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9/11 report reveals details, questions

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - One of the central chapters in the report on the Sept. 11 attacks released last week is a painstaking reconstruction of the hijackers' preparations.

It covers their arrival in the United States, their training at flight schools, their purchases of tickets, and their boarding of the doomed aircraft.

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But Page 139 of the report by a joint congressional committee points to a lingering mystery: During cross-country practice flights in the preceding months, why did the hijackers always book return stops in Las Vegas?

"Each of the return flights for these hijackers had layovers in Las Vegas," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III is quoted as saying in the report. "To date, the purpose of these one- to- two-day layovers is not known."

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For all that it answers about the attacks, the nearly 900-page report is stocked with reminders of the many questions that remain - about other puzzling aspects of the plot, the possible role of foreign governments, and even such politically charged matters as what Presidents Clinton and Bush had been told about al-Qaida.

In that sense, the release of the congressional report marks only the latest step in the nation's struggle to understand the attacks, and the government's performance leading up to them.

The next phase is well under way. An independent Sept. 11 commission, led by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, is taking an even broader and deeper look, probing not only intelligence failures but also breakdowns in other areas of government, including immigration and aviation.

Commission officials say they have been granted access to a trove of materials that congressional investigators never got to see, including reports on interrogations of top al-Qaida figures in custody, as well as records from the National Security Council inside the White House.

And officials at the commission, which is expected to deliver its report next year, say they are still pressing for more.

"We are requesting access to things to which no prior White House has granted access, ever," said Philip Zelikow, executive director of the commission. He declined to discuss details of those negotiations with the administration, but said: "The bottom line is 'So far, so good.' "

Meanwhile, lawmakers privy to the fuller, classified version of the congressional report acknowledge that the picture is incomplete. "I can tell you right now that I don't know exactly how the plot was hatched," said Rep. Porter J. Goss, a Florida Democrat and co-chairman of the joint inquiry.

"I don't know the where, the when, and the why and the who in every instance. That's after two years of trying," he said.

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One big reason there are holes in the story is that until recently, U.S. officials have had little access to people involved in planning the attacks. That makes the interrogation transcripts particularly intriguing for the new commission.

Among the al-Qaida suspects in U.S. custody are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Abu Zubaydah, a top lieutenant to al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. If they are talking - and telling the truth - the commission could piece together the most definitive account yet of the origin and execution of the plot.

Although it is incomplete, the joint inquiry report provides some new insight on this subject. One passage cites testimony from CIA Director George J. Tenet that in 1996, bin Laden's second-in-command, Muhammad Atif, drew up a study on the feasibility of hijacking U.S. planes and destroying them in flight. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed proposed to bin Laden that the World Trade Center "be targeted by small aircraft packed with explosives." Bin Laden then suggested using larger planes.

The sources Tenet relied on in piecing together this account are unspecified.

Although the congressional report contains gaps, it does provide a comprehensive look at the performance of the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence agencies leading up to the attacks. The overriding finding was that there were opportunities to anticipate or disrupt the Sept. 11 plot, from unheeded FBI memos that warned al-Qaida was sending terrorists to U.S. flight schools, to CIA failures to put operatives on U.S. watchlists.

The report is full of glimpses into covert activities around the globe in the late 1990s, as U.S. intelligence tried desperately to get close enough to capture or kill bin Laden. But many of the most intriguing passages end abruptly, with the most sensitive information blotted out at the insistence of the White House or CIA.

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The largest gap in the report is a 27-page section dealing with information "suggesting specific sources of foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers while they were in the United States."

Although the report does not name countries, other sources said much of the omitted material dealt with information suggesting that hijackers received significant support from Saudi officials, a claim the Saudi government vehemently denies.

Lawmakers vowed to continue to press for the release of such material. "Those pages will not be blank forever," Goss said.

Then there are the Las Vegas layovers. Did the devout Muslim hijackers simply partake of the gambling destination's pleasures, or was there a more strategic explanation? Another puzzler: Why did ringleader Mohammed Atta and another hijacker spend the night before the attacks in Portland, Maine, which forced them to rely on a shuttle flight to Boston to catch the plane they hijacked?

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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