Bush Backs Independent 9/11 Commission
W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 20 — Reversing course, President Bush said today he now supports establishing an independent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Momentum for such a commission has grown in recent months. The House has already voted to approve a commission as part of its intelligence authorization bill. But the White House had opposed an independent commission, citing concerns about possible leaks and tying up officials involved in the fight against terrorism. In a letter to Capitol Hill, the president's congressional liaison said Bush wanted to focus immediately after Sept. 11 on preventing future attacks and restructuring government agencies to meet the new threats. With that effort now underway, and congressional hearings into the attacks well along, the administration thought it was time to get behind the creation of a commission, he said. "Now that the work of the intelligence committees is nearing its end, we must take the appropriate next steps," the letter said. The White House said that before now it had been concerned that an additional inquiry or commission into the attacks would be duplicative and "divert the attention and resources of both the Congress and relevant executive agencies away from their important work of combating terrorism." The change of heart comes as hearings continue on Capitol Hill. Today, a congressional investigator said in a report that FBI headquarters blocked an agent's request to aggressively pursue one of the future hijackers less than two weeks before Sept. 11. The agent warned "someday, someone will die." The unidentified New York-based FBI agent had asked headquarters Aug. 29, 2001, to allow his office to use its "full criminal investigative resources" to find Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of two hijackers who intelligence agents had identified as attending an al-Qaida meeting in Malaysia in January 2000. In an e-mail, headquarters denied the request because al-Mihdhar was not under criminal investigation. It cited the "wall" between intelligence and law enforcement. The agent replied: "Someday someone will die — and wall or not — the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain 'problems'." The exchange 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 told lawmakers that the United States failed to pursue al-Mihdhar and another hijacker, Nawaf al-Hazmi, who also attended the Malaysia meeting. 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," she said. CIA interest in the Malaysia meeting faded after January 2000, gradually resurfacing after a participant was identified as being a principal planner in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. CIA employees told congressional staff that the Malaysia meeting was seen "as just one of many counterterrorist efforts" at the time. But intelligence documents show it was considered important enough to be discussed in briefings with the CIA director in January 2000. In March 2000, a 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." Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi lived 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. Not until Aug. 23, 2001, were the two men put on the State Department's watch list for denying visas. By then, both were in the United States. Both al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon. Hill said CIA officials told her there were no procedures at the CIA Counterterrorism Center for putting suspects on watch lists and they had received no training on watch lists. Hill said the missed opportunities to stop al-Hazmi and 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 and limitations on the FBI's use of foreign-gathered intelligence in criminal cases. The FBI agent who sent the e-mail, his face concealed by a screen, later urged intelligence committee members to ease those restrictions. He said it was "time to break down the barriers and change the system which makes it difficult for all of us … to have and be able to act on the information that we need to do our jobs." Under questioning, he recalled learning the hijackers' identities after the attacks. "When I heard the name Khalid al-Mihdhar, I was upset," he said. "I remember explaining this is the same Khalid Al-Mihdhar we had talked about for three months." Hill 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 was also aboard Flight 77.
—The Associated Press
Would-Be Hijackers Were Allowed to Roam
W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 20 — 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 today.
In one example, a March 2000 cable from an overseas CIA station noted that one of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi, had flown into Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000. The cable was marked "Action required: None, FYI."
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 Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency 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.
Also, the FBI's ability to pursue the hijackers in the United States was limited by government policies restricting the use of intelligence information for criminal investigations.
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. Hill said CIA officials told her there were no procedures at the CIA Counterterrorism Center for putting suspects on watch lists and they had received no training on watch lists.
—The Associated Press
Scientists: Food Supply Vulnerable to Terror
W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 20 — The United States is vulnerable to terrorism aimed at farms that produce the nation's food, scientists say.
Such an attack could easily happen, the National Research Council said in a report released Thursday.
"It's not a matter of 'if.' It's a matter of 'when,"' said R. James Cook, a council member from Washington State University. "While there may be a very low probability now, what about in 20 years?"
The council report said an attack on food production probably wouldn't lead to famine or malnutrition, but it could hurt public confidence in the food supply and disrupt the economy, costing millions if not billions of dollars.
The panel, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, pinpointed weaknesses in the U.S. plan of defense against bioterrorism in its report, one of the most comprehensive reviews of farm security to date.
Since last year, scientists have considered ways terrorists could spirit diseases across U.S. borders and infect cattle with mad cow disease, contaminate grain fields or spread anthrax.
Many pathogens are easily dispersed, such as foot-and-mouth disease, an illness that doesn't harm humans but can quickly sicken herds of pigs and cattle. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth occurred in Britain more than a year ago, raising concerns that the disease could appear in the United States.
The Sept. 11 hijackings and anthrax-by-mail attacks heightened scientists' worries.
The panel urged U.S. officials to improve their communication with intelligence agencies, universities and farm groups to help the public cope with food and farm security threats. It also suggested the government strengthen its border inspections by adding new equipment to detect harmful bacteria and diseases.
In addition, the council is recommending that the government immediately:
Increase its efforts to understand plant and animal diseases and how they spread.
Establish a network of laboratories that would respond to, detect and diagnose diseases.
Form a nationwide system to manage and collect bioterrorism information.
"Many of these efforts identified in the NAS report are already under way," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said in a written statement.
Veneman said the agency had given $43 million to states and land grant universities to improve screening equipment. It also is renovating its laboratories that would handle testing of samples of suspicious materials thought to be anthrax or other diseases.
This year the agency was given an additional $328 million for homeland security improvements.
Although Veneman's department commissioned the report, it had sought to withhold its release, fearing it could be used as a resource for terrorists planning to attack the nation's food supply.
The National Academies, which includes the National Academy of Sciences, compromised, removing some portions of a section that referred to specific case studies. Some classified documents were used to develop the report.
William E. Coalglazier, executive officer for the NAS, said the Academies worried that terrorists would misuse some information.
"Clearly the Academy does not want to provide a road map for terrorists," Coalglazier said.
Only government officials can read the excluded details, he said.
— The Associated Press
Governors Coordinate Against Terrorism
W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 20 — Governors are joining forces to defend their states against terrorism — from toughening standards for driver's licenses to increasing communication between states.
Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, a co-chairman of the National Governors Association's anti-terrorism task force, said, "It's even more important that we coordinate and collaborate with each other."
"We felt it was important to assess where states are in developing their plans and strategies," said Barnes.
Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, co-chairman of the task force, said that in the next few months, the governors would start a pilot project looking at ways to improve the sharing of information among law enforcement, corrections officials, courts, homeland security directors, health agencies and hospitals. The five to eight states that will participate have not been chosen.
Barnes said the governors are willing to shoulder their share of the costs, but noted that billions of dollars in federal money promised to the states has never been provided.
"To date, the main costs of homeland security have been borne almost entirely by the state and local governments," Barnes said. "We cannot wait until next year for financial assistance from the federal government."
He called on Congress to include several billion dollars to help states with homeland security in its continuing budget resolution at the end of September. That resolution is needed for the federal government to continue operating because Congress has not passed its annual spending bills.
"We need some clear lines of delineation of how much money is going to be available, how it's going to flow, and the flexibility to make sure we continue to provide security for our citizens," Barnes said.
The NGA has put together a guidebook on emergency management for governors, including almost two dozen new governors who will take office after Election Day.
"After Nov. 5, there will be a minimum of 21 new governors taking office," said Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. "Within two weeks [of the election], they will have this document."
The guide provides information on how to create a homeland security team, set up alert systems and communicate with the public in a time of crisis. It also defines emergency powers of the governor and outlines the role of the National Guard.
"There is no way we can guarantee there will never be another incident," Barnes said. "But we can greatly reduce the probabilities and guarantee we'll have a much better, quicker response."
—The Associated Press
Al Qaeda Seen Shifting Wealth to Commodities
W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 20 — The al Qaeda terror network has been shifting much of its wealth from cash to gold and other commodities, making it harder for U.S. agencies to track, FBI Director Robert Mueller says.
At a hearing Thursday, some lawmakers said a recent allegation that a suspected member of a New York terror cell spent $89,000 in a casino raises the possibility that the cell was laundering money for Osama bin Laden's network.
A Democratic lawmaker asked Mueller about criticism that the FBI may have lacked sufficient evidence when it arrested the six men this weekend near Buffalo, N.Y., and was acting under pressure to show results. The six, accused of supporting bin Laden's organization, are being held in jail without bail.
"That is absolutely not true," Mueller replied. "The FBI does not respond to entreaties to find somebody to arrest."
Al Qaeda "is seeking alternative ways" of moving funds, Mueller testified at the hearing of the House Financial Services Committee. He said the FBI and the CIA are following every lead in the government's ongoing effort to shut down the network's finances but because the money is mostly being moved abroad, it's difficult for U.S. investigators to trace it.
Still, committee chairman Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, suggested movements of large quantities of gold should be fairly easy to detect.
Oxley asked Mueller about a report in Thursday's New York Times that al Qaeda has transferred substantial assets beyond the reach of banks into diamonds, gold and other commodities.
Starting after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government began an aggressive program of freezing bank accounts and other assets of suspected terrorists around the world and groups said to support terrorism.
Treasury Department officials have touted the results, reporting last week that some $112 million in assets belonging to suspected terrorists have been frozen worldwide in more than 500 accounts since the Sept. 11 attacks. Of that total, $34 million has been blocked in the United States and $78 million overseas.
U.S. officials say the asset freezes and arrests in Europe, Southeast Asia and elsewhere have weakened al Qaeda.
Still, the Treasury report acknowledged that more must be done. Officials say one of the challenges is trying to track money flowing outside traditional financial channels, such as trading in diamonds or gold.
A recent U.N. report said the global campaign to choke off financing for terrorist organizations had stalled, with only $10 million frozen in the past eight months. The report said the campaign has pushed al Qaeda underground but hasn't stopped the flow of money and fresh recruits.
The Bush administration will create a task force to improve regulations for catching drug dealers, terrorists and others involved in money laundering, Deputy Treasury Secretary Ken Dam told the Financial Services Committee on Thursday.
He said the new task force would be housed within the Treasury Department and would work with financial regulators, law enforcement, consumers and others.
Congress last fall enacted a far-reaching anti-terrorism and anti-money-laundering law in response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks and Treasury has been putting out new rules to implement it.
—The Associated Press