WASHINGTON – In the weeks and months before Sept. 11, 2001 (search), the FBI had some clues, but didn't see them. It had a lead from one of its own agents, but didn't follow it.
A sobering inside look at pre-Sept. 11 intelligence operations by the Justice Department's inspector general chronicles — in some instances in hour-to-hour detail — how the FBI missed at least five opportunities to uncover vital information that might have led agents to the hijackers.
"The way the FBI handled these matters was a significant failure that hindered the FBI's chances of being able to detect and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks," Inspector General Glenn Fine said in a newly released report Thursday.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search) acknowledged Friday that there were laws on the books before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that "discouraged the sharing of information" among law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Appearing on NBC's "Today" show, Gonzales noted that many of those laws "have now been dismantled" and said he thinks the government is in a better position than before to avert such attacks. "You have the ability to connect the dots" of terrorist plots, Gonzales said.
An FBI agent suggested to the chain of command two months before the attacks that there was a coordinated effort by Usama bin Laden to send students to the United States to study ways to take down U.S. aircraft.
Failure to fully heed the agent's theory was indicative of an agency that failed to accord strategic analysis the attention it deserved, the report said.
Even when the bureau had hard information shortly before the attacks about the presence in the United States of eventual hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi (search) and Khalid al Mihdhar (search), "the FBI's investigation then was conducted without much urgency or priority," the report concluded.
The investigation of Mihdhar "was given to a single inexperienced agent," the report said.
Responding to the IG's criticism, the FBI said it has since taken substantial steps to deal with the issues the report raised.
Today, "no terrorism lead goes unaddressed," and new policies are in place to share information among intelligence agencies, the FBI said.
The IG's review, a year old, is only now being released because of a court fight with lawyers for imprisoned terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui (search) over how much of it should be disclosed. The portions on Moussaoui were deleted.
According to the report, CIA employees and four FBI agents assigned to the CIA's bin Laden unit on Jan. 5, 2000, accessed incoming cables containing a substantial amount of information about Mihdhar, including that he was traveling and that he had a U.S. visa. Those facts weren't disseminated to the FBI.
The information was written up that day by one of the FBI agents assigned to the CIA's bin Laden unit. The FBI agent sought, but was never able to get, the required go-ahead from the CIA's deputy chief of the unit to send the draft to the FBI. Ten days later, Mihdhar and Hazmi were in Los Angeles.
All of the CIA and FBI personnel who were involved in the matter now say they remember nothing about the document that wasn't sent. The document is called a Central Intelligence Report, or CIR.
"When we interviewed all of the individuals involved with the CIR, they asserted that they recalled nothing about it," the report stated.
Mihdhar came under CIA scrutiny because the National Security Agency had picked up communications that Al Qaeda operatives were planning travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Mihdhar showed up at the meetings.
Once in the United States, Mihdhar and Hazmi lived openly in San Diego and "should have drawn some scrutiny from the FBI," the report said.
The head of the San Diego FBI office responded that the report greatly exaggerates the possibility that local agents could have prevented the attacks.
The two Saudis rented a room in the home of a longtime FBI terrorism informant, and also befriended a fellow Saudi who had drawn FBI scrutiny in the past.
The informant identified the two men to his FBI handler only by their first names, and the report criticizes the FBI handler as "not particularly thorough or aggressive" in following up.
The two men also befriended Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi who had established himself in the area. The FBI briefly investigated him in 1998 when the manager of his apartment complex reported that al-Bayoumi had received a suspicious package, had strange wires in his bathroom and hosted frequent weekend gatherings of Middle Eastern men.