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interview: Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.

Mohamed Atta gets a visa to come to the United States as a tourist. He very quickly becomes a student at a flight school. He leaves the country three times on that first tourist visa which has expired and he re-enters three times -- without having renewed that tourist visa -- and never gets himself a student visa to study at the flight school. I just wonder -- without going into anything classified, Senator -- what do you make of the way the INS handled Mohamed Atta?

... The fact that Atta was able to get a visa in the first place and then to abuse it by leaving the country and coming back even though it had expired is an indication of the atrocious way in which our INS operates. Unfortunately, it's not a singular or even unusual case. We have a dysfunctional system between the State Department, which is responsible for issuing visas, and the INS, which is responsible for processing people and determining that they have a legal right of entry into the United States. Then nobody deals with people once they're inside the United States to determine if they are complying with the conditions of the visa. ...

So do you think the INS should have stopped Mohamed Atta?

The INS should have stopped Atta when he kept leaving and coming back into the country with an expired visa. The State Department should have done a better job of tracking the visa that it had granted, and alerting the INS and other appropriate enforcement agencies that there was a person in the United States who had overstayed the visa and maybe, in his case, had misused the visa. If he came here under representations that he was going to be a tourist and ended up at a flight school, that in itself is a violation of his visa commitment.


Graham is the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He believes that the failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks was due to a lack of human intelligence resources and the failure of the intelligence agencies to effectively coordinate with each other. FRONTLINE interviewed Graham on Nov. 15, 2001.

Now, you're a licensed pilot, isn't that right?

Yes.

There was an incident when Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi flew a rented plane to the airport in Miami. They had engine trouble, the plane stalled, they left the plane on the taxiway, and other planes had to go around it. I just want to get your reaction to that as a pilot.

... This is one of the busiest airports in the world. The plane stayed there. He rented a car and drove back to the West Coast [of Florida] and nothing was done about it. What in the world was going on among the officials at the airport, the FAA, and law enforcement that would not have raised some alarm bells when a situation as bizarre as this had just occurred? ... When you have a trainee pilot who flies a plane into one of the busiest airports in America, it has a mechanical defect and he abandons the plane on the side of the runway -- that ought to send a signal to somebody that this needs to be investigated. ...

[T]his is one of the fundamental weaknesses of American intelligence. We collect literally millions of pieces of information every day. Some of those pieces of information should be signals as to an untoward event about to occur. Yet our ability to sift through all of the wheat to get down to the needles of value in there has proven to be inadequate. ...

And in that same vein -- and without disclosing any classified information and any details that you feel uncomfortable discussing -- do you think that the FBI was aggressive enough ... in the way it handled the arrest of Moussaoui in Minnesota?

From the information that we have today, it does not appear as if the FBI put a high enough priority on the Moussaoui case. Here you've got a dossier from the French indicating that this person has been associated with known terrorists. You have an experience in Minnesota where he goes to a flight simulator school; doesn't ask for training as to how you take the plane off or how you land the plane, only how you manipulate a large commercial jet in the air. That was sufficient to cause the operator of the simulator to bring it to the attention of the local FBI, but it wasn't sufficient to cause central FBI to say, "We need to conduct an aggressive investigation to find out what Moussaoui is up to."

[Atta left the U.S. and] returned three times with this expired visa. ... It is a gross collapse of our Immigration Service's responsibility that he was allowed entry.

If we had done that investigation, it might have been the beginning domino of a whole chain that would have led back to the plot that hit us on Sept. 11. ... This is part of its [the FBI's] culture, which is to wait until a crime has been committed, and then to undertake an investigation with the goal of finding out who committed the crime, bringing that person to trial and eventually to justice. We've got to change the orientation of our law enforcement agencies, and particularly the FBI, to be one of how to avoid the crime, the terrorist assault, occurring in the first place.

That's going to require more aggression. It's going to require the use of some of the new tools that were granted to the FBI in late October through the Anti-Terrorism Act relative to gathering information off the telephone, off the computer, tracking people more effectively once they get into the United States. All those are going to be critical if we're going to move from defense to offense in dealing with terrorists.

... [Imagine] you're sitting there in Minnesota. You're the head of the flight school there, or you're the head of the FBI office when the [report about Moussaoui] comes in. You're a licensed pilot and this guy wants to do that and you're saying, "What is going on here?"

... [Moussaoui's behavior] was sufficiently out of the ordinary to cause that flight simulator school to do a very unordinary thing, and that is to get on the phone and call the FBI and say, "I've got somebody in here -- Mr. Moussaoui -- who's asking for some very unusual flight instruction. I think you ought to check this guy out."

Does that say to you "hijacking"?

It doesn't necessarily say "hijacking," but it says, "This person is asking for a highly unusual use of the simulator." Most people who use simulators are already well-trained pilots and they are doing this to maintain their skills. You don't normally have a person who is as much a neophyte as Moussaoui was asking to come in and fly a 757 on a simulator.

Senator, let me change the subject. Are you confident that this Sept. 11 plot has links to bin Laden?

There were things that the CIA said immediately after Sept. 11: that the evidence was pointing increasingly towards bin Laden as the perpetrator; that the evidence was also indicating that he was not acting alone; that there were other global terrorist groups that were complicit in this; and, most alarming, that Sept. 11 was not intended to be a singular act but it was part of a larger plan and that there were other terrorist acts yet to be committed. And most of our attention for the past several weeks has been focused on trying to understand what those future acts of terrorist assault might be, and to disrupt them.

This is what the CIA said, but I'm asking you, Senator, as an independent political figure with an extremely important position in the Congress. If you're confident that this plot was linked to bin Laden, then what makes you confident that it was? Is it the money trail? Is it the communications? Is it the warnings bin Laden gave in advance? I'm ticking off a bunch of things. But what is it that convinces you personally that this was a plot run from Afghanistan by bin Laden's organization?

There's more than circumstantial evidence. There is an accumulation of past events which point directly at bin Laden as the principal perpetrator. He'd done this before. He'd been involved in attacks against U.S. interests in Africa, in the Middle East, as well as in the United States. Second, that he had provided the training that would have been necessary to carry out a complicated transaction such as this. Third, his own personal assumption almost in a celebratory way of responsibility for this are all key pieces of the evidence that point the finger at bin Laden as being the principal culprit. He might not have been the only culprit. There may have been other groups which had joined with him to carry this out. But that he was the prime instigator.

You keep referring to training. ... Are you convinced that some or all of these 19 hijackers were trained in Afghanistan by bin Laden's people?

There is evidence that many, if not most, of the people who were involved in this had had previous experience with bin Laden in Afghanistan in his training camps.

What about their communications? One of the things that has been impressive -- and depressive -- to people who have tried to understand and follow this case is the fact that they were able to do the communications they needed to do -- communications with Afghanistan, communications with people in Europe and communications among each other. ... Talk for a moment about this communications ability of theirs, what it says about their sophistication, and what it says about the problems we have penetrating that.

The hijackers had a phenomenal ability to be able to act together with, apparently, a limited amount of face-to-face or long-distance communication, which would indicate that there was a substantial amount of pre-planning before they came to the United States. ...

[T]hey're walking in the public libraries, they're going into the CyberZone Café in Las Vegas. They're using cell phones by the dozen. What does it say about what's changed? We're almost muscle-bound [in] dealing with people that are this agile?

Well, yes, our intelligence communication has been developed for a Cold War application. We're very good at listening on satellites or taking pictures from the sky of the former Soviet Union. Where we have fallen down is the agility to deal with these much smaller, more flexible and more violent terrorist groups that are now our enemy. ... [O]ur inability to intercept the communications that they were doing is an indication of how out of sync our current intelligence capability is with the challenges that we are facing. ...

In my judgment, the heart of our problem is that we're muscle-bound. We are very good if our enemy is the Soviet Union. But we have not developed the flexibility, the alacrity, the imagination, creativity of how to get inside the minds of these terrorists to determine what their motivations are, what their likely forms of attack will be, and to use that information both to defend ourselves against them but, more importantly, use that information to go after them aggressively.

The only way, in my judgment, that we're going to deal with terrorism is at the source, by an effective offensive effort to eliminate terrorism. We're too open and vulnerable a society to be able to protect ourselves against all the potential threats and assaults that they might launch against us. ...

[B]oth Murad and Ramzi went to jail; ... These guys said ... "One of the things we're thinking about is putting bombs on 11 airplanes and blowing them up, and another thing we're thinking about is dive bombing a plane." ...

How does that get lost? Let me ask you, do you take that idea seriously that they had thought six years ago about dive bombing planes into important buildings? And should it have been remembered? [Editor's Note: Abdul Hakim Murad was convicted of plotting in January 1995 to bomb 11 airliners from the U.S. over the Far East; Ramzi Yousef, Murad's accomplice in the airliner bombing plot, was convicted of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.]

Yes, it was a serious proposal that diving planes into buildings would be a form of terrorist assault, and it should have been taken seriously. But to put that in context, there probably were 100,000 other ideas that some terrorist had suggested on his or her computer or in a telephone conversation that we intercepted. There are an infinite number of vulnerabilities in a country as open as the United States. The only way you can really fight terrorism is not by retreating into your castle and playing defense. You've got to go out offensively and eliminate the terrorists, and that's what we're committed to do. ...

I'd like to get your assessment, looking back over the past decade, as to whether or not the CIA did a good enough job ferreting out the human intelligence that would have been necessary to tell us the specifics of Sept. 11.

There's no question that, over the last 15 or more years, the CIA's human intelligence has significantly degraded. It's degraded both in the number of our agents ... [and] in the lack of diversity of our agents. For most of the CIA's experience, our agents were trained to speak Russian. They understood Russian culture. They were reasonably effective against that one big enemy. But we don't have very many agents who speak Tajik or Pashtu or the kind of languages that are common in Central Asia. We don't have agents who are from that cultural background and understand the motivations and the attitudes of the people. And we have had to rely excessively on other countries' intelligence services in order to do what we should be doing for ourselves. ...

Are you saying that in a lot of ways, the intelligence failure here on the part of the CIA was that it was stuck in a Cold War mentality and a Cold War mode of operation, and it didn't attach high enough priority to terrorism as the threat?

Yes. The CIA is a product of the Cold War. It's still largely culturally oriented towards fighting the kind of intelligence war of the Cold War. It has not developed the alacrity, the flexibility, the smaller unit capability, the diversity of language and cultural understanding that's going to be necessary to conduct an effective intelligence war against terrorists. ...

Now, let me ask you about bin Laden's warnings. Bin Laden has made a number of statements about penetrating America. Interesting, that in the summer of 2001, he did say he wanted to create a sensational event, a holocaust in America. Now, I'm just wondering [whether you're] aware of those warnings, what you make of them and whether or not our intelligence and law enforcement people missed something very important.

Bin Laden has been making increasingly hostile statements towards America for a number of years and including through until today. So the fact that he was making these statements raised the general sense that we were under a heightened threat risk, but without the specificity to determine just what that risk might be. Was he talking about attacking another embassy in a foreign country? Was he talking about attacking a railroad system or an American seaport or a nuclear plant? What was this great new event that he was celebrating with his statements in the summer? What we've got to do is to increase our intelligence capability, so that we can convert these general threat assessments into enough specificity to be able to respond. That means that you've got to have a human being who's close enough to bin Laden to understand what his capability is, what his plans of intentions are, communicate that information back with enough time to interdict it. ...

What are the breakdowns that you see in our intelligence and law enforcement operation? ...

When we've completed the diagnosis of Sept. 11, these are the things that I believe we'll find to be the contributors to what happened: lack of coordination among critical agencies such as the CIA, the [INS], and the FBI; failure to analyze the information that we were collecting, such as a number of suspicious events and activities that were occurring in the spring and summer of 2001; the fact that we don't have an adequate human intelligence capability within our intelligence service -- we do not have someone who's close enough to bin Laden to be able to understand what his capabilities and intentions are; and the fact that our technology -- which works so well against the Soviet Union -- is less capable of dealing with the small, distributed, highly flexible, extremely violent terrorist groups that we're now trying to understand and control around the world.

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