Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush said Tuesday the CIA and FBI did not communicate adequately with each other about possible clues to a terrorist attack before Sept. 11, as Congress began a rare closed-door series of investigative hearings to determine why such intelligence failures occurred.
"We need to be aggressive and rigorous in this inquiry, asking the right questions like who knew what? And if they didn't know it, why? And what did they do with the information they had?" Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said Tuesday as she walked past reporters into the room, off-limits to the public, where the joint House-Senate intelligence committee began its hearings.
Other congressmen filed by without speaking to reporters. Mikulski and other lawmakers said they expected most of the first day to be taken up with procedural details, such as how the committee would organize its work.
Bush, speaking at the National Security Agency just hours before the inquiry began, asserted there is no evidence U.S. officials could have averted the attacks, even if the two agencies had worked together better.
"In terms of whether the FBI and CIA communicated properly, I think it's clear that they weren't, and now we're addressing that issue," the president said. "I see no evidence today that said this country could have prevented the attacks."
The investigation has been compared to the government's inquiry into how the United States missed preparations for Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The last large-scale investigation of intelligence matters was the commission set up by Sen. Frank Church in 1975, which led to new congressional oversight of the CIA.
In the latest revelation of missed clues, a CIA official said both the CIA and FBI knew as early as January 2000 that one of the eventual Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, would be attending a meeting of suspected al-Qaida members.
Bush, in the appearance at the NSA, renewed his support for the intelligence committees' investigation, but again objected to calls in Congress for a separate, independent inquiry. That could hinder efforts to prevent future terrorist strikes and jeopardize U.S. intelligence sources, Bush said.
Meeting in soundproofed, secure rooms at the Capitol, lawmakers will take stock of an intelligence community that overlooked clues and didn't always share information it had about the hijackers. The closed-door hearings begin Tuesday and will go public June 25.
Mikulski said lawmakers owe it to the victims of Sept. 11 to run a "serious, thorough and credible" inquiry to ensure such intelligence lapses do not recur.
"We will certainly be able to improve the capabilities that we have to focus more on the threats that actually exist," Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., House Intelligence Committee chairman, said Tuesday on NBC's "Today." "That's going to happen, but Americans are always going to have to have a little vigilance."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, that committee's top Democrat, said one purpose of the hearings is to ensure federal law enforcement agencies don't react the wrong way and spy more on Americans.
"I think we have to be smarter, more clever and protect the people in a way that also protects civil liberties and the Constitution," Pelosi said Tuesday on CNN.
The intense scrutiny has led to fingerpointing between the CIA and FBI.
Over the weekend, government sources said the CIA had important information in early 2000 about two of the future hijackers, Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, both of whom attended a mid-January 2000 meeting in Malaysia.
Responding to the disclosure, a CIA official, speaking Monday on condition of anonymity, disputed reports that the agency had kept that information from the FBI. The CIA official said two FBI officials were briefed on Almihdhar.
Neither agency gave the information enough significance to alert authorities to watch for Almihdhar or Alhazmi at U.S. points of entry until three weeks before the attacks, when the CIA, alerted to a large al-Qaida operation in the offing, added the two men to a watch list that INS and State officials use. By this time, however, they were already in the country.
Almihdhar, in fact, had been in and out of the United States several times. The U.S. government had given him a multiple entry visa enabling him the freedom to come and go as he pleased. Both hijackers were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.
FBI officials declined comment Monday night, saying Director Robert Mueller did not want to engage in fingerpointing.
In other developments:
--Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in a New York Times interview for Tuesday editions that his country's intelligence service warned U.S. officials about a week before the Sept. 11 attacks that al-Qaida was in the advance stages of an attack on an unspecified American target. Bush dismissed Mubarak's claims at the NSA appearance.
--Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Osama bin Laden does not seem to be directing al-Qaida, although the terror organization remains active worldwide. "My guess is, if he were active, we would know it -- we would have some visible sense of it," he said in Tuesday editions of The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "What we want to learn is all the information that the agencies had or didn't have and whether they disseminated it." The array of problems that have come to light are "just the beginning," he said.