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White House downplays Newsweek report

Almihdhar, left, and Alhazmi
Almihdhar, left, and Alhazmi  

From Kathleen Koch
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House on Sunday played down a Newsweek report that the CIA began tracking two of the September 11 hijackers nearly two years before the attacks, but didn't inform other agencies until last August that at least one of them had entered the United States.

A senior administration official urged people "not to rush to judgment based on a single report ... coming to light without context and input from a variety of different parties."

The 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 official added that Bush officials were "going to wait and see" what the House and Senate Intelligence committees find in their joint investigation.

"What we are focused on is fighting and winning the war on terrorism," the official said.

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, CNN has reported previously.

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

According to Michael Isikoff, who wrote the Newsweek article, which appears Monday on newsstands, the CIA knew that at least one of the men went to the United States after the meeting, and that information was not shared.

"The CIA knew who they were, they knew that they were suspected al Qaeda operatives, they failed to alert the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service], the State Department, the Customs Service, agencies who could have kept them out of the country," Isikoff told CNN.

"And, perhaps more importantly, they failed to alert the FBI, which could have tracked them while they were in the country," Isikoff said.

"What's stunning is that, from that moment on, they [the two men] lived entirely out in the open. They opened up bank accounts, they got a California drivers license, they opened up credit cards and they interacted with at least five other of the hijackers on 9/11," he said.




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