U.S. intelligence agencies could have better
analyzed information that pointed to Sept. 11, but
probably could not have prevented the attacks, the
attorney general and FBI director said Sunday.
Members of Congress' intelligence committees
promised to pursue intelligence gathering and
missed clues when closed-door hearings begin
Tuesday on why the terrorist hijackings were not
"We have got to do a better job of putting the
pieces together," said FBI Director Robert
Mueller, as a new report disclosed the failure of
intelligence agencies to share information on
suspected al Qaeda terrorists before Sept. 11.
In the latest development about pre-Sept.11
intelligence glitches, Newsweek reports the CIA had
tracked two of the September hijackers – but
didn't share it's information with the FBI or
other agencies until the two had disappeared in
the United States.
CBS Correspondent Joie Chen reports that
both the CIA and the FBI were watching the suspected terrorists during a meeting with al Qaeda
operatives in Malaysia, but both agencies
failed to report their travel from Malaysia to Los Angeles to the immigration service.
Such notice would have stopped them from
entering the U.S. The pair was on board
Flight 77 as it flew into the pentagon.
Newsweek says the FBI even put together a char to
show how the attack could have been stopped –
if it had the CIA's information. On Sunday,
however, FBI director Robert Mueller denied that.
"We have done a great deal of work in the
investigation that's taken place since Sept. 11th but
I'm unaware of any document fitting that description," Mueller said on CBS' Face The Nation.
Mueller also said the so-called "Phoenix memo" – in which an FBI agent warned about suspicious militants taking flight lessons – should have made its way to the CIA sooner
Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft said it was not likely that more coordination could have stopped the attacks.
"The information we now have does not indicate that there was a substantial likelihood of detecting this," Ashcroft said on ABC-TV.
But a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the investigation said the significance of that meeting increased after it became clear the two were associated with an alleged mastermind of the October 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole in Yemen. "In retrospect, we all could have done better," the official said.
Already the FBI has come under criticism for not pursuing warnings from a Phoenix field officer about Middle Eastern men training at American flight schools and for not cooperating with the Minneapolis office's investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, later indicted as a conspirator in the attacks.
Those kind of communications lapses will be reviewed by the joint House and Senate intelligence committees in their hearings, said Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate committee.
"Part of this goes right to the heart of communication between the various intelligence agencies. It has not been a flow of information when people needed it," Shelby said on NBC-TV.
"People talk a great deal about connecting the dots," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, ranking Democrat on the House committee. The intelligence agencies "didn't even see the dots, they didn't understand the salience of the dots."
At the same time, the chairman of the house committee urged Americans to be patient, saying it was a mistake to look at "one little part of the tapestry" of what went on before Sept. 11.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a public hearing Thursday at which Coleen Rowley, the Minneapolis FBI agent who wrote a letter to Mueller strongly critical of bureau headquarters' handling of the Moussaoui case, is expected to testify.
Ashcroft said that Rowley does not face dismissal because of the letter, which Mueller said he welcomed. "In order for the bureau to change we need to open ourselves up to suggestions as well as criticisms," the director said.
Mueller last week announced major FBI changes that were intended to better collect and analyze information about terrorist threats and place more emphasis on prevention.
President George W. Bush's administration also decided last week to issue new surveillance guidelines that allow the FBI to monitor Internet sites, libraries, churches and other places open to the public to help prevent domestic terrorism.
Critics of the expanded powers say they will infringe on civil liberties.
"We've got a wartime situation," Ashcroft said on CNN's "Late Edition." "We've got al Qaeda with real strength around the country and around the world. And we need to make sure that we're doing everything possible to prevent the next attack."
The FBI destroyed evidence gathered in an investigation involving Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network after the FBI's e-mail wiretap system mistakenly captured information to which the agency was not entitled.
The FBI software not only picked up the e-mails of its target "but also picked up e-mails on non-covered targets," said a March 2000 memo to agency headquarters in Washington.
"The FBI technical person was apparently so upset that he destroyed all the e-mail take, including the take on" the suspect, the memo said.
The episode was described in documents made public through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington advocacy group. The material was not included in an original release but became public after a federal judge ordered the bureau to give out more documents.
At issue was an investigation in Denver in which the FBI's bin Laden unit was using the bureau's Carnivore system to conduct electronic surveillance of a suspect under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant.
The suspect's name and other information identifying details of the investigation were marked out of the letter.
The memo surfaced as the FBI was addressing concerns it mishandled aspects of terrorism investigation prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. Those concerns include a warning from its Phoenix office about Arab pilots training in the United States last July.
As an outgrowth of that and other much-criticized FBI actions before the attacks, the agency is to form a new office of intelligence and strengthen its oversight of counterterror investigations.
Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller are expected to outline high-profile changes Wednesday at the FBI's headquarters, including closer ties to the CIA and an overhaul of the FBI's outdated computer systems.
FBI officials refused on Tuesday to discuss the Carnivore memo or the investigation it referred to. They did, however, say that the bin Laden unit at FBI headquarters handles only investigations involving suspected activity by his terror network.
Privacy groups and some members of Congress have complained that Carnivore had the potential to collect more information than allowed by a warrant.
"Here's confirmation of the fact that not only did it do that, but it resulted in a loss of legitimately acquired intelligence," said David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the group that sued to get the documents.
Authorities have used Carnivore-type tools more than 25 times in all types of criminal cases, to catch fugitives, drug dealers, extortionists and suspected foreign intelligence agents. Carnivore is now called DCS-1000.
The review panel, led by Henry Perritt, recommended that the FBI change Carnivore so that it is more difficult to accidentally collect too much information. The FBI has not announced any changes.