Congress to reveal evidence on pre-9/11 threats
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A veil of secrecy will begin to rise Wednesday when a congressional committee reveals some of the information that U.S. spy agencies knew about suspected terrorist activity before the September 11 attacks -- including the disclosure that analysts knew al Qaeda had previously plotted to use aircraft as terrorist weapons.
The recently declassified documents will be made public for the first time during an open hearing of the joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee.
One of the main questions investigators are probing: Could the September 11 attacks have been prevented?
The hearing is to begin with testimony from two family members of September 11 victims, followed by top committee investigator Eleanor Hill, who will present a detailed 30-page staff statement on what the intelligence community knew about the threat level.
Hill, a former inspector general at the Pentagon who has a thorough understanding of the intelligence community who also headed up several criminal investigations while working at the Defense Department, was picked in May to lead the House-Senate investigation.
Until now, the only direct clues about terrorists activity made public were two electronic intercepts by the National Security Agency that were recorded -- but not translated -- the day before the attacks on New York and Washington.
"The match begins tomorrow," one person in Afghanistan said to another person in Saudi Arabia. "Tomorrow is zero hour," said another person.
At that time, U.S. intelligence agencies were preoccupied with threats against U.S. sites and properties overseas -- the attacks on the USS Cole in Yemen and on two U.S. embassies in Africa, among others.
The committee is also expected to address apparent failures of U.S. agencies to share information or discern connections between various reports.
For example, it was revealed last week that a former landlord of two of the September 11 hijackers was an FBI informant who supplied information about the Islamic terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
U.S. intelligence officials also said that in January of 2000, the hijackers, Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, attended a meeting of known terrorists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- a fact that the CIA communicated to the FBI. Yet it was not until August 23, 2001, that the CIA warned the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to watch for the two men, and that they might try to enter the United States. By that time, Almidhar and Alhazmi had been in the U.S. for more than 11 months.
That disclosure rankled Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"There was no single source that was looking at all that information to try to see if there was a pattern, a picture, a plot," Graham said a few weeks ago. "Had that happened, then I think another series of questions would have been asked, more information would have been collected, and with luck, it might have occurred early enough to have disrupted the hijackers before the horrific events of September 11."
Aircraft as weapons
Tuesday, a source close to the congressional investigation said intelligence following the bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors in October 2000, indicated there was an increasing threat to the U.S. homeland. Investigators also learned there was evidence that al Qaeda considered using aircraft as a terror tool, the source said.
Since September 11, a special staff has sifted through over 400,000 documents looking for other clues the CIA and other intelligence agencies may have missed, including specifics on what the terrorists said to each other.
A congressional source close to the investigation described the classified data, collected by surveillance satellites, eavesdropping equipment and spies before September 11, as "sobering" because so much of it indicates the depth of the hatred of the United States by overseas extremists.
So far, said the source, investigators have found no smoking gun -- no piece of evidence that proves U.S. intelligence should been able to prevent the attacks -- but evidence does suggest the government knew a lot more about the seriousness of the threat from Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda than it told the American people.
There is no doubt that the United States remains at risk, Tom Ridge, director of Homeland Security, said Tuesday.
"There are no discussions or debates going on within al Qaeda cells around the country that America is the No. 1 target," Ridge said. "We have been, we are, and we will be."
The congressional source said a schedule for additional public hearings will be announced soon. It has been held up because there has been a behind-the-scenes battle between committee members and some senior Bush administration officials who have balked at testifying in public before the joint committee.
Lawmakers on the committee said they have also run into resistance from the agencies they are investigating. With the joint committee's funding expiring in February, there is an effort under way to create an independent commission to investigate why .
-- CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.
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