WTC ’93 Bombing: Did the FBI let it happen and then cover it up?
On February 26, 1993 a truck bomb exploded in the underground parking garage below the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City killing 6 Americans and injuring over a thousand more. To this day questions remain around the FBI’s role in both allowing the attack to happen and in tampering with evidence after the attack. Soon after the bombing, it was revealed that the FBI had an informant among the terrorist network responsible for the ’93 bombing. Taped recordings provided by that informant suggest the FBI was in a position to prevent the attack. Two years later, in 1995 a top level FBI lab supervisor and explosives expert, Frederic Whitehurst, blew the whistle on biased pro-prosecution practices at a FBI lab. That lab was involved in processing evidence for major cases including the ’93 WTC bombing. Thus, further darkening the FBI’s murky shadow over the 1993 bombing.
In October of 1993 the New York Times wrote an article, “Tapes Depict Proposal to Thwart Bomb Used in Trade Center Blast.” In that article the Times reported:
“Law-enforcement officials were told that terrorists were building a bomb that was eventually used to blow up the World Trade Center, and they planned to thwart the plotters by secretly substituting harmless powder for the explosives, an informer said after the blast. The informer was to have helped the plotters build the bomb and supply the fake powder, but the plan was called off by an F.B.I. supervisor who had other ideas about how the informer, Emad A. Salem, should be used, the informer said.”
Salem, a former Egyptian military officer, was recruited by the FBI to infiltrate an extremist Muslim group in the New York area which ultimately bombed the WTC in 1993. Salem started secretly taping his conversations with the FBI after the bombing took place, apparently due to his frustrations with the FBI’s failure to prevent the bombing. It’s these taped recording that suggest the FBI had significant prior knowledge of the WTC bombing and was in a position to prevent it. Although exactly what the FBI knew and when is hard to tell. In the tapes, FBI agents, while talking to Salem, seem to blame their failure to prevent the bombing on bureau incompetence and mismanagement.
Transcripts of the tapes show many conversations between Salem and FBI agent, John Anticev. In one conversation Salem says to Anticev,
“we was start already building the bomb which went off in the World Trade Center. It was built by supervision from the Bureau and the D.A. We was all informed about it and we knew that the bomb started to be built. By who? By your confidential informant. What a wonderful great case.”
In other conversations Salem repeatedly expresses remorse over the bombing and laments over the FBI’s poor handling of the case. The New York Times reported:
“Do you deny your supervisor is the main reason of bombing the World Trade Center?” Mr. Salem said Mr. Anticev did not deny it. “We was handling the case perfectly well until the supervisor came and messed it up, upside down.”
As the NY Times also reported, another agent, Nancy Floyd, says to Salem, “hey, I mean it wasn’t like you didn’t try and I didn’t try.” In an apparent reference to Mr. Salem’s complaints about the supervisor, Agent Floyd adds, “You can’t force people to do the right thing.”
The tapes provide many more instances where Salem claims the FBI knew about the bombing and could have prevented it but blames an unnamed supervisor for not preventing the attack. In some instances Salem says an FBI agent dissuades him from informing the FBI’s DC office about NYC’s activities, because the NYC office would not like that. Salem went on to be a key witness in the trial against the men convicted for the ’93 bombing. The defense in the WTC bombing case claimed Salem’s tapes showed evidence of FBI entrapment. At the very least the tapes paint the FBI as being severely negligent in their handling of the WTC terrorist network.
The handling of the evidence in the WTC bombing would also come into question thanks to FBI whistle-blower and explosives expert, Frederic Whitehurst. Whitehurst was also a FBI lab supervisor. Thanks to declassified performance reports we know that the FBI thought extremely highly of Whitehurst and considered him to have scientific knowledge in the area of explosives residues unequaled in any other laboratory. However, Whitehurst would become a thorn in the FBI’s side. In the 1995 WTC bombing case, Whitehurst testified in court that he was instructed by his superiors to ignore findings that did not support the prosecution’s theory of the bombing. He stated, “There was a great deal of pressure put upon me to bias my interpretation.”
Whitehurst’s testimony additionally questioned the prosecution’s theory that urea nitrate was used as the explosive in the bombing. Whitehurst testified it was an ingredient rarely used and not one that the FBI was familiar with identifying in a lab. The prosecution claimed traces of urea nitrate were found in possession of a man who rented a van which, the prosecution believed, transported the WTC bomb. Oddly, despite the high profile nature of the bombing, the man, Mohammad Salameh, who rented the van returned to the rental center twice to ask for his deposit back. He returned once before the bombing and once after to report his van was stolen and to ask for the deposit. At the request of the rental center he even filed a police report. However, shortly after the bombing the police traced a VIN number found in the debris to Salameh’s rental van. The police then lured him back to the rental center a third time and on that third occasion he brought with him his rental paperwork, which the prosecution alleges contained traces of urea nitrate. Whitehurst’s testimony challenged this story by both suggesting urea nitrate was not a likely ingredient to be used in a bomb and by testifying to the FBI’s biased laboratory practices.
Whitehurst’s 1995 testimony ultimately prompted a Department of Justice investigation. The investigation resulted in what the what the Washington Post called a scathing 517 page report on FBI misconduct. The Post reported:
“The chief of the lab’s explosives unit, for example, ‘repeatedly reached conclusions that incriminated the defendants without a scientific basis’ in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Bromwich wrote. The head of toxicology lacked judgment and credibility and overstated results in the 1994 Simpson investigation. After the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the key FBI witness ‘worked backward,’ tailoring his testimony to reach the result he wanted. Other agents “spruced up” notes for trial, altered reports without the author’s permission or failed to document or confirm their findings.”
The consequences of Whitehurst’s whistle-blowing went far beyond just the WTC case. For much of his 10 year career as lab supervisor he filed complaints about the FBI’s laboratory practices. In 2004, he testified that a FBI forensic scientist he had trained lied under oath in the OKC bombing case. Whitehurst ultimately won a $1.1 million settlement from the FBI, although the FBI never admitted guilt or negligence. Today Whitehurst is credited with shaking up the FBI lab and forcing major changes and improved lab processes.
So is the FBI responsible for the WTC bombing in 1993? To some extent, yes. The FBI had an informant perfectly planted in the terrorist network that carried out the bombing. That informant was funneling information to the FBI that a bombing was in the works and that informant knew who was involved. Yet, the FBI either negligently dropped the ball in their surveillance of the terrorist network or purposefully dropped the ball, perhaps in hopes of gathering more evidence or bigger fish. Also, worth noting is that for two years prior to the WTC bombing 47 boxes sat unopened in FBI possession; boxes which had detailed plans for terrorist attacks on NYC landmarks. Reportedly the boxes were unopened because the NYC FBI office didn’t have anyone who could read Arabic. The FBI’s handling of the 1993 WTC bombing brings up memories of another FBI whistle-blower, Coleen Rowley. Rowley revealed how the DC FBI office blocked her Minneapolis office from further investigating one of the men who was later convicted and is serving multiple life sentences for his role in 9/11. In both cases the FBI appeared to turn their backs on clear leads to terror plots. Perhaps, the FBI is playing an entrapment game and losing. Perhaps, the FBI is over-worked and marred by too much bureaucracy. Or perhaps the answer lies in the warning Rowley gave in 2003. Rowley warned that the FBI will not be able to “stem the flood of terrorism that will likely head our way in the wake of an attack on Iraq.”