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Investigation Update

September 15, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SPENCER MICHELS: Attorney General John Ashcroft said investigators are making steady progress in their attempts to figure out who was behind the terrorist attacks on America.

JOHN ASHCROFT: Four days ago, we began an investigative effort to understand not only those who perpetrated this heinous assault against America and free people every where but to develop an understanding of those who are associated with it and how it was conducted. The FBI, together with very cooperative local and state officials and law enforcement agencies, has processed thousands of leads. We are making the kinds of contacts and developing the information that allow us to describe this as proceeding with reasonable success. And we believe that the picture is developing a kind of clarity that’s appropriate. We’ve named 19 individuals that we have high levels of confidence were the hijackers, and we are further refining our understanding of the ways in which this terrible crime was developed.

SPENCER MICHELS: There’s been one arrest so far. An unidentified man detained at New York’s Kennedy Airport Tuesday night and is now in custody as a material witness. Meanwhile 25 people have been taken into custody — some on alleged immigration violations. They are among 100 people that the FBI say they want to interview. They include these two men: Ayub Ali Khan, 51, and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, 47. They were removed from an Amtrak train in Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday after they were found carrying box-cutting knives and $5,000 in cash. The two men had boarded a plane in Newark that was heading to San Antonio on Tuesday. But their plane was diverted to St. Louis. From there, the two men took a train bound for San Antonio. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Jamal Jarrah, whose nephew Ziad — was one of the 19 identified by the FBI as hijackers — said Ziad was not a terrorist, despite the fact that police in Germany found airplane-related documents in his girlfriend’s apartment.

JAMAL JARRAH: We don’t think that Ziad is involved in any way or connected in any way to the terrorist party. He might be one of the passengers on the flight. That’s all that we know up to now, and we are not sure that he is the same person that the media is talking about.

SPENCER MICHELS: And late Friday search teams recovered the cockpit voice recorder for United Flight 93 that crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania on Tuesday. The cockpit recorder was sent to the National Transportation Safety Board for analysis.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: To bring us up to speed on the investigation, we’re joined by two journalists who are following it closely: Evan Thomas, Assisting Managing Editor at Newsweek Magazine; and Jill Abramson, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times. Welcome to you both. Evan, beginning with you, Newsweek this afternoon, on its Web site, broke a new development linking the hijackers to Osama bin Laden. Tell us about it.

EVAN THOMAS: Well, it turns out that we were tracking a couple of these hijackers. When the CIA saw the list of the 19, they went, “oh, no,” because on August 21, they sent a message to the Immigration Service saying, “keep an eye out for this one fellow,” who had actually been videotaped in Koala Lumpur, talking to one of the plotters in the USS “Cole” bombing. That’s the bin Laden link. This is a bin Laden associate talking about to another bin Laden associate about the “Cole” bombing. They said to the INS, “keep your eye out for that guy.” The INS said he’s already in the country. They found out he was in the country with another man. The FBI went looking. The man had listed their address as the Marriott Hotel in New York. There are ten Marriott Hotels in New York. They were still looking for these two men when the planes plowed in on Tuesday.

MARGARET WARNER: And what both of these men are now identified as hijackers on the plane that hit the Pentagon?

EVAN THOMAS: Yes, that’s right; both on that flight that hit the Pentagon.

MARGARET WARNER: What other links, Jill, have investigators been able to establish to bin Laden or his network?

JILL ABRAMSON: Well, that’s what they’re going after. I think when Attorney General Ashcroft talks about clarity, what they have are links between the 19. What’s so significant about this new development, as it appears to be a direct tie to bin Laden.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, tell us more about the links among the 19 and what they’ve learned about how these men operated and, you know where they lived, where they came from.

JILL ABRAMSON: Right. One of the most important and intriguing links is clearly the commonalty of flight training, that at least seven of the nineteen hijackers were trained pilots, and many of them attended the same flight training schools. And that’s a very important piece of evidence that seems to tie them together. Some of them lived together in apartments in different cities in Florida. They’ve tracked one of the hijackers all the way back to Hamburg where the Times has…

MARGARET WARNER: In Germany.

JILL ABRAMSON: In Germany. A man named Mohammed Atta, who’s 33 years old and was one of the hijackers on the plane that hit the first World Trade Center tower.

MARGARET WARNER: Many of them, Evan, had lived in the U.S. for quite a while.

EVAN THOMAS: Yeah. One of the disturbing things about this is just that, that they call them sleepers, people who are inserted to blend into a society. These were not downtrodden, oppressed young Islamic radicals — your image of a suicide bomber. These are middle class people. They’re in their 30s. One of them had a family. They were engineers; they went to technical schools. As Jill said, I think seven of them are trained as pilots. And one of them graduated from flight school in 1997. That’s four years ago. That speaks a long lead-up time here — clearly at least a year of training for this terrible thing.

JILL ABRAMSON: In the case of Mr. Atta, we know that he was in Florida beginning his flight training in July of 2000. So it’s been some time.

MARGARET WARNER: And I think the Times reported today that some of them were observed, for instance, drinking alcohol, which is not…

JILL ABRAMSON: Right. In fact, in the case of Mohammed Aatta, back in Hamburg where he was an engineering student, he liked to hang out at a billiard hall called Sharky’s.

EVAN THOMAS: Oh, it goes on and on. He rented the video “Vampire.” He wore black blue jeans at the same time as he was wearing Arabic dress, or rather Islamic dress when he went out. They were able to live in both worlds. That’s what’s so scary about this.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about – first of all, let’s talk about these arrests as material witnesses. We have reported that there have been one of these men detained earlier in the week. Then I’m just told that this Justice Department has been announced that there’s been a second arrest as a material witness. What does that mean?

JILL ABRAMSON: Well, it means that they want to keep these people for questioning. We should underscore that no one yet has been charged with a crime connected with any of these attacks and how significant these two material witnesses are, we don’t know. We know one of them was a gentleman who was attempting to board a plane at JFK Airport on Thursday night, and he was carrying a pilot’s license that appeared to belong to his brother. Other than that, we don’t know much at this point. And this new material witness who’s been detained, we really have only begun to learn about.

MARGARET WARNER: And then Evan, what are we to make of… the FBI also said they had 100 other people that they wanted to question, and that 25 I guess they already have in custody, what, on immigration charges?

JILL ABRAMSON: Right. They’re in the custody of the I.NS, and they can be held for an indeterminate period of time for immigration violations of various kinds.

EVAN THOMAS: The disturbing report from intelligence, intelligence sources that “Newsweek’s talked to, is that they think that there are maybe 30 teams out there. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re lying in wait ready to spring.

MARGARET WARNER: Cells?

EVAN THOMAS: Cells, teams, whatever you want to call them, small groupings. One intelligence official used the estimate of 50, which sounds outlandish. Another used 30. But in any case, an awful lot of these groups are out there. Again, they’re not saying they’re going to strike tomorrow but their existence and the fact that we don’t know where they are is pretty disturbing.

JILL ABRAMSON: Another deep concern seems to be that there are more people that they know about with this flight training. I think, again, that’s a real emphasis in this investigation.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean people who had the flight training maybe even with some of these other hijackers but weren’t on these planes?

JILL ABRAMSON: Correct, who were not among the 19.

MARGARET WARNER: Does that help explain, Evan, or what helps explain till the– still the very tight security certainly we’re seeing here in Washington, the fact that we’re still having… that they do have surveillance flights over maybe dozens of U.S. cities. I mean does the U.S. Government… Is it just precautionary, or do they have reason to believe that there could be other attacks?

EVAN THOMAS: It’s both the jitters. I mean it’s a little bit like the night after Pearl Harbor when our anti-aircraft guns were shooting at anything that moved. There’s a bit of overreaction, understandable, natural overreaction. And there is a genuine sense of insecurity because there are these other groups that are out there, and if they did what they did on Tuesday– and who says it’s going to be another plane, you know? — We could be fighting the last war by looking at Tuesday. They may find some new way to use our technology against us.

MARGARET WARNER: One of the things, Jill, that both Colin Powell, all the way down the line, has been asking for or demanding is real cooperation from law enforcement and in other countries. Now, I don’t know they don’t talk a lot about this, but how much do you know about how much cooperation and working together is going on in that way?

JILL ABRAMSON: I think we’re pressing very hard for cooperation in the Middle East. It’s clear that part of the reason that we have a clearer picture about Mr. Atta is that we’re getting information out of Germany, and I think that’s one of the really critical issues right now for this investigation is press, pressing for information out of the countries where these 19 hijackers came from.

MARGARET WARNER: What can you add to that?

EVAN THOMAS: Intelligence services don’t like to share information. They don’t like to share them within the United States, the intelligence services don’t want to share, so this would be a new development. But, as Jill said, there’s unbelievable pressure on these groups to share, and hopefully something will come of it.

MARGARET WARNER: And there has been… I notice there was a story in the papers today about some guy that they questioned in Manila that now they think… I mean it does sound like at least they’re pooling some information.

EVAN THOMAS: The CIA has always worked with foreign intelligence services. I mean they do most of the dirty work, frankly. We don’t have the agents to do it. We hope they’re going to do more dirty work for us in the weeks and months ahead. But this underscores the global nature of this. This is all over the world. We are fighting a world war.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Evan Thomas, Jill Abramson, thank you both very much.