WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence agencies had evidence before the Sept. 11 attacks that terrorists might be plotting a strike on U.S. soil using commercial jets as weapons, a congressional official said yesterday, describing a report to be released today.
At the same time, the official said, congressional investigators have found no specific evidence in the intelligence agencies' possession before Sept. 11 that detailed the plot to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Still, the report is at odds with the Bush administration's assertion that, though intelligence agencies had detected signs of a possible attack, those signs pointed to potential attacks on U.S. interests abroad, not in the United States.
The investigators' findings will be outlined in a 30-page report released today as the joint House-Senate intelligence committee begins its first public hearings into the intelligence lapses that preceded the attacks. The congressional investigators who produced the report have reviewed 400,000 documents and interviewed nearly 500 people since January.
The report, the first of what are expected to be several released during the next month, delves into what information intelligence officials had on Osama bin Laden dating back to the 1990s, on the use of airplanes as weapons and on the threat to targets in the United States. The report outlines what pieces of information were filtering into intelligence agencies and when they appeared.
"There was an unprecedented amount of [intelligence] reports that peaked in June and then started to drop off," the congressional official said. "One of the issues is, did the American public realize the strength of the threat that was out there?
"Did anybody realize or explain to the public how serious this stuff was?"
The report says some U.S. intelligence analysts were taking the threat posed by bin Laden seriously, even if few others or the public knew it, according to congressional officials who have seen the report.
The report also addresses the response of George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, to the threat posed by bin Laden, and whether information about that threat was disseminated among the more than a dozen intelligence agencies. It is not clear what conclusion, if any, the report makes.
"That's an issue," the congressional official said.
Information about the 19 hijackers, how they operated and what was known about them will be detailed in a later report.
Since June, the joint intelligence committee has held hearings behind closed doors. The public hearings that will begin today have been delayed, in part, over questions about which documents could be made public and in part by the Bush administration's reluctance to furnish some information or to allow key witnesses to testify.
Some committee members have been critical of the administration, saying it has slowed the investigation by barring key officials, such as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, from testifying at the public hearings.
The administration initially fought the idea of holding open hearings, saying they would divulge sensitive intelligence information. The investigators have also sought to declassify some documents that the administration wants to keep classified.
Members of the committee still hope to call top officials from the intelligence agencies in subsequent weeks, and to prepare a final report at the end of their inquiry.
Today, the committee will hear testimony from two people representing victims' families, as well as from Eleanor Hill, the investigators' staff director. Hill, a former inspector general for the Defense Department, will detail the findings in this report.
Even as the investigators are looking into the possible intelligence failures of the FBI, the FBI is conducting its own investigation into whether anyone on the committee or its staff leaked secret intelligence intercepts to the news media. The committee requested the FBI investigation after Vice President Dick Cheney complained about the leaks.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the intelligence committee's top Republican, has been especially critical of what he calls the lack of cooperation from administration officials. He has argued that officials might have tried to slow the investigation so that it could not be completed by the end of the congressional session in October.
Congressional officials said yesterday that they were not sure whether the investigation would have to continue into next year.
The joint committee's investigators have also run into resistance from the administration in their efforts to obtain information, the official said yesterday.
"In some areas, [the congressional investigators] have been pleasantly surprised," the official said. "In other areas, not at all. The administration has been cooperating, but we have hit some roadblocks."
In January, intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency, were asked to start identifying any intercepts or fragments of information they had collected relating to the hijackers, a possible attack on American soil and airline hijacking.
Many examples that surfaced have left the intelligence community reeling.
Reports emerged that the FBI failed to act on a memo from its Phoenix field office linking terrorists to flight training schools, and thwarted efforts to search the computer and home of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is thought to have been the intended 20th hijacker.
NSA received two intercepts Sept. 10 that alluded to a possible attack, but the messages weren't translated until Sept. 12. There was also the discovery that President Bush had been briefed in August 2001 on information that bin Laden might have been planning a hijacking.
"It's clear there was an intelligence failure," Melvin Goodman, a former CIA agent and senior fellow with the Center for International Policy who is familiar with the investigation, said yesterday. "The fact that they used airplanes shouldn't have been surprising. The CIA knew even it was a target [of an airplane attack].
"The problem was that assumptions weren't changed," Goodman said. "They assumed the attack would happen abroad. Even in the face of all this evidence rolling in, they didn't believe it."