9/11: The Tapping Point
By David Rose, Vanity Fair, September 2011
What if, two years before the 9/11 attacks—with the installation of a cell-phone-and-Internet system in Afghanistan—the U.S. had been handed complete access to al-Qaeda and Taliban calls and e-mails? A secret deal was in place in 1999, the author reveals, but Washington dropped the ball.
SURPRISE! When Osama bin Laden talked, the United States could have been listening.
One morning in June 2001, three months before the 9/11 attacks on the United States, I happened to be interviewing a senior official from the British Secret Intelligence Service, M.I.6. His current focus was the war on drugs, not international terrorism, but he shared a piece of information that united the two subjects.
A short time earlier, the official told me, the U.S. National Security Agency had intercepted a call between two satellite-telephone users in Afghanistan—the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. They had been discussing the Taliban’s ban on growing opium poppies, imposed the previous summer—a remarkably effective edict that had shrunk production in areas they controlled almost to zero.
According to the M.I.6 official, bin Laden sounded unhappy. “Why stop growing opium?” he asked. “Heroin only weakens our enemies.” There was no need to worry, Mullah Omar replied. The ban was merely a tactic. “There has been a glut, and the price is too low. Once the world price has risen, the farmers can start growing it again.”
The real lesson of this overheard conversation was not its specific content but the fact that it could be heard at all. Electronic eavesdropping clearly had potential in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. But in the years before 9/11, when bin Laden’s terror plot was first being discussed, that potential remained limited. The reason was simple: Afghanistan had no cell phones, no Internet, and only a rudimentary landline network, which did not work at all outside the country’s largest cities. This could be remedied, however. Indeed, by the end of 1999, the Taliban government had embraced a full-fledged American scheme to install a modern cell-phone-and-Internet system in Afghanistan. It could have been up and running within months. The Taliban had already granted an exclusive license to a U.S.-owned firm, the Afghan Wireless Communications Company.
More to the point, electronic modifications concealed within the circuitry would have allowed every call and every e-mail emanating from Afghanistan to be relayed without interference to N.S.A. headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. “This project was a dream,” says one former senior F.B.I. counterterrorism specialist who knew about the scheme at the time. “To be able to wire up a country from ground level up—you don’t get too many opportunities like that.” No, you don’t. But at the critical moment, the Clinton administration put the project on hold, while rival U.S. agencies—the F.B.I., the N.S.A., and the C.I.A.—bickered over who should control it.
In the decade since 9/11, investigations by journalists and government commissions have explored the many missed opportunities to prevent bin Laden’s attacks. Overall, it is the story of a catastrophic failure to connect the dots. One can argue—and many have—that the connections emerge more visibly in retrospect than they ever did as events themselves unfolded. But the affair of the Afghan cell-phone network—put on hold until time ran out—falls into a category by itself. It was a course of action whose value and urgency were acknowledged by everyone, but it was impeded nonetheless. The cell-phone plan “was one tool we could have put in Afghanistan that could have made a difference,” a former C.I.A. official says. “Why didn’t we put it in? Because we couldn’t fucking agree.”
Until now, the existence of the cell-phone plan has remained a secret. It came close to surfacing during a court case in 2003, when the majority shareholder of Afghan Wireless, an Afghan-American named Ehsanollah Bayat, was sued in New York by his former British partners, Stuart Bentham and Lord Michael Cecil. But the Department of Justice persuaded a judge to invoke the State Secrets Privilege, a Draconian measure that allows the U.S. government to stop a case in its tracks on the grounds that allowing it to proceed would endanger national security. The entire legal record was sealed. Bentham and Cecil were issued gag orders, enforcing silence on pain of prosecution. It has therefore not been possible to speak to them about it. Bayat and his staff, for their part, failed to respond to numerous requests for comment. However, through interviews with other individuals who are not legally restricted, and through voluminous contemporary documents made available to me, it has been possible to assemble a narrative.
Before he got into telecommunications, Ehsan Bayat, a resident of Paramus, New Jersey, was in the food business. His company, Pamir Foods, owned fast-food and Asian restaurants and a plant that processed chickens. Bayat is a U.S. citizen, but he was born and raised in Afghanistan—in Wazir Akbar Khan, an upscale neighborhood in Kabul. Some of the Taliban’s leading figures had been among his associates, and they had risen to prominence by backing the winning side in Afghanistan’s brutal civil war. Bayat’s close contacts included Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Taliban’s foreign minister, who was second in the government only to Mullah Omar. Through Muttawakil, Bayat came to develop a cordial relationship with Mullah Omar himself. Neither the Taliban’s fundamentalist ambitions nor the haven the Taliban had given to al-Qaeda were to Bayat’s taste, but he continued to visit Afghanistan regularly and hoped to encourage its economic development, which would also be very good business for him. Thus it was that he conceived the idea of modernizing the country’s telephone system.
As things stood, there were just two landlines linking Afghanistan to the rest of the world. Inside the country, a creaking, dysfunctional system relied on operators plugging wires into sockets by hand. Bayat’s personal relationships with the Taliban meant that he stood a good chance of securing the necessary licenses, and he set up a company registered in New Jersey, Telephone Systems International (T.S.I.), to secure them. He found the experts he needed through a man named Mark Warner, a director at Barclays’ private-banking division, in London, who already handled some of Bayat’s money. Warner contacted his friend Stuart Bentham, a wealthy former officer in the Corps of Royal Engineers who had owned and run successful construction and power-generation companies in Britain and Saudi Arabia. Bentham brought in another business associate, Lord Cecil, whose company, Wilken, had built a cell-phone network in Kenya. Before getting involved with Bayat, Cecil and Bentham had worked together trying to set up cell-phone systems in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Lord Cecil had connections with the British Foreign Office and M.I.6.
Bayat won an exclusive license from the Taliban in September 1998. Under the terms of the contract, he agreed to set up Afghan Wireless as a joint venture with the Afghan Ministry of Communications, which was to hold a 20 percent share. Bayat then went to England for meetings with his potential new partners. One central aspect of the transaction was understood from the outset: besides constituting a lucrative business opportunity, the Afghan phone company was also envisioned as a source of potentially crucial intelligence. This was becoming a matter of great importance, given al-Qaeda’s growing prominence and the training camps it maintained in Afghanistan. Shortly before Bayat’s trip to England, al-Qaeda had bombed the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 258 people. Stuart Bentham’s wife, Margaret, is not bound by the State Secrets Privilege gag order. She was present at meetings with Bayat and her husband in both Britain and America, and Stuart discussed the project with her as it progressed. “We always thought that this was how they would catch the terrorists,” she says. “It wasn’t just about making money. We believed we were doing the right thing.”
At the very start of this new business relationship, Bayat’s partners knew that he had become a counterterrorism intelligence source and was working with the F.B.I. Bayat had offered his services to the bureau’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, in Newark, New Jersey, and was officially regarded as a confidential informant. By the early fall of 1998, he was meeting two F.B.I. agents as often as once a week, passing along whatever he had been able to glean from contacts in Afghanistan. As the cell-phone project took shape, he told his handlers about it. They knew firsthand the value of wiretaps in criminal and counterterrorist investigations and responded with enthusiasm. Even as Bayat negotiated a license with the Taliban, the F.B.I. agents put out feelers to the N.S.A.
Officials at the eavesdropping agency laid out the advantages of being able to install an entire new cell-phone network, an initiative to which they gave the name Operation Foxden. Technology already existed to intercept signals from Afghanistan relayed by microwave transmitters in space, but this was a haphazard process, affected by factors such as the weather and solar activity. By building extra circuits into all the new network’s equipment, it would be possible to ensure that anytime anyone used a phone in Afghanistan the call could be monitored at a “duplicate exchange” at Fort Meade. The N.S.A. would capture the name of the subscriber and the number being called, and the call would be digitally recorded or, if desired, heard by American intelligence officers live, in real time. “The capability we would have had would have been very good,” a former N.S.A. official says of Operation Foxden. “Had this network been built with the technology that existed in 2000, it would have been a priceless intelligence asset.”
In November 1998, Cecil, Bentham, Warner, and Bayat traveled together to Afghanistan on the first of many visits. The Taliban gave them a warm welcome, providing transportation and, when necessary, armed guards. Bentham and Cecil got to work energetically. On May 7, 1999, an airplane landed in Kabul with seven tons of equipment, which was to form the nucleus of the new communications network. Over the ensuing months, the company succeeded in re-activating Afghanistan’s +93 international phone code and installing satellite dishes in Kabul and Kandahar. It also set up the first computerized telephone exchanges in these cities. Alex Grinling, like Bentham a former British Army officer, became the in-country manager for Afghan Wireless. “What was clear,” says Grinling, “was that the Taliban really wanted telephones. They knew they couldn’t do business without them.” In June 1999 the Taliban signed a contract guaranteeing Afghan Wireless a monopoly on “all aspects” of cell-phone traffic in Afghanistan for 15 years.
No sooner was the contract signed than Operation Foxden encountered a major snag. On July 4, 1999, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13129, prohibiting U.S. citizens from doing business with the Taliban and imposing a range of trade sanctions on the Taliban regime. Supported by his F.B.I. handlers, Bayat sought a special exemption from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, in Washington, an arm of the Treasury Department. In September the exemption was refused. Bayat wrote to the Taliban, offering to resign from the project and suggesting that they explore alternative ways of getting cell phones. The message he got back from Muttawakil and others was unequivocal. They wanted to work with him alone, and urged him to do whatever it took to make this possible. The two F.B.I. agents in Newark sought help from other parts of the administration. The N.S.A. not only backed the effort but concluded that the project was so promising that it justified a direct N.S.A. investment, set for around $30 million—a decision that could not have been made without approval by the highest levels of the agency.
Bentham and Bayat tried to get around the trade ban in yet another way—by setting up a secret diplomatic back channel between the administration and the Taliban, with the aim of getting sanctions lifted in return for the expulsion of bin Laden from Afghanistan. Their chosen point man was David Walters, a former Democratic governor of Oklahoma, who knew Clinton’s national-security adviser, Sandy Berger. On July 27 they used new international landlines the project had built to set up a conference call between Walters and Muttawakil, with Bayat serving as translator. Walters later wrote to Berger, “It was clear from his comments that they want bin Laden out of their hair and that most of their ministers believe that bin Laden is the major factor holding back the reconstruction of their country.” The Taliban were, he added, frustrated at the lack of any high-level communication with U.S. officials, and it seemed that the lifting of sanctions would not be a precondition for talks: “If someone wants to put some of the big items on the table related to financial support, recognition etc, then it sounds like they will figure out a way to fade the heat from their radical constituents and turn bin Laden over or at least expel him from their country They are willing to discuss all options.”
Was this offer by the Taliban genuine? It appears that Berger was unwilling to find out. In his brief reply to Walters, on August 18, he wrote: “Until bin Ladin [ sic ] is expelled from Afghanistan and extradited to the United States or another country where he can be tried for his crimes [the U.S.] will not be able to begin to normalize its relations with the Taliban.”
As a U.S. citizen, Bayat should have withdrawn from the project while U.S. sanctions were in effect. But as the N.S.A. and F.B.I. were well aware, such a step would have likely ensured its demise. With the help of a business contact in Switzerland, Bentham and Cecil came up with an ingenious alternative. According to court documents, Bayat’s U.S. company, T.S.I., would transfer ownership of Afghan Wireless and its exclusive license to a company they set up in Liechtenstein. The new company would eventually be called Netmobile. Bayat would be technically breaking American law, but provided that he and his colleagues did not try to use American equipment, the building of a cell-phone network could proceed. On December 28, 1999, Stuart and Margaret Bentham flew from London to Newark. There, in the downtown office tower that served as the bureau’s New Jersey field office, Stuart met Bayat, his F.B.I. handlers, their supervisors in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and officials from the C.I.A. and the N.S.A.
According to contemporary documents made available to me, Bentham was briefed on the N.S.A.’s continuing interest in Operation Foxden and was told that the agency was seeking ways of evading the legal issues raised by U.S. sanctions. He was also told that the F.B.I. had been given a “window of opportunity” to get the network operational, and that it would “coordinate” the operation with the rest of the U.S. government.
The documents also indicate that both Bentham and Cecil attended another meeting in Newark two weeks later, on January 11, 2000. This time, a senior N.S.A. official was also present. He disclosed that the project had “director-level approval,” and that the N.S.A. was willing to provide not only money but technical support, as well as help in getting a sanctions waiver and licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. If necessary, it would even supply cover stories and fake ID papers for Afghan Wireless personnel. Bentham and Cecil explained the Liechtenstein plan but said they would much prefer to work through the original American company, because the Taliban had stated a clear preference for American equipment. It was, the businessmen emphasized, time to get things moving. In the few months since U.S. trade and investment sanctions had been declared, the Taliban had received cell-phone bids from companies in 31 different countries, including Iran, China, South Korea, and Pakistan.
The prize seemed worth seizing. At the January 11 meeting, Cecil outlined more of the deal’s details: not only would the new phone company be the sole cell and landline provider in Afghanistan, it would also control the “gateways” out of the country—all voice and data traffic, including that carried by satellite phones and the Internet. It was believed that these gateways were already being employed by bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and their associates, as well as by Afghanistan’s drug barons. Some of those sat phones—perhaps including the very ones used by bin Laden and Omar when they discussed the opium-cultivation ban—had been brought to Afghanistan by Bayat himself, who was in the habit of giving them to senior Taliban officials as gifts. All in all, as one N.S.A. official commented at the time, this was “an excellent opportunity to compromise Afghanistan’s anticipated telecommunications system.”
And it could have been done very quickly. “The digital G.S.M. cell-phone service could have been up and running within four months, certainly no more,” Alex Grinling says. In hindsight, it is surprising that the telephone scheme was able to reach such an advanced stage before the C.I.A. finally became interested. The C.I.A. is supposed to be the main American foreign-intelligence-gathering agency. That the F.B.I. was involved with the cell-phone project at all had been something of a fluke, a product of a personal relationship between Bayat and two agents. “The F.B.I. doesn’t build networks overseas—it’s as simple as that,” says the former C.I.A. official I spoke with. Once it got wind of the plan, he says, the agency was bound to want to be involved.
The C.I.A. had been asking questions in Washington since sometime the previous fall, but it saved its intervention until the day after the January 11 meeting in Newark. Bayat had been due to fly to Afghanistan the following weekend. He would have carried a letter which the N.S.A. had been able to obtain from the U.S. Department of Commerce. It promised the Taliban that an official sanctions waiver was again “under consideration.” But on January 12 an order came down to Newark from F.B.I. headquarters in Washington: Bayat should postpone his visit. Everything was on hold. There could be no further progress until the end of an exhaustive “interagency review.” One of the principal questions to be resolved was whether control of the operation should pass to the C.I.A.
As the review got under way, Bentham and Cecil were invited to yet another meeting in Newark, according to Margaret Bentham. When they landed, Margaret Bentham says, they received word that they were not to attend the meeting after all. Bentham and Cecil had been briefing the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office about their activities from the very start, and upon their return to London they were summoned to Whitehall by an official from M.I.6. “They were told they could have nothing more to do with the F.B.I. and N.S.A.—pending the U.S. review—until further notice,” Margaret Bentham says. Her surmise is that M.I.6 had been talking to the C.I.A. For the next 13 months, until February 2001, the interagency review ground on, with a series of fractious meetings involving the F.B.I. and N.S.A. at C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley, Virginia. Officials who were knowledgeable at the time say that the “counterterrorism czar” at the White House, Richard Clarke, became personally involved, but neither he nor anyone else seemed able to resolve the impasse. (Clarke declined to be interviewed for this article.) The divisions were not just between agencies; some turf wars were internal as well. Thus, while the C.I.A. was seeking overall control of the operation, there was also an inside fight over which of its sections—the Near East Division or the Counterterrorism Center—should take it over.
In Afghanistan, Grinling was finding the situation hard to manage: “There I was in bloody Kabul, wondering where the hell the cell-phone equipment was, fending off inquiries from the Taliban communications minister. But I couldn’t give him answers. It was a nightmare.” Having transferred T.S.I.’s interest in Afghan Wireless to the Liechtenstein-based company Netmobile, Bayat, Cecil, and Bentham tried to find cell-phone-equipment suppliers who might be prepared to do business with them. But U.N. sanctions had recently been added to the U.S. export ban, and the task proved impossible.
The U.S. interagency review was finally concluded in February 2001. According to Margaret Bentham, Bentham and Cecil were invited to a meeting at F.B.I. headquarters, where a top bureau official described Bayat as a “loose cannon” and explained that it might be more suitable if he were handled from now on by the C.I.A. Indeed, the decision had already been made. The F.B.I. agents in Newark were ordered to have no further contact with Bayat and to “close” him as a confidential informant. And yet still nothing happened. It was not until August 2001, Margaret says, that Cecil and Bentham came back to the U.S. and met with C.I.A. agents known as “Jeff” and “Fred” at a Newark, New Jersey, Sheraton. They were also informed by M.I.6 that they now had official British clearance to work with the Americans. Twenty months after it had been derailed, the project was back on track. A few weeks later, the two businessmen attended another meeting in New Jersey, where they joined U.S. technical experts and intelligence officers and began laying plans for the network’s exact specifications. This meeting took place on September 8, three days before 9/11.
The Afghan cell-phone network was eventually built, along the lines that had been planned—it just didn’t happen until after the terrorist attacks. As envisaged for the pre-9/11 version, it came complete with electronic back doors, enabling the N.S.A. to monitor traffic in Afghanistan closely. According to a Swiss source who was aware of the transaction and had a financial interest, the C.I.A. made a direct investment of more than $70 million, which it transferred via a front company based in the British Virgin Islands. By the end of the summer of 2002, all of Afghanistan’s major towns had been connected and the service was spreading into the countryside. But as the year wore on, Bayat’s relationship with his partners was breaking down. At the C.I.A.’s behest, international traffic was no longer routed through London but through an entity controlled by the U.S. government on the Pacific island of Guam. Behind the scenes, in Langley, the former C.I.A. official says, the agency simply wanted to rid itself of British involvement: “We wanted to force them and M.I.6 out, because there was a question of control.” The burgeoning cell-phone monopoly had also become a license to print money. (With about four million subscribers, Afghan Wireless is today thought to be worth about $1 billion.) From August of 2002, Bayat made attempts to buy Cecil and Bentham out, but they regarded his offers as derisory. In the meantime, they were later to claim in court filings, he was effectively stealing the company out from under them. When the dispute ended up in federal district court in Manhattan in 2003, the U.S. government invoked the State Secrets Privilege. Bentham, Cecil, and Grinling tried to press the case in London but saw their suit dismissed on technicalities. An appeal to the British Supreme Court is pending.
Why did the U.S. government shut down the case and put the records under seal? One explanation is simple embarrassment. American intelligence could have reaped an intelligence bonanza two years before 9/11—and failed to do so because of its own ineptitude. “We always knew that this project could have been enormously valuable in gathering intelligence about al-Qaeda,” says one former U.S. counterterrorism official. “No one could foresee 9/11, but when 9/11 took place, the first thing that struck me and my colleagues was that this could have prevented it. Afghan Wireless would have been the only network in Afghanistan, and that is what the terrorists would have used.”
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
August 26, 2011
David Rose’s article “9/11: The Tapping Point” (September) contains false accusations regarding me and the firms I founded, Telephone Systems International, Inc. (TSI), and Afghan Wireless Communication Company (AWCC), and regarding the events described in the article that occurred more than 13 years ago in Afghanistan. Neither I nor TSI or AWCC has ever been an agent, informant, or spy. To the contrary, my application for an exemption from U.S. sanctions was denied by the U.S. government. I have never violated U.S. sanctions against al-Qaeda or the Taliban. I did not, as the article wrongly states, engage in any act “technically breaking American law.” Nor did I, as the article suggests, “perhaps” provide satellite telephones to or for the use of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar, or, indeed, to any other members of al-Qaeda. AWCC’s network does not contain any “electronic back doors,” as falsely stated in the article.
The article fails to disclose that several of the author’s sources and their companies or business associates have litigated unsuccessfully against me for more than nine years until I recently defeated them. It was TSI and AWCC that initiated the legal dispute when they sued Stuart Bentham and Michael Cecil or their companies in 2002, seeking to recover money we claimed had been fraudulently misappropriated from AWCC or TSI. Following years of legal proceedings in New York and London, TSI and I recently secured a victory in the English courts against Bentham and Cecil as well as Alexander Grinling (who, along with Bentham’s wife, are principal sources quoted frequently in the article) and a Swiss national, Joakim Lehmkuhl (a principal in the Swiss company Octogone), leaving them with nothing on their claims. Three of these people have had no involvement with AWCC and TSI for a decade. Their recent lost case against me in London provides context for the fictions about me contained in the article. These misstatements risk the lives of thousands of individuals working hard to build a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.
Chairman of the Board, AWCC