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THE NATION | RESPONSE TO TERROR

Intelligence Chiefs Tell Who Knew What, When

Hearing: FBI, CIA and NSA heads address congressional panel's questions about their failure to discover and stop the Sept. 11 attacks.

June 19, 2002|BOB DROGIN and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Two of the nation's top spymasters and the FBI director told a joint congressional panel for the first time Tuesday what they knew--and why they didn't know more--about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

CIA chief George J. Tenet, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the National Security Agency, told the closed-door session what they knew about the Sept. 11 attacks at the time and what they have since discovered by studying their files for missed warnings and clues.

Committee members hinted that they had picked up on ''new information'' about missed warning signs, but no details emerged from the hearing.

Members said the three agency chiefs delivered lengthy classified briefings on how Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network has used a compartmentalized cell system and strict operational security to prevent penetration by outsiders.

''It was very comprehensive,'' Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told reporters during a break.

Graham said the chief ''topic for today'' was the Sept. 11 plot, from the original concept of turning passenger planes into guided missiles through the recruitment, training, financing, coordination and command structure of the four skyjacking teams.

Graham said the Sept. 11 planning apparently started shortly after Al Qaeda operatives detonated truck bombs under the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in August 1998. The blasts killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and put Bin Laden in the public spotlight.

He said Al Qaeda ''tends to be a repetitive organization,'' with three years between the time they identify a target and actually attacking it. But since several plots may be underway at one time, he added, ''they tend to hit a target about once every 12 to 18 months.''

U.S. authorities believe that the Sept. 11 plot probably was conceived and broadly directed by Al Qaeda leaders then in Afghanistan; planned by a cell in Hamburg, Germany; funded with money wired from the Middle East; and carried out by zealots who mostly had legally entered the United States.

Only two people alleged to be part of the plot are known to be in custody. Al Qaeda's operations leader, Abu Zubeida, was captured in March in Pakistan and has undergone extensive interrogation by the FBI and the CIA. French citizen Zacarias Moussaoui was in an immigration jail in Minnesota on Sept. 11 and now awaits trial on charges of conspiring with the hijackers.

Numerous other alleged terrorists, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who allegedly conceived of the plot and may have helped recruit the Hamburg cell, remain at large.

Tenet's and Mueller's statements took most of the two-hour morning session, and Hayden spoke in the afternoon. Four committee members--Sens. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Reps. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Jane Harman (D-Venice)--were designated to lead the questioning.

Chambliss told reporters that he wanted to ask about ''what appear to be very overt deficiencies'' in the collection and analysis of intelligence. Other members indicated interest in communication lapses, inadequate spy technology and poor coordination of the spy services.

Aides said Mueller would face questions about the FBI's failure to aggressively investigate Moussaoui before Sept. 11, and why it ignored a July memo from an Arizona agent recommending that flight schools be checked for potential terrorists.

Tenet was to be grilled on what the CIA knew about two skyjackers whom it first tracked at a meeting in Malaysia in January 2000. Both men soon entered the United States, but the CIA didn't warn the FBI about them until much later.

The NSA has largely escaped public notice, but several lawmakers pressed Hayden about ''what they had known'' before Sept. 11, according to a Senate aide who asked not to be identified.

The NSA is responsible for intercepting communication, from telephones to e-mails, of America's adversaries around the world and breaking the codes they use. It has the largest staff of America's 13 intelligence agencies and, at $7 billion, a budget larger than the CIA and the FBI combined.

''NSA collects a lot of information,'' the aide said. ''They translate only a portion of it, they analyze only a smaller portion of that, and they disseminate even a smaller portion of that. That's something the committee wants to scrutinize.''

James Bamford, author of two books on the NSA, said that the global explosion of cell phones and Internet access has hampered the NSA's ability to monitor terrorist groups.

''Technology has now become NSA's enemy to a large degree,'' he said. Terrorists ''are very careful in communication security,'' he noted, and are harder to track than the NSA's chief Cold War targets. ''It has to be totally retooled for these types of demands.''

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