Report Details F.B.I.'s Failure on 2 Hijackers

By ERIC LICHTBLAU

New York Times

June 10, 2005

WASHINGTON, June 9 - The F.B.I. missed at least five chances in the months before Sept. 11, 2001, to find two hijackers as they prepared for the attacks and settled in San Diego, the Justice Department inspector general said in a report made public on Thursday after being kept secret for a year. Investigators were stymied by bureaucratic obstacles, communication breakdowns and a lack of urgency, the report said.

The blistering findings mirror those of the independent Sept. 11 commission last summer and a joint Congressional inquiry in 2002 but they also provide significant new details about the many bureaucratic breakdowns that plagued the Federal Bureau of Investigation before the attacks and are likely to fuel questions about the bureau's efforts to remake itself. The Sept. 11 commission had access to an earlier version of the inspector general's study and incorporated parts of those findings in its final report.

In the case of the San Diego hijackers, for instance, the report disclosed that an F.B.I. agent assigned to the Central Intelligence Agency wanted to pass on information to the F.B.I. about the two men in early 2000 - 19 months before the attacks - but was blocked by a C.I.A. supervisor and did not aggressively follow up. That set the stage for a series of bungled opportunities in an episode that many officials now regard as their best chance to have detected or disrupted the Sept. 11 plot.

Many passages in the public version of the report were blacked out to shield information still considered sensitive by the government; an entire 115-page section on one terror suspect was withheld.

The report provides new information about the bureau's mishandling of a warning from an agent in Phoenix in July 2001 about Middle Eastern extremists connected to Osama bin Laden using American schools to receive aviation training.

The F.B.I.'s cumbersome computer system - still beset by problems today - did not automatically forward the agent's memorandum to bureau officials who were supposed to receive copies of it, the report found. Those agents who did see the warning did not have the time to follow it up, or disregarded it because they felt the presence of Middle Eastern flight students was already commonly known. The agents were also concerned that racial profiling had become so "hot" an issue that they could not pursue the Phoenix agent's suspicions, according to the report.

But the report stopped short of recommending disciplinary action against any F.B.I. employees.

"What we found were significant deficiencies in the way the F.B.I. handled these issues," Glenn A. Fine, the inspector general, said in an interview. "We don't believe it was misconduct on the part of individuals so much as systemic problems, but we do recommend that the F.B.I. review the performance of individuals on its own."

The F.B.I. said in a statement that it had taken significant steps since the Sept. 11 attacks to address the types of problems the inspector general identified.

"By building our intelligence capabilities, improving our technology, and working together, we have and will continue to develop the capabilities we need to succeed against all threats," said Cassandra Chandler, an assistant director at the bureau.

Still, the depth of bureaucratic problems the report discusses is likely to intensify the debate about whether the F.B.I. has made enough progress since the attacks in remaking itself into an agency able to detect and disrupt terror threats within the United States.

The F.B.I. withstood efforts by some critics last year to create a new domestic intelligence agency modeled on Britain's MI-5, with many lawmakers saying they were impressed by the leadership of F.B.I. Director Robert S. Mueller III.

But in recent weeks, questions about the F.B.I.'s future have resurfaced, driven by mixed reports from outside groups about the bureau's success in reorganizing. Of particular concern are the F.B.I.'s difficulties in hiring and training terrorism analysts and in developing a modern computer software system to allow agents to search case files. The bureau scrapped a $170 million "virtual case file" system and announced a new plan this week.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has frequently criticized the bureau, said Thursday, "We can hope the F.B.I. is making the needed changes, but the simple answer is it looks like they've got a long ways to go."

He said he was "not at the point yet" of favoring a new domestic intelligence agency to supplant the F.B.I., but added, "When you get reports like this, you're getting closer."

The report showed, Mr. Grassley said in an interview, that "even when there were eyes and ears before 9/11 that told the F.B.I. things that needed to be known, they ignored it, and they just didn't have the capability to connect the dots."

Kristen Breitweiser, a leader of a Sept. 11 survivors' group whose husband died in the attacks, called the report "a long time coming."

She said it was "wholly unacceptable that more than three years after 9/11, the F.B.I. still doesn't have a useable computer system, and we're still dealing with the same problems we were before. How much ineptitude are we going to tolerate?"

The inspector general's report, totaling more than 400 pages, was completed in July 2004 in classified form.

But it was kept secret for the last year, in part because of concerns from government officials about classification issues and in part because of objections from defense lawyers for Zacarias Moussaoui and the federal judge in his terrorism case, who said the public release could compromise his prosecution. In order to make the report public, the inspector general agreed to delete a 115-page section that dealt with F.B.I. missteps in investigating Mr. Moussaoui's activities in the summer of 2001. The Mossaoui section will most likely be released publicly only after he is sentenced.

A separate report by the inspector general at the C.I.A. concerning that agency's performance before Sept. 11 has not yet been given to Congress or released publicly. It is believed to contain sharp criticism of officials at the highest levels of the agency, including George J. Tenet, the former intelligence chief, and James L. Pavitt, the former deputy director of operations. Its completion has been delayed by objections raised by lawyers for some of the officials believed to have been named.

The report by the Justice Department inspector general uses only first-name aliases to identify F.B.I. employees who played roles in both the handling of the San Diego hijackers and the Phoenix memo.

The case of the San Diego hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Al-Hazmi, has been a source of friction between the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. since Sept. 11, and the inspector general cites missteps and communication failures at both agencies.

The two men were known to have taken part in a meeting of Qaeda operatives in Malaysia in 2000 and entered the United States weeks later, settling in San Diego before taking part in the Sept. 11 attacks as two of the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

The F.B.I. was aware of the Malaysia meeting but was not formally told by the C.I.A. that Mr. Midhar had gotten a visa to enter the United States, the report found. Still, an F.B.I. agent assigned to the C.I.A. knew about the visa and sought to share that and other information about Mr. Midhar with F.B.I. officials in New York and Washington, even drafting a memorandum.

But the report found that a C.I.A. supervisor blocked its sending, saying the agent did not have the proper authority. After another inquiry, the agent did not follow up.

The incident underscored problems in the use of F.B.I. agents assigned to the C.I.A. who found their jobs there were "ill-defined and with little direction," the report said.

Other missed opportunities came when F.B.I. agents failed to aggressively question a San Diego informant who was renting the men an apartment. Other key pieces of information were not passed from the C.I.A. to the F.B.I., the report found.

The F.B.I. in New York remained unaware of much of what the C.I.A. knew about the two men when bureau agents undertook a cursory search for them weeks before the attacks, the report said.

The New York office assigned few resources and an inexperienced agent to track the men, and "little urgency was given to the investigation," the report said. "The F.B.I. was not close to locating Midhar and Hazmi before they participated in the Sept. 11 attacks," it concluded.

Even after an F.B.I. agent came to realize that Mr. Midhar was in the United States and might have valuable information, the Aug. 28, 2001, memo the agent sent to determine his whereabouts was marked "routine," the lowest level of urgency.

Agents in New York on the bin Laden unit "recognized that there was some urgency to the Midhar investigation." Yet the office "did not treat it like an urgent matter," assigning the case to an inexperienced agent, the report found. "The F.B.I. lost several important opportunities to find Hazmi and Midhar before the Sept. 11 attacks," it concluded.

The results were similarly dispiriting after an agent in Phoenix, Kenneth Williams, wrote a memorandum in July 2001 about his concerns that Osama bin Laden had initiated a "coordinated effort" to send operatives to the United States to receive aviation training.

The memorandum was dated July 10 but was not entered into the F.B.I.'s computer system until July 27, the inspector general found. It was forwarded from one counterterrorism section to another with no concrete action taken; one agent noted it would require "tremendous effort" to set up the canvassing operation on flight schools that Mr. Williams recommended, the report said.

The inspector general found that while the memorandum was regarded as an informed theory, not a specific warning, it "warranted strategic analysis from the F.B.I., which it did not receive, and timely distribution, which it did not receive."

The F.B.I.'s computer problems played a role, the report said. Supervisors in Washington who were copied in the memorandum's "attention line" were not automatically notified they had received it; no supervisors saw it as of Sept. 11, the report concluded.

The inspector general's office said he could not conclude whether more aggressive review "would have uncovered the Sept. 11 plot" but it "should have been handled differently."