Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says his intelligence agents infiltrated Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and warned the United States of an impending attack just days before September 11. President Mubarak's comments in an interview with the New York Times come as the U.S. Congress opens hearings on intelligence failures related to the attacks.
In the latest example of what could have been a lost opportunity, President Mubarak tells the Times that Egyptian intelligence agents warned U.S. officials that Osama bin Laden's terror network was in the advance stages of an operation to strike at an American target just days before September 11.
Mr. Mubarak says his agents had no idea the attacks would be as extensive as they were. He told the Times that his agents tried to stop the operation, but he offered no details.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer says it is unclear what information President Mubarak is referring to. Mr. Fleischer says Egyptian intelligence did pass on information regarding possible attacks in early 2001, but he is not aware of any new information just prior to September 11.
Intelligence experts say President Mubarak's comments highlight the need for greater intelligence sharing among U.S. allies that have sources within terrorist organizations.
Paul Wilkinson is a professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Better coordination, more emphasis on human intelligence gathering and far better intelligence sharing with allies and with the wider international community in so far as they can be persuaded that it is in their interest to help in this very important battle," he said.
Mr. Mubarak's comments come as the U.S. Senate and House Intelligence committees begin their probe of intelligence failures related to the September 11 attacks.
Congressional investigators are sure to follow up on reports that the CIA failed to alert the FBI that two al-Qaida operatives who later became hijackers were in the United States until just three weeks before the September attacks. But a CIA official now says that it did tell the FBI that one of the eventual September 11 hijackers attended a meeting of suspected al-Qaida members in Malaysia in January of 2000 and that he should have been kept out of the United States.
Even as the bureaucratic finger-pointing escalates, former CIA Director James Woolsey says it is clear both agencies failed to keep the other up to date on the movements of suspected terrorists. "It's possible that it could have made a difference," he said. "It could have given the FBI a line of inquiry to follow that might have kept some of the hijackers out of the country, might have led from one hijacker to another. We just don't know."
Finding ways to help the FBI and CIA better share intelligence is one focus of the congressional hearings now under way. Florida Republican Porter Goss chairs the House Intelligence Committee and is himself a former CIA agent. He spoke on NBC's Today program. "The intelligence community, I think, was ahead of the curve in the knowledge, but not far enough up on the curve on the specifics," he said. "They could have done better, they should have done better and I think we will find ways to improve the system and that will be one of the beneficial outcomes of our efforts that will go on all summer."
FBI Director Robert Mueller says despite the missed warning signs prior to September 11, he doubts U.S. investigators would have been able to piece together the terror plot that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But Mr. Mueller has made greater cooperation with the CIA a key component of his plan to reorganize the FBI to focus on counter-terrorism.