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Capitol Hill's 9/11 probe finds multiple failures
( 2003-07-25 15:29) (Washington Times)

In the months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, the al Qaeda hijackers were not living isolated lives in the United States, as authorities have asserted. Instead, conspirators were in contact with as many as 14 people who had turned up in previous FBI counterterrorism investigations -- at least four of whom were under active FBI investigation -- according to a partially declassified investigation by the joint Congressional Committee on Intelligence released yesterday.

The U.S. intelligence community "failed to fully capitalize" on information that might have allowed agents to unravel the hijack plot, the joint committee concluded, and bungled clues that should have led the FBI to two or more of the terrorists before they could act.

The joint committee's report represents the fullest examination so far of the U.S. response to the growing threat from the violent Islamic fundamentalists gathered under the al Qaeda umbrella of multimillionaire Osama bin Laden. Based on an examination of more than 500,000 documents and testimony at nine public hearings and 13 closed sessions last year, the report paints a picture of a poorly organized, understaffed and sometimes half-hearted effort, in agencies across the government, that missed the warning signs and failed to add up the clues.

In more than 800 pages of findings, recommendations and narrative detail, the joint committee amplified existing knowledge of the unsuccessful effort to deal with al Qaeda before the attacks, and cast new light on certain aspects of that effort. Beyond the FBI failures, the committee found:

 CIA Director George J. Tenet was "either unwilling or unable to marshal the full range of Intelligence Community resources necessary to combat the growing threat."

 U.S. military leaders were "reluctant to use . . . assets to conduct offensive counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan" or to "support or participate in CIA operations directed against al-Qaeda."

 "There was no coordinated . . . strategy to track terrorist funding and close down their financial support networks"; the Treasury Department even showed "reluctance" to do so.

 The National Security Agency, which collects signals intelligence around the world, took an overly cautious approach to collecting intelligence in the United States and offered "insufficient collaboration" with the FBI's efforts.

One of the joint committee findings remained classified, but it appeared from surrounding material that the finding dealt with covert CIA actions to disrupt, capture or even kill bin Laden in Afghanistan. While Tenet had spoken of "war" against bin Laden and the CIA had developed a secret strategy known cryptically as "the Plan" for dealing with him, "the CIA's actual efforts to carry out covert action against [bin Laden] in Afghanistan prior to September 11, 2001 were limited and do not appear to have significantly hindered [al Qaeda's] ability to operate," the committee wrote.

While U.S. agencies failed to come up with a coordinated counterterrorism effort, the report noted, bin Laden trained 70,000 to 120,000 terrorist recruits at other camps in Afghanistan, and intelligence sources reported that al Qaeda was completing a "support structure" inside the United States that could mount multiple attacks.

The joint committee concluded: "Although relevant information . . . regarding the attacks was available to the Intelligence Community prior to September 11, 2001, the Community too often failed to focus on that information and consider and appreciate its collective significance."

President Bush praised the "hard work and careful thought" reflected in the report, and said the failings identified in it have been corrected. "Our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are working together more closely than ever and are using new tools to intercept, disrupt and prevent terrorist attacks," Bush said in a statement.

But Democratic presidential candidates said the report shows the need for still more reform of the intelligence apparatus, and they criticized the administration's refusal to declassify large sections of the report.

Committee staff members wrangled for months with the administration and intelligence agencies over how much could be made public. Even so, long passages remained classified, including nearly 28 pages of material on possible Saudi support for the hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals. Other passages were declassified only after the committee staff agreed to make undisclosed changes in the text.

An independent, bipartisan panel, chaired by former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean and former representative Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), is in the middle stages of its own investigation of the failure to prevent the attacks.

The inquiry found that the intelligence community recognized before Sept. 11 "that a radical Islamic network that could provide support to al Qaeda operatives probably existed in the United States." In June 2001, according to CIA documents reviewed by the panel, al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- already under indictment for his alleged role in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center -- was recruiting people to travel to the United States to "establish contact with colleagues already living there" for the purpose of planning acts of terrorism.

The report contradicts early suggestions by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that the hijackers lived in social isolation while in this country, making their actions and intentions difficult to learn. Instead, the report quotes from an internal FBI analysis that states the six hijack leaders were involved with a "much greater number of associates than was originally suspected."

The group, the report said, "maintained a web of contacts both in the United States and abroad," among them associates from universities, flight schools, jobs and mosques. "Other contacts provided legal, logistical or financial assistance, facilitated U.S. entry and flight school enrollment or were known from . . . activities or training" related to bin Laden.

In particular, the report raises questions about the role of several men who aided hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who moved to San Diego after attending a January 2000 al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the attacks may have been planned. They died when the American Airlines plane they hijacked crashed into the Pentagon.

The two were befriended upon their arrival in California by a Saudi named Omar Bayoumi, an employee of the Saudi civil aviation authority who had been the subject of a counterterrorism investigation begun in 1998. Bayoumi, who had large amounts of cash from Saudi Arabia, put down a security deposit and first month's rent on an apartment for the conspirators and set them up with a translator, a man whose brother is the subject of a counterterrorism investigation.

After Sept. 11, when the FBI renewed its investigation of Bayoumi, agents found he "has connections to terrorist elements," including ties to al Qaeda, the report said. A search of his apartment turned up jihadist literature, and his salary was paid by a man whose son's photograph was found in an al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan.

The FBI also determined after the attacks that another Saudi man who had befriended the San Diego hijackers, Osama Bassnan, "is an extremist and a bin Laden supporter." The FBI was aware of Bassnan previously and received reports that in 1993 he hosted a party in Washington for Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric now imprisoned for his role in the first World Trade Center attack. "However, the FBI did not open an investigation" at the time.

Bassnan and his family received charitable support from Princess Haifa al-Faisal, wife of Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and members of the joint inquiry have complained they have had to press the FBI to determine whether any of those or other royal family funds may have been used to aid the hijackers. The few passages that were declassified portray the Saudi government as uncooperative in the fight against terrorism both before and after Sept. 11.

Bandar rejected any suggestion that his government was doing anything less than cooperating fully.

"In a 900-page report, 28 blanked-out pages are being used by some to malign our country and our people," he said in a statement. "The idea that the Saudi government funded, organized or even knew about September 11th is malicious and blatantly false."

Other people known to the FBI were in contact with Almihdhar and Alhazmi. The two were close to a Muslim cleric in San Diego, identified by law enforcement sources as a Yemeni named Anwar Awlaki.

Awlaki and the conspirators moved from San Diego to Falls Church in 2001 and became associated with Dar al-Hijrah mosque. The report said that German police discovered a phone number for the mosque in the home of self-described hijacking mastermind Ramzi Binalshibh after the attacks.

In addition, the hijackers worked and socialized with two San Diego businessmen who had been investigated for possible ties to terrorist groups.

The FBI was in prime position to unravel the hijacking plot had its San Diego field office known what the CIA and FBI officials in Washington and New York knew: that Almihdhar and Alhazmi had slipped into the United States in 2000. They had rented a room in San Diego from a longtime FBI informant.

In testimony to the joint committee, a San Diego field agent expressed confidence that, if the information had reached him, there would have been a "full court press." The two conspirators would have been found, he said.

And that might have led to cracking the plot.

The San Diego informant has said he did not find the men suspicious and never told his FBI handlers their full names.

Yesterday, it was clear the panel is skeptical of the informant's truthfulness. The report said that he made "inconsistent" statements to the FBI on Sept. 11, that the results of a polygraph were "inconclusive," and that he failed to tell the FBI of the hijackers' contacts with four people he knew the bureau was monitoring. The FBI refused to produce the informant for an interview, and his lawyer did not respond to written questions, the report said.

In a statement yesterday, Mueller, who took office just days before the attacks, called the FBI "a changed organization" whose primary focus now is preventing terrorism.

An FBI spokesman defended its work in San Diego. "These individuals came into contact with people we were investigating, but there was nothing about them that was suspicious."

He said the FBI is not investigating any of the men with whom the two hijackers were in contact.

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