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9/11 Panel Eyes Information Failure

by Ken Guggenheim, Associated Press, 1 October 2002


WASHINGTON -- Aviation officials might have been able to stop two Sept. 11 hijackers previously linked to al-Qaida if they had been alerted by intelligence agencies, a Transportation Department official asserted Tuesday.

The State Department had placed the two men, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, on its watch list on Aug. 23, 2001, after receiving an alert from the CIA. But no such alert went to the Transportation Department and the men were not added to the FAA's separate watch list, said Claudio Manno, a Transportation Security Administration intelligence official.

Both men bought tickets in their own names for American Airlines Flight 77, which was flown into the Pentagon.

"Had we had information that those two individuals presented a threat to aviation or posed a great danger, we would have put them on the list and they should have been picked up in the reservation process," he told the House and Senate intelligence committees. The panels are holding a joint inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks.

Manno testified as the committees heard a report from the staff director for the inquiry, Eleanor Hill, saying that legal, bureaucratic and cultural obstacles prevented intelligence agencies from sharing information with the government departments that needed it most, including the FAA and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In a separate development Tuesday, the Justice Department's inspector general criticized the FBI for failing to produce a comprehensive written assessment of the terrorism risk to the nation. The assessment is useful in defining the nature, likelihood and severity of the threat, to identify gaps in intelligence and to allocate resources.

An executive summary of the classified inspector general's review said the FBI had developed a draft report by September 2001 that described terrorist organizations and their state sponsors. But it did not examine the threat and risk of an attack on the United States.

"Among the report's many omissions are assessments of the training, skill level, resources, sophistication, specific capabilities, intent, likelihood of attack, and potential targets of terrorist groups," the summary said. "Further, the draft report does not discuss the methods that terrorists might use" and there is no analysis of terrorists' progress in developing or acquiring chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.

At the congressional hearing, Hill said the FAA, INS and other governmental agencies were not given all the information they needed to prevent terrorist attacks.

"The reasons for this reluctance to share range from a legitimate concern about the protection of intelligence sources and methods to a lack of understanding of the functions of other agencies," she said.

In the case of al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, Hill noted that the INS received an alert about the two future hijackers in August 2001. But the alert "was not accompanied by any specific notation that indicated that the INS should use all means possible to find these two suspects."

INS officials said if they had been told to put the highest priority on the search, they might have found the men before the attacks. Al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar had been identified by the CIA as having attended an al-Qaida meeting in Malaysia in January 2000.

In another example of the failure to share information, a memo written by a Phoenix FBI agent in July 2001 warning that al-Qaida may be training terrorist pilots in the United States was not turned over to the FAA until long after the attacks.

"I don't think there is a more graphic example with how dysfunctional this system is," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "You can't explain that to the public, that something that important, that significant was available in the summer of 2001, can't find its way to your agency until May 2002."

Hill also said that while the FAA had issued circulars warning the airline industry about the possibility that terrorists might hijack planes or plant explosives, "none, however, have been found that discussed crashing planes into buildings."

Asked why that possibility wasn't considered since it was known since 1994 that airplanes could be used as weapons, Manno said the industry was kept apprised of threats, including the possibility of suicide attacks.

Manno and officials from the INS and other agencies told the committees about efforts to improve communications and cooperation, especially since the attacks. But Baltimore's police commissioner, Edward Norris, said local police chiefs still are not being told of federal investigations in their communities, despite being on the front lines of the fight against domestic terrorism.

"Who do we think needs to know more than the chiefs who protect the cities' citizens?" he said. "We need to know more than anybody in this country what's going on in our cities, yet we don't."

Copyright © 2002 Associated Press
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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