September 19, 2002
Probe to focus on hijackers from S.D.
Time is not right yet to air matter
By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Congressional investigators plan to shine a
spotlight on how two of the Sept. 11 hijackers who lived openly
in San Diego escaped detection despite being identified in 1999
as "possible associates" of al-Qaeda, the terrorist network that
launched the attacks.
But one top member of a joint Senate-House committee
investigating pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures appeared
uncertain about when the matter would be aired publicly.
"Again, this goes to the issue of can we get the individuals that we
need as witnesses and the information that we need declassified
to have a public hearing precisely on that issue," said Senate
Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla. "We are
not there yet."
One member of the panel, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said
intelligence information that should have alerted authorities to
Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi was "bungled" and they
were "inexplicably" kept off a State Department watch list until
just three weeks before the attacks.
The FBI's Los Angeles field office did not receive a request to
search for the two men until the day of the attacks, Eleanor Hill,
the staff director of the congressional investigation, said during
the first open hearing on the investigation.
"We're going to go into that particular case in much more detail
when we present our testimony or statement on the hijackers,"
she said. "We will . . . tell you what we've heard from people who
were handling that information at the time and why it slipped by
them. But I think you may hear everything from 'they had too
many things to do, it wasn't considered that significant, they
were overwhelmed,' and 'it was simply a mistake.' "
Appearing before the committee, spouses of two victims of the
attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center complained
bitterly about the failure of intelligence agencies to track down
al-Midhar and Alhazmi, who helped hijack the plane that
slammed into the Pentagon.
The two hijackers had lived in the San Diego area for all or part of
"Two of the hijackers . . . were known to the CIA before they
entered the country, were living as roommates with an FBI
informant," said Stephen Push, whose wife, Lisa Raines, died in
the Pentagon crash.
"They were eventually put on the watch list, but then they were
allowed to board the planes using their real names, as if the
airlines either didn't have the watch list or didn't consult it."
Push was referring to recent news reports that named
Abdussattar Shaikh, a Muslim leader from Lemon Grove, as an
FBI informant. Shaikh, who has denied the reports, rented a
room to al-Midhar and Alhazmi in 2000.
Hill said the two men first came to the attention of U.S.
intelligence officials in 1999 as "possible associates " of Osama
bin Laden's terrorist network. She did not elaborate on what
drew the attention.
Alhazmi and al-Midhar were observed at an al-Qaeda meeting in
Malaysia in January 2000, a few days before they entered the
United States through Los Angeles. But intelligence officials
didn't ask that their names be added to a State Department watch
list until Aug. 23, 2001, Hill said.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. Customs
had determined that at least one of the men was probably in the
United States, prompting FBI officials in Washington to request
searches for them in New York and Los Angeles, she said.
Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.