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Failed put hijackers watch list { May 15 2003 }

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May 15, 2003
Officials Who Failed to Put Hijackers on Watch List Not Named

WASHINGTON, May 14 Seven months after telling Congress he would do so, George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, has yet to provide the names of agency officials responsible for one of the most glaring intelligence mistakes leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11, according to Congressional and agency officials.

Soon after the attacks, the mistake emerged, showing that the Central Intelligence Agency had waited 20 months before placing on a federal watch list two suspected terrorists who wound up as hijackers.

Had the information about the two hijackers been promptly relayed to other agencies, the government might have been able to disrupt, limit or possibly even prevent the terrorist attacks, intelligence officials and Congressional investigators said. The agency knew that the two, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, had attended a meeting of Al Qaeda in Malaysia in early 2000.

Mr. Tenet told a joint Congressional committee in October that he would tell the panel the names of counterterrorism officials responsible for the failure to put the men on the watch list. A spokesman for Mr. Tenet said Mr. Tenet had not turned over the names because "the committee knows full well who did what," including "who was handling watch-listing issues at the counterterrorism center."

The failure, however, has angered some lawmakers and families of some of the attacks' victims, who have wanted a more specific accounting of intelligence and law enforcement lapses.

The Tenet spokesman said the C.I.A.'s inspector general had begun an inquiry into whether any C.I.A. officials should be criticized or praised for actions before Sept. 11.

The C.I.A., meanwhile, has promoted two top leaders of its unit responsible for tracking Al Qaeda in 2000, when the agency mistakenly failed to put the two suspected terrorists on the watch list, officials say.

The leaders were promoted even though some people in the intelligence community and in Congress say the counterterrorism unit they ran bore some responsibility for waiting until August 2001 to put the suspect pair on the interagency watch list.

Mr. Tenet, in Congressional testimony in October, accepted responsibility for the reporting mistake but said no one at his agency had been held personally accountable because "we're in the middle of a war."

A C.I.A. official said the investigation by the inspector general began after a joint Congressional committee in December recommended one.

The New York Times agreed to a C.I.A. request to withhold the names of the two promoted officials because they still work undercover in counterterrorism activities. While both are employed by the agency, one was on temporary assignment to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The two declined to be interviewed.

The C.I.A. spokesman said it would be "unfair and not correct" to single out these two officials since lower-ranking and more senior officials, including Mr. Tenet, could arguably be cited.

Another agency official, however, said that the two officials bore significant operational responsibility for tracking and reporting on the activities of Al Qaeda.

A major mistake occurred in early January 2000, just before the Malaysia meeting of Al Qaeda, when the C.I.A. learned that Mr. Midhar had obtained a visa that allowed him repeated entry to the United States. The joint committee staff said it found no documents showing that the F.B.I., which is responsible for investigating terrorism inside the United States, had received information from the C.I.A. about the visa. Mr. Midhar moved to San Diego, attended flight school and lived unnoticed in a building whose landlord was an informant for the F.B.I.

Mr. Tenet, in his testimony, said there was some dispute about what the C.I.A. had told the F.B.I., and he said the mistakes with the watch list were the result of "uneven standards, poor training."

Some senators said Mr. Tenet's testimony to Congress had an important omission, because he did not disclose a cable of Dec. 11, 1999, which notified officials that they were required to put on the watch list suspected terrorists like Mr. Midhar.

An agency official said the committee staff had been briefed about the "contents of the cable" as well as similar, earlier cables, so therefore the "existence of the cable is not significant."

The C.I.A. turned over the relevant part of the 1999 cable to the committee staff in the final hours of the committee's work in December, Congressional records show. As a result, the intelligence agency "managed to keep the fact that it violated its own rules out of" December's Congressional report into Sept. 11, said Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama. Mr. Shelby, who was on the investigating committee, is one of Mr. Tenet's strongest critics and has called for him to resign.

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat on the intelligence committee, pressed Mr. Tenet in October to explain the notification failure and to identify the responsible officials.

Mr. Levin, in an interview, said he was "discouraged by the continuing failure of Mr. Tenet to do what he committed to do" and "to have accountability or to explain why there isn't accountability."

Although the failure to put the hijackers on the watch list promptly or to find them before the attacks was one of the lapses cited in the final report of the special Congressional panel, family members of those who died on Sept. 11 say that the full story has not come out and that they are pressing the independent commission led by former Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey to look into the matter and hold the C.I.A., and other agencies, more accountable.

"The C.I.A. circled the wagons early," said Steven Push, whose wife died on the jet hijacked by Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi. Mr. Push, who helped found a group for families of victims, went on to say that "promoting people with a history of poor performance and keeping them in a position of authority in the area of national security" shows that top agency officials "are in denial."

Mr. Push said that because "accountability was a major issue for most of the families," he asked the independent commission to "point fingers."

At the commission's first meeting, in New York City six weeks ago, Mr. Kean told Mr. Push and others that the commission's mandate was to find out "why things happened."

Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi and "their association with Al Qaeda" was well known to the American intelligence community by the first week of January 2000, according to testimony by the director of the National Security Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden. The C.I.A. secretly obtained a copy of Mr. Midhar's Saudi Arabian passport by having the authorities in another Middle Eastern country stop him at an airport on his way to Malaysia, intelligence officials said.

The passport showed that in April 1999 State Department officials in Saudi Arabia had given him a multiple-entry visa for the United States. The C.I.A. quickly cabled its station in Riyadh to obtain Mr. Midhar's visa application and asked Malaysian officials to keep tabs on Mr. Midhar during his visit to Kuala Lumpur, intelligence officials say.

The agency's investigation of Mr. Midhar was widespread: it involved agents in eight countries, and Mr. Tenet was briefed about the Malaysian meeting of Qaeda operatives on numerous occasions, according to Congressional testimony.

Yet, Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi flew unnoticed into Los Angeles from Bangkok on Jan. 15, 2000. One month earlier the C.I.A.'s counterterrorism center had cabled agency offices, including its own Osama bin Laden unit, about various reporting obligations. The cable included "clear internal guidance" that "required" the agency to pass on for the watch list "the names of all persons it suspected of being terrorists," according to Mr. Shelby. The cable and guidance are classified, but officials said that, at a minimum, Mr. Midhar met the guidance standards.

Cable traffic inside the agency was high just before the millennium celebration, when there was concern about the threat of terrorist actions around the world.

The chief of the bin Laden unit in 2000 was promoted after Sept. 11 to head an important C.I.A. station, and more recently he was assigned to the F.B.I., where he holds a senior position, officials said. In 2000 there were about three dozen employees assigned to the bin Laden unit, and about 200 agents worldwide were at the disposal of the unit, according to the C.I.A.

The director of operations for the C.I.A.'s Qaeda unit in 2000 has since been promoted to the unit's No. 2 post, officials added.

A government lawyer who examined the mistake with the watch list said officials at the bin Laden unit were contrite.

"They all took responsibility," the lawyer said. "They all said, `We dropped the ball.' "

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top

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