WASHINGTON, D.C.—When the 9-11 Commission convenes its two-day public hearing at the New School in Manhattan on May 18, it will be under pressure from the survivor families to find out why the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force was napping when a so-called tourist from the Middle East with a phony passport, phony visa, and non-existent address was breezing around Lower Manhattan, taking pics of cop posts, security cameras, and federal buildings. A federal property police officer got suspicious and detained the man, but the FBI let him go after determining—wrongly, as it turned out—that he was on the up and up.
The by-now-legendary President’s Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, apparently refers to this incident, and it reportedly was discussed during that summer in the anti-terrorism law enforcement community on a hush-hush basis. The daily brief, which has been fobbed off as a mostly “historical” document, states in the next to last paragraph: “Nevertheless, FBI information since  indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.”
But there was nothing hush-hush about it. The New York Post ran a story—”Feds Let Terror Spy Wriggle Free: Suspect Was Photographing Security Operations Around Town”—about the incident more than two months before 9-11. (You can see the Post‘s July 1, 2001 story here.)
“The security lapse took place early last month,” the Post story by Al Guart said, referring to June 2001, “shortly after four henchmen of exiled Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden were convicted in Manhattan federal court for the bloody August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.”
And Guart’s story added, “It also came amid reports that bin Laden was planning a new major offensive against the United States.”
The story goes like this: The Federal Protective Service, which guards federal property, spotted a man with Middle Eastern features taking photos of a federal building in lower Manhattan. They brought him into 26 Federal Plaza for questioning. Federal agents confiscated his film, Xeroxed his visa and passport, and wrote down his address, then took him to an immigration agent to check his status. (“Immigration officials said they could find no record of the incident,” according to the Post). Next, the man was taken to an FBI agent-not a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The agent interviewed him, but released him after concluding there was no legal reason to hold on to him.
But when the confiscated film was developed a few days later, “the feds panicked,” the Post reported, attributing that to “sources.” The pics were of security cameras, police posts, security checkpoints, and exits and entrances at the new and old Manhattan federal courthouses, 26 Federal Plaza, and the federal building at 290 Broadway. Finally the feds checked out the man’s ID and discovered both his passport and visa were phony and his address didn’t exist.
As a result, one source told the Post at the time, “The threat level is through the roof.”
The Joint Terrorism Task Force falls under the city’s Counter Terrorism Bureau and has helped out with investigations involving the first Gulf War, TWA Flight 800, the African embassy attacks, and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The question is: With warnings of an imminent attack pouring in to the FBI and CIA during the first half of 2001, and feds in New York getting set for some sort of action, where was this joint task force?
Additional reporting: Phoebe St John
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 13, 2004