Washington Dropped the Ball on a Secret Afghan Wireless Communications Company that Might Have Prevented 9/11

Vanity Fair
Illustration by Barry Blitt.
Vanity Fair contributing editor David Rose reveals for the first time that in 1999 the Taliban had granted license to an American company, Afghan Wireless Communications, to construct a cell-phone, and, Internet system in Afghanistan. Had the secret deal, named Operation Foxden, been completed, the U.S. would have had complete access to al-Qaeda and Taliban calls and e-mails in a matter of months. “The capability we would have had would have been very good,” a former N.S.A. official tells Rose. “Had this network been built with the technology that existed in 2000, it would have been a priceless intelligence asset.” But, as Rose reports, “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.” This “was one tool we could have put in Afghanistan that could have made a difference,” says a former C.I.A. official. “Why didn’t we put it in? Because we couldn’t fucking agree.”

 According to Rose, Ehsan Bayat, an Afghan-American telecommunications entrepreneur, who was also a counterterrorism source working for the F.B.I., had built close relationships with senior Taliban officials, including foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. Bayat was in the
habit of giving his Taliban friends satellite phones as gifts—phones that Rose believes may even have been used by Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Through his connections, and with the aide of British partners, Bayat brokered a deal to set up a company called Afghan Wireless. The Afghan Ministry of Communications would hold 20 percent of the company and Bayat would retain the majority share. According to details of the deal outlined in Vanity Fair, “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.”Bayat did not respond to Rose’s request for comment. His former British partners, Stuart Bentham and Lord Michael Cecil, are bound by a gag order stemming from a 2003 suit they filed against him that was stopped and sealed under the State Secrets Privilege. “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,” Rose asserts. Bentham’s wife Margaret, who was present at meetings with Bayat in Britain and America, was a source for his reporting. “We always thought that this was how they would catch the terrorists,” she tells Rose about Afghan Wireless. “It wasn’t just about making money. We believed we were doing the right thing.”

“Even as Bayat negotiated a license with the Taliban, the F.B.I. agents put out feelers to the N.S.A,” Rose reports. “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.” By May of 1999, the equipment was on the ground in Kabul; in June “the Taliban signed a contract guaranteeing Afghan Wireless a monopoly on ‘all aspects’ of cell-phone traffic in Afghanistan for 15 years,” Rose reports. “The Taliban really wanted telephones. They knew they couldn’t do business without them,” says Alex Grinling, who had been the in-country manager for Afghan Wireless.  

Operation Foxden hit a major roadblock in July 1999 when President Clinton signed an executive order preventing U.S. citizens from doing business with the Taliban. Bayat, with the F.B.I. backing him, sought an exemption but was refused. He urged his Taliban contacts to pursue alternatives. “They wanted to work with him alone, and urged him to do whatever it took to make this possible,” Rose reports. The N.S.A. didn’t give up either. According to Rose, the agency “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.” Bayat tried to get around the ban by transferring ownership of Afghan Wireless to a company he and his partners set up in Liechtenstein. “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,” Rose reports. “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 final blow for Operation Foxden came in January 2000 when the C.I.A. intervened. “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,” Rose reports. “Richard Clarke, became personally involved, but neither he nor anyone else seemed able to resolve the impasse. The divisions were not just between agencies; some turf wars were internal as well,” Rose writes. “Thus, while the C.I.A. was seeking overall control of the operation, there was also an inside fight over which of its sections should take it over.” A former C.I.A. officer tells Rose that the agency did not want British involvement with the project. “We wanted to force them and M.I.6 out, because there was a question of control,” he says. Margaret Bentham recalls that once the C.I.A. got involved, the British partners were turned away from meetings. “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,” she says.

“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, ” says Grinling. A cell-phone network much like the one envisioned in Operation Foxden was eventually built, but not until after 9/11. According to Rose, “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.”

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1 comment:

  1. Cool blog. Hope to see more about Afghan women.