The 9/11 Investigation
The attacks of September 11 might have been prevented had the US intelligence community been more competent. And the Bush Administration is refusing to tell the public what intelligence the President saw before 9/11 about the threat posed by Al Qaeda.
These are two findings contained in the long-awaited, 800-page final report of the 9/11 joint inquiry conducted the Senate and House intelligence committees, which was released on July 24. As is traditional in Washington, the contents of the report were selectively leaked before it was officially unveiled. And several news outfits noted that the report contained "no smoking guns" and concluded, as the Associated Press put it, that "no evidence surfaced in the probe...to show that the government could have prevented the attacks." Those reports were wrong--and probably based on information parceled out by sources looking to protect the government and the intelligence community.
In the report's first finding, the committees note that the intelligence community did not have information on the "time, place and specific nature" of the 9/11 attacks, but that it had "amassed a great deal of valuable intelligence regarding Osama bin Laden and his terrorist activities," and that this information could have been used to thwart the assault. "Within the huge volume of intelligence reporting that was available prior to September 11," the report says, "there were various threads and pieces of information that, at least in retrospect, are both relevant and significant. The degree to which the [intelligence] community was or was not able to build on that information to discern the bigger picture successfully is a critical part of the context for the September 11 attacks." One Congressional source familiar with the report observes, "We couldn't say, 'Yes, the intelligence community had all the specifics ahead of time.' But that is not the same as saying this attack could not have been prevented."
The final report is an indictment of the intelligence agencies--and, in part--of the administrations (Clinton and Bush II) that oversaw them. It notes, "The intelligence community failed to capitalize on both the individual and collective significance of available information.... As a result, the community missed opportunities to disrupt the September 11 plot by denying entry to or detaining would-be hijackers; to at least try to unravel the plot through surveillance and other investigative work within the United States; and, finally, to generate a heightened state of alert and thus harden the homeland against attack. No one will ever know what might have happened had more connections been drawn between these disparate pieces of information.... The important point is that the intelligence community, for a variety of reasons, did not bring together and fully appreciate a range of information that could have greatly enhanced its chances of uncovering and preventing Osama bin Laden's plan to attack the United States on September 11, 2001."
The committees' report covers many missed--and botched--opportunities. It shows that warnings and hints were either ignored or neglected. Some of this has been covered in interim reports released last year and in media accounts. But the final report does contain new information and new details that only confirm an ugly conclusion: A more effective and more vigilant bureaucracy would have had a good chance of detecting portions of the 9/11 plot. "The message is not to tell the intelligence community," said the source familiar with the report, "that you didn't have the final announcement of the details of the September 11 attacks and therefore you could not prevent it. We have to have an intelligence community that is able to connect dots and put the pieces together and investigate it aggressively."
An example: The FBI had an active informant in San Diego who had numerous contacts on 2000 with two of the 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. And he may also have had more limited contact with a third hijacker, Hani Hanjour. In 2000, the CIA had information that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar--who had already been linked to terrorism--were or might be in the United States. Yet it had not placed them on a watch list for suspected terrorists or shared this information with the FBI. The FBI agent who handled the San Diego informant told the committees that had he had access to the intelligence information on al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, "it would have made a huge difference." He would have "immediately opened" an investigation and subjected them to a variety of surveillance. It can never be known whether such an effort would have uncovered their 9/11 plans. "What is clear, however," the report says, "is that the informant's contacts with the hijackers, 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. Given the CIA's failure to disseminate, in a timely manner, the intelligence information on...al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, that chance, unfortunately, never materialized." (The FBI's informant--who is not named in the report--has denied any advance knowledge of 9/11, according to the report, but the committees raise questions about his credibility on this point, and the Bush Administration objected to the joint inquiry's efforts to interview the informant.)
The CIA was not the only agency to screw up. So did the FBI. In August 2001, the bureau did become aware that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were in the United States and tried to locate them. But the San Diego field office never learned of the search. The FBI agent who was handling the informant in San Diego told the committees, "I'm sure we could have located them and we could have done it within a few days." And the chiefs of the financial crime units at the FBI and the Treasury Department told the committees that if their outfits had been asked to search for these two terrorists they would have been able to find them through credit card and bank records. But no one made such a request.