A few weeks after 9/11, Michael Maloof, then with the Pentagon's Technology Security Operations, got a phone call inviting him to join the Pentagon's Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group (PCTEG), set up under Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith to examine raw intelligence on the terrorist threat and make recommendations. He was told that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld wasn't happy with the intelligence he was getting. Maloof talks about the process he followed, the inadequacies of the CIA's information, particularly on weapons of mass destruction, and his own disappointment in how the agency reacted to the Pentagon's intelligence initiative. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 10, 2006.
- Some highlights from this interview
- How the intelligence community viewed his work
- Iraq's terrorism ties
- Pressures from Cheney's office on the CIA
- The evidence supporting hijacker Mohammed Atta's meeting with Iraqis
... What did you think was going to be necessary to do next [after Sept. 11]?
I felt that we had to take on the whole terrorism issue. I had been doing some training to border guards in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kurdistan, the Republic of Georgia, and the fact that those countries were a conduit for moving the terrorists, as well as their products from arms to drugs, was becoming an increasing problem. ...
The problem was going to get worse, not better. And the way to deal with it was to confront terrorism anywhere in the world. I still feel that we have not really begun the war on terror.
What do you mean?
I don't think that the way we're going after terrorists today is the way to go about it. When we did our analysis and recommendations, it was to attack them anywhere in the world, but to do it more discreetly, to do it with more use of special forces, specially trained people who could go in there, get the job done and get out. It was not to launch armies to go in.
Now [that] we've basically gotten so bogged down in one location, Iraq -- and we actually help[ed] move the terrorists' focus from Afghanistan into Iraq today -- has created a tremendously unstable environment. Now that we're in, we're going to have to stay there; there's no question about it. But the war on terror still goes on. The terrorist cells that exist in other parts of the world -- the Far East through West Africa, into all of Latin America -- ... their lines of communication and their financial flows go through these areas. It still goes on. ...
How did you get assigned to [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas] Feith's office?
My office technically was in the office of the undersecretary for policy, but I got a call from Bob Andrews one day. He was deputy undersecretary for SO/LIC, Special [Operations and] Low-Intensity Conflict. He said that Doug Feith, the undersecretary, needed to have a plan, and he was aware of my previous work and wanted to know if I wanted to take on such a job to deal with terrorists. I said sure.
... What he basically said was Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld was not pleased with the recommendations he had gotten to date on how to deal with the terrorist problem and asked me to take a whack at it and to come up with my own approach and recommendations, which I did.
How soon after 9/11 is this?
Less than a month. I had a weekend. I drew up the background and the presentation and recommendations and got it to Andrews. The next thing I know I'm getting a phone call. I'm detailed over to Doug Feith's office, and I would be joined by Dave Wurmser, who today works in the Office of the Vice President.
So what did you do? When you sat down to put pen to paper, what was your plan?
First of all, I went into our classified system to see whether we know about terrorist groups and the relationships, as well as their connections with not only Al Qaeda, but also with state sponsors. I really didn't find that much finished analysis.
Based upon that, part of my recommendation was to include such an analysis, not only on terrorist groups and how they related to one another, but also the relationship to Al Qaeda and then to state sponsors, and then how to then identify what I refer to as checkpoints. Where are they anywhere in the world? Where do we find their concentrations? And then the fifth recommendation was to eliminate those threats.
Any way possible?
Through the use of special operations by working through the office of the Near East South Asia Division in the Pentagon, and SO/LIC. ... It would be a joint project [in] which we would then acquire whatever available information there was. I was asked to only use the intelligence that was available in the system and then do the analysis. We would then work to identify areas and locations in the world where we thought such concentration should be found.
The whole idea was to disrupt their communications, their way of action, because by that time, when I started doing the analysis, I discovered that over almost an eight-year period during the previous administration, that they had built such a spider web of relationships and activities and locations throughout the world, that it was not just a simple project of going after one group per se. At one point I counted some 50 groups -- from Africa to Latin America, Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, into Africa.
You mentioned that you went into the top-secret, whatever information was available. What would that information include? Was it CIA intelligence? Was it DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] stuff? What was it?
It's what we would call "all source." It was a combination of all those that you just raised. For the most part it would be raw information with very little analysis. It was the analysis that was required by the policy-maker. When I was asked to detail [the threat], we were actually given a time limit, so we were really working against time to come up with the identification of what we were dealing with, and then figure out the next approach....
And what was it that Rumsfeld was unhappy with?
It was a broad statement to the effect that he was not pleased with the recommendations for the services. What those plans were, I had no idea.
You never saw them. So you and [your colleagues] were basically on your own?
Yeah. Well, we were not on our own per se. We still answered on a daily basis and gave briefings as to our progress. We worked directly under the deputy assistant secretary for South Asia Affairs, and we also would, as a practical matter, brief the principal deputy to Undersecretary Doug Feith, who at that time was Steve Cambone, who is now the undersecretary for intelligence. ...
What was it like around that office at that particular time when you first went in there?
We had a sense of mission. We were regarded as rather exclusive as it was done at the behest of the undersecretary and the behest of the secretary of defense. That gave us a sense of mission, a sense of purpose that we were really involved in something very serious.
Almost immediately we began to see the resistance come in, particularly from the intelligence community, simply because their impression of our work was to second-guess them, to look over their shoulder. It early on began to generate a real hostility that I found very unfortunate, because they had been people I worked with for years. All of a sudden [they] were treating me as an outcast and holding me at arm's length.
My notion was to work with them, and I did ask for their finished analysis so that we were not duplicating all the work that they had done. But we had a job to do, just like they did, and let's work together. That message did not go over too well.
In what way? How did it manifest itself, their response?
By not providing us the information we requested, stonewalling us. In fact, I was threatened basically one day in which we were told, ... in the hallway of the Pentagon, by a high person, very high in the intelligence agency, that we will come and go, but they will always be there. That seemed to be a rather ominous statement. By that time as well, stories were beginning to come out about the hostility between the CIA and the Pentagon, which I felt was unfortunate. But again, we stayed focused; we did our job.
I think we produced a very good product. It has never been refuted, to my knowledge, by anybody. Contrary to the popular belief, our work was scrutinized as we were doing it by the intelligence community. Everything we did was channeled through them for validation. ... We basically had to create a lot of the analysis, but based upon their intelligence. We did not make it up. We did not go out and interview people. We used their information. ...
I would add, too, that the information that we were getting and being briefed on was very thin. You could tell the policy-makers were frustrated on a direction that they needed to go. And because the information was not complete, it was very vague. ...
... What does "thin" mean? What kinds of things?
What was thin was the analysis that we were getting from the [intelligence] community. ... Unfortunately, their sources and methods into that world [were] very limited. If you were going to declare war on terror, you've got to be able to pinpoint targets, and that was not forthcoming. In order to understand the nature of the terror threat, that seemed to also be lacking in our understanding of, what direction do we go to? Who do we go after? And to understand the personalities who were involved -- part of our research was involved in identifying those individuals who were at the focus of the terror threat.
So it wasn't just foot-dragging, jealousy. It was maybe they didn't want to reveal how inept they actually were?
I wouldn't call it inept. I would just say that you have very good analysts in the intelligence community, even now. The problem is that the analysis had not been done at the level that we required in order to make the response that was required. If we had enough time to work with people to get that, it would have been a different story. But time was not on our side, and we had to respond.
There [was] constant intelligence reporting of new threats. How do you distinguish between the real thing and disinformation, which the terrorists were fully capable of doing? They would purposely plant false information just to sniff out what our sources and methods were. That was clear. Following up on leads -- it was very difficult. In order to get many of the things that we would see that we would find unanswered, we had to put out requirements. That could take anywhere from six months to a year. We just didn't have that kind of time. ...
So how are you getting information? I mean, you say "all source." Do you have independent sources? Are you reading 17 newspapers a day?
It included both classified and unclassified sources. Believe it or not, I had quite a number of people who would come to me personally who would give me information. Then we would get that into the system to try and verify, or to have people go out and interview them.
I had a number of sources who did that. I still have contact with a number of them to this day. My sources were not under the control of the intelligence community, so the issue of whether or not they would be taken seriously was another matter. That cleared it, though. ...
Now, of course, the intelligence guys would say: "We think this stuff through. We've got years of experience. We know how it all works. Who are you clowns coming in here and reading our data and analysis and "stovepiping" it up and adding your own little twist to it, and making the vice president happy and being in direct competition with us?"
We heard those charges constantly. My response to that was: "Help us. Help us. We have a job to do. We're under a tight deadline. Something's going to be going on, and we need your help." Instead, we were stonewalled. We were basically left up to our own druthers to take whatever information was available and try to do the best with it.
Do you think you were doing a better job than they were?
I think so, simply because we came up with analysis that they ultimately disagreed with, but we never would see that analysis until they were prepared to disagree with us. Only then would we see it. ...
And the argument that what you guys were actually doing was coming up with selective bits of evidence that were consistent with the kind of philosophy to go to war, rather than a fair and balanced analysis -- what's your response?
To go to war was to go after terrorism anywhere in the world. It was not, at that time, to go after a country specific. It was not for regime change, although we recognized that you needed regime changes in about three or four of those countries if you were going to do anything. Realistically that was not going to be the case.
Our intention was to develop information that would help us to have a blueprint for waging a real war on terror anywhere in the world, ... yet they absolutely attacked us constantly because of our analysis.
Is it a true story -- did you hear it? -- that the vice president wrote in the margins of something, "This is good stuff. This is so much better than the crap I get from the CIA," or whatever he said?
I've heard the same rumor. I don't know if it's true or not. But Cheney had every good reason to question and doubt what the agency was coming up with.
We had a specific case arise in 1990, in which he was then the secretary of defense [in the George H.W. Bush administration]. A colleague and I did analysis on Iraq's nuclear weapons development program. We went back to 10 years of information. At that time -- this is a 1990 timeframe -- at that time the agency was saying that Iraq was five years out from making a bomb.
Well, we took 10 years of information, intelligence, even open-source information, and from that we were able to conclude that in 10 identified areas that are essential for nuclear weapons development, all the boxes had been filled. We were able to point to intelligence or information in every one of those areas.
We then took that information up to the [deputy] secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, at that time. Paul then sent the information to Cheney, as secretary of defense. Cheney immediately responded and sent our entire report off to the agency and asked for a re-evaluation.
Our estimate was they were not five years out; they were 18 months out. Based upon that, the agency came back a few months later, or a few weeks later -- I forget what the timeframe was -- and said, "Well, it's plausible that that might be true."
Then, after the war, when [former head of the Iraq Survey Group] David Kay and the inspectors went in, they reported that Iraq was only six months away, so even our estimates were conservative. At best, intelligence gives you maybe 10 percent of what's going on out there in the real world. My philosophy has always been, if you assume the worst in this business, it's probably true. And in this case, it turned out to be worse than we had thought. ...
So the nuclear thing was a real eye-opener for the secretary of defense at the time, and future vice president.
That's correct. In fact, right after that and after the validation by the agency, that's when he went out to the [Iraq] desert and said, "The reason why we're here is because of their nuclear weapons development." That was a very serious problem.
Now you fast-forward to 2001. He had every reason then to question whatever analysis they had, because up to that time, the majority of our information on anything having to do with proliferation was not from human sources. Consequently, the ability to have fairly reliable information was, in fact, lacking. Much of the work was based upon assessments, educated assessments, and some of them were dead wrong.
When did you know we were turning toward Iraq?
Probably not until the middle of 2002.
How did you know?
Just by what people were saying. We began to get requests to focus more on what the level of terrorist relationships were to Iraq. Up until that point, we could make some pretty good arguments that they indeed were supporters of terrorism; that, in fact, you had [Palestinian Liberation Front leader and mastermind of 1985's Achille Lauro ocean liner hijacking] Abu Abbas living there; you had [Black September and Fatah party founder] Abu Nidal living there in Baghdad. ... All of these elements began to tell us that if we're going to do anything anywhere in that region, to start rooting it out was to go after them there.
In fact, in addition, once they were rooted out of Afghanistan, we began to see them moving into Iran and back into Iraq, so you wanted to chase them down wherever they were going.
The argument for WMD, however, all of a sudden began to emerge. Some of us who had been following Iraq for years, particularly on the export control side, thought, well, that's not the best argument. ... In fact, I had sent a memo saying this was not our strongest argument. Simply because you had inspectors going in and out, we would see elements going in, because we were watching the transfer and the diversion of technologies -- we knew they were going through front companies and countries in Africa. They were going to be building it back up and saving it, holding it, until which time the sanctions could be lifted. Then they're going to go back into production, into their nuclear production, into their chemical/biological and missile productions. ... But never did they have a program constituted and operational that we could determine. ...
So when you're looking at Iraq in those days, when you're looking at the war on terror, you're no doubt picking up on the all-source stuff, the [Ibn al-Sheikh] al-Libi information about Iraq training camps for chemical and --
Those happen to be true. That information turned out to be correct. I heard it not only from al-Libi, but we heard it from some people from the INC, the Iraqi National Congress. Then we take their information and put it back into the intelligence system and say, "What do you know?"
We knew about [Iraq-based Kurdish terrorist group] Ansar al-Islam, for example. I can give you one clear example. Ansar al-Islam -- we knew from Desert Shield/Desert Storm that that facility was an R&D facility for chemical/biological weapons along with other activities that they were working on. We knew that back in 1990, because when we used to get export license applications, the Iraqis would send in all of their information when it could receive U.S. exports, and we'd get detailed information on these facilities.
We would know what they were doing, but at the time, we couldn't stop items from going to them because they were not under our regulatory system at the time. But we had that information; we kept it, so that when 1990 came around and Desert Shield/Desert Storm kicked in, we were actually approached by the intelligence community for our information on targets because of our export control business.
So I knew about [the alledged terrorist training camp at] Salman Pak, and we had more than one report that there was a 707 fuselage out there for training purposes. I don't think it's ever been denied. In fact, people have confirmed to me that it was there for terrorist training. Whether it was for counterterrorism training or whatever other training, it was there. The fact that it was right next to this R&D facility for chemical/biological weapons raised all kinds of concerns to me that they were getting some kind of potential training in chemical/biological weapons.
Then you had the Ansar al-Islam group up in the Kurdish area that we knew was also receiving assistance in this area. The fact that some of the Iraqi intelligence people were liaising with the Ansar al-Islam group raised even further concerns, and it showed an ongoing Iraqi effort. Iraqis knew from 1990 they couldn't hit us directly, so they were going to try going at us indirectly through these surrogates, through these terrorist groups. That's what they were committed to do. ...
When do you come across the INC guys?
About a few months into my analysis work. Because we're being stonewalled with information, I went to the INC. I knew [INC founder Ahmad] Chalabi from years earlier, so I basically asked for help in giving us direction as to where to look for information in our own system in order to be able to get a clear picture of what we were doing. They were quite helpful.
They basically told me, "We have a war room in London. We're gearing up for war ourselves, and all of our information that's coming in now is oriented to trying to identify these facilities," which to me was marvelous, because if I could get a hold of that kind of information, then I'd get it into the intelligence community and ask them to verify it for me, see what they could determine was valid, what was not. ...
What kinds of things would they tell you?
Well, the principal one had to do with Salman Pak and the identification of some of the terrorists that were involved and who had gone back to Iraq following the World Trade Center bombing in '93. ...
Do you think these guys were tailoring, listening carefully to what you wanted, nuancing information in your direction, knowing that it was going to --
We were always looking out for that. We wanted to be very careful. That's why we wanted to take whatever information they had and put it back into the classified system and see what they could come up with. ...
And when it went into the intelligence system, what happened to it?
Never hear from them again. There was never anything coming out.
I don't know. I honestly don't know. Maybe they didn't have the sources. They certainly did not like Chalabi. And the fact that the agency probably had very limited sourcing probably was a problem. If they went to friendly intelligence services, they probably wouldn't believe that either, because they couldn't control the flow of the information or the sourcing of it.
So it really put them in a dilemma. Here we had a real crunch, a real crisis on our hands, and just had been through one massive disastrous intelligence failure, and we're on the verge of another. ...
It would have come into the system. We were looking for connections, and that was one of them. And then I did some additional research in talking to people who were in touch with the Czechs. And they basically said that -- I think it was the Prime Minister -- was really holding to his position that such a meeting did, in fact, occur. ...
I believe something did occur for two reasons. Number one, I think it's the Prime Minister has always refuted the allegation that it was made up. And number two, I'm told there was a photograph of the meeting. And I sought for our people to get that photograph; they never did, to my knowledge. Or, at least they never got it so that I could see it.
I had heard from other services that such a photo did exist, and that there had been a meeting. And that we tried to pursue that. So all we could do was go with what we knew at the time. And if it's ever disproven then fine, but, I've never seen the evidence.
This particular piece of information goes into the system, no pushback [from the CIA]. What do you do with it? Does it then go up through [Cheney's former Chief of Staff Scooter] Libby to Cambone to Feith to --
We'd write it up and point out that this is something that we're following up on; we were expecting further information on it. But this is one more element to show a connection between the two. We were seeking to verify, and we could never get any feedback.
Would you have ever written up the Atta meeting in Prague? How would that story --
We wrote it up in some of our bullet points. The presentation was a bullet-point presentation. It was about 150 pages long, and that was one element. A person from the vice president's office occasionally would come on over to talk to us, and we'd point that out to him. ...
As we did each portion, we would move that up, move that forward. It was a cumulative thing. So because we had definite deadlines, we wanted to have the report done by a certain date. Then we'd get ad hoc work on a daily basis, go check this out, go check that out. Oftentimes that would figure in to what we were working as another basis of sources of information that we could then plug in.
Feel really top secret and spooklike?
A lot of it was from technical intelligence to human intelligence, and you had to be very careful of the sourcing and the reliability of it. If the sourcing could not be determined to be valid or reliable, we really wouldn't use it. We would really question it with the hope that the agency would come back and let us know what was valid, what was not valid. ...
Of course, a lot CIA guys, when we interview them, blame you guys for the intel mistakes or the wrong emphasis. ... They would just say: "Who are these guys? What do they really know? Atta's a mistake. It's been repudiated."
This is the same crowd that worked with the mujahideen in Bosnia, that couldn't give us any heads up on the worst intelligence failure in U.S. history? And they're going to criticize me? It's pathetic. You've got to consider the source. They basically blew it.
The policy-makers needed information and analysis rapidly, and it was not forthcoming from the community. So [David] Wurmser and I were tasked to take whatever information was out there and give it our best judgment as to what it all meant and what the connections were. We asked for their help; they chose to obfuscate and turn against us. We could see it all the time. So that was our choice.
I was told by a number of people that when our reporting became the item that was used to advance the war on terror that the agency felt irrelevant and that they were going to retaliate against us. In fact, a number of stories would come out about how there was open conflict between CIA and the Pentagon. It was nothing that I wished. As I told you, I worked with a lot of these people for years. They turned on us. That's the way it goes. The question is, why? To this day I don't know why. A lot of their judgments were preconceived. ...
Tell me about the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] in October of 2002. Was it flawed?
I thought it was flawed. It basically talked about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. I just didn't see it, and I wrote a memo up to my immediate boss saying this is not correct, but it was something that came out.
Until August of 2002, we were talking about terror as the basis [on which] to deal with Iraq. Then this NIE comes out in October 2002, and then, by December, you have George Tenet, the former director of CIA, going in and personally briefing the president, saying that Iraq had all this WMD. I'm told that even he questioned how solid the information was, and that's when Tenet gave the infamous statement that "It's a slam dunk; the evidence is a slam dunk."
... To this day I don't know what prompted their October 2002 report. It's something they did on their own. ... What changed between August and October of 2002? What happened? To this day I don't have it. I think it might have been their desire to try to take back the initiative. It's the only thing I can conclude. ...
When the secretary of state, Colin Powell, went to the United Nations, first he went to the CIA to receive the information. When you heard that Powell was going to give a speech, that he was going to go to the CIA and get the word, what did you think?
Not much. I was more interested when he made the presentation at the U.N. to see that Tenet was sitting right behind him. I would have thought that perhaps there would have been better analysis provided. But why would the vice president and the secretary of state have to go to the agency to get the information when they could have turned it over to the analysts much sooner than that? We could have seen it much sooner than that.
... I questioned at the time what they would get out of it. I didn't think they'd get very much out of it.
Of course people at the CIA say half-a-dozen visits by the vice president of the United States, by Scooter [Libby, then Cheney's Chief of Staff], by others out to Langley was really an intimidation act by those guys to get the CIA guys to write up stuff in a certain way.
They're going to feel that way simply because they live in their own little cocoon over there, and they have policy-makers come at them and give them a priority. They're not used to that. They're not used to coming back with timely analysis.
I think they were really covering up the fact they didn't know. I really think to this day, they really did not know. They should have been honest about it. We could have gone to other sources and flushed that out [to] absolutely be sure before we pressed the trigger. In order to offset blame on themselves, they started becoming accusatory towards us. That was expected.
What was the feeling around the office when Powell gives the U.N. speech? Are you all watching it together?
Yeah, we were watching it, sure. I saw Tenet sitting behind him, and I listened to the intercepts that he was presenting. The intercepts are just one-time things, and you couldn't be absolutely certain that it wasn't a massive effort of deception, because the Iraqis were known for deception. It was not conclusive to me.
What I wanted was some real hard-boiled information from human sources, from people who could go into the country, get that information and bring it out. In fact, I had received information of one Kurd who had relatives with some of the people involved in the Iraqi nuclear program. He was commenting on [how] the Iraqi nuclear scientists were disappearing.
We pressed the agency to go in and flush this out, find out what was going on, what was behind it all. We even set it all up. They never followed up. It's as though you handed them the information and the sourcing of it to do their job, but nothing would ever come out of it, which in hindsight now I'm beginning to think once again that there was never any desire to really get to the bottom of it, that it was basically to set up the administration for failure, because in that timeframe, the agency was at odds with not only the Defense Department, but by then with the White House as well. Why? I don't get it. ...
What's your view of [Powell's Chief of Staff] Larry Wilkerson's statement that Cheney and Rumsfeld were a cabal, choosing to use your information to drive a policy?
... No. What does he mean by that? What happened was that they were in the driver's seat. They commanded the troops. The intelligence wasn't forthcoming, and the agency felt that it was being left behind. It's basically what happened.
It's either lead, follow, get out of the way. They were not forthcoming with what the policy-makers needed, and they were working up against time. Who knew when the next attack was going to be or where it was going to be? What you wanted to do was get in there and disrupt those lines of communication, their financial flows, and disrupt their cells and their relationships with one another. That was not happening.
Look how long it took before we went into Afghanistan. It was a while. By then all the terrorists had basically realigned themselves and had moved out and around, because they knew something was going to be happening. We basically telegraphed it. ...