The U.S. Congress has been told intelligence officials knew about some of the September 11 hijackers more than a year before the attacks. A Congressional investigator told lawmakers Friday the agency did not pass the information on to other agencies. The testimony came on the third day of public hearings before the joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee.
Committee staff director Eleanor Hill says the panel's probe into last year's September 11 attacks underscored that there were "many missed opportunities by the intelligence community."
"The CIA had obtained information identifying two of the 19 hijackers as suspected terrorists carrying visas for travel to the United States as long as 18 months prior to the time they were eventually watch-listed," she said.
"There were numerous opportunities during the tracking of these two suspected terrorists when the CIA could have alerted the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement authorities to the probability that these individuals either were or would soon be in the United States. That was not done, nor were they placed on watch lists denying them into the United States," Ms. Hill went on to say.
Lawmakers were furious over the revelation. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, called it a "massive failure."
"This is truly unbelievable, I have to tell you," he said. "This is extraordinary. This has nothing to do with information that cannot cross a wall. This has to do with leads which are not shared with the FBI."
Staff director Hill said there was evidence of a lack of cooperation within agencies themselves.
She said two weeks before the attacks, FBI headquarters blocked an agent's request to investigate Khalid al-Mihdhar, who would become one of the hijackers on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
In denying the request, FBI officials said the man was not under criminal investigation. They also cited a separation or "wall" between intelligence and law enforcement.
The unidentified agent who made the request testified before the panel, sitting behind a screen to protect his identity from the public.
"I wrote on August 29, 2001: 'Whatever has happened to this? Someday someone will die. Wall or not, the public will not understand why we were not more effective in throwing every resource we had at certain problems,'" he said.
The FBI agent pointed out that reforms made after September 11 have improved cooperation. But he added more needs to be done for the agency to become more effective. He called on lawmakers to among other things ease the restrictions on the FBI's use of foreign-gathered intelligence in criminal cases.
The joint intelligence committee is investigating intelligence failures prior to September 11. Until this week, it had been meeting in closed session since June.
Not all lawmakers are pleased by the decision to hold open hearings. "We are revealing in open session today a lot of information about how we operate which will be very useful to our enemies," said Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona. "That is not good, and it is not necessary."
Committee Chairman Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, defended the public sessions. "I believe it is important, and that it is a right of the American people, to know what their government is doing. Those American people, also include our colleagues, who have a right to know and to assess the severity of the problems, to justify the reforms that I anticipate we are going to be recommending," Mr. Graham said.
The committee is scheduled to conclude its work in February.