WASHINGTON — The FBI missed at least five opportunities before the Sept. 11 attacks to uncover vital intelligence information about the terrorists, and the bureau didn’t aggressively pursue the information it did have, the Justice Department’s inspector general says in a newly released critique of government missteps.
The IG faulted the FBI for not knowing about the presence of two of the Sept. 11 terrorists in the United States and for not following up on an agent’s theory that Osama bin Laden was sending students to U.S. flight training schools. The agent’s theory turned out to be precisely what bin Laden did.
“The way the FBI handled these matters was a significant failure that hindered the FBI’s chances of being able to detect and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks,” Inspector General Glenn Fine said.
When the bureau did discover the presence of hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar in the United States shortly before the attacks, “the FBI’s investigation then was conducted without much urgency or priority,” the report concluded.
Information sharing at issue
The five missed opportunities in regard to the two hijackers stemmed from information sharing problems between the FBI and CIA and problems inside the FBI’s counterterrorism program.
The report, a year old, is only now being released because of a court fight with lawyers for imprisoned terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui over how much of it should be disclosed. The report’s findings mirror other investigations by Congress and an independent commission into why the U.S. government failed to thwart the attacks.
Without elaboration, the report faults the bureau for a lack of public candor.
“Shortly after the attacks, the FBI indicated that it did not have any information warning of the attacks,” the report said. “However, information was soon discovered that had been in the possession of the FBI and the intelligence community before Sept. 11 that related to the hijacking of airplanes by extremists or that involved the terrorists who committed the Sept. 11 attacks.”
The bureau said it has taken substantial steps to deal with the issues the IG raised.
Today, “no terrorism lead goes unaddressed,” and new policies are in place to share information among intelligence agencies, the FBI said.
2 hijackers lived openly
The report was especially critical of the bureau for not knowing about the presence of two of the 19 hijackers who were living openly in San Diego in 2000 and who “should have drawn some scrutiny from the FBI,” the report said.
The two Saudis, al Hazmi and al Mihdhar, rented a room in home of a longtime FBI terrorism informant, and they also befriended a fellow Saudi who had drawn FBI scrutiny in the past.
If the focus of the FBI bureau in San Diego on counterterrorism and al-Qaida had occurred earlier “there would have been a greater possibility, though no guarantee, that Hazmi’s and Mihdhar’s presence in San Diego may have come to the attention of the FBI before Sept. 11,” the report said.
FBI official claims exaggeration
The head of the San Diego FBI office responded that the report greatly exaggerates the possibility that local agents could have prevented the attacks.
The informant identified the two men to his FBI handler only by their first names, and the report criticizes the handler as “not particularly thorough or aggressive” in following up.
The two men also befriended Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi who had established himself in the area. The FBI briefly investigated him in 1998 when the manager of his apartment complex reported that al-Bayoumi had received a suspicious package, had strange wires in his bathroom and hosted frequent weekend gatherings of Middle Eastern men. The FBI closed its inquiry the following year, a decision the report found appropriate.
The IG also reviewed the FBI’s handling of Moussaoui, who was in custody before the attacks. Those portions of the document were deleted because Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty in April, faces a sentencing proceeding next year that will put him on trial for his life.
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