Panel Says FBI Missed 9/11 Opportunities

By  | 

A more nimble FBI and CIA working together might have uncovered the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist plot, the commission investigating the attacks said Tuesday, laying out an agonizing series of missed opportunities, half measures and bureaucratic inertia.

In a written report, the panel also quoted former Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard as saying Attorney General John Ashcroft told him in the summer of 2001 that "he did not want to hear" additional information about possible attacks.

Ashcroft denies making the statement, the commission said.

The 10-member panel rolled out its conclusions to date at the same time it heard daylong testimony from a roster of top-ranking current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials, longtime ex-FBI director Louis J. Freeh and Ashcroft among them.

"We did not have great sources in al-Qaida," conceded Thomas Pickard, who was acting FBI director briefly at a critical period in the summer of 2001.

"We didn't have enough people to do the job and we didn't have enough money by magnitudes," added Cofer Black, former head of the CIA's counterterrorism activities. "When you run out (of money) people die. When people die you get more money," he said bitingly.

In one prominent case, the commission said officials did not immediately recognize the significance of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was taken into custody the month before the attacks on immigration charges while attending flight school in Minnesota. A dispute between FBI agents in the field and supervisors meant no search warrant was immediately obtained to search his computer, the commission said.

Nor was Pickard told after Moussaoui's arrest on Aug. 16, 2001 — less than a month before the attacks that resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,00 people.

And it wasn't until after the attack that the FBI learned that an imprisoned terrorist told agents he could have recognized Moussaoui from Afghan training camps run by al-Qaida.

Additionally, the commission said the FBI asked the British for help in identifying Moussaoui. "The case, though handled expeditiously at the American end, was not handled by the British as a priority amid a large number of other terrorist-related inquiries," it said.

The commission said that "a maximum U.S. effort to investigate Moussaoui could conceivably have unearthed his connections" to the plotters.

The hearing unfolded in the same Senate hearing room where national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testified last week and former counterterrorism aide Richard Clarke a few weeks before that. But there were empty seats this time, and the event lacked the electricity of those appearances, both of which were devoted largely to the question of what President Bush had been told about the terrorist threat and what he did about it.

One relative of a Sept. 11 victim, Nancy Aronson of Bethesda, Md., blinked back tears when commissioner Fred Fielding noted to Freeh that all counterterrorism systems had failed, allowing the hijacking plot to succeed. "I really was shocked that there wasn't more awareness of the threat," she said afterward.

In one report that adopted a sports metaphor to describe the nation's counterterrorism effort, the commission said the CIA preferred a zone defense, concentrating on "where" an attack might occur, not "who" would carry it out. By contrast, it said, the FBI focused more on individuals.

"A combination of the CIA's zone defense and the FBI's man-to-man approach might have been far more productive," it noted.

Among other findings:

_Pickard said he told FBI agents in charge of the bureau's field offices of an increased possibility of terrorism. But the commission said that during field office visits of its own, several personnel "did not recall a heightened sense of terrorism."

_The search for Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of the 19 9-11 hijackers, was slowed because of a question concerning the legality of sharing intelligence information with FBI criminal agents. Additionally, the search was "assigned to one FBI agent for whom this was his very first counterterrorism lead. By the terms of the lead, he was given 30 days to open an intelligence case and make some unspecified efforts to locate" him.

_Pickard told the commission he was briefed about a step the CIA was taking to investigate possible terrorist activity, but said he believed he had "no authority to brief the attorney general" about the matter.

Despite the lapses it detailed, the report stopped well short of claiming the worst terrorist strikes in the nation's history could have been stopped.

Even in the case of the man taken into custody after drawing the FBI's notice in Minnesota, it said, "A maximum U.S. effort to investigate Moussaoui could conceivably have unearthed his connections (to the plotters) though this might have required an extensive effort, with help from foreign governments. The publicity about the threat also might have disrupted the plot."

"But this would have been a race against time," it concluded.

The report recalled the nerve-racking months leading to the attacks, a period during which CIA Director George Tenet told investigators "the system was blinking red" at times with warnings of attacks at nonspecific times and places.

Freeh and former Attorney General Janet Reno took turns in the witness chair during a morning session that focused unstinting criticism on the FBI.

The bureau failed miserably over several years to reorganize and respond to a steadily growing threat of terrorism, and Ashcroft rejected an agency appeal for more funding on the day before al-Qaida struck, the commission said.

"On Sept. 11, the FBI was limited in several areas," the commission said in a staff report.

On the day of the attacks, "about 1,300 agents, or 6 percent of the FBI's total personnel, worked on counterterrorism," reported the commission investigating the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Freeh politely and firmly took issue with the findings.

"We had a very effective program with respect to counterterrorism prior to Sept. 11 given the resources that we had," he said.

But Reno testified that she had told Freeh "if we need to reprogram, let's do it."

More broadly, Reno said the FBI faced huge challenges in learning how to use all the information it collected on intelligence and criminal matters. "The FBI didn't know what it had. The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing," she said.

Asked whether the government had ever contemplated the use of planes as weapons, Freeh said the subject "was part of the planning" for the summer Olympic Games at Atlanta and other special events.

But he said, "I'm not aware of any such plan"being incorporated into routine air defense plan in Washington or elsewhere.


On the Net:

To read the commission's statement: