Spy Agencies Brace for 9/11 Panel's Full Report

Commissioners say the final document offers a lengthy narrative, including new details on Al Qaeda's ties to Iran.

By Greg Miller

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 18, 2004

WASHINGTON — Still reeling from a damning report on intelligence failures in Iraq, the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies face another round of intense criticism this week with the scheduled release of the final report by the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

The 500-plus-page document is expected to include a lengthy, detailed narrative that contrasts the emerging threat of Al Qaeda with the often-futile attempts by the U.S. intelligence community to confront it.

There will be extensive new information that goes beyond the preliminary findings disclosed in a series of staff reports issued this year, commission members said, along with the panel's conclusions and recommendations.

"I think we have done a credible job of providing the public with a very detailed exposition on a wide variety of subjects," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and a Democratic member of the independent, bipartisan commission.

One of the recommendations likely to b e included is the creation of a Cabinet-level intelligence director who would oversee all 15 U.S. spy agencies, including the CIA.

The commission also is expected to provide new details on Al Qaeda's ties to Iran, as well as the text of a high-level briefing then-President Clinton received in December 1998 from the CIA on possible Al Qaeda plots to hijack U.S. aircraft, according to a U.S. official who has seen portions of the panel's report.

The briefing warned that Al Qaeda was considering hijacking aircraft in an effort to free Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian cleric imprisoned in the United States after being convicted of conspiring to bomb New York landmarks. The official said it was "one of many reports" senior policymakers got on Al Qaeda plots throughout the late 1990s and leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

At CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., on Friday, acting agency director John McLaughlin delivered a speech to employees warning that fresh criticism was coming with the relea se of the Sept. 11 commission report and urging them to keep their "heads held high."

"As an agency and a community, we are taking some heat right now," McLaughlin said, according to a transcript released by the CIA. "And there will be more." He went on to say that although "some criticism is justified, much is not," adding that the agency will "correct the record when critics go too far."

Mixing notes of defiance and contrition, McLaughlin's remarks are part of a public relations campaign he has launched to shore up morale at the agency, whose reputation has been eroded by scalding scrutiny in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Last year, a joint congressional inquiry concluded that the CIA had squandered the best opportunity to prevent the attacks when it failed to place on a "watch list" two known Al Qaeda operatives who had entered the United States.

Earlier this month, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a scathing report saying that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was base d on claims that "either overstated or were not supported by" the underlying intelligence on Iraq's alleged biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs.

In one of its earlier staff reports, the Sept. 11 commission said that the CIA was slow to recognize the emerging Al Qaeda threat, and slow to mobilize against it — a conclusion disputed by agency officials.

Subsequent reports showed that the Sept. 11 plot was far more ambitious than previously thought, understood, with plans to hijack as many as 10 aircraft and hit targets not only on the East but also on the West coast. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden scaled back the plot to four planes, targeting the World Trade Center in New York, as well as the Pentagon and either the White House or the Capitol building in Washington, the staff report found.

But commission officials have made it clear that other agencies and branches of government will share the blame. During its 18-month inquiry, the commission members have questione d whether the FBI is capable of serving as the nation's domestic intelligence service and turned up information that suggests the Bush administration didn't consider counterterrorism a top priority during its 10 months in office before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Under pressure from the commission, the White House released a high-level intelligence briefing that President Bush received a month before the attacks, warning that Bin Laden was determined to strike targets in the United States. The commission found little evidence of follow-up by Bush or his senior aides.

Because of the nature of its mission and the timing of its inquiry, political forces have swirled around the commission since its inception. Bush initially opposed creation of the panel, and commission members have complained that they encountered numerous hurdles from the White House — including difficulty getting relevant documents and securing an agreement from Bush to submit to questioning.

Bush also resisted requests by the commission to extend the deadline to issue its final report, although he later relented. The panel is planning to issue its report Thursday, ahead of the July 26 deadline, to avoid overlapping with the Democratic National Convention.

In interviews, commission members said that, despite the obstacles they encountered, they believe they have produced a comprehensive report. But when asked how much new material will be in the report, Ben-Veniste replied, "Do I think there will be any blockbusters? I don't think so."

One U.S. official who has been briefed on the contents of the report said that new evidence suggests at least eight of the Sept. 11 hijackers — the so-called "muscle" members of the conspiracy whose job was to subdue airplane passengers — passed through Iran in the year before the attacks.

Indeed, Tehran appears to have had a practice of allowing jihadist fighters to cross its borders into and out of Afghanistan without having their passports stamped, whic h helped the fighters hide their visits to Al Qaeda's terrorist training camps.

"At that point, there was a permissive border environment in Iran that allowed Arabs to pass through without having that necessarily noted in their travel documents," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official stressed that there is no evidence that Iran had knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot. The fact that the hijackers had passed through Iran was first reported by Time magazine on its website.

The new information bolsters the assertion by members of the commission that Al Qaeda had closer ties to Iran than Iraq, despite the efforts by the administration to link the terrorist network with the deposed regime in Baghdad. Last month, the panel indicated in one of its reports that Al Qaeda had collaborated with Iran and Saudi Hezbollah on the 1996 attacks on the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia where 19 U.S. Air Force personnel were killed.

The release of the report Thursday will be followed by a somewhat unusual outreach campaign. Commission members plan to split up into bipartisan pairs and travel the country discussing their findings and urging adoption of their recommended reforms.

Ben-Veniste and one of his Republican colleagues on the panel, former Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, are expected to handle the West Coast portion of the tour, according to an official with the Edelman public relations firm, which is handling the arrangements.

Commissioners, who were criticized for appearing too partisan during public hearings earlier this year, also have agreed to avoid campaign appearances and other political activities that might undermine the credibility of their work in the midst of a presidential election, officials said.