WASHINGTON - FBI investigators missed several chances to track down two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and mishandled a memo from an agent in Arizona suggesting that Osama bin Laden might be sending operatives to the United States to take flying lessons, a government watchdog said in a report kept secret until this week.
The report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine concluded that "we cannot say whether the FBI would have prevented the attacks had they handled these matters differently. ... But [the mishandling] was a significant failure that hindered the FBI's chances of being able to detect and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks."
Some of the report's findings were also made in less detailed fashion in last fall's Sept. 11 Commission report, which relied on interviews and other data gathered by Fine's investigators.
The new report describes a series of lost opportunities to unravel the activities of Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhamzi, two of the so-called muscle hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.
The report blames the failures primarily on CIA-FBI turf battles, confusion about when intelligence information could be shared with criminal investigators, and the FBI's antiquated computer system, which made it difficult for the investigators to know what information about investigations the bureau had.
In January 2000, the CIA pointed out Almihdhar's presence at an al-Qaida meeting in Malaysia and learned that he had a visa to enter the United States. But the agency never passed the information to the FBI, and bureau employees with access to the same data did not tell their bosses about it, according to the report.
Later, Almihdhar and Alhamzi were boarders with an FBI informant in San Diego, but the bureau didn't know because the agent handling the informant didn't press him for the identities of his lodgers.
By late August 2001, the FBI finally realized that Almihdhar had entered the United States and began looking for him. But, according to the report, "the FBI assigned few resources ... and little urgency was given to the investigation."
The CIA shares "significant responsibility for the breakdowns ... and several of its employees did not provide the intelligence information to the FBI as they should have," according to the report.
One CIA employee interviewed by Fine's staff referred to an FBI agent working at the CIA as "a mole" for the bureau.
The report found that FBI employees sometimes misunderstood or were inhibited by the "wall" that is supposed to divide criminal investigations from intelligence gathering.
The wall placed limits on the circumstances under which intelligence, which is sometimes gathered by methods not normally admissible in court, can be used in criminal cases.
Post-Sept. 11 changes in federal law have made mingling of intelligence and criminal evidence much easier.
Fine faulted the FBI for not doing more with a now-famous July 2001 memo written by Phoenix FBI agent Kenneth Williams warning that the number of bin Laden followers receiving aviation training in the United States would put them "in a position ... to conduct terror activity against civil aviation targets."
Though the inspector general noted that nothing in Williams' memo pointed directly to the Sept. 11 plot, he still took the bureau to task for allowing an analyst to shunt it aside amid the press of other work.
Fine's report includes critiques about specific FBI employees, who are referred to by pseudonyms.
While he found no misconduct, his report concluded that some employees made errors in judgment.
The 370-page report contains a blacked-out section covering the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the al-Qaida operative arrested while taking flight training in Minnesota in August 2001.
Fine completed his review in July 2004, but it was held up to avoid prejudicing court proceedings against Moussaoui.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to terrorism charges and faces the death penalty in hearings to begin early next year.
A judge overseeing the case ordered release of the report Wednesday, except for the portion pertaining to Moussaoui.
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