FBI barred attempt to track down 9/11 hijacker

Hearings detail lapses in communication among the FBI, CIA and NSA

September 21, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Just two weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, FBI headquarters officials refused to allow a field agent to track down one of the 19 hijackers, leading the agent to warn, "Someday, someone will die."

In a fiery e-mail exchange between the New York agent and headquarters officials that was released yesterday, the agent wrote, "The public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain `problems.'"

The unidentified agent sought on Aug. 29, 2001, to investigate Khalid Almihdhar, one of the hijackers who crashed a jetliner into the Pentagon. The agent and fellow investigators, who had developed information tying Almihdhar to the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, believed he might be in the country after the CIA put him on a terrorist watch list on Aug. 23, 2001.

But FBI headquarters denied the request, saying the agent could not open a criminal investigation based on intelligence information because a "wall" exists between intelligence gathering and law enforcement.

The agent, who testified from behind a screen yesterday before the joint House and Senate Intelligence Committee, provided the latest evidence that law enforcement officials failed to cooperate and follow up on clues before the attacks.

The agent's attempt to locate Almihdhar - who was living openly in San Diego - was outlined in a 22-page report on significant intelligence flaws that was prepared by the committee's investigative staff and released yesterday. It bolstered the case for a full-fledged inquiry into the attacks, which the Bush administration had strenuously opposed. Yesterday, however, Bush declared his support for an investigative commission.

The FBI agent told the committee that he was angry and upset when he learned the day of the attacks that Almihdhar was one of the hijackers.

"I remember explaining, this is the same Khalid Almihdhar we had talked about for three months," he said. "I remember a supervisor saying that they had done everything by the book but at the same time I realized how ludicrous that statement was."

Almihdhar and a second hijacker, Nawaf Alhazmi, had been able to enter the country and live in San Diego under their own names, despite being spotted by the CIA when they met with two other men at a condominium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000. Agents suspected it was a meeting of al-Qaida operatives, according to the report, and knew one of the men, Khallad bin Atash, also known as Tawfig bin Atash, was a key associate of Osama bin Laden.

At the time of the meeting, the National Security Agency had information it had collected but did not share with other agencies that linked Alhazmi to bin Laden.

The report took particular issue with the CIA for having identified the men as terrorists associated with the USS Cole bombing but failing to put any of the men on a terrorist watch list, which could have prevented them from entering the country.

"The CIA had obtained information identifying two of the 19 hijackers, Almihdhar and Alhazmi, as suspected terrorists carrying visas for travel to the United States as long as 18 months prior to the time they were eventually watch-listed," Eleanor Hill, staff director of the inquiry, said, reading from the report.

"There were numerous opportunities during the tracking of these two suspected terrorists when the CIA could have alerted the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement authorities to the probability that these individuals either were or would soon be in the United States," she said.

As the CIA watched Almihdhar at the meeting, the agency knew that he held a visa that allowed him to enter and leave the United States freely, the report said.

Three months later, a CIA overseas station alerted headquarters that Alhazmi had flown to Los Angeles in January after the meeting and was in the United States. The cable was marked, "Action Required: None, FYI."

Committee investigators found no information in the three agencies' files on 15 of the hijackers. But investigators found that the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency had collected extensive information the three remaining hijackers - Almihdhar, Alhazmi and his brother Salim Alhazmi.

Alhazmi and Almihdhar traveled to Los Angeles together and were living in San Diego using their real names to rent an apartment and obtain California identification.

"The failure to watch-list Almihdhar and Alhazmi, or at a minimum, to advise the FBI of their travel to the United States, is perhaps even more puzzling because it occurred shortly after the peak of [the intelligence community's] alertness to possible Millennium-related terrorist attacks," the report said.

Just seven months later, when the USS Cole was struck, it became clear to intelligence analysts that Atash was one of the key planners in the bombing. But according to the report, the CIA did not add Alhazmi and Almihdhar to the watch list.

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