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Jason Leopold: Peter Lance's 9/11 Masterpiece

Reviewed: Peter Lance 's 9/11 Masterpiece

By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Book Review

Peter Lance is one of the last in a dying breed. An investigative reporter who is disciplined enough to devote half a decade in pursuit of the truth. A newsman cut from the same cloth as the legendary journalist I.F. "Izzy" Stone. A gumshoe reporter who still pounds the pavement and relies heavily on public documents to present the facts - no matter where they lead or whom they implicate.

In his forthcoming book, Triple Cross, Lance, a bestselling author of two previous insider accounts on the so-called war on terror, the FBI's handling of 9/11, and Islamic terrorists, has crafted yet another masterful narrative, this time turning a critical eye on the FBI and the wide-ranging intelligence failures within the agency that led up to the tragic day that has been seared into our memories for five long years.

Triple Cross adds a new wrinkle to the 9/11 debates and calls into question the veracity of the historical record the public has been forced to accept. Lance's reporting is bound to stir up debate about the integrity of the 9/11 Commission's investigation and the panel's lengthy final report on the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 2,973 Americans. Be forewarned, Triple Cross presents no conspiracy theory. It's a 489-page thriller. And it's all true. Lance, a five-time Emmy award-winning reporter and former ABC News correspondent, sticks closely to the facts. He provides readers with exhaustive footnotes and copies of some of the more crucial government documents he obtained to build a compelling case of the FBI's incompetence in reining in one of the most dangerous terrorists next to Osama bin Laden, who ended up playing a crucial role in 9/11. It should be noted as well that Lance steers clear of partisan politics: his book - unlike so many others that came before it - leans neither "right" nor "left."

Lance's dogged pursuit of uncovering the truth behind 9/11 began on a personal note. His son's high school was located just a few blocks away from Ground Zero, and when the Twin Towers crumbled, Lance feared the worst. Spending hours trying to make his way through clogged telephone lines to track down his son, he found out from a relative that the boy was safe. But a close friend of Lance's, a New York City firefighter who also had Top Secret clearance in the army reserve intelligence unit he served with, wasn't as lucky. In the midst of all the carnage, the obvious question arose and gnawed at Lance: How could this have happened? How could intelligence agencies have missed the warning signs?

Having spent a decade writing fiction, Lance returned to the trenches and started digging. He began a tedious search for public documents. He read through 40,000 pages of trial transcripts from al-Qaeda cases in the Southern District of New York. He used his close connections in the Manhattan District Attorney's office to help him track down additional information.

"All I did was apply data-mining techniques to the story retrospectively, using Google - anybody could have done this," Lance said in an interview describing one aspect of his reporting technique.

Two years later, he produced 1000 Years for Revenge, a meticulously detailed volume of 9/11 reportage and international terrorism, which caught the attention of 9/11 Commission chairman Thomas Kean, who asked Lance to testify before the commission. But the commission opted to take Lance's testimony in secret, "in a windowless conference room at 26 Federal Plaza on March 15, 2004," Lance wrote in the preface to Triple Cross. Lance has misgivings about the 9/11 Commission and believes its final report "has proven vastly incomplete."

Triple Cross covers 1981 through 2001 and tracks the rise of al-Qaeda, focusing heavily on former Egyptian army major and al-Qaeda operative Ali Mohamed, who successfully infiltrated the FBI. Perhaps the most intriguing part of Triple Cross is the appearance of Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor investigating the CIA leak case, who plays a leading role in Lance's book and is featured prominently on the dust jacket and in the subtitle: How bin Laden's Master Spy Penetrated the CIA, the Green Berets, and the FBI - And Why Patrick Fitzgerald Failed to Stop Him. In the 1990s, Fitzgerald was the Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York directing the FBI's elite bin Laden squad.

Still in his early 30s, Fitzgerald made some costly blunders early on that might have changed the course of history if more attention had been paid to detail. Indeed, in 1991, the FBI discovered that a mailbox store in New Jersey had direct ties to al-Qaeda but failed to monitor the location. Yet four years later, Fitzgerald named the owner of the store as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Day of Terror case he was prosecuting. However, since no charges were filed against the owner, the store continued to stay in business and once again fell beneath the Justice Department's radar. Six years later, two of the 9/11 hijackers obtained their phony identification cards from that very store.

Lance presents convincing evidence in the form of court records, transcripts, and interviews with key players that casts Fitzgerald, along with numerous other Justice Department and CIA officials, as terribly negligent in allowing the agencies to be hoodwinked by Mohamed, who succeeded in penetrating the CIA's Europe division and the FBI in California, all while Mohamed was secretly helping bin Laden orchestrate the African Embassy bombings. The story of Mohamed, a man Fitzgerald called the "most dangerous man I have ever met," is groundbreaking and has never been fully fleshed out before.

Lance begins telling Mohamed's story - one that has all the makings of a Hollywood thriller - in the first passage of his opening chapter of Triple Cross.

"On October 20, 2000, after tricking the U.S. intelligence establishment for years, Ali Mohamed stood in handcuffs, leg irons, and a blue prison jumpsuit before Judge Leonard B. Sand in a Federal District Courtroom in Lower Manhattan," Lance writes. "Over the next thirty minutes he pleaded guilty five times, admitting to his involvement in plots to kill U.S. soldiers in Somalia, and Saudi Arabia, U.S. ambassadors in Africa, and American civilians anywhere in the world ... In short but deliberate sentences, Mohamed peeled back the top layer of the secret life he'd led since 1981 ..."

During that plea session, Lance writes, Mohamed kept quiet about "his most stunning achievements," including how he avoided being caught in a State Department Watch List, enlisted in the US Army and was stationed at the same base where the Green Berets and Delta Force undergo training, and wooed a Silicon Valley medical technician, whom he married. In the courtroom, Mohamed, fluent in four languages, "didn't say a word about how he'd moved in and out of contract spy work for the CIA and fooled FBI agents for six years as he smuggled terrorists across US borders, and guarded the tall Saudi billionaire who had personally declared war on Americans: Osama bin Laden," Lance writes.

While Mohamed vacationed from the US Army in 1988, he tracked down an elite group of Soviet commandos in Afghanistan, while later cozying up to Special Agents in New York and San Francisco, and found out everything the FBI knew about al-Qaeda, learning it firsthand from the agency's top agents. He guarded Osama bin Laden during the same time he enjoyed the luxuries of being one of the FBI's top informants. There are so many threads to this story, dating back more than two decades, that one cannot help but feel utter contempt for the intelligence agencies who were entrusted with weeding out threats like Mohamed but instead fiddled with the internal bureaucratic red tape at federal agencies so that by the time any action was taken, it was too late: 9/11 had arrived.

Triple Cross would end up being a highly entertaining Tom Clancy-esque thriller, in other words, pure fiction, if Lance didn't have tens of thousands of pages of documents locked up in a safe-house to back up this explosive account. Remarkably, Mohamed was never sentenced for the crimes he pleaded guilty to. He is in the witness protection program, his existence shrouded under a veil of secrecy.

Peter Lance is a five-time Emmy-winning investigative reporter. He holds a Masters Degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. Lance spent the first 15 years of his career as a print reporter and network correspondent. He began his career as a reporter for his hometown paper, The Newport, Rhode Island Daily News. In 1981, Lance became an investigative correspondent for ABC News, covering hundreds of stories worldwide for ABC News, 20/20, Nightline, and World News Tonight.


Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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