Every year, on the morning of September 11, Mark Rossini wakes up with something on his mind that most Americans could never even fathom, let alone live with: Information once in his possession as a former FBI special agent might have prevented the terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 people 14 years ago today.
That year, Rossini and his colleague Doug Miller—an FBI agent who was assigned to the CIA's Alec unit, which was tasked with tracking Osama bin Laden—drafted a memo briefing the higher-ups on what they had learned from the spy agency in the months leading up to the attack. This included the information that a suspected al Qaeda operative named Khalid al-Mihdhar had obtained a US visa and was traveling back and forth between America and the Middle East.
He would later help fly American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
But that memo never made it to the FBI. Instead, Miller says a CIA operative told him to "hold off" and that both Miller and Rossini were told not to talk about what they knew with anyone—not even their bosses. They obliged, and that resulting break in communication between the two agencies is frequently cited as the "intelligence failure" that contributed to what happened on that horrific day.
It's a burden that Rossini lives and breathes—you can read it all over his face. When we met in the lobby of downtown Manhattan's Mercer Hotel, discussing national security and terrorism as the happy hour crowd settled in, Rossini would go on for long stretches, reflecting and dismissing out loud all the counter-arguments out there in fits of agony. It was like watching a one-man trial in someone's mind, with the stakes way too high for any single person to cope with.
Rossini now lives in Switzerland after being ousted from the agency and pleading guilty to leaking documents to an old girlfriend (there was never any jail time involved).* For him it's not only about the lives that were lost on 9/11—which, of course, weigh on him every day—but the country America has become since that day.
On the night before the anniversary of a day that changed this country and the Middle East forever, we discussed what Rossini believes really happened (he hates conspiracy theories), what he would've done differently, and how things went so terribly wrong.
VICE: With the anniversary in mind, I've been wondering lately: When will the phrase "September 11th" no longer carry such a weight? My sense is it'll be years from now until that grief subsides, especially for New Yorkers who lived through it, like myself. But I can't imagine what it means to you. Has it gotten any more normal?
Mark Rossini: It'll almost be impossible. It's like saying the Fourth of July. It's the Kennedy assassination. It's an indelible mark in our collective mentality. The thing is that, for me, there's not a day that goes by when I don't think about it. I live with it every single day. It may be hard for people to comprehend or say to get over, but I will not get over it. And I wake up every day in pain, knowing that this thing happened and it didn't have to happen. That's what's been paining me and driving me crazy over all of these years. It didn't have to happen.
There is no way in God's good Earth that the Saudis wanted this to happen. Nobody wanted this to happen.
If you take away Doug and me, the FBI still should've been notified. And the burning question in my mind is that Doug wrote his CIR [central intelligence report] and it was sent up the electronic cube to the next person, who was called Michelle, and she writes back in the electronic system, "Please hold off for now, for Deputy Director of Alec." No one has ever come down on her, or the person who told her; no one ever asked, "Why would you write that?" Now, apparently, she was asked, and she doesn't remember. And then they asked the gentleman that told her to say that. He doesn't remember writing it. I don't buy that answer. How do you not remember writing that? OK, if you didn't remember writing that, can you give me a logical reason why you would've then? What was it about Doug's memo that was so sensitive that you couldn't tell the FBI?
After all of these years, what's your answer to that question?
The only logical reason that you can come up with was that the agency was working along with the Saudis in order to recruit somebody in the cell and they didn't want the FBI, in the form of [former Special Agent in Charge] John O'Neill, messing up their operation... Essentially, what I believe is that we had a tacit agreement with the Saudis that if we found their wayward soldiers around the globe, we wouldn't embarrass the Saudis by arresting them—we would send them home for them to be readjusted in society.
Richard Clarke [the former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism] says in several interviews that when Cofer Black took over the Counterterrorism Center (CTC), the CIA didn't have any sources within al Qaeda. He was determined to change that. You had a bunch of bad guys flying around the world who had visas to America, and you say, This is my opportunity to recruit them. Remember, they tried to recruit Anwar al-Awlaki. So it stands to reason that there is a recruitment op in place to try to get into that cell. And logically, how can we find out what's going with these guys? Let's get in. Let's find out what's going on. Who's the most logical to recruit? Well, one of the two guys we obviously know has visas... So I can't prove it, but I will always try to prove it, that there was a recruitment op in place.
The conversation between the two CIA officials is what needs to be examined. There has to be a reason why, especially knowing this interagency hatred that was in my unit against O'Neill—this is something that was referenced in the 9/11 Commission Report. My mother always said, "You hate what you're most jealous of." This is really what the victims and the world needs to know. I don't want anyone to go to jail or anything—I'm not asking for that. But the truth cannot come out, because the truth is tied to the 28 pages left out of the Commission report.
What was the US protecting then? Why wouldn't we want to let that recruitment opportunity be known?
There is no way in God's good Earth that the Saudis wanted this to happen. Nobody wanted this to happen. The overarching thing is to not embarrass the kingdom. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is our greatest ally in the Middle East for several reasons. First, because of the black ooze that's coming out of the ground there. And more over, we have airbases there; we see them as stable, and they see us as stable. The Chinese don't care about their religion, and the Russians are backing Alawites and Shiites through Assad in Syria. We're the only game in town that respects them and will protect them.
I've lived in the Middle East, and I have many Muslim friends, and there is a fervor to protect the name of Islam. It's a thing to respect, and admire. The thing about the Saudis is that they're called the Keeper of the Two Holy Places. The legitimacy of them being able to protect the holy places and their divinity is what was at stake, or what is at stake. So the 28 pages would cause an embarrassment to that idea.
But let the chips fall in place: Release the 28 pages, read them in a half hour, go, "Damn, that's rough... Alright." It's not gonna be a tectonic shift. The Saudis won't be kicked out of power. It's done. But there is a pride and a heritage with them that must be protected at all costs. Because we don't need that rift, that battle with them—especially with what's going on now, with Iran and ISIS. It's a matter of perception, and the perception would've been bad. That's what the 28 pages are all about.
Is there any argument to be made that someone else at the agency might've known, aside from you and Doug?
It's disingenuous for the CIA to say we knew. We didn't know garbage. When individuals go on TV and say the FBI has all the access to information, that's bullshit. Because I have the memo that I had to sign that says I couldn't say anything I saw without their permission. I couldn't even utter it, without their permission. So that argument is garbage. And let's just say that memo doesn't exist. The CIA is obligated to tell the FBI about people who have visas to the US. And why do we do that? It ties into the recruitment effort.
Where do we draw the line between what our national interests are, and what our moral authority is? I'm half Armenian, and one of the biggest things I can't get around is that the Turks won't admit the genocide, and that America won't either. It's all because [Turkish President Recep] Erdogan will get pissed off. So that's more important than the truth of what happened? Where is our moral compass on this? Where do we draw the line between what is right and true, and our national interests? What's our morality?
At the end of the day, that's what everyone wants: the truth, whether it's good, bad, or indifferent. Let the truth come out, let the chips fall where they may. The chips aren't gonna be a bad hand; we know what happened. If you just say, "We ran a recruitment op, and it failed. We should've told the Bureau about these individuals in America. But there was no evidence that their money was going towards terrorism." Ah, catharsis. Wonderful. Contrition is wonderful for the soul. Now let's move on. But it can't be done.
"When I see all of these anti-terror measures, I say to myself, 'This didn't have to happen.' It just didn't need to."
How much of this do you think is just pride?
I think 80 percent is pride. That they tried to get a recruitment ring going, be it illegal or not. What would be an embarrassment is that they tried to recruit somebody, or let the Saudis try, and they lost contact with the person that they were trying to recruit. But there is no logical reason for that woman writing, "Please hold off." The 9/11 Commission report treats [Doug's] CIR like it was the only one ever written. There were CIRs written every single day between the CIA and the FBI. No one has ever looked at the CIR leading up to 9/11 that would've mentioned Doug's memo. I can tell you, part of my daily function was that the CIA would come to me almost every day, asking me to do something. The woman Michelle said she came to her "FBI partners," but why were Doug and I never told? It wasn't done. It wasn't on paper.
As my chief would say, "I was born at night, not last night." Moreover, there was another person that told the congressional inquiry that Michelle had gone to the FBI HQ personally, and told someone there. First off, she couldn't remember who, so we checked our logs, which everyone has to sign in on, and there is no record of her in the building. How come there is no record of her coming back to the Bureau and saying, "Hey, what's going on with that?" What's being shielded here? You can't just say, as a footnote, that it was an intelligence failure. The people who died that day are not a footnote. They're not footnotes, they're human beings. And that's what bothers me every day of my life. I never will stop. I am wounded by it. I am destroyed by it. I know it. It hits me all the time. And when I see all of these anti-terror measures, I say to myself, "This didn't have to happen." It just didn't need to.
In the recent update of the 9/11 Commission's findings, it was reported that there are still huge gaps in our intelligence-gathering procedures—that many of the problems you witnessed very much still exist: miscommunication, interagency rivalry, and lack of transparency. So what do you make of the progress we've made since 9/11?
We live in a society where nobody trusts anyone. Everybody is being watched. There's a camera in here right now. There are cameras everywhere. Everyone thinks they're a terror expert—that's the best part. I wanna laugh. You're not a terror expert. You're just playing catch up. No one is a terror expert except the terrorist. Actions work faster than reactions, and we're only reacting. We're not doing anything; we're just trying to figure out the next chess move. No one is an expert here. Read it, live it, study it, conduct a logical investigation, look at your suspects and the money flow. All investigations are the same, whether you're investigating the Mafia or al Qaeda or Bernie Madoff. Like you, doing your job as a reporter; you're asking logical questions, demanding logical answers, and following up. That's what an FBI agent does. Reporters have been asking questions for years now, and no one has ever given that answer.
We're gathering so much information now that we don't have enough people to analyze that. One of the only corrects things that Bush did was create the NCTC (National Counterterrorism Center). That organization is what was needed all along. There were 500 people looking at the same thing. What Congress did, in response to Bush creating the NCTC, was that it had to be strong on terrorism and so they created the Department of Homeland Security. So all you did was take away the logic of a subject that requires laser-point analysis and investigation of and you disseminated it to people who had no clue what they're doing. You write in the legislation that they need to "protect the homeland." What does that mean? All you did was put the CIA and the FBI in direct conflict with Homeland Security. So now everyone is a terrorist hunter. Everyone's an expert. No, they're not.
All that was needed was Doug's memo to go. All that was needed was something like NCTC, where everybody sees the operation and coordinates on what to do about it. Now we've created this zillion-dollar economy, and we really do nothing. What are we attacked by? Lone wolves. That's the problem. When we bombed Afghanistan, John Miller, who is now head of counterterrorism for the NYPD, said al Qaeda is like a Mafia family. Once we blew it up, we didn't know who was in charge. The bottom line is: Nobody's in charge. There is no central command structure like there was in the old days. They can't communicate that way anymore. These lone wolves aren't getting instructions from the command. They're just crazy fucking people. That's the danger. All of this stuff you're doing is never going to prevent that. If someone wants to die, and believes that when they die, they'll go to paradise, you can't combat that. There's nothing you can do. There's no wiretap or gun you can block that with. It's a show to placate people like me and you with security. But not to them. That's just part of the challenge. That's easy.
So what did we prevent? Show me what we prevented. We're not preventing really anything. You scared a lot of people, especially those who might've been about to do something stupid. But an al Qaeda attack? No. The guy who put the truck is Times Square, there was a lot of police presence in that place, and he just drove that right in.
In traumatic situations, we always tend to play back in our heads what we could've done if we had the chance. At this point, what is your most likely sequence of events if you were able to share the information you had on those days leading up to 9/11?
If I told John O'Neill about it, what John would've done is firstly, gone ballistic, knowing that Doug's memo was denied. That would've been another war. But he would've sent a team of agents over to the agency and asked, "What the fuck is going on?" He would've had the State Department and the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] and everyone else put those names into the system at the airports. The moment the suspects arrived, we would've had agents at the airport. They would've been surveilled to their destination. Whatever destination they went to, we would've had a FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court to bug it. We would've bugged their car and their buildings. We would've taken down the cell. That's what would've happened. This wouldn't have happened. And that's what drives me nuts. The amount of times I saw John and could've said, "Hey boss, have you heard about this thing?" Because I surely believed that what that woman said to me, they had a reason telling me that and that they would tell the Bureau when it was right. I believed it.
I had a nervous breakdown, in many respects.... You sit there and you're powerless. You're nothing. And when we're torturing innocent people, you're just thinking, what the fuck?
The morning of 9/11, did you know right away what happened?
No, I didn't know right away. I remember I knew when the names came in and they started to talk to people in the office. Whether it was that day, the next day, or three days later, I don't know. That's when it hit me. That's when I went into my boss's office and said, "I'm going crazy here."
So are you surprised by "9/11 Truther" conspiracy theories? It seems like there is a visible gap in the timeline of truths, so these people are just filling it in a different, albeit paranoid, way.
I'm horrified and disheartened by these theories. You give the person an inch in an unanswered question, and they go off in a completely different direction. That whole bullshit with the WTC 7 and the Zionist theory—just stop. Get a life. There is no one that wanted 3,000 people to die that day. That's horseshit. It's irresponsible to think like that. I have to walk out of the room when I hear these conspiracy theorists. The worst is when someone says Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. Bin Laden loathed him! He thought he was a heretic.
I've been through this all. Why do you think I'm crazy? I had a nervous breakdown, in many respects. I remember just being in the meetings, before Iraq was happening, and being told it was happening. You sit there and you're powerless. You're nothing. And when we're torturing innocent people, you're just thinking, what the fuck? What have we become? You go crazy.
I do advocate for an agency blending together the CIA and the FBI. I do advocate for an agency that just deals with counter-terrorism solely, made up of the best people in the CIA and FBI. You have to get rid of the local forces, and have one agency that deals with this. You need to have total transparency, just like with Doug's memo and the 28 missing pages in the 9/11 Commission Report. Give it light. Let people see. That's really it.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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Correction 9/24: An earlier version of this story said Rossini "narrowly avoided" jail time.