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The Nation

Clues Missed on 9/11 Plotters

Investigators, saying eight men had doctored passports, challenge FBI and CIA claims. Alleged mastermind was given a visa despite charges.

January 27, 2004|Greg Miller and Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot, obtained a visa to come to the United States just weeks before the attacks despite being under a federal terrorism indictment, a report by the federal commission investigating the attacks revealed Monday.

And as many as eight of the hijackers entered the country with doctored passports that contained "clues to their association with Al Qaeda" that should have been caught by immigration authorities, commission investigators said.

The newly disclosed findings challenge previous claims by top CIA and FBI officials that the hijackers' records and paperwork were so clean that they could not have aroused suspicion.

The commission also heard testimony from a U.S. customs agent who blocked the entry of a Saudi citizen investigators now believe may have been the intended 20th hijacker.

Authorities later learned that Mohamed Atta, the leader of the Al Qaeda cells that executed the Sept. 11 attacks, was at an Orlando, Fla., airport that same day -- possibly waiting to meet up with the Saudi man, Mohammed Al-Qahtani, who is now in U.S.custody.

The disclosures were included in the first set of staff reports to be issued by the commission since it opened its inquiry last year, and came during a daylong hearing devoted to immigration and intelligence-related failures by government agencies.

Government witnesses described on Monday reforms that they said have shored up serious shortcomings in border security systems, visa screenings and information-sharing among agencies responsible for generating watch lists of suspected terrorists.

But commissioners and investigators on the panel voiced concern that certain agencies have not come to grips with the magnitude of the problems that allowed Al Qaeda operatives to slip past security systems and checks.

"We are not sure that these problems have been addressed," said Philip Zelikow, executive director of the commission, referring to failures to put Al Qaeda operatives on federal watch lists. "We are not sure they are even adequately acknowledged as a problem."

Also on Monday, President Bush identified an Al Qaeda operative caught in Iraq 12 days ago as a senior official in the organization who had close ties to Mohammed.

Bush said that when he was captured, Hassan Ghul was in Iraq trying to facilitate attacks by insurgents against U.S. troops. He said that in the past, Ghul "reported directly" to Mohammed, the operational commander of Al Qaeda who was captured in Pakistan in March.

"He was a killer," Bush said of Ghul. "He was moving money and messages around South Asia and the Middle East to other Al Qaeda leaders. He was a part of this network of haters that we're dismantling."

As part of their presentation at the commission hearing, Zelikow and other staffers unveiled significant pieces of information. Among them was the disclosure that Mohammed had obtained a visa to visit the United States on July 23, 2001 -- about six weeks before the attacks.

The information suggests Mohammed may have been planning a last-minute trip to shepherd some aspect of the plot, a move that would have carried enormous risks because he had been under federal indictment in the United States since 1996 for his role in earlier terrorist plots.

Mohammed applied for the visa using a Saudi passport and alias -- Abdulrahman al Ghamdi -- even though he is Pakistani-born and was not believed to have been in Saudi Arabia at the time the application was filed, according to a portion of the staff report read by Susan Ginsburg, senior counsel to the commission.

"He had someone else submit his application and a photo" through a third party visa application system known as Visa Express, Ginsburg said, adding that "there is no evidence that he ever used the visa to enter the United States."

Mohammed was captured in Pakistan last year and is being held by American authorities at an undisclosed location.

Ginsburg cited a series of other security breakdowns that had not been previously disclosed. She said investigators now believe eight hijackers entered the country on passports that had been doctored "in ways that have been associated with Al Qaeda."

She did not elaborate on those methods, citing security concerns. But she said investigators have been able to examine four of the hijackers' passports that were either recovered from crash sites or found in luggage, and that digital copies of other passports were recovered in "post-9/11 operations." She challenged CIA Director George J. Tenet's description of 17 of the 19 hijackers as arriving in the country "clean" of activities or paperwork that would have aroused suspicion, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III's claim that "each of the hijackers ... came easily and lawfully from abroad."

"We believe the information we have provided today gives the commission the opportunity to reevaluate those statements," Ginsburg said.

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