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Background: Failure to Communicate

June 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Newsweek magazine first reported the story that the CIA Was slow to relay critical information about two of the 9/11 terrorist hijackers. Joining me is Newsweek bureau chief and co- author of the story, Daniel Klaidman. Dan, welcome. How did the CIA get on these two?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Well, they got on to their trail in December 1999. They were monitoring a logistics center connected to al-Qaida in Yemen. They were monitoring phone calls to this logistics center which bin Laden’s operatives were using to plan attacks.

They hear about these two men – Nawaf Alhazmi and Kalid Almihdhar. They hear that they’re planning to take a trip to Malaysia where they’re going to attend some kind of a meeting. So the CIA thinks it’s interesting. They enlist the special branch of the Malaysian government, their secret service, and ask them to monitor the meeting, to monitor these people, to put them under surveillance. And at that time, they conclude that this is likely a meeting of al-Qaida suspects, and they think it’s important and interesting and they ask for more surveillance.

The Malaysians turn over a report which concludes that these were possibly al-Qaida members, and then the important thing is the CIA then tracks one of these al-Qaida members or suspected al-Qaida members — Nawaf Alhazmi – leaving Kualalalampour, traveling through Bangkok to the United States, to Los Angeles on January 15. The other thing they learn is that Kalid Almihdhar, his sidekick, had obtained a multiple entry visa so that he could come and go to the United States as he pleased.

TERENCE SMITH: So they have these two clearly in their radar at this point. What happens then?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Well, what happens then is that the CIA essentially sits on the information. They never give the information to the FBI or to other law enforcement agencies. The problem with that is the CIA is not lawfully allowed to monitor these people in the United States. That’s the job of the FBI so there was no chance at that point to continue to follow these people and to learn about them. What the FBI says is, had they been given the opportunity to follow and learn about the Alhazmi and Almihdhar, it is possible that they would have been able to learn about the 9/11 attacks. These two, they argue, would have led them to other collaborators in the 9/11 attacks and possibly allowed them to uncover it.

TERENCE SMITH: These two come back to the United States, come and live an open, documented life, as I understand it, from your story. They get what? Driver’s licenses.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Absolutely. They live absolutely openly in the United States. They get driver’s licenses and buy cars, which are put in their names. They have Social Security cards in their names. One of them even has his phone… his name and phone number in the phonebook.

TERENCE SMITH: This is in southern California.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: This is in San Diego but the information is useless because the FBI doesn’t know about them.

TERENCE SMITH: And so take the story from there. What happens next, that causes it eventually to be known.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Well, a number of things happen. One thing that’s interesting and important is that one of these two guys, Khalid Almihdhar, actually leaves the country in June of 2000. He leaves and he is out of the country for quite some time. He is planning to come back in July of 2001, a couple of months before the September 11 attacks, but his visa has expired. So he goes to the consulate in Saudi Arabia and a consular officer renews his visa. The consular officer has no idea that this person is a suspected member of a terrorist organization. There’s no way he could have because the CIA hadn’t passed along the information. So he gets his visa renewed and he returns.

The other important thing that happens is in December of 2000, this is two months after the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, the CIA, as it’s investigating the Cole attack, identifies a man by the name of Kalad, as the key architect of the attack. He is a known al-Qaida member and Kalad it turns out was a participant in this Kualalampour summit in Malaysia. As they’re looking through their files, they learn that Kalad is pictured with Khalid Almihdhar, which all of a sudden sounds the alarm, Khalid Almihdhar clearly is important because he’s meeting with the key architect of the U.S.S. Cole attack. What’s baffling though and what we still don’t understand is why at that point the CIA didn’t say, “This is important. Let’s turn this information over to the proper authorities, to the FBI, to the Immigration Service, to the State Department. Let’s put them on the terrorist alert list.”

TERENCE SMITH: Any explanation of that? Anything they’ve explained why it has not been done.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: That is the $64,000 question. What the CIA had said was we didn’t realize how important these two men were until that point, but at that point it’s hard to understand why it didn’t happen. I mean there are different possibilities. The congressional committees will clearly be looking into this. One possibility is incompetence, the possibility that the information just got lost somewhere in the system. Other possibilities though there’s no explanation, we don’t know this for sure is that it had to do with bureaucratic rivalries of some sort.

TERENCE SMITH: Between the CIA And the FBI Particularly.


TERENCE SMITH: Bring the story forward now to August of 2001, just the month before the September 11 attacks.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Well, what happens on August 23 is the CIA finally finds these names, realizes they’re important, they put out an alert to the relevant law enforcement agencies, the FBI, Customs and also to the State Department, put them on the terror list. What prompted this? Well, if you’ll recall in July and August, intelligence officials, law enforcement officials were very jittery because they suspected that bin Laden was planning some kind of attack, possibly even in the United States.

President Bush gets his briefing on August 6 and so George Tenet asks his officers of the CIA to go back and scrub the files essentially, to review all of their files to see if perhaps there’s some important evidence, information that would be useful to them and these names appear all of a sudden on August 23 an all points bulletin goes out and the FBI at this point has about two-and-a-half weeks to look for them. It’s a big country. They’ve left the San Diego area. The FBI never finds them.

TERENCE SMITH: Dan Klaidman, thanks very much. It’s quite a tale.