According to The New York Times, the CIA acknowledged in a classified report submitted to Congress that the agency knew in early 2001 that Khalid al-Midhar, who died in the attack on the Pentagon, was linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.
The Washington Post and Associated Press reported that the connection means Midhar could have been placed on a watch list before he re-entered the country ahead of the hijackings and attacks of Sept. 11.
“We have no way of knowing what would have happened if these individuals had been put on a watch list earlier,” an unnamed intelligence official told the AP.
A Newsweek account said the CIA identified Midhar and another future hijacker, Nawaf Alhazmi, after they attended a meeting of suspected terrorists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in January 2000.
The CIA took the suspects more seriously after an investigation tied Midhar to one of the al-Qaida operatives who attacked the U.S.S. Cole during a stop in Yemen in October 2000.
The magazine also reported that the CIA did not inform the Immigration and Naturalization Service or the Federal Bureau of Investigations of the information until August of 2001.
On Aug. 23, 2001, after a CIA review of its terrorism files, the agency passed the names of the two men on to the INS. By then, the immigration agency found, Midhar and Alhazmi had already entered the country. The FBI opened an investigation into the two and was still searching when the hijackings occurred.
Newsweek quoted unnamed “U.S. counterterrorism officials” as saying the CIA’s failure “may be the most puzzling and devastating intelligence failure in the critical months before September 11.”
The news comes on the eve of Congressional hearings into intelligence efforts and possible failures before the attacks on New York and Washington.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the leading Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, complained Monday of “massive failures of intelligence at the CIA.”
“Assuming it’s true — I can’t confirm that on this program — I believe you are going to see a lot more instances like this where, if they had acted on the information they had and followed through, maybe things would be different,” Shelby said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “We don’t know.”