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September 11 Intelligence Failures

July 24, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: As we reported, the joint House-Senate inquiry found no “smoking gun” laying out the time and place of attack. But it did conclude that U.S. intelligence agencies and FBI missed numerous clues that might have helped them thwart it.

Among those clues, two 9/11 hijackers on the plane that hit the Pentagon, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were living in San Diego in close contact with an FBI Informant. But the CIA and FBI headquarters never alerted the San Diego FBI office about the men’s terrorist links.

“What is clear,” the report said, “is that the informant’s contacts with the hijackers, had they been capitalized on, would have given the San Diego FBI field office perhaps the Intelligence Community’s best chance to unravel the September 11 plot.” Portions of the report remain classified.

It concluded with 19 recommendations to prevent similar failures in the future. Joining us now to discuss it are the panel’s chairman, Democratic Senator Bob Graham of Florida, and its vice-chairman, Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama. Welcome, senators, both. Senator graham beginning with you, what led you to conclude that in fact there were numerous clues that might have been put together and thwarted the attack?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: There were several chapters that had the clues. There was one chapter in phoenix, Arizona, where an FBI agent termed — determined that there was evidence of many Arab nationals training at flying schools. Then there was a case in Minnesota — Moussaoui who was also training at a flying school and apparently only wanted to learn how to fly the plane once it was in the air. That raised a suspicious.But I think the biggest case with the most clues were the ones in San Diego where we had two people that attended the Malaysia summit of terrorism.

The CIA monitored that submit but the CIA did not tell the immigration service or the FBI that these people were — might be attempting to enter the United States. So they entered clandestinely. They were able to secret themselves and they got a significant amount of support from a foreign government. — not just financing, although that was significant as well but in things like finding living quarters, being introduced to a network of people who served as their support. That’s the incident that had the greatest potential to have disrupted this plot it ended in a tragedy of September 11.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Shelby, do you agree with the conclusion that Senator Graham expressed, that we ran in the News Summary, that in fact there were enough clues that could have been put together to thwart it?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Basically, I do. There were more than bits and pieces or fragments of information and intelligence. Had they been collected into a central place and acted upon, perhaps to have in hindsight stopped the deal, attack of September 11. This is the way intelligence works. It’s a little information here — a little information there. You analyze it.

You correlate it and you act upon it. In this case, if you put it all together collectively I think you have got more than just an inkling of something wrong going on, something big afoot so to speak but the problem was there was no real central repository to contain, analyze and disseminate this information in the intelligence community. I think overall as we look back that’s the big failing.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Graham, going back to the San Diego example. You talked about how they got help from a foreign government. The report talks about this fellow Omar Byumi who helped them who it says was involved with the Saudi government. Is that who you are talking about?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: That is one of the pieces of information that is classified. We’re not allowed to discuss the foreign government that was providing the direct assistance to two of the 19 hijackers and the intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been unenthusiastic about pursuing that to find out if the other 17 hijackers were receiving the same assistance or if this network of support is still in place assisting the next generation of terrorists who are currently in the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying you mean to this day that the law enforcement and intelligence agencies are not following that up?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: I’m saying to this day there has been what I would describe as aggressive lethargy in terms of finding the facts out from some fairly obvious trails of suspicious.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you share that view, Senator Shelby?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I share a lot of that. And I can tell you one of keys to the terrorist success has been able to get all this financed – money — who keeps these people going. How do they maintain their financial support? I have more than some suspicions that a lot of powerful people and some of our so-called allies are involved in funding charities and perhaps even funding charities that they know aid and abet terrorism.

I think this is where we need to continue to investigate and expose. The American people, I believe, want to know who is supporting the terrorists in the world — financially and otherwise. We should not look the other way. We should pursue those leads wherever they go even if it might be in a sensitive, embarrassing area.

MARGARET WARNER: But then, so do you share Senator Graham’s view to this day U.S. authorities are not pursuing it enough and if so why?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I can’t say they are not pursuing it aggressively enough but I don’t know that as of this day. I can tell you — I don’t believe this the past they pursued it like they should. It should be one of the number one priorities in the fight against terrorists in this country and abroad. Who is financing them? Within money they can’t go very far. They can’t exist. They can’t stage the attacks. They can’t fly. They can’t live.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Graham, you and Senator Shelby at the briefing today both protested that you felt too much of information remained classified. In the huge 800 page report there are whole pages with lines through them. What is the nature of information? Is it all dealing with foreign government, potential foreign government involvement? Are there other areas, without specifics, that would shed light on that without reading the report we wouldn’t get otherwise?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: The section that is primarily the target of censorship is a section that puts together the role of foreign governments in assisting terrorists in the United States prior to September 11. Why has this been censored? The stated reason is national security. I have read carefully the portion that has been censored as has Senator Shelby and there be an occasion, word or paragraph that could you justify that represents disclosure of sources methods but much of it is in my opinion the attempt to disclose ineptitude and the embarrassment that would come from such disclosure.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Shelby one of your House co-chairmen, Republican Porter Goss, said while he recognized a lot of was redacted he thought the reasons were “rationale..” what is your view?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: That’s the conman’s opinion. I have read this as late as yesterday and I believe that it might be embarrassing. Some of it, probably five, six, seven, that’s arbitrary percentage, should be classified. The other 92, 93 percent should, in my judgment, be declassified and let the American people see all this. Some of this might be embarrassing to some of the intelligence community but we’re past embarrassment; we’re talking about hard facts.

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: There are real consequences to censoring this information. The American people are precluded from knowing the full extent of their government’s activities. No one can be held accountable for some of the ineptitudes that are part of the censored materials, and there isn’t the momentum for reform and change that is critical in order to have an intelligence community that will adequately serve the interest of the security of the people of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both about a couple of other conclusions in the report going back to the pre 9/11 period. One was, Senator Shelby, was that the hijackers, at least the leaders were not the loners that early press reports portrayed them as being and that in fact they did have help not just from other foreign governments but other contacts in the U.S. some of whom the FBI knew about, that is knew about the contacts.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: They knew or should have known if they had followed up or shared information in a lot of instances. Without going into all this us they were not – I think subsequent investigations post 9/11 have shown that most of hijackers were not alone. Somebody was helping them and there’s evidence of who these somebodies are in certain instances.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Graham, I want to ask you about another thing that was new, at least to me, and I think it was previously classified, that there was also a missed opportunity overseas that the military actually had assets in the region to try to take out Osama bin Laden but didn’t. Explain that.

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: From 1999 through 2001, there were U.S. Naval submarines, ships near Afghanistan awaiting the call to launch Cruise missiles against Osama bin Laden. We did not however have sufficient operational intelligence that would tell the navy these are the cord naves, this is the time, fire on ready. And therefore, we may have missed some opportunities. I heard the comments that were made in the previous segment about the importance of walk-ins or volunteers.

I think more important is having old fashioned spies that are trained to get inside organizations like al-Qaida, can give you in real time what their plans and intentions are so that you can use your military assets effectively to eliminate a significant threat to the security of the people of United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Shelby was your report — are you critical of military for not taking action or are you critical of intelligence agencies for not being able to produce the so called actionable intelligence?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I think a lot of that blame goes right back — if you are blaming anyone on the inadequacy of the intelligence – not the inadequacy of the military. The military needed the intelligence to launch Cruise missiles to go into an area. They didn’t think they had the operational intelligence that Senator Graham alluded to a few minutes ago. That goes to the heart of reform in the future. We have to emphasize more and more on human intelligence which Senator Graham and I have been carping on for four or five years now.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Shelby the FBI Director Robert Mueller responded saying it was a snapshot of his agency prior to 9/11. That it was now a changed agency and that all or most of recommendations you all are making are being instituted. Do you believe that the CIA and the FBI, given the changes both have made since 9/11 could if confronted with a similar set of clues and leads and opportunities thwart an attack this time, unravel it and thwart it?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I spent a couple hours with the director down at the FBI headquarters and we went over the changes. In all honesty the director and the leadership at the FBI is turning the corner. I don’t believe they are there yet. They haven’t said that they are to the point where they want to be but the culture is changing.

I think they are getting better resources. They have got a long way to go. I think they want to change. They want to meet that. I hope that if they are confronted with another terrorist attack and we will be that the FBI and the other members of the intelligence community will be able to stop that. Luck counts, too, maybe we’ll be more lucky.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me briefly get senator graham’s view on that, whether the changes are enough?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: I also had a briefing recently at the FBI headquarters and it is impressive when Mr. Mueller and his colleagues are doing in terms of reforming the FBI. But in the case of San Diego no matter how efficient the FBI as our internal intelligence agency might become, unless they had gotten the information from our foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA, they would have been ignorant as we were in January of 2002 that two very bad people, who clearly had indicated that they were equipped and assigned to do evil in the United States, were about to enter the country.