The congressional report on the Sept. 11 attacks is rife with inaccuracies and greatly exaggerates the possibility the terrorist acts could have been prevented, according to the former head of the FBI’s San Diego office.
In an interview, former Special Agent in Charge Bill Gore asserted there was no evidence the FBI missed opportunities to catch two of the hijackers who for months lived in San Diego.
He also said there was no evidence that anyone, including Saudi officials, knowingly assisted the terrorists.
“I believe the joint intelligence committee jumped to conclusions not supported by the facts of the FBI investigation,” Gore said. “I was convinced by the time I left the FBI [in] January that there was no Al Qaeda support network in San Diego prior to or after 9/11, and that no group of people wittingly helped the hijackers in furtherance of the 9/11 attacks.”
In its 900-page report, the joint panel of the House and Senate intelligence committees criticized the pre-Sept. 11 counterterrorism analysis done by the FBI and CIA. The report suggests there were several missed opportunities to foil the attacks, and that alleged intelligence failures were especially obvious in San Diego, where two hijackers were known to a longtime FBI informant.
The report pointed out that the CIA was aware for months that the two men, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, were spotted at an Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia that preceded the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in 2000. But, the report added, the spy agency did not share its concerns about the two men with the FBI, or its belief that Almihdhar might be in the United States, until Aug. 23, 2001. Three weeks later, the two men were on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
Committee members also have raised the possibility that the hijackers received financial assistance from a number of individuals across the United States, including two San Diego men with connections to the Saudi government.
But Gore dismissed that possibility of financial assistance as pure conjecture, insisting he has never seen evidence the hijackers needed financial or logistical help beyond what already was provided by Al Qaeda.
“There was no support network here for the hijackers, they didn’t need it,” Gore said. “And I think that is why they succeeded.”
Gore, who retired from the FBI in January and took a job with the San Diego County district attorney’s office, said there also was no proof that hijackers Almihdhar and Alhazmi lived in San Diego for any reason other than its Islamic community and the opportunity to take flying lessons in a region with great year-round weather.
Gore acknowledged that the two future hijackers did come into contact with a trusted FBI informant, but said there was no reason for the informant to bring that fact to the attention of his FBI handler because Almihdhar and Alhazmi did nothing publicly that would suggest they were violent extremists.
Gore similarly dismissed the committee’s suggestion that the hijackers may have received help from two Saudi men well-known in the San Diego community, Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan. Some federal officials believe one or both men may have been Saudi agents or informants, a link that would suggest the Saudi government had suspicions about the future hijackers, or could have been assisting them.
But Gore said he believed that Al Bayoumi’s initial meeting with the hijackers was just coincidence. He said the FBI investigation found no evidence Bassnan even met Alhazmi or Almihdhar. Gore also disputed the committee’s suggestion that Al Bayoumi and Bassnan were receiving money from Saudi officials or rich Saudis, and then funneling the money to Alhazmi and Almihdhar.
Gore said the FBI investigation did show that Bassnan’s wife received a check from the Saudi government that was turned over to Al Bayoumi. But that transaction only occurred because Bassnan did not have a bank account and the amount of money involved was immediately returned to Bassnan, Gore said.
Similarly, he said, although Al Bayoumi did help the hijackers pay their initial rent in San Diego, the amount was small and immediately repaid.
San Diego attorney Randall Hamud, who has represented more than two dozen people questioned by FBI agents in San Diego since the Sept. 11 attacks, agreed with Gore’s assessment.
“We said from the beginning that we’re a community, not a cell,” said Hamud, whose clients included some individuals who provided crucial information to the FBI about overseas money received by the hijackers.
Paul Anderson, chief spokesman for the committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), stood by the committee’s findings, noting that its voluminous report was reached from various leads, including reports by the FBI.
Anderson noted that the Bush administration recently asked the government of Saudi Arabia to make Al Bayoumi, who lives there, available for questioning by the FBI.
“Those who remain in charge of the investigation apparently feel there are more questions that need to be asked,” he said.
Last week, Rep. Jane Harman of Venice, the ranking House member of the intelligence committee, joined eight other Democrats in urging the administration to declassify additional portions of the report that deal specifically with possible foreign government assistance to the Sept. 11 hijackers. The government of Saudi Arabia has also called for declassification of the material, which deals in part with its alleged relationship with the hijackers.
But a senior Justice Department official agreed last week with Gore that an exhaustive investigation has turned up no proof the hijackers received financial assistance from the Saudi government.
Likewise, the department official agreed with Gore that, given the intelligence and the anti-terrorism resources in place before Sept. 11, there was no way to assert that the attacks could have been prevented.
“Based upon our realistic capabilities then, I have not seen the evidence we would have intercepted the plots,” the official said.