WASHINGTON — A chilling new detail of U.S. intelligence failures emerged Thursday, when the Justice Department disclosed that about 20 months before the Sept. 11 attacks, a CIA official had blocked a memo intended to alert the FBI that two known Al Qaeda operatives had entered the country.
The two men were among the 19 hijackers who crashed airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
If the FBI had received the official communique from the CIA’s special Osama bin Laden unit when it was ready for transmittal in January 2000, its agents likely could have tracked down the men, according to U.S. intelligence officials familiar with a newly declassified report of the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Officials involved in the case of alleged would-be hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui had attempted to block release of the report, asserting that it would compromise the outcome of his case. But Inspector General Glenn A. Fine went to court and won release of the report after deleting the section on Moussaoui.
The report does not draw major new conclusions or disclose significant new episodes about the months and years leading up to Sept. 11. Rather, it fills in blanks and provides new details about previously known matters — notably the failure to learn sooner about Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, the so-called San Diego hijackers.
An 18-month delay in the CIA’s handing over of information about the two hijackers to the FBI and other domestic law enforcement agencies had been well-publicized. But the report’s conclusion that an agent had written a memo specifically designed for transmittal to the FBI to alert the bureau to the men’s presence — and that a supervisor deliberately had prevented it from being sent — is new.
The reason the CIA official, identified by the fictitious name “John,” put a hold on the communique remains a mystery, the report said. It said the officials involved didn’t recall the incident. Even when the author of the memo followed up a week later with an e-mail asking if it had been sent to the FBI, nothing was done.
The memo was written by an FBI agent on assignment to the CIA’s special Bin Laden unit. According to the report, rather than send his memo directly to the FBI, he sent it to the deputy chief of the CIA unit because only supervisors were authorized to send such memos to the FBI.
Fine’s report contains extensive new detail about that incident, as well as several already reported missed opportunities by the FBI to track down the two men.
The report stops short of concluding that any of the failures was responsible for allowing the Sept. 11 attacks to move forward. But it is sharply critical of the FBI and CIA, laying out in 371 pages a series of systemic and individual failures by the FBI in particular — both internally and when dealing with other U.S. and foreign government agencies.
The report was compiled after Congress and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III asked the inspector general to evaluate how the FBI had handled intelligence before the Sept. 11 attacks. More extensive inquiries were done by a joint House-Senate committee and by the federal 9/11 commission, which reached similar broad conclusions.
The report disclosed Thursday is an abbreviated version of a top-secret report submitted in July to the FBI, CIA, Congress and the commission that investigated Sept. 11.
In an interview Thursday, Fine said it would be “too speculative” to conclude that the attacks could have been prevented had it not been for the failures outlined in his report, which was based on interviews with dozens of FBI and CIA officials and a review of thousands of top-secret internal documents.
“But there were very significant failures, both systemic and individual, and we lay out the details behind them,” Fine said.
His report made 16 recommendations to improve the FBI, including better training and management of intelligence analysts, integrating FBI lawyers into counterterrorism investigations, and creating clear procedures on how to document intelligence information received in informal briefings with other agencies.
In a statement, the FBI said it generally agreed with the inspector general’s findings and was already carrying out most of them.
“We enhanced our cadre of intelligence analysts with hundreds of new hires, new training and a clear career path,” the FBI statement said. “We changed the criteria by which special agents, field offices and investigative programs are evaluated to emphasize intelligence-related functions.”
The report identifies five junctures, from March 2000 to August 2001, when there were opportunities for the FBI to learn about Almihdhar and Alhazmi and their presence in the U.S. Each episode has been previously reported, but not in such great detail.
The report documents day-to-day contacts among FBI, CIA and other officials — identifying them with names such as “John,” “Mary” and “Rob” and, in many cases, assessing their performance. It quotes extensively from e-mails they sent and handwritten notes they kept of meetings.
Typical was the mild criticism of an FBI employee, “Lynn,” for failing to respond to an e-mail from colleague “Jane” about the now-famous Phoenix memo.
That memo by an agent in the Phoenix bureau urged the FBI to investigate the enrollment of Middle Eastern men in aviation schools, but it was never acted upon.
“A response from Lynn may have prompted Jane to take some other step…. Instead … the [memo] languished,” the report said.
One of the well-known missed opportunities was the fact that Almihdhar and Alhazmi had rented a room in the Lemon Grove home of a well-established local FBI informant. In a footnote, the report discloses that the informant was paid $100,000 in 2003 for his work over the years. However, he never told his FBI handler important details about Almihdhar and Alhazmi, and said afterward that he had known nothing about their terrorist connections or plans.
The report does not name the informant, but he has been identified elsewhere as Abdussattar Shaikh.
The report’s findings come as the FBI faces continued criticism of its intelligence-gathering efforts, with some lawmakers and others calling for those functions to be taken over by another agency or by the new national intelligence director.
CIA officials had little comment, noting that the focus of the report was on the FBI’s performance before Sept. 11. Fine also noted that his scope did not include evaluating the CIA’s handling of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence.
Then-CIA Director George J. Tenet has vigorously disputed some of the criticisms of his agency, but Thursday attributed the CIA’s failure to turn over information about Alhazmi and Almihdhar to his agents’ being overwhelmed, exhausted and understaffed.
Days after a meeting of Al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia in January 2000, the CIA’s Bin Laden specialists drafted a flurry of memos about the two men, their suspected terrorist connections and Almihdhar’s possible ties to the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Some of the memos were based in part on intelligence provided by the National Security Agency. The CIA was also in possession of a photocopy of Almihdhar’s Saudi passport and valid multi-entry visa to the U.S.
Several cables from the CIA’s Bin Laden desk disseminated the information to agency officials around the world — including to one of the unit’s special agents detailed to the FBI’s Washington field office, according to Fine’s report.
That employee, “Dwight,” began drafting a memo addressed to the FBI’s Bin Laden unit chief at bureau headquarters and to its New York field office. The memo contained virtually all of the details known to the agency, including Almihdhar’s passport and visa information, which listed his intention to stay in New York.
But at 4 p.m. that day, another CIA Bin Laden desk officer, “Michelle,” added a note to the memo: “pls hold off on [memo] for now per [the CIA deputy chief of Bin Laden unit].”
Eight days later, in mid-January, “Dwight” sent an e-mail to “John,” asking why it hadn’t been sent: “Is this a no go, or should I remake it in some way.”
The CIA was unable to locate a response to the e-mail. Fine’s report concludes that the CIA didn’t turn over documentation of the electronic memo until Fine’s investigators came across a reference and specifically asked for it in February 2004. That came so late in the investigation that it delayed release of the report and caused many more CIA and FBI officials to be interviewed, the report says.
Ultimately, Fine’s investigators gave up trying to find an explanation.
Records show that the CIA didn’t forward the information about Almihdhar and Alhazmi to domestic law enforcement officials until late August 2001, when it asked that the men be put on watch lists.
Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report from Orange County.