Conspiratorial Incompetence

Montecito Journalist Peter Lance Indicts the FBI for 9/11 Negligence

by Sam Kornell

Peter-Lance.jpgPeter Lance empathizes with those who think the federal government was involved in 9/11. “After all the lies about WMD, after Iraq, after Katrina,” he said, “I think it’s understandable that many Americans are very, very angry with the Bush administration, and their anger has led them to some dark places.” But after five years of research, Lance said he hasn’t uncovered “a single shred of evidence” that the government knew about 9/11 or helped it happen.

Lance is an excitable, fast-talking journalist who lives in Montecito. Since September 11, 2001, he has written two books about FBI incompetence in the months and years preceding the attacks; a third, Triple Cross, was published in September. Lance’s repudiation of 9/11 conspiracy theories distinguishes him from the 42 percent of Americans who suspect federal officials assisted in the attacks or took no action to stop them so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East, if a July poll by the Scripps Howard University is to be believed. Yet it also firmly aligns him with the judgment of every professional news organization in the United States.

So how is it that Peter Lance can be accurately described as a 9/11 conspiracy theorist? He believes the government was as shocked as anyone on that clear, sunlit day five years ago, when mass murder assailed an unsuspecting nation; his point of contention, as he explained in his new book, is that the government should not have been shocked. And the government’s confounding failure to foresee the attacks, Lance argued, makes it complicit in their execution. Even more damningly, Lance believes that following 9/11, the government embarked on a comprehensive campaign to cover up its own incompetence.

Lance, a former ABC news journalist, was working as a screenwriter and novelist when 9/11 occurred. Galvanized by the question of the attacks’ preventability and shaken by his personal brush with the cataclysm they caused (his son went to high school two blocks away from the World Trade Center), Lance decided to refocus his energies on reporting, this time with the biggest story of the young century his subject. In 1000 Years for Revenge and Cover Up, published in 2003 and 2004 respectively, Lance laid out his theory that the FBI, through negligence and ineptitude, failed to detect a series of alarming warning signs in the lead-up to 9/11. Those signs were so apparent that the failure to act on them amounts, he argued, to a criminal indictment of the bureau.

In Triple Cross, Lance offers new evidence of the FBI’s inability and/or unwillingness to act on the threat posed by Osama bin Laden’s nascent terror organization, Al Qaeda, and refines his argument that the 9/11 Commission did not go nearly far enough when, in July 2004, it called the FBI to task for its mistakes. Triple Cross tells the story of Ali Mohamed, an Egyptian soldier of fortune whom Lance calls Osama bin Laden’s “master spy.” Mohamed became an FBI informant in 1992, but according to Lance, he worked as a double agent for years, helping bin Laden plan and execute terrorist attacks even as he ingratiated himself with his American bosses. Lance believes Mohamed’s double-dealing was easily detectable and therefore should have been stopped.

Like Lance’s other works, Triple Cross is primarily a book of reportage, not analysis. It does not attempt to address the systemic causes of 9/11, nor the overarching consequences of the attacks. Instead, it offers an exhaustive array of well-documented facts about the sordid career of Ali Mohamed. Until 1985, Mohamed was an officer in the Egyptian army’s military intelligence units; he then moved to the United States and joined the U.S. Army, serving as a drill sergeant at Fort Bragg until 1989. While there, he conducted training for clandestine demolition counterterrorism tactics, which, Lance said, he would later use to train Al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and the U.S.

According to Lance, the FBI secretly photographed Mohamed training men to shoot AK-47 assault rifles at a firing range in Long Island in 1987; three of the trainees present were later convicted of helping to execute the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Another, El Sayyid Nosair, was convicted of assassinating Rabbi Meir Kahane — head of the militant Jewish Defense League — and two others were convicted of plotting to explode bridges and tunnels in New York. Enmeshed in an ongoing investigation of the Mafia, Lance argues, the FBI failed to follow up after the Long Island incident — an act of negligence Lance believes is of special import to the development of the 9/11 attacks.

Lance contends that Mohamed’s fealty to bin Laden and bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri, began before his move to the U.S. and never wavered during his career as an informant. Yet his U.S. handlers, never picking up on his surreptitious support for Al Qaeda, gave him access to increasingly compromising material, including top secret memos identifying the positions of Special Forces units worldwide. This misplaced trust culminated in the FBI’s decision to use Mohamed as an informant in 1992, even as he was helping Al Qaeda case the American embassies in East Africa that would be so tragically bombed in 1998, resulting in 257 deaths. Mohamed was arrested for his role in the bombings and later pleaded guilty, but the terms of his plea deal are secret. He has since disappeared, apparently a beneficiary of the FBI’s witness protection program.

Peter Lance is an exhaustive reporter, yet the non-expert reader may find Triple Cross to be tough going, not least because of its reams of material that often tend toward the obscure. But it is that same material that promises to bolster Lance’s case that the FBI has some serious explaining to do, on top of the mea culpas already extracted by the 9/11 Commission. As Lance put it, “The FBI could have stopped 9/11, and the fact that they didn’t, and that they won’t own up to it, is a national scandal.”

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