9/11 Report: No Evidence of Critical Mistakes

Times Staff Writers

A long-awaited congressional report looking into the events leading up to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, broadly criticizes the U.S. intelligence community for failing to anticipate the possibility of such an attack, but finds no specific evidence that officials ignored or missed warning signs that would have enabled them to foil the plot that killed about 3,000 people, congressional and law enforcement sources said Tuesday.

The 900-page report is to be released Thursday after months of haggling between congressional investigators and intelligence authorities over which portions of the hefty document should be declassified or remain top secret. A preliminary version detailing a summary of the concerns was published last winter.

The report is the product of months of hearings and testimony last year before a joint intelligence panel, which unearthed evidence that the FBI and CIA mishandled clues and warnings in the years and months preceding the attacks. The hearings gave impetus to the creation of a bipartisan federal commission being led by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean that is separately investigating the attacks. The commission is due to complete its work next year.

The congressional report provides new hues and shades to an already dim portrait of U.S. preparedness before the attacks.

Although the report's general outlines have been previously known, the timing of its release and the light it is expected to shed on what Bush administration officials knew in advance of the attacks comes at a politically sensitive time -- as the administration attempts to fend off criticism that it relied on faulty intelligence about Iraqi plans to develop weapons of mass destruction before going to war.

Some Democratic presidential contenders are already attempting to make hay from that. During a quick swing through Los Angeles on Monday night, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, criticized the administration's unwillingness to release the full body of the report.

"I am a very angry man tonight, being informed of what portions of the report are going to be withheld from the public," Graham told about 40 members of Democratic Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, a group of young Democrats gathered in a dimly lighted cabaret on Wilshire Boulevard.

"I start from the premise that in a democracy, the people should know as much as the government knows unless there is a very compelling case that the information threatens American security interests," Graham said. "I think a different standard has been applied to this report, and that is, 'What is it that reduces the embarrassment to agencies that acted in an incompetent manner?' "

Still, the report takes the intelligence community to task for failing to share terrorism-related information they had independently gathered before Sept. 11, including a previously reported episode in which the CIA failed to pass along to the FBI and other agencies intelligence linking two of the hijackers living in the San Diego area to the Al Qaeda network and the 2000 bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen until a few weeks before the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The men were among those who commandeered the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon.

The report asserts that intelligence forces failed to fully appreciate and anticipate the threat posed by Al Qaeda before the attacks and, according to one person familiar with the report, paints a "fairly startling" picture of how Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed freely traveled to and from the United States in the years before the attacks.

It also provides tantalizing details about the two hijackers' relations with a San Diego man suspected of having ties to the Saudi government and an FBI informant who was also their landlord. The FBI has asserted that the informant had no way of knowing that the men might have been involved with terrorism, and that he subsequently passed a polygraph test.

Although the report apparently does not find clear evidence that the Saudis may have even indirectly bankrolled the hijackers, it raises more questions than it answers about the link and criticizes the FBI for not investigating more aggressively, people familiar with the report said. A 28-page section that includes criticism of the Saudi government and the level of its interest in Muslim extremism, moreover, has been heavily censored in the final version, these people said.

"This inquiry has uncovered no intelligence information in the possession of the intelligence community prior to the attacks of 9/11 that, if fully considered, would have provided specific advance warnings of the details of those attacks," the report found, according to a person who has read it.

But it continues: "The task of the inquiry was not, however, limited to a search for the legendary, and often absent, 'smoking gun.' "

Some of its recommendations are already being implemented, including creation of a terrorism information center that will fuse all known intelligence into a central location and improvement in the FBI's domestic intelligence-gathering capability.

Senior FBI officials say that they have received ample indications that the report will single the bureau out for much of its harshest criticism, saying agents failed to try to "connect the dots" and possibly uncover the 19 hijackers' activities in the U.S. before the attacks.

In the report, the FBI is sharply criticized for not aggressively investigating the activities of several Saudi men living in San Diego who spent time with the two hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. Among those men is Omar al Bayoumi, who was suspected by some local Muslims of being an agent of the Saudi government.

The report, according to the FBI official, details how Al Bayoumi aided the two future hijackers, including helping them pay their security deposit and rent on a San Diego apartment. An unidentified FBI source, the report said, told agents that Al Bayoumi appeared to be an "intelligence officer" for Saudi Arabia or another Islamic country.

According to the FBI official, the report discloses that, on the same day he met Almihdhar and Alhazmi by chance at a Los Angeles restaurant, Al Bayoumi met with officials at the Saudi consulate. The report says that Al Bayoumi overheard the two men speaking Arabic in the restaurant, befriended them, and invited them to San Diego, another person familiar with the report said.

But the FBI official said congressional investigators were not able to determine the details of the consulate visit, including with whom Al Bayoumi met and what was discussed.

FBI officials have said they investigated Al Bayoumi and weren't able to establish he had any terrorist leanings or posed a threat or was involved in the hijackings. For years, the FBI and CIA have been concerned about the Saudi government's funding of radical Islamist causes, including some in the U.S.

"We don't know that he's an agent," said one FBI official, who confirmed that the report goes into great detail speculating on Al Bayoumi's possible links to Saudi authorities and the two hijackers. "That is the assessment based on one individual's feelings because of his contacts with him. But it's not based on any substantive knowledge that he was working for or with the Saudis."

Another senior federal law enforcement official said the congressional report jumps to conclusions that cast an unfairly harsh light on the bureau's counter-terrorism agents, particularly by questioning whether they failed to detect some as-yet unproven link connecting Al Bayoumi, the Saudi government and the hijacking plot.

"That's a big stretch," said the senior federal law enforcement official. "The Saudis provide a lot of financial assistance to students and other visitors. It doesn't imply complicity."

Nail al Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said the Saudi government fears that it will be made a scapegoat in the report because of its long-standing history of providing aid to any and all Saudis in the U.S. He said that Saudi officials did nothing to knowingly help anyone involved in terrorism, particularly the two hijackers, and that Al Bayoumi has never worked in any intelligence-gathering capacity for the Riyadh government.

"We're not going to comment on something we haven't seen, and it is unwise to speculate," Jubeir said of the congressional report. "Sadly, [almost] no one has actually seen the report but everyone has an opinion about it, and about things that may or may not be there. We have seen that in the past, that people run with things that are difficult to refute that in some cases turn out to be not true."

Al Bayoumi has "no connection" to the Saudi government, said Jubeir, who noted that Al Bayoumi was detained in the United Kingdom for a week after Sept. 11 at the request of the FBI and that its agents questioned him before letting him go.

"He was not an intelligence officer," Jubeir said. "He is not and was not an intelligence officer. But we have made it clear that if the FBI wants to question him [again] and any other Saudi Arabian citizen, they can come through us and we will make them available.

"People are jumping through hoops here trying to make connections where there is no connection," Jubeir said. Al Bayoumi, he added, "was a student in Los Angeles; and in Saudi culture, like other cultures, people congregate around other people from the cultures they know."

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Times staff writer Matea Gold in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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