Intelligence lapses take 9-11 blame

Friday, July 25, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Failure to share intelligence on two future Sept. 11 hijackers destroyed perhaps the best chance to stop the attacks, says the final report of a congressional inquiry that details a maddening government chain of actions not taken, information not shared and help not given.

The 850-page report, released Thursday, shows that wide-ranging parts of the nation's intelligence and law enforcement apparatus detected threads that were only later connected to the hijacking plot. Tips not shared with the San Diego FBI were key.

Taken together, the details show a pre-Sept. 11 federal government that handled terrorism information poorly and was unable to mount defenses against potential al-Qaida strikes inside the United States, according to congressional officials who put together the report.

CIA and FBI officials say they have already addressed many of the deficiencies, particularly in targeting al-Qaida and communicating with one another.

Nowhere did the government possess the long-sought "smoking gun" -- specific information that told officials where, when and how the attacks would come, the report concludes.

But it had enough pieces to begin to unravel the plot, had it put them all together.

The key clues focused on two young Saudi hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who perished as they helped crash an airliner into the Pentagon.

The National Security Agency first learned parts of their names and connections to al-Qaida in 1999 from communications it intercepted in the Middle East. The CIA found them in 2000, after they were detected attending a meeting of al-Qaida operatives in Malaysia. CIA learned in March 2000 that al-Hazmi had gone to the United States.

But those pieces of information made a slow path around the government and in some cases weren't connected with each other until far later. The two men were not put on a watchlist that would have prevented their entry into the United States until August 2001, when they were already in the country.

A year earlier in summer 2000, a longtime FBI terrorism informant in San Diego -- previously identified by law enforcement sources as their landlord, Abdussattar Shaikh -- reported extensive contacts with the pair, identifying them to his FBI handler only by their first names. He may have also met with another future pilot-hijacker in December 2000, Hani Hanjour, although he denies it, the report says.

The FBI agent told congressional investigators that if the San Diego bureau had had access to intelligence on al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, "we would have done everything. We would have used all available investigative techniques. We would have given them the full-court press."

As it happened, the FBI San Diego bureau didn't learn of their connection to their informant until after the attacks, the report says. In late August 2001, the FBI was searching for them in New York but didn't push the search nationwide.

The report says that the informant's contacts with the hijackers, "had they been capitalized on, would have given the San Diego FBI field office perhaps the intelligence community's best chance to unravel the Sept. 11 plot."

In addition, financial crime officials in the Treasury Department said they could have found the two hijackers in August 2001 through credit card and bank information, the report says.

Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi also received "considerable assistance" from Omar al-Bayoumi, who is identified as having ties to al-Qaida.

Al-Bayoumi was one of 14 people linked to the hijackers that the FBI, while conducting counterterrorism or counterintelligence investigations, had previously gathered information on, the report says.

Contrary to Mueller

This appears contrary to FBI director Robert Mueller's June 2002 assertion that the hijackers "contacted no known terrorist sympathizers in the United States." Mueller, in later private testimony recounted in the report, said he meant that the hijackers didn't communicate with suspected terrorist sympathizers while counterterrorism officials were monitoring them. "I had no intent to mislead," he said.

Considerable information in the report about whether Saudi Arabian officials helped the hijackers remains classified. The unclassified report -- the part that was released -- suggests evidence of "foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers while they were in the United States" but doesn't identify the sources.

Last November, news reports surfaced about an FBI investigation into whether money from the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States indirectly found its way to two of the hijackers.

The Saudis denied any links; the ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, issued a statement Thursday calling any such contentions "outrageous" and false.

The report also chastises the CIA for giving little credence to intelligence gathered in spring 2001 that said terrorist Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was seeking recruits to travel to the United States. Mohammed was later identified as a mastermind of the attacks.

The report describes a general lack of attention given to terrorism by the Pentagon, the FBI and the Department of Justice. The CIA, meanwhile, was unable to penetrate al-Qaida's leadership circles and had problems working with the military, which, in the CIA's view, wanted unreasonable specificity in information before launching a strike.

An FBI budget official told the inquiry that "counterterrorism was not a priority for Attorney General (John) Ashcroft before Sept. 11, and the FBI faced pressure to make cuts in counterterrorism to satisfy his other priorities."

CIA director George Tenet declared "war" on al-Qaida in December 1998 but the agency was sometimes stymied by limited resources. Nor was his call heeded throughout the intelligence community: A senior FBI official said he didn't know about it and the head of the NSA thought it was meant for the CIA only.

The report was released after months of wrangling over declassification issues.

Congressional sources connected with the investigation said administration officials tried to remove all references to the "President's Daily Brief," a classified intelligence report given to the president daily. The administration relented when shown general descriptions of the brief on the CIA's Web site.

But the administration would not allow investigators to review the briefs, so it is unclear, with one exception, what information Presidents Clinton and Bush were provided about terrorism before Sept. 11.

The exception, previously acknowledged by the Bush administration: On Aug. 6, 2001, part of a CIA briefing to Bush included general concerns that al-Qaida could attempt a traditional hijacking to secure the release of their allies from prison.

Some 3,000 people died when hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

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