The inability to detect the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking plot amounts to a "significant failure" by the FBI and was caused in large part by "widespread and longstanding deficiencies" in the way the agency handled terrorism and intelligence cases, according to a report released yesterday.
In one particularly notable finding, the report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded that the FBI missed at least five chances to detect the presence of two of the suicide hijackers -- Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar -- after they first entered the United States in early 2000.
"While we do not know what would have happened had the FBI learned sooner or pursued its investigation more aggressively, the FBI lost several important opportunities to find Hazmi and Mihdhar before the September 11 attacks," the report said.
Although many of the missteps surrounding Alhazmi and Almihdhar have become well known, Fine's report adds significant new details about the FBI's role in fumbling the case. Previous reports, including the best-selling tome by the independent Sept. 11 commission, focused more heavily on the CIA's failure to track the men after a pivotal terrorist summit meeting in Malaysia.
The FBI said in a statement that it agreed with many of Fine's conclusions but "has taken substantial steps to address the issues presented in the report."
"Today, preventing terrorist attacks is the top priority in every FBI office and division, and no terrorism lead goes unaddressed," the FBI said. "Stronger centralized management has strengthened accountability, improved information sharing, facilitated coordination with outside partners and guided a national counterterrorism strategy."
The 371-page report is the latest in a stream of assessments from Congress, the Sept. 11 panel and other investigators documenting serious shortcomings in the performance of various U.S. government agencies in the months leading up to the hijackings. It also comes amid a wave of criticism of the FBI in recent months over a scrapped $170 million software program and its continuing struggle to attract qualified analysts, translators and other intelligence personnel.
"We believe that widespread and longstanding deficiencies in the FBI's operations and Counterterrorism Program caused the problems we described in this report," Fine's investigators wrote, including a shoddy analytical program, problems sharing intelligence information and "the lack of priority given to counterterrorism investigations by the FBI before September 11."
Jamie S. Gorelick, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration who served as a member of the Sept. 11 panel, said the "litany of reports" documenting FBI problems in recent months "has to be a wake-up call" for Director Robert S. Mueller III and other FBI officials.
"I think they believe they have made significant progress, but there is still quite a bit of work to be done," she said.
Fine's investigation was requested by Mueller shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, but it has been held up for 11 months over classification and legal issues. It focuses on three major episodes before the Sept. 11 attacks: the missteps in tracking Alhazmi and Almihdhar, the failure to connect al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui to the hijacking plot, and the handling of a July 2001 memo theorizing that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden might be sending operatives to U.S. flight schools.
Although the memo from Phoenix FBI agent Kenneth Williams was proposed as "a theory rather than a warning or a threat," the report concludes that the bureau "failed to fully evaluate, investigate, exploit and disseminate information related to" the memo because of shortcomings in the way its analysis and intelligence programs were set up and run. "Even though it did not contain an immediate warning and was marked routine, Williams's information and theory warranted strategic analysis from the FBI," the report says.
Fine's conclusions about Moussaoui are less clear, because most references to the case have been blacked out by court order. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, who is presiding over Moussaoui's prosecution in Alexandria, blocked release of the full report because of objections from defense attorneys.
Some hints of Fine's conclusions are still evident in the censored version of the report, however. In one paragraph that clearly pertains to the Moussaoui case, the report says agents "did not receive adequate support . . . from the field office or from FBI headquarters" and criticizes the FBI for "disjointed and inadequate review" of requests for secret warrants.
Previous investigations have found that Moussaoui's laptop computer and other belongings were not searched in the weeks after his arrest in Minneapolis because the FBI mistakenly believed it did not have enough evidence to obtain a warrant.
In the case of Alhazmi and Almihdhar, the report said the FBI missed at least five opportunities to possibly locate the pair after Almihdhar was first identified in connection with a Malaysian meeting of al Qaeda operatives.
Even after the FBI learned that the pair had reentered the United States in August 2001, "the FBI did not pursue this as an urgent matter or assign many resources to it," the report found, noting that "it was given to a single, inexperienced agent without any particular priority." Agents within the bureau were also hampered by disagreements over the hazy rules governing the separation between criminal and intelligence investigations.
In the end, the report concludes, "the FBI was not close to locating Mihdhar or Hazmi when they participated in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001."