WASHINGTON - Lawmakers expressed dismay yesterday after hearing that U.S. intelligence agencies amassed numerous reports before Sept. 11 last year indicating that al-Qaida was actively seeking to attack the United States using airplanes.
The reports include more than two dozen examples since 1998, and especially in the spring and summer before Sept. 11, 2001, that suggested Osama bin Laden was plotting to strike inside the United States.
The reports were outlined in a 30-page statement issued as the joint House-Senate panel that is investigating U.S. intelligence failures began public hearings.
The statement, read by Eleanor Hill, staff director of the inquiry, includes summaries of intelligence reports that had not been previously disclosed.
In one example, from August 1998, an unidentified intelligence agency learned of a group of unidentified Arabs who planned to fly an "explosive-laden plane" from a foreign country into the World Trade Center. The FBI, the statement said, learned of the information from the agency and passed it on to the Federal Aviation Administration, which found the plot "highly unlikely."
No one intelligence report revealed the specific plot to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. But taken as a whole, they are the most telling look to date of the scope of information the intelligence agencies had collected but apparently not thoroughly analyzed.
"We now know that our inability to detect and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks was a failure of unprecedented magnitude," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the intelligence committee.
"This was not something on Sept. 11 that was new, or should have been new. This [information] was there since 1995. So when people come up and say, 'Well, gosh, we were shocked, we didn't have any intelligence,' well, it was there."
The report suggests that intelligence agencies gathered far more clues about a possible terrorist attack before Sept. 11 than the administration has indicated. President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and others have maintained, for example, that the intelligence reports collected before the attacks were vague and pointed to possible terrorist strikes abroad and not to the use of planes as weapons.
"I don't think anybody could have predicted," Rice said in May, "that they would try to use an airplane as a missile."
Yesterday, reading from the statement, Hill said: "It has been suggested, both in published reports and in interviews, that prior to September 11, 2001, information available to the intelligence community had for the most part pointed to a terrorist threat against U.S. interests abroad.
"While one could not give too much credence to some individual reports, the totality of the information in this body of reporting clearly reiterated a consistent and critically important theme: Osama bin Laden's intent to launch terrorist attacks inside the United States."
The 24-member team investigating the intelligence agencies found 12 intelligence reports that specified using a plane as a weapon.
In one example, a man walked into the FBI's Newark, N.J., office and said he had been training in a camp in Pakistan and had learned hijacking techniques. The man, who passed an FBI lie detector test, said he was supposed to meet five or six other people once in the country to participate in a plot.
He said they had been instructed to use "all necessary force" to take over the plane because there would be pilots among the hijackers. The FBI told congressional investigators it could not confirm the man's story and did not pursue it.
"Despite Condoleezza Rice's assertions to the contrary, using planes as weapons was neither ingenious nor novel," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, "but rather a method of attack the intelligence community knew terrorists had been plotting since 1998."
Some committee members were also critical of the Bush administration's refusal so far to allow congressional investigators to declassify information about what intelligence was given to the president before the attacks of Sept. 11.
Hill said she disagrees with the White House decision to withhold that information.
"The president's knowledge remains classified, even when the substance of that information has already been declassified," she said. "We believe the American public has a compelling interest in this information and that public disclosure would not hurt national security."
Neither the staff nor the joint committee has the authority to overrule the decision, which could be overridden only through a time-consuming procedure involving Congress.
The inquiry, which is continuing and is expected to produce several more reports, is delving into the actions and information gathered by the 14 intelligence agencies, which include the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency. Another hearing is scheduled for today.
Hill's statement, the first of several that are expected to be released in coming weeks, listed intelligence reports that showed bin Laden and al-Qaida had been gearing up for an attack on U.S. soil since 1998, when bin Laden declared "war" on the United States.
In the fall of 1998, intelligence reports suggested that a future bin Laden plot might include flying an airplane into a U.S. airport and that al-Qaida was trying to establish an active cell in the United States. At that time, intelligence analysts also received information that bin Laden could be planning an attack on the New York and Washington areas.
In the spring of 1999, analysts obtained information about a planned attack on a federal facility in Washington. That report was followed in 1999 by another that suggested that bin Laden's network was planning to attack targets in Washington and New York City during millennium celebrations. There were other reports about plots to assassinate high ranking U.S. officials
These reports, Hill's statement indicates, were looked at individually but were not fully analyzed in light of similar threats or reviewed periodically.
Clues on targets
In March 2000, analysts began receiving some of the first clues about what sorts of targets inside the United States bin Laden might favor, the statement said. One report specifically mentioned the Statue of Liberty, skyscrapers, ports, airports and nuclear power plants.
During that time, an unidentified intelligence agency received a report that bin Laden was interested in using commercial airline pilots as potential terrorists.
Some of the most striking reports from the spring of last year seem to have involved information about two of the eventual hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who crashed the plane into the Pentagon.
In August last year, members of the intelligence community asked that the two men be placed on a terrorist watch list so that they would be denied visas to enter the United States. However, the two men were already in the country, the statement says.
The FBI's field office in New York searched unsuccessfully for the two, who were reportedly living in Florida. Hill told the committee yesterday that al-Hazmi was listed in the local telephone book where he was living.
The statement offers explanations of why such reports were never compiled or thoroughly followed up, suggesting that the agencies were under-funded, understaffed and had other priorities. The FBI unit that analyzed terrorist threats had one person working on al-Qaida.
Yesterday, committee members said those revelations should help pave the way for meaningful reforms.
"Frankly, I'm outraged," said Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who is a co-chairman of the joint intelligence committee. "My hope is that this may galvanize public opinion to fix these problems."