WASHINGTON - The FBI, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies failed to communicate properly and ignored obvious clues that would have vastly increased the likelihood of preventing the Sept. 11 attacks, a congressional investigation has found.
A report on the inquiry, produced by a joint panel of the House and Senate intelligence committees, was harshly critical of the intelligence agencies. It said they failed to detect the hijackers' presence in the United States or to thwart their plot despite an abundance of informants, memos and signals pointing to an imminent threat.
The agencies "did not bring together and fully appreciate a range of information that could have greatly enhanced its chances of uncovering and preventing" the attack, the investigation found.
In particular, the investigators, who conducted the most comprehensive review so far of the terrorist attacks, singled out lapses by the FBI and the CIA.
Until pressed by congressional investigators, for example, the FBI insisted publicly for nearly a year after the attacks that the hijackers acted alone and without a support network in the United States.
Congressional investigators found, however, that the men were helped by "a web of contacts." These included 14 people who were known to the FBI from unrelated terror investigations.
Two of the hijackers, the report said, had extensive contact with an FBI informant in San Diego. Yet the CIA failed to alert the FBI that the two hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were suspected terrorists who might be in the United States.
"The informant's contacts with the hijackers," the report said, "had they been capitalized on, would have given the San Diego FBI field office perhaps the Intelligence Community's best chance to unravel the September 11 plot."
The report raised the possibility that the FBI's informant might have been involved in the plot. It said he took an inconclusive polygraph test, uttered "numerous inconsistent statements" in interviews with the FBI and refused to answer questions from congressional investigators without receiving immunity from prosecution.
As early as 1998, the report said, unspecified intelligence reports warned of possible al-Qaida attacks in New York and Washington through the use of airplanes. Most strikingly, U.S. intelligence detected a message that said "plans to hijack U.S. aircraft proceeding well" and that two people "had successfully evaded checkpoints in a dry run at a NY airport."
The 800-page declassified version of the report released yesterday reflects a 10-month investigation that ended in December. For the past seven months, the committees have been arguing with the Bush administration over exactly what information could be publicly released.
The declassified report still contains extensive redactions, many of them related to whether Saudi Arabia provided help to the hijackers. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The report says Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi who was linked to al-Qaida and who provided financial help to the terrorists, "had access to seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia."
While investigators found no "smoking gun" - a document or piece of information that would have detailed the time and place of the Sept. 11 attacks - the inquiry found that, had the intelligence agencies connected multiple pieces of information, they might have detected the plot.
Both the FBI and CIA said yesterday that they had already implemented many of the report's recommended changes and have focused on sharing information between and within their agencies more efficiently.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said that "while the report provides a snapshot of the FBI at September 11, 2001, the picture of the FBI today shows a changed organization."
"By continuing to restructure, improving our intelligence capabilities, and building on our traditional strengths, the FBI will continue to fulfill its mission to protect America," he said.
President Bush said in a statement yesterday: "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."
But Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, struck a more critical note:
"While there have been some significant improvements in interagency coordination, problems remain. We are still seeing similar problems throughout the intelligence community in the Senate Intelligence Committee's current review of the intelligence behind the community's assessments on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
Some of the most heated negotiations between the administration and the committee staff related to the declassification of information involving possible terrorist ties to Saudi Arabia, sources familiar with the discussions said.