The final report of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will not conclude definitively that the terrorist strike could have been prevented, but it is clear that U.S. officials missed a series of opportunities to stop some of the hijackers, disrupt the plot and perhaps save lives.
The report, which is to be released Thursday, is not expected to add any startling revelations about the al-Qaida operation that killed almost 3,000 people, brought down the World Trade Center in New York and seriously damaged the Pentagon. But after three years and two investigations, a pattern of crossed signals, miscommunication and ill-considered decisions emerges.
The most significant signal appears to have come in April 2000, when Niaz Khan, a Briton of Pakistani heritage, walked into the FBI’s office in Newark, N.J.
Khan told agents that he had been trained by al-Qaida, the terrorist network that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, and that there would be a hijacking in the United States or on a U.S. airline.
He said he had been sent to the United States to join al-Qaida operatives here. Even though he passed two polygraph tests, FBI headquarters did not believe him and let him go.
“I told them before the 9/11 — more than a year” ahead of time, Khan told NBC News.
It was just one of many chances U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies had to get inside al-Qaida in the years before the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. All were fumbled.
As early as 1996, when Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida’s leader, declared war on the United States, the CIA was trying to penetrate his inner circle. It failed.
By January 2000, U.S. intelligence had picked up the trail of two of the 19 men who would eventually hijack the four jetliners in September 2001. They were among top al-Qaida operatives who gathered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a planning meeting. But the CIA lost track of the hijackers when they left, and the agency failed to warn the FBI that one of them had a valid visa to enter the United States.
The hijackers began flowing into the United States, as many as 11 of them with doctored passports or by lying on their visa applications. U.S. authorities again missed what in hindsight appear to have been golden opportunities to intervene in the terrorists’ planning.
In San Diego, one of the hijackers got as many as a dozen telephone calls from a known al-Qaida switchboard in Yemen. Although the National Security Agency intercepted the calls, it did not determine that the calls were to someone already in the country because it had not deployed the right equipment.
Training sites found, but no action
By fall 2000, U.S. intelligence had located some of bin Laden’s training sites. A Predator drone spy plane brought back pictures of al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, as well as of a tall man in flowing white robes, who is now believed to have been bin Laden himself. But no military assets were on standby to take a shot at him.
By summer 2001, the warning signs were many. An FBI agent in Phoenix sent a memo warning that bin Laden could be training pilots at U.S. flight schools, for example, but it got lost at FBI headquarters.
Then there was the case of Zacharias Moussaoui, who was arrested while training at a Minnesota flight school. FBI agents were not allowed to search his computer until less than three weeks before Sept. 11, however.
“The Moussaoui episode is one of the top three examples of where we might have been able to stop 9/11,” said Roger Cressey, a terrorism analyst for NBC News who was the U.S. official in charge of coordinating U.S. counterrorism policy in 2000 and 2001.
About the same time, CIA agents told the FBI that two hijackers might be in the country. The FBI could not find them, even though they were listed in telephone directories.
When two of the hijackers were put on the State Department’s “watch list” of suspected terrorists, they were not put on the no-fly list maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration, because they had not previously shown an interest in hijacking airplanes.
For hijackers, smooth sailing
The hijackers were therefore able to make their flights on Sept. 11 with little difficulty.
Even after the hijackings were in progress, authorities delayed taking action after hints of the unfolding situation became clear.
At 8:24 a.m., one of the hijackers, believed to be Mohammed Atta, was overheard by air traffic controllers as he talked to passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 11. “We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be OK,” he said. “We are returning to the airport.”
But the FAA repeatedly failed to alert the military’s air defense system until it was too late, if at all. When F-16 fighter jets did finally scramble in response, some went in the wrong direction, and their pilots were never told that they were looking for hijacked planes.
‘They defeated us’
“If you look at the details of what these 19 men did on the 11th of September, they defeated every defense that we had in place, every single one of them,” former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., a member of the Sept. 11 commission, said at a hearing this year. “And there is no other word that you can put on it other than that they defeated us.”
House Republican leaders were briefed Tuesday by members of the commission in a closed-door session. Republican Chairman Thomas Kean, a former governor of New Jersey, and Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, a former U.S. representative from Indiana, plan to brief President Bush on Wednesday.
U.S. officials told NBC News this week that the report would highlight the intelligence failures that enabled the attacks but that it would leave to history the ultimate judgment of whether the deaths of the 3,000 victims in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania could have been avoided, as leaders of the panel have suggested.
“What’s worked for us all along is looking at what the facts are and not trying to put any spin,” said Democratic commission member Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general. “We will lay out the facts with as much particularity as we can.”
Clinton, Bush both to be blamed
The commission will, however, cite the Clinton administration for failing to retaliate for the attack in October 2000 on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, the U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity. Six alleged members of al-Qaida are on trial in Yemen in the Cole attack, which killed 17 U.S. sailors.
The report will also criticize the Bush administration for failing to retaliate for the Cole attack, the officials said, and for failing to galvanize the bureaucracy to the possibility of a new attack in the months before Sept. 11, 2001.
Commission members have said it is important for them to unanimously endorse the report so their findings and recommendations are not seen as partisan. A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 61 percent of Americans believe the commission had done a good job. The support was nearly even among Republicans and Democrats, The Associated Press reported.
By refraining from further finger-pointing, members said, the panel can boost bipartisan support for reforms it recommends in the U.S. intelligence community, particularly its call for the appointment of a Cabinet-level overseer of the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies, with control of their budgets.
Commission members plan an aggressive lobbying effort to push the recommendations. Members will split up into bipartisan pairs and travel nationwide for speaking engagements and media appearances.
The lobbying campaign will continue into the fall, even after the commission formally dissolves on Aug. 26, with several members ready to testify should Congress choose to hold public hearings on the report’s findings and recommendations, said Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the commission.
“Commissioners have all said they hoped the report would not just go on a shelf as so many others have,” Felzenberg told the AP. “They said they hoped both presidential campaigns would endorse the recommendations and Congress would act.”