Thursday, July 22, 2004

KRT Wire | 07/22/2004 | Report details missed opportunities to disrupt Sept. 11 attacks

KRT Wire | 07/22/2004 | Report details missed opportunities to disrupt Sept. 11 attacks: "Report details missed opportunities to disrupt Sept. 11 attacks

BY JIM LANDERS

The Dallas Morning News


WASHINGTON - (KRT) - Two mistake-prone hijackers aboard the flight that hit the Pentagon offered repeated opportunities for the CIA and the FBI to disrupt the Sept. 11 plot. But from December 1999 until late August 2001, intelligence officials either sat on their hands or held back information about Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi, the Sept. 11 commission reported Thursday.

"The simple fact of their detention could have derailed the plan," the commission concluded.

The Sept. 11 commission's report lists 10 "operational opportunities" where U.S. officials might have disrupted the terrorist attacks. Eight involved Hazmi and Mihdhar.

There were other opportunities to disrupt the attacks that cascaded from the 10 identified in the report. Both men might have been detained when they arrived in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000, if immigration officials had been warned to watch for passport alterations used by al-Qaida. Hamzi might have been detained when he reported an attempted robbery to Fairfax County, Va., police on May 1, 2001.

But U.S. law enforcement authorities did not know to be on the lookout for the two men until late August 2001.

Hazmi and Mihdhar were born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. They fought together as Islamist warriors in Bosnia in 1995, and were in Afghanistan several times. They had a friend named Azzam who was killed in the Aug. 7, 1998, al-Qaida attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot later captured in Pakistan, has told U.S. interrogators that Hazmi and Mihdhar were among the first four individuals chosen by Osama bin Laden to participate in the plot.

Mohammed said bin Laden, in a meeting in the spring of 1999, described the two Saudis as so as eager to participate in an attack on the United States that they had already obtained U.S. visas. Neither spoke English.

None of this was known by U.S. intelligence before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Sept. 11 commission's final report, earlier staff reports, and CIA briefings show Hamzi and Mihdhar popped up on the U.S. intelligence screen late in 1999. That's when the National Security Agency intercepted communications that pointed to a planned meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, among three men named Khalid, Nawaf and Salem.

The NSA's database had information indicating that Nawaf was Nawaf al Hazmi, and that Salem (also destined to be one of the Sept. 11 hijackers) was his brother. But the last name of the two brothers was not passed along to the CIA.

The Sept. 11 report doesn't say much about the NSA intercept. But a senior CIA official speaking on condition of anonymity told reporters Wednesday that the intercept involved a telephone in Yemen.

An al-Qaida participant in the Kenya bombing left behind the Yemen phone number of his father-in-law. The man also was the father-in-law of Khalid al Mihdhar.

U.S. officials tracked Mihdhar from Yemen to Malaysia, where he arrived on Jan. 5, 2000. An urgent query to the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, disclosed that Mihdhar had a U.S. visa. He was filmed meeting with several other Arabs. He flew to Bangkok on Jan. 8, along with two others identified as "Alhazmi" and "Salahsae," but CIA operatives in Bangkok were notified too late to track them.

In March, the Bangkok CIA station reported that Nawaf al Hazmi had flown to Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000.

At this point, the Sept. 11 commission concluded, the CIA missed an opportunity to put both Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi on a U.S. watch list for terrorism suspects. The commission determined that none of the information about their contacts and travels was given to the FBI.

CIA officials dispute that conclusion.

"We did not nominate al Mihdhar and al Hazmi to the watch list when we should have," a senior CIA official told reporters Wednesday. But "(t)o us, the most disturbing and most inaccurate evaluation is that CIA withheld information from the FBI and the Department of State about al Mihdhar and al Hazmi."

The information was available to the others, he said, but no one grasped its significance until much later.

In June 2000, Mihdhar left California to return to Yemen. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Sept. 11 mastermind, later told U.S. interrogators Mihdhar's departure was a mistake he felt "could endanger the entire plan" because of Mihdhar's need for another visa and his prior association with Islamist terrorist activities.

The commission said there were four other missed opportunities to catch up with Hazmi and Mihdhar in 2001, when the Kuala Lumpur meeting took on added significance as part of the investigation into the October 2000 bombing in Yemen of the Navy destroyer USS Cole.

In August, an FBI analyst working with the CIA counter-terrorism center pieced together information showing Mihdhar and Hazmi heading for the United States. The FBI notified immigration officials, who reported both men had entered the country. They were added to the terrorism suspects' watch list on August 24, 2001. But there was no urgency attached to the search for the two men."

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