A real-life Third Man mystery from the Washington Post, with thanks to Mrs. Obelix:
The FBI has never found the individual who allegedly asked two Yemenis to take photos of federal buildings in downtown New York in May 2001, an episode that was mentioned in an intelligence report given President Bush little more than a month before the attacks on the World Trade Center, according to government officials.
The two Yemenis were questioned on May 30, 2001, by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, and their camera was confiscated after guards saw them taking photos of 26 Federal Plaza and surrounding buildings, including one that housed the FBI’s counterterrorism unit in New York.
Federal officials developed the film and found the images showed the plaza and surrounding buildings, plus the street. When FBI agents subsequently questioned the two men, they said they took the photos for a friend in Indianapolis who had never visited New York. The FBI has never located the Yemeni friend, who was in the United States under an assumed name with false documents.
Federal officials at the time were on alert because one day earlier, in one of the courthouses photographed, six men had been found guilty on a number of counts in connection with the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, an attack linked to al Qaeda. A terrorist alert had been put out that day by the State Department, although the government said at the time it was not aware of any specific threat in response to the verdicts.
The President’s Daily Brief (PDB) for Aug. 6, 2001, the highly classified intelligence report prepared by CIA for President Bush and top officials, contained a short section titled, “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” Along with some past material about previous threats by the al Qaeda leader, the report referred to the FBI investigating “suspicious activity in this country consistent with the preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.”
At the time of the public release of the briefing document last month, a White House fact sheet said the FBI had “interviewed the men and determined that their conduct was consistent with tourist activity and the FBI’s investigation identified no link to terrorism.”
Neither the fact sheet nor two White House officials who briefed reporters April 9 mentioned that a third Yemeni was involved.
Within a few weeks of the May 30, 2001, incident, the FBI concluded that the two Yemeni men had no connection to terrorists and appeared to be taking tourist photos, according to a senior FBI official, who declined to be identified because he was discussing an ongoing investigation.
But the official also acknowledged that the third man, who had been working in the Indianapolis area under the assumed name Mohammed Hassan Abadi, has never been located or interviewed. The FBI does not know the man’s real name, but it does have a photograph of him and has found no links between his assumed name or photograph and terrorist groups or individuals, the official said.