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U.S.: Congressional Report Says Better Intelligence Cooperation Might Have Prevented 9/11 Attacks

  • Andrew Tully

Nearly two years ago, 19 men linked to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network hijacked four jets to use as missiles and killed some 3,000 people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Yesterday, a special committee of both houses of the U.S. Congress issued a report on why American intelligence agencies failed to prevent the attacks.

Washington, 25 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A report by the U.S. Congress says the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001 might possibly have been prevented if the nation's intelligence organizations had shared information.

The 900-page report was released yesterday by a special joint panel of the intelligence committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The report did not say, however, that the attacks were necessarily the direct result of poor communications among the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the National Security Agency (NSA).

Still, some members gave their own interpretations of the agencies' culpability. At a news conference yesterday to mark the report's release, Senator Bob Graham of Florida, the senior minority Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he believes that better cooperation among the nation's intelligence and law-enforcement communities might have prevented the attacks, which left about 3,000 people dead.

"The attacks of September the 11th could have been prevented if the right combination of skill, cooperation, creativity, and some good luck had been brought to the task," Graham said.

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Shelby -- a Republican from the southern state of Alabama -- drew much the same conclusion, but cautioned about the certainty of hindsight.

"If [intelligence] were fused and acted upon, maybe things would change -- would have changed. We don't know that. This is hindsight. But we learn from the past, and if we don't learn, it'll certainly be repeated. I hope this will be a learning lesson for all of our agencies," Shelby said.

In any event, both men agreed that -- as Graham put it -- there was "plenty of blame to go around," particularly for the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA.

The CIA is restricted to gathering foreign intelligence. The FBI's work is limited to the United States. The NSA -- independent of the other two agencies -- specializes in what is known as "signal intelligence" -- that is, intercepting communications, usually with the help of high-tech equipment.

According to the report, the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA individually had gathered enough information that -- had it been shared -- would have made clear that Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network was planning some sort of attack in the United States.

For example, the report says, each agency had information on two of the 11 September hijackers -- Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi -- who were aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon in Washington.

According to the report, the NSA had learned in 1999 that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were connected to a Middle Eastern Al-Qaeda cell. The CIA, using its own resources, learned of that link the next year but did not put the men on a so-called "watch list" of those who should be prevented from entering the United States.

The two men did enter the country, the report says, and were coincidentally in contact with an FBI informant in the western state of California. But the NSA and the CIA did not share their information about the two Al-Qaeda suspects with the FBI. The FBI informant did not know the two were suspected terrorists. As a result, the report says, the FBI missed the opportunity to learn about their plans for 11 September.

This is not the first time the CIA and the FBI have been criticized for not sharing their intelligence. Despite repeated promises to cooperate, the two agencies have jealously guarded their knowledge, according to Anna Nelson, a professor of history at American University in Washington.

Nelson said U.S. intelligence services were relying on the high-tech spying of the Cold War at a time when they should have focused on using agents to try to infiltrate Al-Qaeda.

"We were worried about missiles, and we were worried about nuclear bombs, and those things could be seen by U-2 [spy] planes and finally by satellites. We now have a situation where the enemy is very amorphous and can come from many different angles, and I don't think the intelligence agencies have adjusted to that," Nelson said.

Only about 80 percent of the report released yesterday was made public. The 20 percent that remains classified includes a passage on how well the governments of other countries, including Saudi Arabia, cooperated with the investigation.

Both Shelby and Graham say they believe more of the report should have been made public. Congressman Porter Goss, the chairman of the House Select Intelligence Committee, disagreed, telling the news conference that security concerns prevented the release of the entire report.

"You have to remember we are at war, and there are some actionable items still being pursued by the appropriate authorities. And you also have to understand that there are people watching this press conference who are going to read this book, who are going to analyze what information we've put out, and what we haven't put out. And the last thing we want to do, in any way, is create an opportunity for a terrorist to take advantage of us because of something we put in," Goss said.

A separate panel is also investigating the 11 September terrorist attacks. It is a bipartisan commission whose chairman is Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey. Its conclusions are not expected to be published until sometime next year.