Book Review: “Disconnecting the Dots; How CIA and FBI officials helped enable 9/11 and evaded government investigations”


Kevin Fenton has spent several years studying events leading up to 9/11. His book has little to do with events of the day and a great deal to do with the inability of the government to take preemptive action. He argues that the government could not “connect the dots” because those dots had been deliberately and systematically disconnected. Fenton makes serious claims about the integrity of institutions, organizations, and, specifically, named individuals who took deliberate action to make sure the government failed. That is a serious charge, one so serious that Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan in The Eleventh Day had this to say in a footnote:

Fenton…suggest[s] that CIA officers may have been aware of the 9/11 plot and “desired the outcome we saw on our television screens.” Fenton has done an intriguing analysis, but the authors do not accept that there is sufficient evidence or rationale to accept such a heinous possibility.

For the record, I corresponded occasionally with Fenton during his research primarily concerning the National Security Agency’s “SIGINT Retrospective,” a compendium of responsive published and unpublished SIGINT reports provided to the Congressional Joint Inquiry.

In addition to the work of the Inquiry’s NSA team, one with offices at NSA Headquarters, I spent considerable hours working with the “Retrospective” to correlate the actual reporting with everything else that was happening, to include the government’s actions and reactions and the activities of the hijackers, themselves.  Based on my own work, the work of the Inquiry staff and what I know of the work of the Commission Staff, I cannot support Fenton’s charge.

The basic charge

Fenton levies this charge in his Prologue.  “What is less well known is that most, or perhaps all, of these particular failures were the fault of one small coterie of intelligence officials grouped around Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit.”

The particular failures center, primarily, on a single individual, Khalid Almihdhar [as spelled by Fenton].  According to the author, “…the failures concerned a small group of people—Almihdhar, Alhazmi, and a few associates—and were perpetrated by another small group of people—centered on, but apparently not headed by, Tom Wilshire.”

Specifically, “…over the Summer of 2001, the Alec Station group worked diligently to prevent any but the most limited distribution of the information.  Then, after 9/11 they actively participated in a whitewash of their actions.”

Fenton also apportions blame to “the official bodies” that issued reports.  There are four: the Congressional Joint Inquiry, the 9/11 Commission, the Department of Justice (DoJ) Inspector General, and the CIA Inspector General.  Fenton goes further and assigns blame to a named individual who worked on both the DoJ report and the Commission Report.

Concerning his own work, in perspective, Fenton has this to say.  “All the information could have been put together by others, including media and government agencies with resources dwarfing those of a solitary author.”

So what are we to make of this extraordinary charge and Fenton’s own work?  We start with what Fenton is and is not.

Fenton’s work

Fenton is not a conventional conspiracy theorist or “truther.”  Nor does not readily fall into the LIHOP (let it happen on purpose) category as it was discussed and dismissed in a concurrent book, The Eleventh Day, by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. Although he suggests that events were LIHOP at some level he limits his thesis to a small group of mid-level officials and only tentatively and tenuously suggests higher level involvement.

He accepts the factual event that 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial aircraft and flew them to catastrophic fate.  He pays no attention to the myriad analytical box canyons into which conspiracy theorists and the truth movement have consigned themselves, destined to ride in circles without end.  Kevin Fenton has staked out different ground with a specific thesis and, to him, a logical conclusion.  He has done so with his work, a effort measured in years, and has reported his findings.

Fenton is a diligent, persistent, and detailed researcher, but not an investigator, by his own admission.  With minor exception, (possibly including me) he did not speak to officials or interview sources.  What he did do was detailed research; an extensive data mining of the public record.  As a researcher, therefore he must avoid four pitfalls to which researchers are prone without due diligence.  Those four are:

  1. compression of time
  2. conflation of events
  3. imposition of  post facto awareness and understanding of events to those events in real time
  4. extrapolation of a fragment of information to a larger whole, with meaning

Refreshingly, Fenton does not compress time or conflate events.  That, alone sets him well above and apart from the truth movement and the conspiracy theorists.  He is more than diligent in that regard.

However, his entire work, unfortunately, is an imposition of retrospective awareness and understanding.  He imposes meaning and intent with the crystal clarity of hindsight to events that in real time were not nearly what he portrays them to be.  Moreover, he applies that harsh, retrospective judgment to the work of four organizations with little understanding of how they went about their work and why they worked the way they did.  His assertions require that people working in real time do so with vision and near-perfect situational awareness.  He does not describe reality as I know it.

The words of the 9/11 Commissioners are important here.  Here is what they said in the preface to the Commission Report:

We want to note what we have done and not done…The final report is only a summary…citing only a fraction of the sources we have consulted. But in an event of this scale, touching so many issues and organizations we are conscious of our limits. We have not interviewed every knowledgeable person or found every relevant piece of paper. New information inevitably will come to light. We present this report as a foundation for a better understanding of a landmark in the history of our nation.

It is up to current and future researchers to build upon that foundation responsibly and accurately.  Kevin Fenton earnestly believes he has done so.  He does so with the full weight of history ahead of him.  At some point the full records of both the Commission and the Joint Inquiry  will be released.  In them, I believe, researchers and historians will find audio files of interviews for which MFRs were not made.  They will find, ultimately, the prose in the 28-page redaction in the Joint Inquiry report.  They will find a detailed, iterative analysis of the “SIGINT Retrospective,” as well as the entirety of the messages that make up that compilation.  In short, they will find specific and detailed information that counter the claim made by Fenton.

Kevin Fenton has also extrapolated a fragment of information to a larger whole with meaning.  In fact, it is the centerpiece of his argument.  That fragment is the handwritten notes of Stephen Cambone, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence.  Those notes were released in redacted form by the Department of Defense on February 6, 2006 as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  They have been in the public domain for over five years and, clearly, a part of Fenton’s literature search for most of that time.

The Cambone notes

Fenton concentrates specifically on jotted notes concerning American Airlines flight 77.  Here is what the notes contain: (bullet points not part of notes)

  • 2. AA 77 – 3 indiv have been followed
  • Since Millenium + Cole
  • 1 guy is assoc of Cole bomber
  • 3 Entered US in early July
  • (2 of 3 pulled aside & interrogated?)

From those notes Fenton argues that the word “followed” means “surveillance,” continuously in his narrative.  While that contention is possible it is unlikely based on my own intelligence background and experience.

The Cambone notes are the jotted summation of a senior level executive who received information from other senior level officials who, in turn, received information from analysts, staff assistants and investigators.  At best, the jotted notes are third-hand information.  Moreover, two of the four lines of information concerning flight 77 are inaccurate, as Fenton described.

Based on my background, experience, and understanding of the language of intelligence the word “followed” is a point in time reference, not a sweeping reference as Fenton has speculated.  Further, it is twice a point in time reference as Cambone clearly signals in his notes.  The entry, “Since Millenium + Cole,” in my analysis, is a jotted reference to two separate pieces of information he was receiving concerning alMihdhar.

There is a better—equally, if not more plausible—definition for the word “followed.”  It logically means “a record of,” or “known about,” or, simply, “persons of concern.”  There is no evidence that Nawaf al Hazmi’s brother was specifically identified, at the time.  Post facto, the equation can be made.  It cannot be made in real time.  Further, the equation of Almidhar, in real time is also tenuous.

At this point it is important to know about a conversation I had with the NSA Team while on the Inquiry Staff.  I had spent multiple hours parsing the “SIGINT Retrospective” and was beginning to impart unwarranted meaning to the occurrence of the names “Khalid” (and its variations) and “Salim” (and its variations) in SIGINT reports.  The NSA team told me that, based on their many weeks work on site at NSA, it was not possible, in real time, to be definitive about either name.  The references to each name were multiple and only had precise meaning, retrospectively.  The only name that was clearly evident in real time was “Nawaf al Hazmi.”

Fenton, of course, sees things differently.  He pursues the notion of “followed” being “surveillance” to flesh out his thesis through each chapter.  Nowhere is that more explicit then in his Epilogue.

First, Almidhar and Alahzmi must have been under surveillance in the US, either officially or by Alec Station, or some parallel group. It makes no sense to assume that the Alec Station group hid the two men from the FBI so that they could ignore them in the US. The point of keeping the Bureau away from the case can only have been for the group to monitor them without having FBI agents get in their way. This applies no matter what the ultimate aim of the operation was; whether the point was to recruit them, to discover their contacts by monitoring them, or to let them attack the US, surveillance must have been involved.

There is much wrong with that summation.  First, Alec Station (and CIA) had neither the manpower nor the charter to conduct such a surveillance.  A surveillance of the magnitude Fenton suggests is manpower intensive and leaves a large footprint that would have been noticed by state, local, and other federal agencies, especially the FBI.  No agency at any level noticed, if indeed such an operation was conducted.  Second, there is no evidence in the FBI’s PENTBOM investigation of such an operation.  Third, there is no evidence uncovered by the Congressional Joint Inquiry or, separately, the Commission to support Fenton.  Concerning the Joint Inquiry, it had on-site teams dedicated to CIA, NSA, and the FBI.  It also had available to it the joint resources of the staffs of the House and Senate select committees.

Fenton is wrong, his thesis is built on a fragment of information unsupported by the vast body of information collected by the Joint Inquiry and the Commission.  Fenton owes an apology to the people he has named as wrong doers.

Overall, Kevin Fenton’s diligent parsing of the four key investigative documents is a valuable piece of work. While much of his analysis is sound, the conclusions he has drawn do not forward the work of the Joint Inquiry and the Commission in a positive direction.