Congress' Sept. 11 report due this week

Embarrassing disclosures about several agencies are likely, sources say

September 17, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - A joint Senate-House investigation into Sept. 11 terrorist attacks takes center stage this week with public hearings that will reveal more missed clues, bad coordination and systemic problems within the intelligence community before the attacks.

When staff director Eleanor Hill and her staff begin to outline their broad findings tomorrow, "don't expect bombshells, but there will be embarrassing disclosures about serious lapses by several agencies," said a source knowledgeable about the joint inquiry's work.

The two Floridians co-chairing the investigation, Democratic Sen. Bob Graham and Republican Rep. Porter J. Goss, have set ambitious goals for the $2.9 million inquiry, which began in March: explaining what happened before Sept. 11, what was missed and what can be done to help prevent future attacks.

The joint investigation overseen by the Senate and House intelligence committees has endured leaks, delays over declassifying information and resistance by the administration in providing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as witnesses.

Even some members of the two committees now back an independent blue-ribbon commission as the best way to get to the bottom of what happened. And debate over war with Iraq could overshadow the hearings.

But Graham and Goss say the staff, hired specially for this task, will lay out an informative, compelling narrative of how 19 hijackers were able to pull off the attacks, and they expect to issue a report by February recommending reforms.

During the hearings, details will emerge about serious lapses in several areas, two sources said, including:

The CIA and FBI both missed chances to track and stop two hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. The CIA knew they were terrorists in early 2000, after they attended an al-Qaida meeting in Malaysia, but did not quickly alert the FBI or the Immigration and Naturalization Service before the two entered the United States.

In late 2000, the two Saudi men moved into the San Diego home of a Muslim man who was a reliable informant for the FBI. But he never told the FBI about the men, and the case agent did not press the informant about his acquaintances.

The National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on a flood of electronic communications, is seriously behind in its efforts to analyze that data. The NSA is adding more linguists and upgrading technology to "read" foreign languages, but it was not able to provide timely translation and analysis of possible terrorist messages before Sept. 11.

James Harris, a former CIA official who headed the agency's Strategic Assessments Group that looks at long-range threats, said he hopes the investigation succeeds in shedding light on intelligence missteps and pressuring agencies to work together and think creatively.

"I'd like to see Congress step up to the plate and get this right - they've sunk a lot of energy into this," said Harris.

The two committees hired a separate staff of 24 analysts, many of them former employees of the FBI and CIA, to investigate those agencies.

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