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THE NATION

Page After Page, the Mysteries of Sept. 11 Grow

For all the details in the congressional inquiry's report, questions about the plot, government knowledge and foreign involvement still arise.

July 27, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — One of the central chapters in the Sept. 11 report released last week is a painstaking reconstruction of the hijackers' preparations.

It covers their arrival in the United States, their training at flight schools, their purchases of tickets and their boarding of the doomed aircraft.

But Page 139 points to a lingering mystery: During cross-country practice flights in the preceding months, why did the hijackers always book return stops in Las Vegas?

"Each of the return flights for these hijackers had layovers in Las Vegas," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III is quoted as saying in the report. "To date, the purpose of these one- to- two-day layovers is not known."

Indeed, for all that it answers about the attacks, the nearly 900-page report is stocked with reminders of the many questions that remain -- about other puzzling aspects of the plot, the possible role of foreign governments and even such politically charged matters as what Presidents Clinton and Bush had been told about Al Qaeda.

In that sense, the release of the congressional report last week marks only the latest step in the nation's struggle to understand the attacks and the government's performance leading up to them.

The next phase is well underway. An independent Sept. 11 commission, led by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, is taking an even broader and deeper look, probing not just intelligence failures but breakdowns in other areas of government, including immigration and aviation.

Already, commission officials say they have been granted access to a trove of materials congressional investigators never got to see, including reports on interrogations of top Al Qaeda figures in custody, as well as records from the National Security Council inside the White House.

And officials at the commission, which is expected to deliver its report next year, say they are still pressing for more.

"We are requesting access to things to which no prior White House has granted access, ever," said Philip Zelikow, executive director of the commission. He declined to discuss details of those negotiations with the administration, but said: "The bottom line is: 'So far, so good.' "

Meanwhile, even lawmakers privy to the fuller, classified version of the report of the joint congressional inquiry acknowledge that the picture is incomplete.

"I can tell you right now that I don't know exactly how the plot was hatched," Rep. Porter J. Goss (D-Fla.), co-chairman of the joint inquiry, said last week.

"I don't know the where, the when and the why and the who in every instance. That's after two years of trying. And we will someday have the documents to exploit, we will have the people to interrogate, we will have ways to get more information to put the rest of the pieces of this puzzle on the table. But right now, we don't have it."

One big reason there are holes in the story is that until recently, U.S. officials have had little access to persons involved in planning the attacks. That makes the interrogation transcripts particularly intriguing for the new commission.

Among the Al Qaeda suspects now in U.S. custody are Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of Sept. 11, and Abu Zubeida, a top lieutenant to Osama bin Laden. If they are talking -- and telling the truth -- the commission could piece together the most definitive account yet of the origin and execution of the plot.

Although it is incomplete, the joint inquiry report provides some new insight on this subject. One passage cites testimony from CIA Director George J. Tenet that in 1996, Bin Laden's second-in-command, Mohammed Atef, drew up a study on the feasibility of hijacking U.S. planes and destroying them in flight. Mohammed proposed to Bin Laden that the World Trade Center "be targeted by small aircraft packed with explosives." Bin Laden then suggested using even larger planes.

The sources Tenet relied on in piecing together this account are unspecified.

Although the congressional report contains gaps, it does provide a comprehensive look at the performance of the CIA, the FBI and other agencies in the intelligence community leading up to the attacks.

The overriding finding was that there were repeated opportunities to anticipate or disrupt the Sept. 11 plot, from unheeded FBI memos warning that Al Qaeda was sending terrorists to U.S. flight schools to CIA failures to put Al Qaeda operatives on U.S. watch lists.

The report is full of tantalizing glimpses into covert activities around the globe in the late 1990s, as U.S. intelligence tried desperately to get close enough to capture or kill Bin Laden. But many of the most intriguing passages end abruptly, with the most sensitive information blotted out at the insistence of the White House or CIA.

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