Bush Backs Independent 9/11 Commission

ByABC News
September 23, 2002, 9:08 AM

— -- Bush Backs Independent 9/11 CommissionW A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 20 Reversing course, President Bush said todayhe now supports establishing an independent commission toinvestigate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Momentum for such a commission has grown in recent months. TheHouse has already voted to approve a commission as part of itsintelligence authorization bill. But the White House had opposed an independent commission,citing concerns about possible leaks and tying up officialsinvolved in the fight against terrorism. In a letter to Capitol Hill, the president's congressionalliaison said Bush wanted to focus immediately after Sept. 11 onpreventing future attacks and restructuring government agencies tomeet the new threats. With that effort now underway, andcongressional hearings into the attacks well along, theadministration thought it was time to get behind the creation of acommission, he said. "Now that the work of the intelligence committees is nearingits end, we must take the appropriate next steps," the lettersaid. The White House said that before now it had been concerned thatan additional inquiry or commission into the attacks would beduplicative and "divert the attention and resources of both theCongress and relevant executive agencies away from their importantwork of combating terrorism." The change of heart comes as hearings continue on Capitol Hill. Today, a congressional investigator said in a report thatFBI headquarters blocked an agent's request to aggressively pursueone 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 headquartersAug. 29, 2001, to allow his office to use its "full criminalinvestigative resources" to find Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of twohijackers who intelligence agents had identified as attending anal-Qaida meeting in Malaysia in January 2000. In an e-mail, headquarters denied the request because al-Mihdharwas not under criminal investigation. It cited the "wall" betweenintelligence 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 andthrowing 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. 11attacks. Hill told lawmakers that the United States failed to pursueal-Mihdhar and another hijacker, Nawaf al-Hazmi, who also attendedthe Malaysia meeting. Intelligence agencies "had, but missed,opportunities both to deny them entry into the United States andsubsequently to generate investigative and surveillance actionregarding 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 aprincipal planner in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole inYemen. CIA employees told congressional staff that the Malaysia meetingwas seen "as just one of many counterterrorist efforts" at thetime. But intelligence documents show it was considered importantenough to be discussed in briefings with the CIA director inJanuary 2000. In March 2000, a cable from an overseas CIA station noted thatal-Hazmi had flown into Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000. The cable wasmarked "Action required: None, FYI." Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi lived openly in the United States. Whileresiding in San Diego in 2000, they used their true names on anapartment lease and al-Mihdhar obtained a driver's license. Theyalso took flight lessons in San Diego in May 2000. Not until Aug. 23, 2001, were the two men put on the StateDepartment's watch list for denying visas. By then, both were inthe United States. Both al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were aboardAmerican Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon. Hill said CIA officials told her there were no procedures at theCIA Counterterrorism Center for putting suspects on watch lists andthey had received no training on watch lists. Hill said the missed opportunities to stop al-Hazmi andal-Mihdhar were the result of institutional problems atintelligence agencies, such as the failure of the FBI and CIA tocommunicate with each other and limitations on the FBI's use offoreign-gathered intelligence in criminal cases.