- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

Twenty months before the September 11, 2001, attacks, the CIA knew but never told the FBI that two of the al Qaeda hijackers were in California, where they befriended a Saudi national who was the focus of an FBI investigation and rented a room from an FBI informant, according to a report yesterday.

The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, in the 371-page report, documented “at least five opportunities” for the FBI to have learned about the presence in the U.S. of Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi “that could have led to an earlier investigation.” The two al Qaeda terrorists helped commandeer American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon.

The unclassified but redacted report also said the “limited information” that was given by the CIA to the FBI never was documented by the bureau or placed in any system from which it could be retrieved by agents investigating terrorist threats. It said FBI supervisors lacked adequate oversight of agents assigned to work with the CIA and failed to give counterterrorism investigations priority.

“We cannot say whether the FBI would have prevented the attacks had they handled these matters differently,” said Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. “Such a judgment would be speculative and beyond the scope of our inquiry.”

“But … the way the FBI handled these matters was a significant failure that hindered the FBI’s chances of being able to detect and prevent the September 11 attacks.”

The FBI, in a statement, said it has “undergone a transformation aimed at strengthening” its ability to predict and prevent terrorist acts and has taken “substantial steps” to address problems outlined in the report. It said most of the inspector general’s recommendations have “either been completed or are well underway.”

The report, whose contents have been discussed publicly but in significantly less detail, also questioned the handling by FBI supervisors of an e-mail from an agent in Phoenix, who suggested Osama bin Laden was sending al Qaeda members to flight schools in Arizona, and a memo from FBI agents in Minneapolis, who had focused on the activities of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person since indicted as a part of the September 11 conspiracy.

Information on Moussaoui was deleted because his case is pending in federal court in Alexandria.

The report said al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar traveled to San Diego after arriving in the United States in January 2000, where they met with Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national who had been under investigation by the FBI for two years — although the probe had been closed in June 1999. Al-Bayoumi helped them find a place to live.

The report also said the two men rented a room from an FBI informant, whose “handler” was an agent in San Diego and who remained as an FBI “asset” until the agent retired in 2002. The unidentified informant declined to be interviewed for the report.

According to the report, the FBI did not discover that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were in the United States until “shortly before the September 11 attacks,” but that a follow-up investigation was done “without much urgency or priority.”

It said that while FBI agents in New York wanted to pursue information they received in August 2001 that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were in the city, they were “specifically prohibited from doing so” by supervisors concerned about keeping criminal and intelligence investigations separate — which the report described as “the wall.”

According to the report, one frustrated agent said in an e-mail at the time: “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.”

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