Bush Backs Independent 9-11 Probe

CIA FBI congress Capitol terror september 11 CBS/AP

President Bush told Congress he now supports creation of an independent commission to probe the September eleventh attacks.

But families of those killed in the attacks aren't buying it. Stephen Push, who lost his wife on American Flight 77, said the White House's independent 9/11 commission, proposed late Friday, wouldn't go far enough.

Push told CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr, "It's carefully crafted to make it look like a general endorsement but it actually says that the commission would look at everything except the intelligence failures."

In a letter to Capitol Hill, the White House says the president would welcome a "focused inquiry" that goes beyond the probe by the congressional intelligence committees.

Those committees are wrapping up their work. And the White House letter says it's time to "take the appropriate next steps."

Mr. Bush had opposed a commission, saying it would tie up officials waging the war on terror -- and endanger U.S. secrets.

Meanwhile, after meeting behind closed doors since June, the congressional committees held their third consecutive day of open hearings and more intelligence lapses are being uncovered.

The United States missed many opportunities to pursue two of the Sept. 11 hijackers after they had been spotted at an al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia 18 months before the attacks, a congressional investigator told lawmakers Friday.

In one example, two weeks before the September 11th attacks a New York agent begged FBI headquarters to pursue a man believed connected to the bombing of the USS Cole.

Orr reports that headquarters denied the request, saying there was no direct evidence tying the suspect to the crime, the agent responded with this chilling e-mail warning, "Someday someone will die and the public will not understand why we were not more effective in throwing every resource we had in 'certain problems."'

The agent, testifying Friday behind a screen to protect his identity, told the Joint Intelligence Committee the suspect he was looking for was Khalid al-Midhar, a man who would later help crash American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon.

A March 2000 cable from an overseas CIA station noted that al-Hazmi, had flown into Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000. The cable was marked "Action required: None, FYI."

Says the FBI Agent, "When we heard the name Khalid al-Midhar, this is the same Khalid al-Midhar that we talked about for three months, and I remember our supervisor at the time, rightly so, that they had done everything by the book. But at the same time realizing how ludicrous that statement sounded to me. It just didn't sit well."

The information was included in a report prepared by Eleanor Hill, staff director for the House and Senate intelligence committees' inquiry into intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Hill said the missed opportunities to stop al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar were the result of institutional problems at intelligence agencies, such as the failure of the FBI and CIA to communicate with each other.

Intelligence agencies "had, but missed, opportunities both to deny them entry into the United States and subsequently to generate investigative and surveillance action regarding their activities within the United States," Hill said.

She said her investigation has found nothing to indicate that U.S. authorities had information about 16 of the 19 hijackers. It had limited information about al-Hazmi's brother, Salim-al-Hazmi, who like the other two men was aboard American Airlines Fight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.

The CIA maintained interest in al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi since they were seen at the January 2000 meeting in Malaysia. But they continued to live openly in the United States. While residing in San Diego in 2000, they used their true names on an apartment lease and al-Mihdhar obtained a driver's license. They also took flight lessons in San Diego in May 2000.

The two men were not put on the State Department's watch list for denying visas until Aug. 23, 2001 — well after they entered the country and about three weeks before they helped hijack American Airlines Flight 77 and crash it into the Pentagon.

In written testimony at Thursday's hearings, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said that if intelligence agencies had notified the State Department sooner about the two men, "it is reasonable to believe these two criminals would never have entered the country in the first place."

"If we had had these two pieces to the jigsaw puzzle in advance, could we have seen the whole picture and prevented the attacks? Perhaps. But I don't believe that is a question we will be able to answer with any certainty," Armitage said.

On Wednesday, Hill, staff director for the joint inquiry, outlined numerous warnings of terrorist attacks received by intelligence agencies before Sept. 11. At least 12 warnings, dating back to the mid-1990s, involved the use of airplanes as weapons.

At Thursday's hearing, the committees examined how top government officials from past and present administrations have used intelligence and to what extent they were aware of the threat Osama bin Laden posed.

"What we had was an emerging threat which we were slow to realize," Goss said after the hearing.

In his testimony, Armitage said officials "knew that bin Laden had the means and the intent to attack Americans, both at home and abroad."

"We did not know exactly what target al Qaeda intended to attack and how and when," he said.
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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