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Senator: Hearings to expose 'big failures'

The CIA was aware Khalid Almihdhar, left, and Nawaf Alhazmi were in the United States but didn't notify other agencies for 18 months, a news report says. The men were on the plane that hit the Pentagon.
The CIA was aware Khalid Almihdhar, left, and Nawaf Alhazmi were in the United States but didn't notify other agencies for 18 months, a news report says. The men were on the plane that hit the Pentagon.  


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. lawmakers are poised to open hearings Tuesday looking into apparent intelligence lapses that have come to light since the devastating September 11 terrorist attacks.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, predicted Monday that the hearings will highlight more "big failures of intelligence."

"I know the director over there is in denial, but I believe he's totally wrong, and facts will be brought out to prove that," Shelby said on ABC, referring to CIA Director George Tenet.

The latest revelation surfaced in a Newsweek article saying the CIA was aware two terrorists who commandeered the plane that crashed into the Pentagon were in the United States for 18 months before it told any other agencies.

In a tacit acknowledgment of criticism of the nation's top law enforcement and intelligence agencies, President Bush said Monday the FBI is doing a better job and is sharing intelligence information with the CIA.

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"When you read about the FBI, I want you to know that the FBI is changing its culture," Bush said at an appearance in Little Rock, Arkansas. "The FBI prior to September 11 was running down white-collar criminals and that's good, was worrying about spies and that's good. But now they've got a more important task, and that is to prevent further attack. And so the FBI is changing."

His remarks come on the heels of harsh criticism of the FBI for what some lawmakers said was a series of overlooked clues and leads that preceded the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

An FBI field agent in Phoenix, Arizona, wrote a memo in July 2001, urging a broad review of Middle Eastern men taking flight lessons in the United States and raising the prospect that Osama bin Laden was involved.

Also last summer, the agency's Minneapolis, Minnesota, field office pursued an investigation of terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui but could not get approval from FBI headquarters in Washington to seek a search warrant for the man's computer. Moussaoui, a flight school student, later was charged as a conspirator in the September 11 attacks.

"I think what you will see as these hearings come on and information dribbles out is a failure, big time, in communication between the agencies," said Shelby, R-Alabama. "We have to do better."

He echoed criticism Sunday from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, also a member of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

"There were a number of bits and pieces, and they weren't put together," Feinstein said on CNN's "Late Edition."

Commenting on the Newsweek report, Feinstein confirmed that the CIA knew about the two terrorists. "I gather the information wasn't transmitted until August between the CIA and the FBI -- August before the attacks," she said. "So some hard questions have to be answered."

On Sunday, a senior Bush administration official urged people "not to rush to judgment based on a single report."

The House and Senate intelligence hearings begin Tuesday, but the initial sessions will be closed to the public.

"I think what you will see as these hearings come on and information dribbles out is a failure, big time, in communication between the agencies."
— Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama

Among those scheduled to testify is FBI Director Robert Mueller, who is expected to address the FBI reorganization he announced last week. As part of the overhaul, FBI officials said Monday that Mueller will review any terrorism-related search warrant request that a midlevel manager rejects.

FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley of the bureau's Minneapolis office, who has criticized the agency for the way it handled the Moussaoui investigation, also has been invited to testify.

Administration officials maintain there was no single clue or memo that could have thwarted the attacks. But, in a break with earlier statements, Mueller last week said it was possible, though unlikely, that the FBI could have gotten "lucky" and connected the dots to discover at least some of the hijackers before September 11.

"There were signals out there we should have picked up on," Mueller said, after unveiling an overhaul of the FBI with its new priority focusing on the prevention of terrorist attacks.

Shelby said details about how the nation's top law enforcement and security agencies handled intelligence information on terrorism before September 11 points to a problem of coordination and communication.

"They have not followed up on leads that have sat in their laps," he said.

The White House official said the CIA was first alerted to the activities of Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar during the Clinton administration. On September 11, the men were aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.

The CIA became aware more than two years ago of a planned al Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where several bin Laden operatives were gathering.

The agency tracked two of them -- Almihdhar and Alhamzi -- to the summit and alerted Malaysian security services, which conducted surveillance at the meeting.

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff said that the CIA knew that at least one of the men went to the United States after the meeting and that information was not shared.



 
 
 
 







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