The Sept. 11 attacks on the US were preventable, but went undetected because of communications lapses between the FBI and CIA, which failed to share intelligence related to two of the hijackers, a congressional report scheduled to be released yesterday has concluded.
The report, by a joint committee of the House and Senate intelligence panels, found that for nearly two years before the attacks, the CIA knew about the terror connections between the two men, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhamzi, who in 2000 moved to San Diego, California, frequenting Muslim circles that had been infiltrated by FBI.
Some who have seen it said the report's central conclusion is that if the CIA had shared its information and if the FBI had used its informants more aggressively, the presence of al-Midhar and Alhamzi in San Diego offered "the best chance to unravel the Sept. 11 plot."
The report by the joint committee was described as a scathing critique of the FBI and CIA in the months before the attacks, concluding that country's main intelligence agencies failed to counter the al-Qaeda threat even though they had known for years that Osama bin Laden was determined to attack the US.
The report concludes that neither the FBI or CIA acted forcefully enough to collect intelligence from informants in the US and abroad.
Both agencies say they have worked to overcome their communication failings by creating a joint threat assessment unit and by exchanging far more information than in the past.
After nine public hearings and 13 closed sessions conducted last year, the joint committee report is the most comprehensive account yet of lapses that allowed 19 Arab men to hijack four commercial aircraft without being first detected by intelligence or law enforcement authorities.
The congressional inquiry has, in effect, set a higher standard for the broader investigation of the attacks now being conducted by a bipartisan commission headed by Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey. The commission is not expected to complete its review until next year.
Intelligence officials had said that the inquiry, which got off to a slow start, was unlikely to unearth fresh information. But it proved to be a significant irritant for counterterrorism officials who frequently complained about the searching examination of their activities before the attacks. In private, officials at the FBI and CIA have dismissed the report, saying it contains few new facts and conclusions that have long been known.
The report is the result of a behind-the-scenes battle between the committee and the Bush administration over classified information. One lengthy section of the report, relating to the cooperation of foreign governments like Saudi Arabia, has been deleted from the report, at the insistence of the administration.
While concluding that the attacks could have been stopped, the report does not blame either agency for overlooking specific information that would have thwarted the attacks. Providing fresh insights into some key events in the months before the attacks, the reports repeats some findings previously released by the joint committee, like the criticism of the CIA and FBI for their handling of issues related to al-Midhar and Alhamzi. The two Saudi Arabian men lived in the US undetected until after they boarded American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.