"The Asset" and the Iran-al Qaida connection

Published July 22, 2004 8:17PM (EDT)

"There is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers," the 9/11 commission found, although the report also says Iran probably wasn't aware of the specific plot.

Today's Chicago Tribune examines the connections between Iran and al Qaeda before 9/11, exposing a web of contacts and understandings between the fundamentalist regime in Tehran and the terror network. It's the kind of connection President Bush thought he had before he invaded Iraq. Indeed, some pre-9/11 intelligence on Osama bin Laden's plans came from Iranian sources, including "the Asset," an Iranian ex-patriot cooperating with the FBI. From the article:

"Law enforcement officials who have reviewed the April 2001 interview and at least one follow-up conversation insist that the informant's information, by itself, could not have led the bureau to the Sept. 11 plotters.

"But the real significance of that information, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the case, may lie in its source: a former member of the Iranian intelligence service now living in the U.S. and known to his FBI handlers as 'the Asset.'

"'His "subsource" was somebody back home' in Iran, said the law enforcement official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. In the wake of Sept. 11, the official said, it appeared that 'somebody in Iran had some knowledge of something' related to Sept. 11.

"Although the Asset has lived in the U.S. 25 years and speaks some English, the FBI has had trouble understanding him in the past. To guard against any misunderstanding, the two FBI agents assigned to interview him in April 2001 brought along an FBI translator fluent in his native language, Farsi.

"The interview followed the standard FBI format. The agents posed their questions in English, which were then translated into Farsi. The Asset's replies were translated back into English as the agents took notes.

"According to the law enforcement official, 'there was talk about terrorists and planes,' but no mention of when or where the attacks might take place.

"It was the FBI agents' impression, the official said, that the target of the attacks could be 'possibly here, but more probably overseas.' The Asset also reported having heard a rumor that a plane would be hijacked to Afghanistan, the official said.

"The FBI's translator, a former Iranian police colonel named Behrooz Sarshar, does not recall any mention of a hijacking to Afghanistan. But Sarshar, then a career FBI employee assigned to the translation section of the bureau's Washington field office, does remember the Asset saying the attacks might take place in the U.S. or Europe, and also that the terrorist-pilots were 'under training.'"

By Stephen W. Stromberg

Stephen W. Stromberg is a former editorial fellow at Salon.

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