The 9/11 Commission's Unfinished Business: What Did Iran Know?

A new lawsuit raises the possibility of Tehran's complicity in al Qaeda's infamous attacks. Philip Shenon reports fresh details on who will testify—and the mysteries they could unlock.

Chao Soi Cheong / AP Photo; Inset: Vahid Salemi / AP Photo

With the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looming, a federal lawsuit in Manhattan offers the possibility of resolving a central mystery about the attacks: Was Iran involved?

Former investigators on the 9/11 Commission, which uncovered tantalizing but inconclusive evidence of Tehran's ties to the plot, tell The Daily Beast they welcome the lawsuit, because they believe the U.S. government has done little to follow up on the commission's evidence of Iranian complicity.

The lawsuit, they say, may offer the best hope of getting to the truth about whether Iranian government officials had advance knowledge of the plot and worked with al Qaeda to make it easier for several of the hijackers to travel undetected in the year before the attacks.

The suit, brought in the United States District Court in Manhattan on behalf of the families of dozens of 9/11 victims, is promising testimony from three Iranian defectors, all of them identified as former members of Iran's central spy agency, who will implicate Iran and its terrorist proxies in Lebanon in the Sept. 11 attacks.

In court papers filed last week that outlined their testimony, the defectors were not identified by name out of concern for their safety, said Thomas Mellon, a Pennsylvania lawyer and former federal prosecutor who is representing the families.

“I am convinced that our evidence is absolutely real—that Iran was a participant in the preparations for 9/11,” says former prosecutor Thomas Mellon.

"But I can tell you that we have vetted and cross-vetted and examined and cross-examined all three, and they corroborate each other independently," Mellon said of the defectors, identified in the court papers as "Witness X," "Witness Y" and "Witness Z." "I am convinced that our evidence is absolutely real—that Iran was a participant in the preparations for 9/11."

He said he was hopeful that the three would allow their names to be made public eventually. (Spokesmen for the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York did not return calls for comment from The Daily Beast.)

The court papers also include sworn statements from staff members of the 9/11 Commission, including Dietrich Snell, a former top terrorism prosecutor at the Justice Department, who says in his affidavit that "there is clear and convincing evidence the government of Iran provided material support to al Qaeda in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attack." He said the support came in the form of "facilitating the travel of members of the 9/11 conspiracy to and from Afghanistan and Pakistan, in which countries, in my opinion and as found by the 9/11 Commission, the plot was hatched and developed."

Another former commission staff member, speaking to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity since he still works for the government, said the lawsuit was "a relief for a lot [of people] who believe that the commission never properly grappled with the question of what Iran knew in advance about 9/11—the whole issue of Iran came up so late that we couldn't grapple with it."

The 9/11 Commission deserves some of the blame for the unanswered questions about Iran, since it failed to delve into the files of the National Security Agency, where the Iran intelligence was waiting to be discovered, until the final stages of the commission's inquiry.

In its final report in 2004, the commission drew on the last-minute discovery of the NSA files to reveal that the Iranian government had apparently provided important logistical support to al Qaeda—and specifically, to some of the 9/11 hijackers—in the year before the attack.

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The report said the commission had uncovered evidence that as many as 10 of the 14 Saudi terrorists who were aboard the hijacked planes had traveled in and out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001 and that Iranian border agent had been told not to place "telltale stamps" in the terrorists' passports, easing their travels.

There was also circumstantial evidence to show that senior officials of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization in Lebanon, were "closely tracking the travel" of a number of the hijackers in and out of Iran in 2000, the report said.

The commission said that while "we have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack," the U.S. government needed to continue to investigate the issue.

The possibility of Iranian involvement in the attacks was a surprise to many foreign policy specialists at the time of the report, given the Bush administration's fixation on the possibility that another country—Saddam Hussein's Iraq—was tied to the 9/11 plot, a connection that was mostly rejected by the 9/11 Commission.

The commission uncovered the intelligence about Iran only in the final weeks of its investigation in 2004 when the commission began—belatedly—to explore in depth what was held in the files of the National Security Agency, the government's eavesdropping agency.

In what many commission officials now acknowledge was a grievous oversight, the panel largely ignored the NSA's files, the source of most of the government's raw information on terrorist threats, for most of the first year of the commission's inquiry.

The discovery of the intelligence on Iran led to a frantic effort to rewrite portions of the commission's final report, only days ahead of its publication, to force in the material about possible Iranian ties to the hijacking plot.

"It was a mess," the former commission investigator said. "I think it was the commission's biggest mistake. We almost missed the Iran evidence entirely."

He said that there was no serious discussion on the commission of extending the investigation to continue digging on the Iran question. "There was exhaustion," he said. "The commissioners wanted the report out. No more delays."

Former commission staffers say that much of the rest of the NSA's pre-9/11 terrorism database remains unreviewed to this day, suggesting that many of the other secrets of 9/11 may remain hidden in the agency's files.

Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter based in Washington D.C. Almost all of his career was spent at The New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1981 until 2008. He is the bestselling author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from The Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.