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Senator has tough questions for FBI

White House downplays Newsweek report

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

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A key Senate Democrat predicted Sunday that congressional inquiries into intelligence failures before the September 11 attacks would reveal "a pattern" of investigators failing to share key information.

"There were a number of bits and pieces, and they weren't put together," Sen. Dianne Feinstein said on CNN's "Late Edition." "There were several things that could have been investigated, had investigation been looked at as a way to go, which it wasn't."

Feinstein said a Newsweek report that the CIA had tracked two of the September 11 hijackers for more than a year without alerting the FBI and other agencies that they had returned to the United States "isn't news for the inquiry."

"The professionals working ... on the joint committee intelligence effort know about this, and they are looking at it. It's going to be the focus of our hearing," she said.

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"I gather the information wasn't transmitted until August between the CIA and the FBI, before the attacks, so some hard questions have to be answered," she said.

Feinstein, D-California, is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee, which is holding public hearings Thursday on the FBI's performance before the attacks.

Scheduled to testify at the hearings is FBI Director Robert Mueller, who is expected to address the FBI reorganization he announced last week.

FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley of the bureau's Minneapolis office, who has criticized the agency for the way it handled the investigation of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, may also appear before the panel.

According to the Newsweek report, to be on newsstands Monday, the CIA was observing hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar for months before September 11, but did not share the information with the FBI or other agencies.

The men were aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, killing 189 people.

Intelligence agents monitored the two men with a suspected al Qaeda operative in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early 2000.

According to Michael Isikoff, author of the Newsweek article, the CIA knew that at least one of the men went to the United States after the meeting, and that information also was not shared.

CNN has previously reported that Almihdhar and Alhazmi were put on a watch list late last August, and that the two men had been linked to a suspected al Qaeda operative in Kuala Lumpur in early 2000.

"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 said Sunday.

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

"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.

The White House downplayed the report Sunday, and 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 Alhazmi and Almihdhar during the Clinton administration.

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.




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