WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence agencies could have better analyzed information that pointed to Sept. 11, but probably could not have prevented the attacks, the attorney general and FBI director said Sunday.
Members of Congress' intelligence committees promised to pursue intelligence gathering and missed clues when closed-door hearings begin Tuesday on why the terrorist hijackings were not foreseen.
"We have got to do a better job of putting the pieces together," said FBI Director Robert Mueller, as a new report disclosed the failure of intelligence agencies to share information on suspected al-Qaida terrorists before Sept. 11.
Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft, however, said it was not likely that more coordination could have stopped the attacks.
"The information we now have does not indicate that there was a substantial likelihood of detecting this," Ashcroft said on ABC's "This Week."
They did not directly address a Newsweek report that the CIA knew two of the hijackers met at an al-Qaida summit in Malaysia in January 2000, but then failed to alert the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the FBI. The CIA declined comment.
But a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the investigation said the significance of that meeting increased after it became clear the two were associated with an alleged mastermind of the October 2000, bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. "In retrospect, we all could have done better," the official said.
Heart of communication
Already the FBI has come under criticism for not pursuing warnings from a Phoenix field officer about Middle Eastern men training at American flight schools and for not cooperating with the Minneapolis office's investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, later indicted as a conspirator in the attacks.
Those kind of communications lapses will be reviewed by the joint House and Senate intelligence committees in their hearings, said Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate committee.
"Part of this goes right to the heart of communication between the various intelligence agencies. It has not been a flow of information when people needed it," Shelby, R-Ala., said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"People talk a great deal about connecting the dots," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, ranking Democrat on the House committee. The intelligence agencies "didn't even see the dots, they didn't understand the salience of the dots."
At the same time, the chairman of the house committee urged Americans to be patient, saying it was a mistake to look at "one little part of the tapestry" of what went on before Sept. 11.
"This is serious business and we want to go on the basis of fact," said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla.
FBI agent to testify
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a public hearing Thursday at which Coleen Rowley, the Minneapolis FBI agent who wrote a letter to Mueller strongly critical of bureau headquarters' handling of the Moussaoui case, is expected to testify.
Ashcroft said that Rowley does not face dismissal because of the letter, which Mueller said he welcomed. "In order for the bureau to change we need to open ourselves up to suggestions as well as criticisms," the director said.
Mueller last week announced major FBI changes that were intended to better collect and analyze information about terrorist threats and place more emphasis on prevention.
The Bush administration also decided last week to issue new surveillance guidelines that allow the FBI to monitor Internet sites, libraries, churches and other places open to the public to help prevent domestic terrorism.
Critics of the expanded powers say they will infringe on civil liberties.
"We've got a wartime situation," Ashcroft said on CNN's "Late Edition."
"We've got al-Qaida with real strength around the country and around the world. And we need to make sure that we're doing everything possible to prevent the next attack."