San Diego Union Tribune

April 16, 2004

FBI didn't press to start search for terror figure
Tip seen as 'routine' matter, report says

By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON Despite a surge in terrorist threats in summer 2001, the FBI treated the effort to locate a man who became one of the key Sept. 11 hijackers as a "routine" matter, according to details that have emerged about two of the terrorists who were based in San Diego before the attacks.

Two days of hearings this week by the independent commission investigating the attacks have renewed questions, first raised in congressional hearings in 2002, about the failure to detect and possibly avert the attacks. The decision not to launch a more aggressive manhunt for Khalid al-Midhar was one of three missed or bungled opportunities to locate him and his cohort Nawaf Alhazmi in 2001, according to reports by the commission's staff.

The missed opportunity was among the blown chances dating to 2000, when the pair settled in San Diego and lived with a man who has been described as an FBI informant.

The pair "could have been held for immigration violations or as material witnesses in the Cole bombing case" given their presence at an al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia in January 2000, where the bombing of the destroyer is believed to have been discussed, one report by the commission's staff concluded.

"Investigation or interrogation of these individuals, and their travel and financial activities, also may have yielded evidence of connections to other participants in the 9/11 plot."

The Cole was attacked Oct. 12, 2000, in the port of Aden, Yemen, killing 17 sailors.

The search for al-Midhar was assigned to an FBI agent in New York al-Midhar's last known location. The agent, who was handling his first counterterrorism search, didn't start the effort until a week after receiving an Aug. 28 lead from an FBI analyst. Because the lead was marked "routine" by the analyst, the agent had up to 30 days to open the case.

"Notably, the lead did not draw any connections between the threat reporting that had been coming in for months and the presence of two possible al-Qaeda operatives in the United States," the report to the commission said.

Thomas Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey and the commission chairman, called the staff reports an "indictment" of the FBI and of the CIA, which failed to pass crucial information about al-Midhar and Alhazmi to the bureau.

Thomas Pickard, who was acting director of the FBI from June 25 to Sept. 4, 2001, defended the bureau, saying the information about al-Midhar and Alhazmi was sketchy and agents were dealing with a flood of information at the time.

" . . . All we knew was that they were to be put on the visa watch list and we should attempt to locate them. The FBI did not know whether they had departed the United States and we certainly had no information, none, that they were here to carry out an act of terrorism," he told the commission at a hearing Tuesday.

Though the CIA knew in January 2000 that al-Midhar had a multiple-entry U.S. visa and was informed in March 2001 that Alhazmi had entered the United States, the agency apparently did not share the information with the FBI.

The incident has highlighted a number of intelligence and law enforcement problems that stymied counterterrorism efforts before Sept. 11. The problems included poor sharing of information between the CIA, FBI and other agencies and uncertainty about the legal distinctions between intelligence gathering and criminal investigations.

"Our failure to watch-list Alhazmi and al-Midhar in a timely manner, or the FBI's inability to find them in the narrow window of time afforded to them, showed systemic weaknesses and the lack of redundancy," CIA Director George Tenet told the commission Wednesday.

In January 2001, the CIA linked al-Midhar to a suspected leader of the Cole bombing, but the commission staff said it found no evidence that the CIA renewed its effort to locate him. Al-Midhar was out of the country at the time, and, because he was not on a watch list, he was able to get a new visa and return to the United States in July 2001.

As terrorist threat reports surged in May 2001, two CIA officials reviewed cables from early 2000 that included the U.S. travel information about al-Midhar and Alhazmi. But because the CIA was focused on the possibility of terrorist attacks outside the United States, no action was taken to locate them.

The FBI unearthed information about al-Midhar and Alhazmi in July and August 2001, after a CIA official asked an FBI counterpart to review all of the information related to the al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia.

Former Attorney General Janet Reno told the commission, "I haven't been able to find, with respect to the one instance of the two who came into this country and how we just missed them, what prevented anybody from sharing" information.

But her successor, Attorney General John Ashcroft, put the blame squarely on 1995 Justice Department guidelines, issued under Reno's watch, that he said erected a "wall that segregated criminal investigators and intelligence agents."

"In the days before Sept. 11, the wall specifically impeded the investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi," Ashcroft said. Moussaoui, a suspected al-Qaeda operative, was arrested in August 2001 after concerns were raised about his flight training in Minnesota.

Jamie Gorelick, a member of the commission and the author of the 1995 guidelines that Ashcroft criticized, noted that the Bush administration chose to keep the guidelines in place after it took office in January 2001. The guidelines were in force Sept. 11.