Friday, June 30, 2006

A Higher Reason

Let me begin with an acknowledgment that I’m thirteen years behind on this story. I’ve learned a great deal, however, in the past two weeks.

Emad A. Salem is a former Egyptian Army officer. According to attorney William Kunstler, Salem claimed that he was a body guard for President Anwar Sadat when Sadat was assassinated in 1981 — a claim the Egyptian government denies.

Reportedly, Salem at one time received money from Kahane Chai, an organization created after the 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane essentially advocated a theocracy in Israel. He favored laws prohibiting missionary work in Israel, banning sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews, and evicting Muslims. He founded the Jewish Defense League and a political party, Kach. Kach and Kahane Chai were eventually outlawed by Israel and the U.S. as terrorist groups.

Apparently, Salem began working with the F.B.I. in 1991, while El Sayyid Nosair stood trial for Kahane’s murder. Nosair was acquitted. He was retried for conspiracy in the killing and was convicted. In 1993, Nosair stood trial in another important case which is the topic of this account.

Salem, acting as a F.B.I. informant, secretly recorded his meetings with the subjects under investigation. He also secretly recorded 40 conversations with his F.B.I. handlers. The existence of those recordings was disclosed at trial, and the government produced transcripts. Alas, by some oversight, the government was not entirely forthcoming. Salem made astonishing statements which were duly discounted by the F.B.I. An unidentified investigator in the case characterized Salem’s claims as figments of his imagination. Portions of the tapes which incriminated the defendants were leaked to A.B.C. Peter Jennings reported them; they were played on Nightline. Other parts of the tapes which suggested Bureau complicity in the crime were kept secret.

Now that you have glimpsed the background, take a good, hard look at the foreground. Emad Salem was the key figure in the February 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Do you remember the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman? Do you recall Mohammed Salameh, who signed his own name to rent the Ryder truck used in the attack? Before the bombing, he reported the truck stolen to the rental agency and the police. After the bombing, he tried to get a refund of his deposit and was arrested. Everyone wondered how he could be so stupid.

I wondered that myself. But in 1993, I was deeply immersed in a study of political assassinations in the United States. I didn’t follow the details of the Trade Center bombing; I didn’t read about the trial.

Today, as I wade into reports about the bombing, they sound terribly familiar. The Roberts Commission, which “investigated” Pearl Harbor, has come back from the dead to explain once again how we were taken by surprise. The Warren Commission, which “investigated” the assassination of President Kennedy, has been reassembled to explain the Magic Bomb in the basement.

Ralph Blumenthal, writing for The New York Times, presented damning descriptions of Salem’s tapes. (“Tapes in Bombing Plot Show Informer and F.B.I. at Odds,” 10/27/1993, p. A1. “Tapes Depict Proposal to Thwart Bomb Used in Trade Center Blast,” 10/28/1993, p. A1.)

A correction was added on 10/29/1993, indicating that the Bureau transcripts “do not make clear the extent to which the Federal authorities” knew in advance that the Trade Center was the target. That doesn’t ring true, unfortunately. Talking to an agent, Salem said:

Guys, now you saw this bomb went off and you both know that we could avoid that…

Do you deny your supervisor is the main reason of bombing the World Trade Center?

The explosion killed six people and wounded more that 1000 others. Salem expressed his incredulity and sorrow over the Bureau’s failure to prevent the attack:

You were informed. Everything is ready. The day and the time. Boom. Lock them up and that’s that. That’s why I feel so bad.

According to Blumenthal:

The transcript quotes Mr. Salem as saying that he wanted to complain to F.B.I. headquarters in Washington about the bureau’s failure to stop the bombing, but was dissuaded by an agent identified as John Anticev.

“He said, I don’t think that the New York people would like the things out of the New York office to go to Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Salem said Mr. Anticev had told him.

Another agent, identified as Nancy Floyd, does not dispute Mr. Salem’s account, but rather, appears to agree with it, saying of the New York people: “Well, of course not, because they don’t want to get their butts chewed.”

That kind of talk doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

One of Salem’s phone calls to F.B.I. Agent John Anticev is available online. Go to Scroll down to the bibliography, click on the “longer clip” from WBAI Radio, and listened closely. Salem talks about being honest with “the lady” — Agent Nancy Floyd. He submitted receipts (!) only to discover later that his expenses were in question. Anticev implies that the problem is a only a bureaucratic issue because some of the expenses are “a little out of the ordinary”:

Salem: Okay. I don't think it was. If that what you think guys, fine, but I don’t think that because we was start already building the bomb which is went off in the World Trade Center. It was built by supervising supervision from the Bureau and the DA and we was all informed about it and we know what the bomb start to be built. By who? By your confidential informant! What a wonderful great case!

Anticev keeps his language general; he merely argues that the process naturally takes a little more time. He assures Salem that the money will come:

Forget about one supervisor or one ASAIC or whatever. We’re doing this for a higher reason. We know what we’re doing, and we know what it’s gonna mean in the future…We know what we’re doing, and at the end we’re gonna at least be able to look at each other and say “We tried the best we could.” You know, not for the government. The government is a very, you know, uh, uh, what do you call, unidentifiable thing, you know. It’s a, it’s not, sometimes it’s one person affecting you; sometimes it’s some bureaucratic things. But we’ll still know what we did. And we’re still gonna, we’re not gonna leave you out in the cold regarding funding and payments and, you know…

I don’t know what higher reason Agent Anticev had in mind. But a quick survey of the wider perspective is not encouraging.

• Apparently, a police officer in New York City advised Salem on how to negotiate with the government for more money.

• Three of the four defendants in the bombing were denied counsel of their choice. Rahman’s attorney, for example, was appointed by the court. Her name is Lynne Stewart. In 2002, U.S. Attorney General John Ascroft announced charges against her for violating “Special Administrative Measures” — SAMs — which are now used to control lawyer-client communications in national security matters. In 2003, she was indicted for aiding a terrorist organization. She was convicted in 2005. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark said that Lynne Stewart, like the Constitution, is a victim of 9/11.

• After the bombers were convicted, they hired William Kunstler and his partner, Ronald Kuby, who were limited by the court in what they could say about the case and barred from their clients’s sentencing hearing. Their view of the tapes was profoundly troubling. Salem has vanished inside the witness protection program. Kunstler said that Salem was the conspiracy, that Salem set up everyone. According to Kuby, the tape recordings reveal that Salem assembled the bomb. In his conversation with Agent Anticev, Salem alluded to the new story about how, when, and where the bomb was constructed. Ralph Blumenthal wrote that “the transcripts reflect an effort to keep Mr. Salem as an intelligence asset who would not have to go public or testify.”

• The F.B.I. came under scrutiny for it’s handling of evidence in the Trade Center case and the 1995 attack on the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and several other cases. A 1997 report by the Justice Department strongly criticized the bomb unit for scientifically inaccurate analyses slanted against defendants. A key witness in the Oklahoma case was a F.B.I informant, Carol Howe, who did not testify at the trial of Timothy McVeigh.

      The Bureau determined that the World Trade Center bomb was made with fertilizer and fuel oil, like the bomb in Oklahoma City.  But remember what Emad Salem said to his handler before the trial of the WTC bombers:

      “Okay, it’s built with a different way in another place; and that’s it.”

• Some of the Trade Center defendants were trained by the C.I.A. during the Afghan conflict with Russia. Sheikh Rahman apparently was connected to Pakistani forces operating in Afghanistan. He was on a security watch-list when he came to the U.S., but he was given a green card. He visited a mosque in Jersey City, and Salem tried to recruit members of that mosque. Thus, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey was involved in the investigation. That attorney was Michael Chertoff, now head of Homeland Security.

• Ramzi Ahmed Yousef was convicted in the 1993 W.T.C. bombing. His uncle, incidentally, was trained in the United States as an engineer. Yousef’s uncle is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, allegedly one of the men behind the 9/11 attacks.

What really happened on February 26, 1993? I don’t know. A couple of weeks ago, the name “Emad Salem” meant nothing to me. I’ve developed an interest in him since then; but I’m fifty-five years old, so there’s a good chance I will die of old age before all the significant details emerge. I have the sinking feeling, however, that I’ve seen this movie before; and I’m afraid I know how it ends.

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