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Document Links Al Qaeda Paymaster, 9/11 Plotter

Congress: Declassified FBI chief's report describes for panel a scheme carried out so well that it 'operated without suspicion.'

September 27, 2002|GREG MILLER and JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — An Al Qaeda paymaster who disbursed money to the Sept. 11 hijackers shared a credit card account with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, establishing the first known link between the plot and the man U.S. officials believe conceived it, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told Congress in testimony that was declassified Thursday.

The tie to Mohammed--among the Al Qaeda operatives most wanted by U.S. officials--was spelled out in a detailed status report on the investigation of the attacks Mueller presented to lawmakers in June.

The document portrays a plot carried out with such professionalism and precision that the hijackers "operated without suspicion, triggering nothing that alerted law enforcement," Mueller said. "To this day we have found no one in the United States except the actual hijackers who knew of the plot."

Mueller then noted that Zacarias Moussaoui is the one exception to his remark. The French-born Islamic militant is in custody in suburban Washington, accused of being the intended 20th hijacker.

Mueller's written testimony was released Thursday during a hearing in which two top counter-terrorism officials at the CIA and FBI defended the performance of their agencies to lawmakers investigating intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11.

The CIA and FBI have come under criticism for missing numerous clues before the attacks and failing to share key information. Both officials expressed exasperation with such second-guessing.

The clues highlighted by lawmakers were part of "a maze of information and a sea of threats," said Dale Watson, who is scheduled to retire today as counter-terrorism chief at the FBI. "It's a lot easier to complete a maze if you start at the end."

At one point in Thursday's hearing, the antagonism between congressional investigators and agency officials surfaced in embarrassing fashion.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who has complained that the inquiry is demoralizing U.S. spy agencies, told witnesses that lawmakers had been advised in staff briefing materials Thursday that the CIA official likely would "dissemble," or deceive, when confronted with certain questions.

"I won't call it shameful, but it's damn close," Roberts said.

Cofer Black, head of the CIA's counter-terrorism center from 1999 through May of this year, reacted with indignation.

"This is so unfortunate," Black told lawmakers. "There's no one that I know that does counter-terrorism that would dissemble to representatives of the American people. Something is getting out of hand here."

In a statement issued later in the day, Eleanor Hill, director of the investigative staff, said the comment was a "poor choice of words" and had been included in briefing materials because of an editing oversight.

Black acknowledged lapses leading up to Sept. 11--including the agency's failure to put two of the hijackers on State Department watch lists when they were first linked to Al Qaeda in January 2000.

Doing so might have prevented the men from entering the United States, or enabled domestic law enforcement officials to locate and track them after they arrived.

But Black complained that the CIA was hamstrung by a lack of resources, noting that he was forced to make 30% cuts in counter-terrorism operations in recent years.

"Before Sept. 11, we did not have enough people, money or sufficiently flexible rules of engagement," Black said. "After Sept. 11, we did."

Several lawmakers reacted with skepticism, noting that CIA Director George J. Tenet had declared "war" on Al Qaeda in a 1998 memo and ordered that no expense be spared in the agency. A congressional aide said later that Congress has boosted counter-terrorism funding in every year but one since 1994. In 2001, funding remained flat at the administration's request.

Intelligence funding is poised for a historic increase this year under a bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday. A congressional source said the jump is in line with a measure that the House passed in July calling for an increase of about 25%.

Intelligence budget figures are classified, but are said to have hovered from $30 billion to $35 billion in recent years.

Through the release of Mueller's testimony, Thursday's hearing produced a number of new details about the Sept. 11 plot.

Authorities have long focused on Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi as a primary money man for the hijackers. Mueller said al-Hawsawi was in the United Arab Emirates "each time the hijackers were transiting" on their way to the United States to carry out the attacks.

Mueller also gave more details of the hijackers' activities in the U.S., indicating a professional level of coordination and an expertise at blending into the population.

Among the other disclosures in Mueller's statement:

* None of the hijackers are known to have used private computers, laptops "or storage media of any kind," instead using publicly accessible Internet links at various locations to elude detection.

* Khalid al-Mihdhar, monitored since at least 2000 by the CIA, is now believed to have been the coordinator and organizer of the 13 men who were considered to be the "muscle" on the planes.

* The teams of "muscle" operatives arrived in the United States in pairs, carefully spread out over a period of months and at various airports in proximity to where others in their cells were living. All came from the U.A.E., even though they were Saudi Arabian.

* During the summer of 2001, Mohammed Atta--the operational leader of the plan in the United States--met frequently with another hijacker who had previously been identified only as a low-level operative. Mueller said Atta and Nawaf al-Hazmi "appear to have met face-to-face on a monthly basis to discuss the status of the operation, and ultimately the final preparations for the attack."

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