Infighting between US intelligence agencies delayed a secret plan to tap every phone in Afghanistan that could have helped prevent the September 11 attacks, a senior Conservative MP has claimed.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening, David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, said the American government then attempted to cover up its embarrassment by shutting down a series of court cases, including one in London, that arose from the intelligence operation.
Davis was using the case to provide a warning against proposals by the British government to bring in similar powers in courts that would suppress any embarrassing intelligence failures.
He told MPs that in 1998, the Taliban decided Afghanistan needed a new phone network. As no domestic companies had the necessary expertise, they invited foreign companies to bid for the rights to build the network. The company they chose was called Telephone Systems International.
Based in New Jersey, TSI was owned by one Ehsanollah Bayat, a Kabul-born American citizen - who unknown to the Taliban was also an FBI informer.
TSI was awarded the exclusive licence to build and operate Afghanistan’s new telephone network, including domestic, international, mobile and landline calls.
Davis said that while Bayat had the money he did not have the expertise, so enlisted two Britons, Stuart Bentham, a former officer in the Corps of Royal Engineers and Lord Michael Cecil.
Bentham and Cecil agreed to take on the job in exchange for shares in TSI, amounting to about 30% of the company.
"With their man now in charge of Afghan telecoms, the FBI saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gather intelligence on the Taliban and, of course, al-Qaeda," Davis said.
"The plan was simple: the Taliban wanted American equipment for their new phone network, so the FBI and NSA - the National Security Agency - would build extra circuits into all the equipment before it was flown out to Afghanistan for use. "
The MP for Haltemprice and Howden told the Commons that this would allow the FBI to record or listen live to every single landline and mobile phone call in Afghanistan.
"The FBI would know the time the call was made and its duration, the caller’s name, the number dialled, and even the caller’s PIN.
"The FBI would also be able to monitor the telephone gateways channelling international calls in and out of the country - gateways already being used by Bin Laden, Mullah Omar and their associates, thanks to the satellite phones given by Mr Bayat to Taliban Ministers as gifts."
This secret operation to tap every single phone in Afghanistan, begun in 1999, was known as Operation Foxden.
However the project was delayed when on July 4 1999, president Bill Clinton imposed a trade embargo on Afghanistan. It was not until January 2000 that Bayat and his partners were able to find their way around the sanctions.
According to Davis the project then suffered another crippling 20-month delay after the CIA had become aware of the project and decided they, not the FBI, should be in charge, triggering a turf-war.
"Instead of getting the Afghan phone network built and starting to eavesdrop on Taliban leaders and al-Qaeda leaders, officials from the FBI and CIA spent more than a year and a half fighting over who should be in charge," Davis said.
"When it was decided that the FBI should hand control of the project to the CIA, the CIA’s near east division and counter-terrorism centre then proceeded to bicker among themselves over which of the subsets of the CIA should run the operation."
Eventually, Davis said, the bickering came to an end and the project got underway.
"Within days, and with MI6’s blessing, Bayat’s British advisers, Bentham and Cecil, met CIA officials and technical experts at the Sheraton hotel. New Jersey.
"There they discussed future plans, Afghan satellite capacity and the possibility of more American funding. The project seemed to be back on track, but it was too little, too late.
"The Sheraton meeting, held in a room overlooking the World Trade Centre, took place on 8 September 2001. Three days later, while Bentham and Cecil were travelling by taxi from Heathrow to Matrix Chambers to get advice on the legality of their operation from Ken Macdonald QC, they heard on the radio the terrible news of the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre."
But Davis said the story didn't end there.
He said that following September 11 Bayat refused to give his two British partners all of the money they believed they were owed for the work that had been done and the case went to court.
"The US intelligence agencies feared the consequences if the truth about their in-fighting emerged and they were determined to stop that truth from emerging," Davis said.
"In November 2003, a year after litigation began, the American judge suddenly sealed the case, shutting it down without warning, citing the state secrets privilege. All records of the case were expunged, and vanished from the court’s public database."
Davis said that the two Britons then took their case to a London court. However, he said, "so long is the reach of the American state secrets privilege that Bentham and Cecil were banned from discussing in the English High Court key facts and details of the American litigation".
"Through heavy-handed use of the state secrets privilege, US agencies can dictate what British judges in British courts are entitled to know and how much British citizens in British courts are entitled to say," he said.
Davis, who quit his post in David Cameron's front bench team in order to fight a campaign against the introduction of ID cards, told MPs that the case of Bayat, Bentham and Cecil highlighted the need to protect the "proper operation of the justice system" in the UK.
Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne said the government was "extremely mindful" of the need to protect essential liberties.
"The government are committed to safeguarding national security. Drawing on our society’s fundamental values, we are also pledged to protect the liberties and way of life of our citizens. Those aims—protecting our national security and liberty and way of life of our citizens—need not be in conflict," he said.
Suggested For You
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more