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Panelists Question Informant for Bureau

Investigation: The subject rented rooms to two hijackers. The hearing is said to have been so productive that another is scheduled.

October 10, 2002|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As part of their probe of intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, congressional investigators have submitted written questions to an FBI informant in San Diego who rented rooms to two of the hijackers, a congressional source said Wednesday.

The source also said that the FBI agent who was the informant's handler in San Diego was among the officials who appeared before a joint congressional intelligence panel in closed session Wednesday.

The session was said to have been so productive that lawmakers decided to continue pursuing the matter in a second closed hearing today.

As a result, members postponed until next week a widely anticipated public hearing with CIA Director George J. Tenet and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. The two men instead will appear in closed session today to answer questions about the San Diego hijackers.

The developments underscore the extent to which lawmakers are focusing their probe on what intelligence agencies knew about Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who lived in San Diego and were among the hijackers who seized control of the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon.

Lawmakers recently disclosed that the CIA had identified the two men as Al Qaeda operatives 18 months before the attacks and had tracked them as they traveled into the United States, but had failed to notify the FBI or immigration authorities about them until shortly before Sept. 11, 2001.

The FBI has also come under scrutiny regarding Almihdhar and Alhazmi because the two men had rented rooms from a bureau informant in San Diego.

The congressional source said that the informant has not appeared before investigators, but that the intelligence committees have worked out a preliminary arrangement in which they will present questions to the informant and receive answers in writing.

FBI officials could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Lawmakers have been pressing for access to the informant. But the FBI has been reluctant to make him available, sources said, because exposing him might make it more difficult for the FBI to recruit other sources in the Arab American community.

In previous interviews, FBI sources have declined to identify the informant by name, but they stressed that the two hijackers blended into the community so effectively that they might not have aroused suspicions of even a reliable bureau informant who came into contact with them.

''Let's face it, the hijackers were in the country a long time and fooled everybody,'' said one FBI source.

''So if we had an informant [near] them ... and I am not confirming we did, that says more to me about how well these guys blended in'' than how an informant may have missed their plans.

The CIA on Wednesday also sent a letter to Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, informing him that the agency had decided to deny his request for the declassification of additional material on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or ties to Al Qaeda.

On Tuesday, the CIA found itself in the middle of a political tussle after releasing new information in which it said Iraq was unlikely to launch an attack against the United States unless provoked. Some Democrats said that analysis undercuts assertions by the Bush administration that Iraq poses an immediate threat.

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Times staff writer Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.

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