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The Nation

9/11 Report: No Evidence of Critical Mistakes

July 23, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A long-awaited congressional report looking into the events leading up to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, broadly criticizes the U.S. intelligence community for failing to anticipate the possibility of such an attack, but finds no specific evidence that officials ignored or missed warning signs that would have enabled them to foil the plot that killed about 3,000 people, congressional and law enforcement sources said Tuesday.

The 900-page report is to be released Thursday after months of haggling between congressional investigators and intelligence authorities over which portions of the hefty document should be declassified or remain top secret. A preliminary version detailing a summary of the concerns was published last winter.

The report is the product of months of hearings and testimony last year before a joint intelligence panel, which unearthed evidence that the FBI and CIA mishandled clues and warnings in the years and months preceding the attacks. The hearings gave impetus to the creation of a bipartisan federal commission being led by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean that is separately investigating the attacks. The commission is due to complete its work next year.

The congressional report provides new hues and shades to an already dim portrait of U.S. preparedness before the attacks.

Although the report's general outlines have been previously known, the timing of its release and the light it is expected to shed on what Bush administration officials knew in advance of the attacks comes at a politically sensitive time -- as the administration attempts to fend off criticism that it relied on faulty intelligence about Iraqi plans to develop weapons of mass destruction before going to war.

Some Democratic presidential contenders are already attempting to make hay from that. During a quick swing through Los Angeles on Monday night, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, criticized the administration's unwillingness to release the full body of the report.

"I am a very angry man tonight, being informed of what portions of the report are going to be withheld from the public," Graham told about 40 members of Democratic Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, a group of young Democrats gathered in a dimly lighted cabaret on Wilshire Boulevard.

"I start from the premise that in a democracy, the people should know as much as the government knows unless there is a very compelling case that the information threatens American security interests," Graham said. "I think a different standard has been applied to this report, and that is, 'What is it that reduces the embarrassment to agencies that acted in an incompetent manner?' "

Still, the report takes the intelligence community to task for failing to share terrorism-related information they had independently gathered before Sept. 11, including a previously reported episode in which the CIA failed to pass along to the FBI and other agencies intelligence linking two of the hijackers living in the San Diego area to the Al Qaeda network and the 2000 bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen until a few weeks before the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The men were among those who commandeered the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon.

The report asserts that intelligence forces failed to fully appreciate and anticipate the threat posed by Al Qaeda before the attacks and, according to one person familiar with the report, paints a "fairly startling" picture of how Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed freely traveled to and from the United States in the years before the attacks.

It also provides tantalizing details about the two hijackers' relations with a San Diego man suspected of having ties to the Saudi government and an FBI informant who was also their landlord. The FBI has asserted that the informant had no way of knowing that the men might have been involved with terrorism, and that he subsequently passed a polygraph test.

Although the report apparently does not find clear evidence that the Saudis may have even indirectly bankrolled the hijackers, it raises more questions than it answers about the link and criticizes the FBI for not investigating more aggressively, people familiar with the report said. A 28-page section that includes criticism of the Saudi government and the level of its interest in Muslim extremism, moreover, has been heavily censored in the final version, these people said.

"This inquiry has uncovered no intelligence information in the possession of the intelligence community prior to the attacks of 9/11 that, if fully considered, would have provided specific advance warnings of the details of those attacks," the report found, according to a person who has read it.

But it continues: "The task of the inquiry was not, however, limited to a search for the legendary, and often absent, 'smoking gun.' "

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