first time they ever tried to use that statute.”
Christopher’s letter made no mention of Khalifa’s crucial value to the U.S. in its own terror fight. Keep in mind that the FBI found evidence in his PDA linking MJK directly to Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the WTC bombing, who was, at that very moment the object of a worldwide manhunt. That discovery alone should far have outweighed Jordan’s desire to punish Khalifa for a series of movie theater bombings.
GORELICK SENDS AN “EXPEDITE” LETTER
Nonetheless, the very next day, Gorelick—serving in Janet Reno’s absence as acting attorney general—sent an “expedite” letter in support of Christopher’s deportation request.
Strangely, Gorelick began the letter by noting that, pursuant to Federal law, "the deportation of an alien in the United States...shall be directed by the Attorney General to a country promptly designated by the alien if that country is willing to accept him into its territory unless the Attorney General in his discretion concludes that deportation to such country would be prejudicial to the interests of the United States(emphasis added).
It’s difficult to fathom how it could have been in the interests of the United States to allow the deportation of Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law; a man the State Department had just named as “a terrorist.” But Gorelick went on record personally as supporting Christopher’s recommendation, concluding that “should deportation be ordered, deporting Mohammed Khalifah to any country other than Jordan would be prejudicial to the interests of the United States and that he should be deported to Jordan pursuant to Section 243 (a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).”
Rather than keeping him in the U.S. so that he could be debriefed by FBI agents, Gorelick was signing off on a decision first pressed by Christopher who was apparently feeling pressured from the Jordanians to extradite the accused terrorist financier.
CIA PERSONNEL “RIPSHIT” OVER THE DECISION
“I remember people at CIA who were ripshit at the time” over the decision, says Jacob L. Boesen, an Energy Department analyst then working at the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center. “Not even speaking in retrospect, but contemporaneous with what the intelligence community knew about bin Laden, Khalifa’s deportation was unreal.”
From the time of his arrest, Khalifa maintained his innocence, contending that he was a legitimate businessman and philanthropist who had visited the Bay Area merely to meet with seed brokers as part of his import-export business,. He categorically denied being a terrorist, and claimed that his conviction in Amman was the result of perjured testimony by a witness who had been tortured.
Khalifa was initially housed in the relatively low-security Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County. Then, over the next few months, a curious series of events began to unfold. Rather than cooperating with the Feds, Khalifa initially fought his extradition to Jordan.
He also filed a civil suit to get back the contents of his luggage, which included the coveted PDA and other computer files.
Astonishingly, the Feds complied. On March 23rd, 1995, in a response to Khalifa’s motion for return of property and an order unsealing his search warrant, assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen R. Freccero stated that “The United States has no objection to the unsealing of the search warrant [and] the return of the property seized.” So the treasure trove of al Qaeda-related intelligence went back to MJK.
Ironically after his extradition, Khalifa landed in Saudi Arabia where he ran a seafood restaurant in Jeddah for several years. Arrested after 9/11 by the Saudis, he was later freed and openly condemned his billionaire brother-in-law bin Laden – criticism for which he may have paid dearly. On January 31st, 2007 an armed group of some 20 men attacked his house in Madagascar and murdered him; stealing his belongings and any trace that may have remained of his links to the Manila cell behind the 9/11 plot.
THE “WALL” MEMO
The Khalifa case is worth studying in detail, not just because of the massive security loss that it represented for America, but because it may have led to the infamous March 1995 memo from Deputy A.G. Gorelick which sought to define how the FBI and Justice Department would investigate terrorism for years to come.
In this memo, written two months after her letter acquiescing to Khalifa’s deportation, Gorelick issued that Justice Department directive creating the infamous “wall,” instructing FBI agents and DOJ prosecutors to separate past criminal investigations, “including the bombing of the World Trade Center” and “the indicted case of United States v. Rahman, et al.” from Foreign Counter Intelligence (FCI) investigations of future terrorist acts. In effect, Gorelick was ordering the breakup the Justice Department’s war on terror into two separate camps. (PDF link).
“Because the counterintelligence investigation will involve the use of surveillance techniques authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) against targets that, in some instances, had been subject to surveillance under Title III,” she wrote, “and because it will involve some of the same sources and targets as the criminal investigation, we believe that it is prudent to establish a set of instructions that will clearly separate the counterintelligence investigation from the more limited, but continued, criminal investigations.”
Since most of the Justice Department’s body of knowledge on al Qaeda, Yousef, and the blind Sheikh’s plots was contained in the files of FBI agents and SDNY prosecutors who worked those criminal cases, Gorelick’s extraordinary edict had the potential legal effect of isolating them from the FCI agents trying to stop the next al Qaeda bomb from detonating.
Gorelick’s memo also had a more personal effect: It may well have helped to obscure her support for Khalifa’s extradition, at a time when prosecutors in the SDNY had recently commenced the epic case they were mounting against the blind Sheikh and his cohorts.
BEYOND WHAT IS LEGALLY REQUIRED
What made Gorelick’s memo even more astonishing is that it wasn’t legally necessary. She even admitted in her order that these new “procedures . . . go beyond what is legally required.”
The 2004 disclosure of that memo by then Attorney General John Ashcroft, in his testimony before the 9/11 Commission, set off a firestorm of criticism since Gorelick was serving as one of the ten commissioners.
After Ashcroft’s revelation, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, accused Gorelick of having “an inherent conflict of interest” and called for her immediate resignation, which never happened.
But the “wall memo” debate quickly degenerated into partisan finger-pointing after Ashcroft was forced to admit that his own deputy attorney general Larry Thompson had renewed the terms of the Gorelick memo in August 2001, weeks before 9/11.
Retired FBI Agent Joe O’Brien sees it this way: “The wall memo was a disastrous move. Because, as it turned out, all of these cases were related. This was a bin Laden-New York show from start to finish.”
As one of the 9/11 commissioners, Gorelick supported a decision that limited the scope of the Commission’s investigation “with regard to the Department of Justice” to the “period 1998 forward.” That narrower field of inquiry insured that the Commission wouldn’t look back at the disastrous Khalifa deportation, which Gorelick supported, or question whether she had used “the wall” memo to keep prosecutors from connecting the dots on her actions.
“There’s no doubt that the Commission should have gone back at least as far as the first Bush Administration, in order to effectively measure the intelligence failures that led to the attacks,” says Monica Gabrielle, a member of the core group of 9/11 victim families that campaigned for the creation of the Commission. “But Gorelick was one of those who wanted to concentrate only on the last few years.”
Apparently she got her way. In the entire 604-page authorized edition of The 9/11 Commission Report, there isn’t a word about Gorelick’s role in supporting the exit of Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, or about the “wall memo”—two of the most damaging moves the United States justice system took on the road to 9/11.
Final note: for the most definitive coverage of the Khalifa arrest and deportation go to John Berger’s investigative site.
More information on Peter Lance's investigations can be found at his website.