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Background: What Went Wrong?

October 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: CIA Director George Tenet had testified before this Joint Committee on Intelligence in June, but in closed session. Today, Tenet made the most of his opportunity to speak in public, reading briskly from a prepared statement for 21 minutes before Committee Chairman Senator Bob Graham interrupted him.

SPOKESMAN: Mr. Tenet, 21 minutes now.

GEORGE TENET: Well, sir, I just have to say I’ve been waiting a year. I’ve got about another 20 minutes. I think I want to put this in the record. It’s important.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tenet did proceed, and for the most part defended the work of the CIA prior to the September 11 attacks. He said the CIA had been tracking Osama bin Laden since 1993.

GEORGE TENET: In 1998, I told key leaders at CIA and across the intelligence community that we should consider ourselves at war with Osama bin Laden. I ordered that no effort or resource be spared in prosecuting this war. In early 1999, I ordered a baseline review of CIA’s operational strategy against bin Laden. CIA began to put in place the elements of this operational strategy, which structured the agency’s counterterrorism activity until September 11 of 2001.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tenet gave a detailed account of CIA successes in fighting terrorism prior to September 11.

GEORGE TENET: By 1999, the intensive nature of our operations was disrupting elements of bin Laden’s international infrastructure. We went after his leaders and pursued terrorists and other groups engaged in planning future attacks. By September 11, CIA, and in many cases with the FBI, had rendered 70 terrorists to justice around the world.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Tenet also pointed to occasions where the CIA had failed, in particular, the case of Khalid al Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the September 11 hijackers who the CIA had tracked to a meeting of suspected terrorists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in December 1999.

GEORGE TENET: As the active phase of the Kuala Lumpur operation ended, CIA suspected that al Midhar was a terrorist, and knew he had a visa to enter the United States. Those facts met the State Department’s standard for adding his name to its watch list. CIA’S lapse in not providing that information to the State Department was caused by a combination of inadequate training of some of our officers, their intense focus on achieving the objectives of the operation itself, determining whether the Kuala Lumpur meeting was a prelude to a terrorist attack, and the extraordinary pace of operational activity at the time. The report that suspected terrorist Nawaq al-Hazmi had traveled to the United States also should have triggered an early effort to notify the State Department and other agencies. However, the information-only message came almost two months after the terrorists left Kuala Lumpur, and no CTC officer involved with the operation recalls seeing the message when it arrived at headquarters.

KWAME HOLMAN: Following Tenet’s lengthy statement, and brief remarks by FBI Director Robert Mueller and National Security Director Michael Hayden, it was the committee’s turn to ask questions. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin focused on those intelligence officials who failed to pass along critical information about the movements of suspected terrorists al- Midhar and al-Hazmi.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: What reason was given specifically by the CIA person responsible for putting that name on the watch list as to the failure to do so?

GEORGE TENET: Our judgment just in talking to everybody working at the time that there were uneven standards, poor training, and we didn’t get…

SEN. CARL LEVIN: For that specific failure? All those reasons for that specific failure?

GEORGE TENET: Yes, sir. We did not… everybody… the people involved were people who have access… who we’ve talked to, acknowledge that there were uneven practices, bad training and a lack of redundancy. The fact that they were swamped does not mitigate the fact that we didn’t overcome that with either redundancy, a separate unit or better training for those people.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Have you identified the person or persons who were responsible to put that name on the watch list?

GEORGE TENET: We know who was working this case.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: My question is, though, do you know the name or names of the persons who are responsible for putting those names on the watch list? That’s my question.

GEORGE TENET: Yes, sir, I think I have.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: All right. Now, then we come to March 5, same year, 2000, and the CIA learns some additional information, very critical information. On March 5, the CIA Learns that Hazmi had actually entered the United States on January 15, seven days after leaving the al-Qaida meeting in Malaysia. My question is, do you know specifically why the FBI was not notified of the fact that an al-Qaida operative at that time?

GEORGE TENET: The cable that came in from the field at the time sir was labeled information only. I know that nobody read that cable.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: My question is do you know why the FBI Was not notified of the fact that an al-Qaida operative now was known in March of the year 2000 to have entered in United States. Why was the… why did the CIA Not specifically notify the CIA? That’s my question. The FBI.

GEORGE TENET: Sir, we weren’t aware of it when it came into headquarters we couldn’t have notified them. Nobody read that cable in March… in the March timeframe.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: So the cable that said that Hazmi had entered the United States came to your headquarters, nobody read it.

GEORGE TENET: Yes, sir, it was an information only cable from the field and nobody read that information only cable.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Should it have been read?

GEORGE TENET: Yes, of course, in hindsight.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Should it have been read at the time?

GEORGE TENET: Of course it should have been.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: All right. My question is: Do you know who should have read it?

GEORGE TENET: I don’t know that, sir, but I can find that out.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Was somebody responsible to have read it?

GEORGE TENET: Somebody should have read it, yes, sir.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Levin turned his attention to FBI Director Mueller and the information contained in a memo sent from the FBI field office in phoenix identifying ten Middle Eastern men who were taking flight training.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: How many of the ten people listed in the Phoenix Report were part of the bin Laden conspiracy?

ROBERT MUELLER: My recollection, we have subsequently identified one of those as being associated with al-Qaida. Let me just check one second. I would… I have not checked. It’s a question I did not necessarily anticipate, so I have not gone and checked whether or not the investigations of each of the other nine.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I think that’s highly significant information that you should be on top of. Last question. Director Tenet, how many people have been held accountable for failures?

GEORGE TENET: I haven’t held anybody accountable yet, sir.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Director Mueller, how many people have been held accountable for failures?

ROBERT MEULER: Well, it depends on your definition of accountable. But I would say… I would say that I have not held somebody accountable in the sense of either disciplining or firing somebody.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: All right.

KWAME HOLMAN: Following a short recess, CIA Director George Tenet returned with a summary response to Senator Levin’s pointed questions.

GEORGE TENET: I just heard a discussion about, you know, which one of my people is accountable? I need to tell you something. We’ve gone through this exercise about how many people and how do you count them, and the truth is the people that have been working this are absolute heroes because, you know, the tempo and the pace and the exhaustion, notwithstanding the fact that on the watch list issue, procedures may have not been perfect it’s not an excuse. They were exhausted. There were never enough of them. There were never enough of us period across the range of targets we cover. So I think about that as well. The other thing I would say to you quite frankly is there was never a systematic thought process to think about how you play defense. Unless somebody is thinking about the homeland from the perspective of buttoning it down to basically create a deterrence that may work, your assumption will be that the FBI and the CIA are going to be 100 percent flawless all the time and it will never happen — notwithstanding all the improvements we’ve made with your help, it’s not going to happen. I think one of the things that we’ve learned is in hindsight the country’s mind set has to be changed fundamentally. No more sighs of relief. We are in this for a long time, because the threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was last summer — the summer before 9/11. They intend to strike this homeland again. We better get about the business of putting the right structure in place as fast as we can.

KWAME HOLMAN: This was the last hearing of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The White House and the Congress still are in negotiations over the structure of an independent investigative panel ordered by Congress last month.