Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (search), R-Utah, whose committee oversees federal law enforcement, approved holding investigative hearings about the information, but they never took place, the memos show.
"The sharing of intelligence is lacking among federal law enforcement agencies," the December 1995 memo to Hatch stated, citing intelligence failures eerily similar to those exposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings by Al Qaeda terrorists.
The memo, obtained by The Associated Press, also told Hatch that committee investigators had uncovered evidence that federal law enforcement had prior hints about the 1993 World Trade Center terrorist attack in New York City but failed to piece them together.
"We have information that some instances, like the World Trade Center, could have been prevented if the relevant agencies had worked in concert with each other," the investigators wrote. "Simply stated, several different agencies had a small piece of the puzzle.
"If they had shared with each other, there is at least a strong possibility that they would have identified the World Trade Center as a target before the bombing."
The memo described the need for a congressional investigation as "appropriate and imperative." Hatch approved the plan for hearings recommended by his chief investigator and senior investigative counsel, signing the memo "OK" and initialing it with his trademark "O".
Hatch's office said while the memo's plan for hearings never materialized, the chairman did hold about a dozen hearings in 1995 and 1996 dealing with terrorism issues and sponsored legislation to give the FBI more powers to catch terrorists, some of which passed in 1996 within months of the memo.
"The legislation was the most significant piece of anti-terrorism legislation passed in two decades and Senator Hatch constantly fought to give the FBI and the Department of Justice more tools to share information and prevent terrorist attacks," said Makan Delrahim, Hatch's staff director on the Judiciary Committee.
The investigators wrote at least two other memos to Hatch's chief of staff recommending continued investigation of the FBI's anti-terrorism efforts. "We need to continue our oversight in these areas," a memo urged one month before the 1996 presidential election.
Senators and Senate Judiciary Committee aides in both parties said Thursday they were unaware of the 1995 memo's information and said it shows that Congress, which heaped criticism on the executive branch over the Sept. 11 failures, must share in the blame.
Sen. Arlen Specter (search) of Pennsylvania, a fellow Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he had never seen the memo before and wanted to discuss it with Hatch.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the memo's contents mirrored the problems unearthed by House and Senate intelligence committee investigators who reviewed the Sept. 11 attacks.
"There were egregious errors, in hindsight," Roberts said. Asked if those errors included Congress' failure to provide oversight and follow information like that in the 1995 memo, Roberts added: "Big time in Congress."
Hatch's office said he was recognized on Capitol Hill long before Sept. 11 as a leading voice on terrorism who led hearings on issues like his legislation to increase FBI power, the dangers of explosives information on the Internet and preventing terror attacks at the Olympics.
The office also said Hatch led efforts in the mid-1990s to improve the FBI's ability to share and receive intelligence. Some of those measures were stripped by Congress before his legislation became law in 1996.
"Had these measures been in place prior to 9/11, law enforcement agencies may well have been able to catch some or all of the terrorists," Hatch wrote earlier this week in an opinion piece published in USA Today.
But a former Republican investigator on Hatch's committee, who worked on the investigation that prompted the 1995 memo, accused the chairman of "frustrating our attempts to oversee the FBI."
Kris Kolesnik, who worked on the committee for Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Hatch preferred not to air the FBI's problems in public. "His solution to problems within the FBI is to send more money, create more bureaucracy and give them more authority to trample our civil liberties," he said. "That is not oversight. That is a knee-jerk reaction that has never worked."
Delrahim, Hatch's staff director, strongly disagreed. "The memorandum makes it clear that Senator Hatch supported investigations and oversight of this matter. To suggest in any manner that Orrin Hatch does not care about stopping terrorism or performing oversight is laughable," he said.
The FBI said most of the concerns cited in the 1995 memo have been addressed by Director Robert Mueller since Sept. 11 with the creation of 66 counterterrorism task forces, new computer systems, an improved language interpreters program, improved intelligence analysis, and improved sharing of threat information between federal and local police.
"In two years we have made significant strides," the FBI said. "The director recognized we did have deficiencies and the fact is we are addressing them. The bureau has changed its mission."
The public airing of confidential memos between senior Senate staff and a committee chairman is rare. Congress is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, and political decorum on Capitol Hill often keeps internal disagreements from becoming public.
But the 1995 and 1996 memos emerge as Hatch has endured recent criticisms from some colleagues for declining to investigate the FBI's handling of Chinese intelligence assets in the aftermath of California case in which a former FBI agent was charged with allowing his lover to pass secrets along to China.
The December 1995 memo specifically warned the FBI was ill-prepared to deal with terrorist weapons of mass destruction.
"The major problem in this arena appears to be the lack of training and equipment in situations that involve nuclear, biological and chemical substances," the memo said.
The memo also said investigators had gathered evidence that a Florida company specializing in preventing corporate espionage had offered to train the FBI in technology that could be used to detect terrorists, but the bureau declined.
"The FBI's response is that the technique used by this company is too difficult to learn and therefore the FBI is not interested," the memo told Hatch.