Union Tribune

September 20, 2002 

Official: Tip-off about 2 hijackers was too late

By TOBY ECKERT 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON If intelligence agencies had tipped off the
State Department sooner about two of the Sept. 11 hijackers
thought to have links to al-Qaeda, they probably could have been
kept from entering the United States, a top State Department
official told lawmakers yesterday.

While Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage did not
mention the hijackers by name, he clearly was referring to two
Saudi men who lived openly in the San Diego area during 2000.

In 1999, U.S. intelligence identified Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf
Alhazmi as "possible associates" of al-Qaeda, the terrorist
network blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks, congressional
investigators say. They were spotted at an al-Qaeda summit in
early 2000.

But intelligence officials didn't ask that their names be put on a
State Department watch list until Aug. 23, 2001, more than a year
and a half after they entered the United States.

"The next day, every consular office in the world had the
information . . . that these individuals were a concern, but by that
time they had already received visas and were in the United
States," Armitage said in testimony submitted to a joint
Senate-House committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

"If we had had the information sooner, it is reasonable to believe
these two criminals would never have entered the country in the
first place.

"If we had had these two pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in advance,
could we have seen the whole picture and prevented the attacks?
Perhaps. But I don't believe that is a question we will be able to
answer wit h any certainty," Armitage said.

At least one other alleged Sept. 11 conspirator, Ramzi Binalshibh,
was repeatedly denied visas to enter the United States. But the
plot went forward anyway. Binalshibh was recently arrested in
Pakistan.

It is unclear why al-Midhar and Alhazmi weren't added to the
watch list sooner, and why they were still able to board an
airplane on Sept. 11 using their real names. The plane was
hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon.

The committee is expected to look at the issue more deeply today,
when it hears a report on what its investigative staff has learned
about the Sept. 11 hijackers. 

A CIA officer, an FBI agent and a former FBI official are also
scheduled to testify.

Armitage said steps have been taken to improve
information-sharing within the intelligence community. For
instance, he said, CIA contributions to the State Department
watch list database have increased 450 percent since Sept. 11.

"But our level of interaction including with local law enforcement
is still not where it needs to be," he acknowledged. "The
channels for sharing information are not well-established. That is a
function of the past legal framework, changed by the Patriot Act; a
function of the historical record on such cooperation; and a
function of the culture. This will take time and effort to change."

The Patriot Act, passed by Congress after the attacks, eliminated
some of the barriers between intelligence-gathering and law
enforcement.