Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Seventeen Years Later: Still More Questions Than Answers About The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks

It was 17 years ago today that our country was attacked and the world changed forever. And yet we still have not gotten to the bottom of 9/11. There are still more questions than answers about who was behind the terrorist attack. 

And no, I'm not talking about all the nut-bar conspiracy theories. I'm talking about the level of involvement of the Saudi government, and the fact that after 9/11, and to this day, the Saudis have clearly been given a pass and not investigated adequately. 

Who were the 19 Al Qaeda hijackers? Well, one was from Egypt. One was from Lebanon. Two were  from United Arab Emirates. And 15 were from Saudi Arabia, who of course have been our oil buddies and military ally for decades. As I have said many times since 9/11, with friends like the Saudis, who needs enemies?

As a journalist, I've covered the 9/11 attack since that horrible morning of Sept. 11, 2001. In those first few months afterward, I learned that the federal agencies whose job it was to get to the bottom of 9/11 were not doing a thorough-enough job. Not even close.

Bill Gore, the current San Diego County Sheriff, is a nice enough man. He's well-liked and respected in San Diego County and has by most accounts done a good job. 

Gore was in charge of the San Diego office of the FBI after 9/11. It was of course his charge to investigative any and all connections between the three hijackers who lived in San Diego and anyone who could have supported their evil plot.

To this day, Gore has never given me or anyone else a full or acceptable explanation as to why the bureau never interviewed dozens of people who had connections to the hijackers, and why the bureau cut loose Saudi national Omar al-Bayoumi and het him go back to Saudi Arabia.

Several men from the Middle East who were in San Diego and knew the hijackers but had far less suspicious ties to them than Bayoumi were jailed in San Diego for months. 

Multiple sources I interviewed at the time told me that Bayoumi was a known Saudi government asset who was keeping an eye on the young Saudis who were living in San Diego. 

The enigmatic Bayoumi, who was evidently wealthy but never had a job during his years here, brought the two 9/11 terrorists to San Diego and paid their rent. But his role in the elaborate 9/11 attack, and the role of several other wealthy, recondite Saudis who were in San Diego at the time, has never been fully explained, as I reported here for The Daily Beast. 

Since 2002, when former Senator Bob Graham led the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry (JICI) into the 9/11 attacks, he has insisted that members of the Saudi government played a role.

“There’s no question in my mind that the Saudi government was involved in 9/11,” the Florida Democrat told me for a story I wrote for The Daily Beast. “But there’s still so much we don’t know. Unfortunately, many Americans seem to have lost interest.”

Though a report on the congressional probe (with 28 pages that for many years were censored) was released, after months of political haggling, there was only tepid interest by our federal government in following the 9/11 money trail to Saudi Arabia.

Terrorists could not have pulled off such an ambitious offensive without substantial financial and logistical support, here and abroad. However, countless intelligence leads that might help solve this mystery have clearly been under-investigated or completely overlooked by the FBI, particularly in San Diego as well as in Florida.

During my years covering 9/11 for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, the International Business Times and San Diego Magazine, I’ve interviewed many people with various financial or other connections to the San Diego–based terrorists or to the enigmatic, moneyed San Diego Saudis who knew the hijackers. 
Not one has ever been contacted by bureau agents.

Criticism of the government for under-investigating the Saudi connections to the attack, and how we let it happen in the first place, have come from liberals and conservatives alike for years. 

It was our Congress itself that collectively called the events leading up to the tragedy the “biggest intelligence failure in American history.”

Did we lay off of Saudi Arabia because of the links between the American oil industry and the Saudis? Or was it more because we needed the Saudis as a military ally in the volatile Middle east?

Looking for answers to these questions, it seems logical to start in San Diego, where even the Congressional report suggests the connections to Al Qaeda and the Saudi government were many.

As I've reported over the years, most San Diegans know about Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar and Hani Hanjoor, the three Saudi hijackers who spent time here. 

But less is known about Saad Al-Habeeb, Omar Al-Bayoumi and Osama Basnan, three recondite Saudi nationals who’ve been linked to the terrorists and to the Saudi government.

Saad Al-Habeeb

Al-Habeeb, a Saudi national, was called everything from a student to a wealthy international businessman. He remains largely a mystery. But during his weeklong visit to San Diego, Al-Habeeb left his mark by purchasing a building in El Cajon (easty of San Diego) with a $450,000 cashier’s check from Chase Manhattan Bank.

The building was renamed the Masjid Al-Madina Al-Munawara, to be used as a mosque and community center for San Diego’s Kurd Muslims.

Al-Habeeb’s gift was given on the condition that another Saudi, a sociable but enigmatic man named Omar Al-Bayoumi — the friend of the hijackers who had deep ties to the Saudi government — be set up as the building’s maintenance manager. He also was to be given a private office at the mosque, with a phone and a computer.

A half-million-dollar cashier’s check from a mysterious Saudi who had connections to the terrorists and to the Saudi government would seem a glaring red flag, but FBI agents evidently left this clue unchecked.

Santee businessman Richard Fritzer, who sold the El Cajon building to Al-Habeeb, told me at the time that he was never contacted by anyone from the FBI.

“The mosque purchase was described to me as a charitable gift, but I never knew where the money came from or much about Al-Habeeb’s background,” Fritzer said. “I’d obviously like to know if this guy was involved in any way with terrorism. The FBI never called me.”

The then-manager of La Mesa’s Grossmont Escrow, which handled the El Cajon mosque transaction, told me that the FBI never contacted her, either. “No one’s ever asked to look at our records,” said the manager, who requested her name not be used. “It’s somewhat surprising, considering what this was about.”

Erick Ricci, a local civil engineer who also worked on the mosque project, told me at the time that he never heard from the feds. Ricci said all the money for his engineering work on the project was paid to him on behalf of Al-Habeeb and Al-Bayoumi by a San Diego contractor named Aziz Fathy, who is from Egypt.

Ricci used to work with Fathy, he said, and when I spoke to him he told me that he wondered about the nature of the relationship between the Saudis and Fathy, who I was never able to speak to.

Al-Habeeb, who is mentioned only briefly in the congressional 9/11 report and is apparently back in Saudi Arabia now, has said that he made Al-Bayoumi manager of the El Cajon mosque because he was a “good man.”

But the true nature of his relationship with Al-Bayoumi—and their association with the terrorists and the Saudi government—remains a mystery.

Omar Al-Bayoumi

He’s told various stories about what he was doing in the United States, but Al-Bayoumi has been described by some as the front man for the terrorists here. He always maintained that he simply overheard future hijackers Alhazmi and Almihdhar speaking Arabic in a Los Angeles restaurant and befriended them.

But just hours before that so-called chance meeting, Al-Bayoumi visited the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, where law enforcement officials believe he had a closed-door meeting with Fahad al Thumairy, a member of the consulate’s Islamic & Culture Affairs Section who later was barred from entry to the United States because of alleged links to terrorism.

After meeting with al Thumairy, Al-Bayoumi met the hijackers in Los Angeles, then brought them to San Diego, arranged for them to live at the Parkwood Apartments in Clairemont (near the Islamic Center of San Diego) and reportedly paid $1,550 for the first two months’ rent.

Al-Bayoumi — who, with others here in San Diego, helped Alhazmi and Almihdhar open a bank account, obtain car insurance, get Social Security cards and call flight schools in Florida — also threw a welcoming party for the hijackers, during which he introduced them to the local Muslim community.

Rarely appearing at the Kurd mosque where Al-Habeeb had positioned him, Al-Bayoumi was widely suspected by Muslims here to be a Saudi government agent — long before 9/11.

“He was always checking on the young Saudi students,” Henry Bagadan, a Pakistani businessman who worships at the Islamic Center, told me. “I always thought he was a Saudi spy.”

Al-Bayoumi was taken into custody two weeks after the 9/11 attack, while studying in England. During a search of his apartment the FBI found the names and numbers of two Saudi embassy employees. At one point the FBI suspected he was an associate of the terrorists and that he had strong ties to the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C.

Al-Bayoumi was again interviewed by members of Congress, but again allowed to move on with his life.

San Diego civil rights attorney Randy Hamud, who represented four Middle Eastern students who knew the terrorists, as well as the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker,” told me that the people at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., told him that they knew Al-Bayoumi well.

But Al-Bayoumi was released after a short detainment, without charge.

“My clients knew the hijackers only casually, yet they spent a long time in jail,” Hamud told me. “Al-Bayoumi brought the hijackers here. He introduced them to one of my clients and to the community, yet Al-Bayoumi is free. 
Clearly, he knows people in high places; he greased the wheels somehow. The Saudis just aren’t being scrutinized, in general, like the others.”

Osama Basnan

Charges of special treatment for Saudi Arabia grew when it was learned the San Diego–connected Saudis and their families were linked to high-ranking Saudi government officials.

Basnan, another San Diego Saudi who was a close friend of Al-Bayoumi, claimed to have written a letter to the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, and his wife, Princess Haifa Faisal, asking for financial help. 

Basnan’s wife, Majeda Dweikat, apparently needed thyroid surgery. As we reported in Newsweek, the Saudi embassy sent Basnan $15,000 and paid the surgical bill.

Princess Haifa apparently began sending monthly checks of between $2,000 and $3,000 to Dweikat in late 1999 or early 2000. Basnan’s wife then signed many of the checks over to Basnan’s friend, Manal Bajadr, who is Al-Bayoumi’s wife. 

The payments from Haifa continued until May 2002 and may have totaled as much as $73,000, say some reports.

During the time he lived here in San Diego, Basnan also reported his passport stolen in Houston, Texas—which confirmed that Basnan was in that city the same day Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah met with President Bush.

Basnan and his wife, Dweikat, admitted they had used false immigration documents to stay in the United States, and were arrested. A federal source told Newsweek that, at a gathering in Clairemont, Basnan had called 9/11 “a wonderful, glorious day” and celebrated the hijackers’ “heroism.”

Despite all of this, Basnan was ultimately allowed to return to Saudi Arabia, and Dweikat was deported to Jordan.

San Diego–based attorney Jeremy Warren told me that Basnan “loved this country” and called Basnan’s persecution a witch hunt.

Interestingly, Warren, who rejected Newsweek’s report that Basnan was celebrating the acts of 9/11, also happened to be on the Saudi government’s payroll. Saudi officials paid Warren to defend two Saudi students in a test-taking scam involving 130 Saudi and other Middle Eastern men who wanted to attend school in the United States.

Warren declined to discuss the payment from Saudi officials with me, but a court document revealed a $50,000 cash payment from the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles to Warren for an attorney-client trust account.

Warren said that Basnan and Al-Bayoumi were not close. But that, too, was clearly not the case.

They were neighbors at the Parkwood Apartments in Clairemont, where the hijackers also lived. Prior to that, Basnan and his wife and Al-Bayoumi and his wife were neighbors in another apartment complex nearby.

Also, Basnan’s wife and Al-Bayoumi’s wife were arrested together for shoplifting at JC Penney’s in Fashion Valley in April 2001.

Getting to the Bottom of 9/11

Another man who certainly could have helped investigators get to the bottom of this mystery is Abdussattar Shaikh, a longtime FBI asset in San Diego who was friends with al-Bayoumi and who invited two of the San Diego-based hijackers to live in his home.

However, Shaikh was not allowed by the FBI or the Bush administration to testify before the 9/11 Commission or the JICI.

“For me, that was the low point of the [JICI] investigation,” Graham told me for the Daily Beast. “Bayoumi introduced the hijackers to Shaikh, who clearly knew a lot, but the FBI, who had Shaikh in protective custody, seemed to care more about protecting their asset than allowing us to find out what he knew about 9/11.”

The San Diego FBI office’s pursuit of the local Saudi connections to 9/11 was lukewarm, at best. When former San Diego FBI chief Gore retired to join the San Diego District Attorney’s office, he didn’t even know where Al-Bayoumi was.

In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune,conducted before Gore retired from the bureau, he said he believed Al-Bayoumi was still in England.

At that time, several independent sources were already saying that Al-Bayoumi had been back in Saudi Arabia for several months. When Gore’s error was pointed out to another FBI agent here, the agent conceded Gore had erred, adding, “He can’t be expected to know every detail of every investigation.”

No, not every detail. But he should know the whereabouts of the individual who paid the hijackers rent and brought them to San Diego.

Some critics say the United States’ lack of aggressiveness in following the terrorists’ money trail back to Saudi Arabia, to this day, has to do with American business and military interests in that country.

Whatever the case, government spokesmen in Saudi Arabia have emphatically denied over the years that al Qaeda is supported in any way by officials there. 

But some U.S officials, including former Sen. Graham of Florida, continue to emphatically insist that the Saudi government had a role in the 9/11 attack.

My Timeline of Coverage of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks:





Saturday, August 25, 2018

John McCain, American Hero: The People You Respect The Most Are The Ones Who Frustrate You The Most

John McCain was without question both a good and great man, a complex man, a brave man, a one-of-a-kind American hero. And, too, he was a powerful paradox.

As kind as he was irascible, as humble as he was arrogant, McCain was often willing to reach across the aisle for the good of the country. 

Unpredictable, but truly decent, he was to put it bluntly a master of cutting through the bullshit.

And he was someone who demonstrated rare, and in this day and age virtually extinct acts of true decency in the political arena. The day he respectfully scolded a woman at one of his presidential campaign rallies who called Barack Obama a "liar" and an "Arab" is one for the ages.

"No ma’am, no ma’am,” McCain said forcefully but calmly to the nonplussed crowd of mostly Republicans. "He is a decent family man citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about."  

It's the kind of thing that positively and profoundly distanced McCain from the beltway pack. He was indeed a maverick, a rebel. He thought for himself, he was an independent in the truest sense, and usually for good.

He could also be a loose-lipped, dangerous macho hawk far too eager at times to send troops to Syria and various other hot spots around the globe.

But that's who he was. A warrior. A fighter. An admiral's son and admiral's grandson. 

I’ve covered John McCain throughout my career, and I must admit I have decidedly mixed feelings about his political legacy. But not the man. I liked him. Always have, always will.

He did so much good while in Congress, and his overall positive legacy is unbreakable. 

But for me the biggest frustration and curiosity about John McCain during his public life by far was that he did not do nearly enough for his fellow veterans. 

His legacy on taking care of his own was greatly and inexplicably flawed.

It is indisputable, and disappointing, and hard to understand or reconcile. But the people who frustrate you the most in life are the ones who you love and respect the most.

When someone does things so courageous and kind, your expectations rise. And then you find yourself even more surprised and disappointed when that person does something that seems out of character.

But I have always had a theory about John's mixed record on veterans issues. I think it is all about the trauma he suffered in Vietnam.

I am of course not the only one who thinks Sen. McCain had Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) from his years spent in a Vietnam prison.

Many, many veterans with PTSD have a curious psychological tendency to keep a safe distance from their fellow veterans. Too much of a reminder, perhaps, of the horrors of war. 

For 25 years I've been proudly covering the plight of Vietnam veterans and their exposure to Agent Orange, the horribly toxic herbicide from Monsanto that was used by the US government in Vietnam to flush out the enemy.  

After Sen. McCain was diagnosed with glioblastoma, I was the first reporter to show a likely link between his cancer and exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam. 

After that story ran at Healthline, several other national news organizations jumped on the story, which we addressed in my follow-up story on the fallout from the diagnosis.

Glioblastoma is not yet on the VA's presumptive list of cancers caused by Agent Orange, but it should be, say brain and cancer experts nationwide.

McCain had a golden opportunity to do something positive for his fellow vets who were suffering with the same type of cancer. He could have addressed Congress. He could have said something about it in his poignant final book. 

He could have simply written a letter on behalf of his fellow Vietnam vets who are fighting this obviously devastating type of cancer. He could have done something. But he chose to do nothing.

I believe it was difficult for him to deal with his fellow Vietnam veterans. It is an explanation that I think helps explain his clearly incomplete-at-best record on helping his warrior brothers and sisters.

The bigger point is that he has done so many great things for so many people.

He spoke his mind. He didn't suffer fools. He had a brilliant and sardonic sense of humor. I will forever have great respect for him, and my heart goes out to his family. 

And needless to say, anyone with an ounce of insight and decency can see the glaring differences in character between John McCain and Donald Trump, the man who kept putting McCain down. There is no comparison. 

One is a great American, a brave American who fought for his country and worked with political opponents to find solutions and compromise. 

The other is a con man, a two-bit hood, a clueless degenerate, pathological liar and chicken hawk who lied about bone spurs in his foot to avoid fighting in Vietnam.

Rest in Peace, John. You are the hero. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Fast Times in San Diego -- Heart's Nancy Wilson Makes a Rare Solo Appearance at San Diego County Fair on Friday

Nancy Wilson, co-founder and guitarist of the iconic rock band Heart, has for the last 44 years been overshadowed, somewhat, by her sister Ann Wilson, the band’s lead singer.

While that’s not unusual -- lead singers typically get the most ink -- the reality is that Nancy and Ann are equally responsible for the commercial and artistic triumphs of Heart, which is easily the greatest rock and roll band ever led by two women.

The Wilson girls kicked off their esteemed music careers inauspiciously in 1966 with an all-girls band called The Viewpoints. They did mostly Beatles covers. Heart came to be in 1974. And it didn’t take long for stardom to follow.

Ann’s inimitably haunting vocals were of course a staple of the Heart sound from the beginning. But the sensibility of the band, which has always brought a winning combination of hard, electric Led Zeppelinesque rock with acoustic, introspective Joni Mitchellesque soft folk, comes largely from Nancy.

One might say that the heart of Heart is Nancy's soul. Both yin and yang, tender and tough, her physical beauty is complemented and even surpassed by her musical depth. Nancy, who appears Friday night in concert on the Grandstand Stage at the San Diego County Fair, sans Ann, is so much more than a pretty face.

She's a warrior. An innovator. A pioneer. She made a name for herself as a female rock-and-roll guitarist when you could count them on one hand. The lead guitar is of course historically the domain of men. Talk about shattering the glass ceiling!

Nancy just never appeared the least bit intimidated by the boys. Talent will give you that confidence. And she can rock out with the best of them. A rocker to the core (“Barracuda” “Kick it Out”), she is also an intuitive and sensitive songwriter (“Dog and Butterfly” “Dreamboat Annie”). The two are not mutually exclusive. 

Nancy's Connections to San Diego and 'Fast Times' 

Many of my fellow San Diego fans of Nancy Wilson know that there is a whole other dimension to her legend. Do the words “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” ring any bells?

There's a fun and fascinating connection between Nancy, San Diego and the legacy of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the acclaimed book and movie that are spot-on depictions of California high school life in the late 70s/early 80s.

If you’re a longtime San Diegan, and perhaps even if you aren’t, you probably know at least some of the details of the back story behind Fast Times.

The book and film were written by Cameron Crowe, who grew up in San Diego and was married to Nancy Wilson for 22 years before Nancy filed for divorce in 2010. They have twin boys.

Crowe, as depicted in his own masterpiece film “Almost Famous,” was a young rock journalist, a literary wunderkind who was penning wise-behind-his-years prose for the underground paper the San Diego Door and other rock pubs when he was still wet behind the ears.

As a still young-looking twentysomething writer for Rolling Stone magazine, Crowe re-enrolled “under cover” at Clairemont High School in San Diego and got to know a lot of the kids.

Cameron then changed the names of the kids to protect their identities, and changed the name of the school from Clairemont to Ridgemont, and wrote about the experiences he witnessed at the school. The rest is history.

The movie, which contrary to popular belief Cameron wrote but did not direct, touched a deep chord. It was an enormous hit. And it was controversial because it was honest about teenage sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The book and movie are about real people: the Clairemont High Class of 1979. Next year the real people depicted in the book and film celebrate their 40th reunion, for real.

One of the kids depicted in the book and move is my old friend Andy Rathbone. The “Rat” character in the movie was based largely on Andy, who was known since grade school as "A. Rat." He and I were on the Daily Aztec student newspaper together at San Diego State in the mid 1980s and he is now a very successful writer of computer books. 

Andy was not happy that Cameron used Rathbone’s nickname “Rat” in the movie, because that identified him, so Andy filed a defamation lawsuit against Cameron. But Andy dropped the lawsuit after Cameron called him and apologized. They remain friends to this day. Cameron, a genuinely nice guy who I have interviewed several times, felt bad about it all and gave Andy one of Nancy Wilson’s guitar straps.

In “Fast Times,” Nancy plays the hot blonde in the corvette that Brad (Judge Reinhold) spots and flirts with. Problem is, Brad forgets he is wearing a goofy fast-food delivery boy hat. When he realizes that she is actually looking at his silly hat, he throws the hat out the window, and the blonde (Wilson) laughs and drives away.

It was the best movie depiction of a sexy blonde in a cool car since Suzanne Somers drove up in that '56 T-Bird in “American Graffiti,” and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) spends the rest of the film trying to find her.

I’ve written about the Fast Times/San Diego saga for years, because it fascinates me and seems to fascinate readers. Here are just a few of my Fast Times-related stories, several of which are now posted on Cameron Crowe’s personal website: 

San Diego Union (now on Cameron’s website):

Premiere Magazine (now on Cameron’s website):

The Reno Dispatch (the publication you are currently reading):

People magazine (my byline at the bottom):

But back to Nancy… Her musical gifts and contributions to the music world are well known. Heart has sold more than 35 million records. She co-wrote most of the band’s biggest hits, including the classic “Magic Man,” “Crazy on You” and “Straight On” among many others. 

Nancy, who’s also written and performed songs for a number of films, is of course a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And she is a hugely underrated rock guitarist.

She rarely ventures out on tour without Ann. It will be interesting to see what her solo show looks and sounds like. Ann is also venturing out on her own this summer, appearing as an opening act for guitar hero Jeff Beck and Paul Rodgers 0f Free/Bad Company fame.

Nancy, a guitar virtuoso from the age of 10, is a creative and clever musician and fine singer in her own right. She’s also built a successful career as a film composer.  

But I think it's fair to assume that rock and roll guitar remains her first love. Nancy has always been a performer at heart, a people pleaser who seems most comfortable on a stage or in a recording studio. You are in for a treat Friday night. This promises to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable shows of this 2018 San Diego concert season. Fast times, indeed.