Is it the CIA’s turn?
For weeks, the FBI has been excoriated for having failed to follow 9/11-related leads unearthed by field agents months before the airliner attacks. In response to the criticism, FBI Director Robert Mueller III was recently compelled to announce an extensive reorganization of the FBI and to embrace Coleen Rowley, an FBI agent in Minneapolis, who wrote Mueller a scorching letter–later leaked–that detailed numerous problems within the bureau. (The changes at the FBI will provide more latitude–perhaps too much–to field agents, even though a key foul-up occurred because FBI headquarters failed to coordinate two different field investigations.)
While Mueller and the FBI have been in the hot seat, other key agencies that contributed to the US government screw-up on September 11–most notably, the CIA and the Pentagon–have not drawn much fire. The Agency failed to act on intelligence from the mid-90s indicating Osama bin Laden’s network was interested in a 9/11-type plot. The Pentagon did not prepare for such an assault. But George Tenet and Donald Rumsfeld, and their respective bureaucracies, escaped crucifixion, let alone harsh words. There were no demands for reorganization or an examination of the bureaucratic culture at either CIA headquarters or the Pentagon.
Now comes the news the CIA engaged in its own boneheaded move. As first reported by Newsweek this week, the CIA, having spied on a meeting of al Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000, tracked one of these suspected terrorist to the United States and discovered another already possessed a multiple-entry visa allowing him to enter and leave the United States at will, and the agency did nothing with this information. The two men–Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar–went about their business in the United States for months, opening bank accounts and obtaining driver’s licenses in their own names, enrolling in aviation schools, before they walked on to Flight 77 on September 11 and presumably helped crash it into the Pentagon.
For about nineteen months, according to Newsweek, the CIA did not notify the FBI, the State Department or the Immigration and Naturalization Service about the pair. The two men were not added to the watch list used by the State Department and INS to screen visa applicants. Neither name was red-flagged until August 23, 2001–when the CIA did contact the other agencies about Almihdhar, who, by then, was already in the United States. (Almihdhar’s visa had expired in late 2000, but the State Department, left clueless by the CIA, had okayed a new one for him.) The FBI only then began searching for the two men, not realizing it had but nineteen days to locate them.
Before the latest news broke, it was publicly known that Almidhdar had been at the terrorist summit in Malaysia. Apparently his attendance there was not sufficient to place him on the watch list. Yet the new report notes the CIA was aware Alhazmi had flown from the meeting to Los Angeles, and the CIA later learned Almihdhar had done the same. It also knew then that Almihdhar had frequently entered the United States–a factor that could have qualified him for placement on the watch list.