WASHINGTON – A CIA official, speaking Monday night on condition of anonymity, said the FBI learned about an eventual Sept. 11 hijacker from the CIA as early as January 2000.
The new information regarding what the FBI and CIA had learned before the terrorists struck came as the congressional intelligence committees prepared to begin their inquiry Tuesday into the attacks — and the government agencies that didn't prevent them.
A CIA official, speaking Monday on condition of anonymity, disputed reports that the agency had kept information from the FBI on eventual hijacker Khalid Almihdhar's meeting with Al Qaeda operatives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000.
This official said the CIA had identified Almihdhar, by name, as one of the attendees at the then-upcoming meeting of suspected Al Qaeda members in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which took place in mid-January 2000. They also knew his passport number, birthdate and that he had a multiple-entry visa allowing him into the United States.
The CIA official read from an FBI counterterrorism agent's Jan. 6, 2000, e-mail to CIA officials, in which the agent asks whom to ask for more information on Almihdhar. The CIA's response contains the name of two FBI officials who had been briefed on the suspected terrorist. A second CIA internal communication, sent Jan. 5, also says the FBI had been informed of the Malaysia meeting.
Some officials, remarking on a Newsweek story on the CIA's handling of the Malaysia meeting, had accused the agency of keeping the information to itself, preventing the FBI from tracking the terrorists once they entered the United States.
FBI officials declined comment Monday night, saying Director Robert Mueller was not interested in engaging in finger-pointing.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in a New York Times interview for Tuesday editions that his country's intelligence service warned U.S. officials about a week before the Sept. 11 attacks that Al Qaeda was in the advance stages of an attack on an unspecified American target.
The Times quoted a senior U.S. intelligence official, however, as denying any such information was passed on to the CIA. The White House press office declined comment when contacted.
A government official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said some of the recent confusion over the cross-agency communications centered around different transliterations of Almihdhar's Arabic name. At the time, the FBI also was unaware of Almihdhar's travels to the United States, the official said.
Neither the CIA nor the FBI was able to learn of Almihdhar's plans for Sept. 11, and CIA officials acknowledged his case could have been handled better.
Despite the terrorist concerns, neither agency informed the State Department or the Immigration and Naturalization Service — which could have prevented their entry into the United States — about Almihdhar or another hijacker, Nawaf Alhazmi, whom the CIA later learned also attended the Kuala Lumpur meeting. Both were in the plane that hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Meanwhile, President Bush said Monday that intelligence agencies must do a better job tracking and catching terrorists.
In a speech in Little Rock, Ark., Bush said the government must improve its intelligence on who is entering the country.
"We know we've got to do a better job on our borders, understanding who's coming into the country and who's leaving and why they're here, and why they haven't left," the president said.
At the time, the significance and subject of the Malaysia meeting was not clear, intelligence officials said. Also attending the January 2000 gathering was Tawfiq Attash Khallad, one of the U.S. top 25 targets in the war on Al Qaeda. His current status is unclear.
The Malaysia meeting gained greater significance in early 2001. Investigators learned that Khallad was one of the masterminds of the Oct. 12, 2000, bombing of the USS Cole. His known associates, Almihdhar and Alhazmi, suddenly took on new importance.
But it doesn't appear this new information was transferred to other authorities until Aug. 23, 2001, when the CIA, alerted to a large Al Qaeda operation in the offing, added Almihdhar and Alhamzi to a watch list that INS and State officials use. By this time, however, they were already in the country.
Bits of intelligence like this, now regarded as potential Sept. 11 warnings, have put the FBI and CIA under fire, with questions being raised as hindsight is applied to each new hint.
They are also subjects for the congressional inquiry in the coming months. The Senate and House intelligence committees are meeting in closed session at the Capitol on Tuesday, in the first of a series of hearings looking at missed warnings and the government's response.
More closed hearings are planned for Wednesday and Thursday, but only one witness is expected to appear: Cofer Black, the CIA's counterterrorism chief during the Sept. 11 attacks, is expected to answer committee questions on Thursday.
The closed hearings are being held to protect secret sources of intelligence. Open hearings will begin June 25. The inquiry focuses on the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency.
"It's going to look like a mosaic that was not put together at the right time," said Richard Shelby, R-Ala., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "A lot of the failures will go back to the lack of communication between various agencies."
The government's handling of Zacarias Moussaoui, an Islamic extremist who was arrested in Minneapolis in August and later accused of conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers, is a chief issue.
The CIA had learned of Moussaoui as early as the spring of 2001 but under another name — the informant knew him only by an alias. French intelligence told the CIA about Moussaoui in mid-August, but the agency didn't match the two names until after the attacks.
Also, Coleen Rowley, a Minneapolis FBI agent, has said the bureau headquarters ignored her office's pleas to investigate Moussaoui further. Rowley is expected to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
In addition, the FBI has been criticized for failing to link Moussaoui to the warnings of a Phoenix field agent that Middle Eastern men were training at American flight schools.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.