- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

CIA Director George J. Tenet declared "war" on Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network in 1998 but had only five agency analysts assigned to study the group at the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress was told yesterday.
The CIA and FBI also failed to recognize the danger of an aircraft attack by Islamic terrorists inside the United States despite numerous reports of an impending strike, an interim staff inquiry of a joint House and Senate intelligence review panel revealed.
Collectively, the reports "reiterated a consistent and critically important theme: Osama bin Laden's intent to launch terrorist attacks inside the United States," Eleanor Hill, the panel's staff director, said in testimony before the review committee.
It was the first public hearing of the panel, which met 10 times in secret. Mrs. Hill also disclosed that:
The National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on global communications, reported at least 33 communications intercepts indicating an "imminent" terrorist attack from May to July 2001. The intercepts did not include specific locations, timing or methods of attack.
Despite numerous intelligence reports indicating a potential terrorist attack inside the United States, the general view of U.S. intelligence agencies in the spring and summer of 2001 was that an attack was likely to occur outside the country.
Intelligence reports between March and July 2001 referred to an increased danger of attack, but only a small portion referred to the danger as coming from bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Despite that, authorities didn't alert the public and did little to "harden the homeland" against an assault, Mrs. Hill said.
Just two months before the attacks, a briefing for senior government officials said that, based on a review of intelligence over five months, "We believe that [bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks."
"The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning," it said.
More than 3,000 people were killed in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by three hijacked airliners used as missiles. A fourth aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers fought back against their hijackers.
"We now know that our inability to detect and prevent the September 11 attacks was an intelligence failure of unprecedented magnitude," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"Some people who couldn't seem to utter the words 'intelligence failure' are now convinced of it," he said.
The committee staff reviewed 400,000 intelligence documents and interviewed more than 400 intelligence officials as part of an inquiry into why U.S. intelligence agencies failed to detect and prevent the al Qaeda plot.
According to Mrs. Hill, U.S. intelligence agencies had received information from 1994 to August 2001 indicating that terrorists "seriously considered" using aircraft in attacks.
"While this method of attack had clearly been discussed in terrorist circles, there was apparently little, if any, effort by intelligence community analysts to produce any strategic assessments of terrorists using aircraft as weapons," Mrs. Hill said.
After questions were raised in the spring about what President Bush knew about terrorist threats before September 11, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said the threats were vague and uncorroborated.
"I don't think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile," Miss Rice said then. "Had this president known a plane would be used as a missile, he would have acted on it."
An intelligence official defended the lack of analysis on the use of aircraft by terrorists, saying hijacking jets was "viewed as one of many possible methods."
"It all seems apparent with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight," the official said. "Still, [an estimate] would not have provided the specific information, the when and where, that would have prevented the September 11 attack."
Mrs. Hill said the CIA refused to declassify documents related to intelligence reports sent to the White House and on the identity of one of the September 11 plot leaders.
"These public hearings are part of our search for truth, not to point fingers or to pin blame, but with the goal of identifying and correcting whatever systemic problems that might have prevented our government from detecting and disrupting al Qaeda's plot," Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said at the hearing.
Regarding Mr. Tenet's declaration of war on al Qaeda, the CIA director wrote to several deputies after the August 1998 al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa that "we must now enter a new phase in our efforts against bin Laden."
"We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort," he said.
Yet despite Mr. Tenet's declaration, "There was no massive shift in budget or reassignment of personnel to counterterrorism until after September 11, 2001," Mrs. Hill said.
The CIA's Counterterrorist Center, "had only three analysts assigned full-time to bin Laden's terrorist network worldwide," she said. "After 2000, [but before September 11, 2001] that number had risen to five."
At the time of September 11, the FBI had only one analyst at FBI headquarters focused on al Qaeda, she said. A CIA official said the center had nine analysts assigned to bin Laden and al Qaeda and additional analysts on other terrorism issues.
According to the 30-page report Mrs. Hill read during her testimony, the arrest on Aug. 16, 2001, of Zacarias Moussaoui was mishandled as the result of an internal debate about whether he was an agent of a foreign power a requirement for conducting surveillance of him. Moussaoui, who sought flight instruction but did not request landing lessons, was not placed under surveillance.
She also said the FBI mishandled an investigation into two men who would become hijackers aboard the aircraft that hit the Pentagon. The FBI failed to find Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi after being warned they were in the United States.
Kristen Breitweiser, chairman of a group of September 11 victims' families, testified before the panel that a high-level government commission should be formed to further investigate the matter.
"The families of the victims of September 11 have waited long enough. We need to have answers. We need to have accountability. We need to feel safe living and working in this great nation," said Mrs. Breitweiser, whose husband was killed in the attacks.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage are scheduled to testify before the panel today, congressional aides said.

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