Washington — The government intercepted conversations by early 1999 indicating that two Sept. 11 hijackers-to-be were connected to a suspected al-Qaida facility in the Middle East, but the National Security Agency did not pass on the information to other agencies, a congressional report on intelligence failures concludes.
The NSA interception was the first evidence in American possession that eventual hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were connected to each other and to al-Qaida, but some of that information was not brought to the attention of other agencies until early 2002 after Congress began investigating pre-Sept. 11 failures, according to excerpts of the report to be released today.
The Associated Press obtained excerpts from officials who had read it after it was declassified.
The document criticizes the performance of all the major U.S. terrorism-fighting agencies for missing signs and miscalculating the growing threat of a terror attack on U.S. soil but concludes none had information that "identified the time, place and specific nature of the attacks that were planned for Sept. 11, 2001," and killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
"Beginning in 1998 and continuing into the summer of 2001, the intelligence community received a modest, but relatively steady, stream of intelligence reporting that indicated the possibility of terrorist attacks within the United States," the report states.
It notes there was repeated information dating to 1994 that Osama bin Laden's network would like to use aircraft as weapons to carry out the attacks, and the targets ranged from embassies to airports.
"Nonetheless, testimony and interviews confirm that it was the general view of the intelligence community ... that the threatened bin Laden attacks would most likely occur against U.S. interests overseas," the report noted.
As for the opportunity to have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, the report states: "No one will ever know what might have happened had more connections been drawn between these disparate pieces of information."
The report runs about 900 pages in its unclassified form and makes several revelations, including that the CIA had received unconfirmed intelligence before the attacks that suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been in the United States as recently as May 2001.
It states that NSA began intercepting conversations in the fall of 1998 from an undisclosed al-Qaida location in the Middle East and that analysis of those communications in early 1999 divulged that al-Hazmi was mentioned by name and al-Mihdhar was mentioned as "Khalid."
NSA subsequently concluded that "Khalid" was the eventual hijacker al-Mihdhar, the report states. He and al-Hazmi were aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
Beyond its own interception, the NSA also received similar electronic eavesdropping information in 1999 from another unidentified intelligence agency and did not pass that information on, either.
The interception by the super-secretive NSA, the government's premier electronic eavesdropping agency, is one of numerous signs of growing terrorist threats against the United States that were missed by U.S. intelligence before Sept. 11, the report states, citing examples in which different agencies had pieces of the puzzle.
For instance, the CIA separately received information that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were present at a January 2000 meeting of al-Qaida operatives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that was monitored by Malaysian authorities. By the time CIA recognized the significance of the information and shared it with the FBI, the two hijackers had slipped into the United States.
And the FBI had an informant in whose home the two hijackers stayed in San Diego but the various agencies did not connect the dots, the report states.