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Background: Intelligence Inquiries

September 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Five days of public hearings before joint congressional committee has revealed dozens of instances where the CIA and FBI received information well before September 11, 2001, indicating the United States was a potential target for a terrorist attack using a hijacked airliner.

ELEANOR HILL, Staff Director, Joint Intelligence Committee: From 1994 through as late as August, 2001, the intelligence community had received information indicating that international terrorists had seriously considered the use of airplanes as a means of carrying out terrorist attacks.

KWAME HOLMAN: Committee staff director Eleanor Hill has released three reports so far, the first laid out the many bits of information intelligence community officials had gathered over the last ten years, about terrorist plans and potential targets.

ELEANOR HILL: The Statue of Liberty was specifically mentioned, as were skyscrapers, ports, airports, and nuclear power plants. The source warned that the United States should not focus only on embassy bombings, that terrorists sought, “spectacular and traumatic” attacks, and that the first World Trade Center bombing would be the type of attack that would be appealing.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Hill also has described how even after the two embassy bombings in East Africa, in 1998, linked to al-Qaida, and even after CIA Director George Tenet’s declaration of war against Osama bin Laden, the urgency of the threat was not transmitted to many others.

ELEANOR HILL: While the FBI’S New York office was the lead office in the vast majority of counterterrorism investigations concerning bin Laden, many other FBI offices around the country were unaware of the magnitude of the magnitude of the threat.

KWAME HOLMAN: Last Friday, an FBI agent from the New York field office, whose identity was concealed, described his frustration in trying to pursue two suspected al-Qaida terrorists, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. They later became September 11 hijackers. The agency described a “wall” that restricted the free flow of information between the CIA and the FBI.

NY FBI FIELD AGENT: Briefly, “the wall,” and implied, interpreted, created, or assumed restrictions regarding it, prevented myself and other FBI agents working a criminal case out of New York field office from obtaining information from the intelligence community regarding Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi in a meeting on June 11, 2001. This resulted in a series of e-mails between myself and the FBI H.Q. Analyst working the matter. In my e-mails, I asked where this new wall was defined. I wrote on august 29, 2001: “Whatever has happened to this, someday someone will die, and, wall or not, the public will not understand why we were not more effective in throwing every resource we had at certain problems.”

KWAME HOLMAN: On Tuesday, the committee released its third report, focusing on the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested in Minneapolis a month before the September 11 attacks. Moussaoui, who has admitted ties to al-Qaida, had aroused suspicion by trying to buy training time on a jumbo jet flight simulator. The FBI field office in Minneapolis was on the case.

MINNEAPOLIS FBI FIELD AGENT: On August 15, once we received the information about Mr. Moussaoui, we initiated the intelligence case, and we worked extremely hard. This was the number-one priority on the squad that I was assigned to, until and through September 11, 2001. This was our full-court press. We had some other collateral cases, of course, and we didn’t neglect those. However, this was the brightest burning case.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was determined that Moussaoui had ties to Chechen rebels. But Staff Director Hill said the FBI’S radical fundamentalist unit believed that it was restricted from investigating Moussaoui under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

ELEANOR HILL: The RFU agent believed that the Chechen rebels were not a recognized foreign power, and that even if Moussaoui were to be linked to them, the FBI Could not obtain a search warrant under FISA. Thus, the RFU agent told the Minneapolis agents that they needed to somehow connect Moussaoui to al-Qaida, which he believed was a recognized foreign power. Unfortunately, this dialogue was based on a misunderstanding of FISA. The FBI’s deputy general counsel told the joint inquiry staff that the term “recognized foreign power” has no meaning under FISA, and that the FBI can obtain a search warrant under FISA for an agent of any international terrorist group, including the Chechen rebels. But because of this misunderstanding, Minneapolis spent the better part of three weeks trying to connect the Chechen group to al-Qaida. Ultimately, the RFU agent agreed to submit Minneapolis FISA requests to the attorneys in the FBI’S national security law unit for a review.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Hill also revealed that officials at the radical fundamentalist unit weren’t as concerned about Moussaoui, as was the FBI supervisor in Minneapolis.

ELEANOR HILL: During a conversation on august 27, 2001, the RFU unit at headquarters told the Minneapolis supervisor that the supervisor was getting people “spun up” over Moussaoui. According to his notes and his statement to the joint inquiry staff, the supervisor replied that he was trying to get people at FBI headquarters spun up because he was trying to make sure that Moussaoui “did not take control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Cofer Black, the former chief of the counterterrorism at the CIA, And Dale Watson, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, sat before the Joint Intelligence Committee and defended the conduct of their people during the weeks and months leading up to September 11.

COFER BLACK: The men and women of the counterterrorism center and those in the CIA who work counterterrorism are the finest Americans this country can produce. They are smart. They are quick. They are patriotic. They are loyal. They are brave. And they are hard working.

DALE WATSON, FBI Counterterrorism Official: We don’t do everything always right. But in the realm of counterterrorism that’s a judgment that we’re based upon or evaluated on. I’ve used this analogy before. We’re like a soccer goalkeeper. We can block 99 shots and no one wants to talk about any of those. The only thing anyone wants to talk about is the one that gets through.

KWAME HOLMAN: Public hearings before this committee will continue next week. But the information revealed, so far, prompted the Senate this week to join the House in voting to create an independent commission to conduct its own examination of the performance of U.S. intelligence leading up to the September 11 attacks.