Bush Backs Independent 9/11 Commission

ByABC News

— -- Bush Backs Independent 9/11 Commission

W 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. The FBI agent who sent the e-mail, his face concealed by ascreen, later urged intelligence committee members to ease thoserestrictions. He said it was "time to break down the barriers and change thesystem which makes it difficult for all of us … to have and be ableto 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," hesaid. "I remember explaining this is the same Khalid Al-Mihdhar wehad talked about for three months." Hill said her investigation has found nothing to indicate thatU.S. authorities had information about 16 of the 19 hijackers. Ithad 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 terrorismaimed at farms that produce the nation's food, scientists say.

Such an attack could easily happen, the National ResearchCouncil 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 20years?"

The council report said an attack on food production probablywouldn't lead to famine or malnutrition, but it could hurt publicconfidence in the food supply and disrupt the economy, costingmillions if not billions of dollars.

The panel, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences,pinpointed weaknesses in the U.S. plan of defense againstbioterrorism in its report, one of the most comprehensive reviewsof farm security to date.

Since last year, scientists have considered ways terroristscould spirit diseases across U.S. borders and infect cattle withmad cow disease, contaminate grain fields or spread anthrax.

Many pathogens are easily dispersed, such as foot-and-mouthdisease, an illness that doesn't harm humans but can quickly sickenherds of pigs and cattle. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth occurred inBritain more than a year ago, raising concerns that the diseasecould appear in the United States.

The Sept. 11 hijackings and anthrax-by-mail attacks heightenedscientists' worries.

The panel urged U.S. officials to improve their communicationwith intelligence agencies, universities and farm groups to helpthe public cope with food and farm security threats. It alsosuggested the government strengthen its border inspections byadding new equipment to detect harmful bacteria and diseases.

In addition, the council is recommending that the governmentimmediately:

Increase its efforts to understand plant and animal diseasesand how they spread.

Establish a network of laboratories that would respond to,detect and diagnose diseases.

Form a nationwide system to manage and collect bioterrorisminformation.

"Many of these efforts identified in the NAS report are alreadyunder way," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said in a writtenstatement.

Veneman said the agency had given $43 million to states and landgrant universities to improve screening equipment. It also isrenovating its laboratories that would handle testing of samples ofsuspicious materials thought to be anthrax or other diseases.

This year the agency was given an additional $328 million forhomeland security improvements.

Although Veneman's department commissioned the report, it hadsought to withhold its release, fearing it could be used as aresource for terrorists planning to attack the nation's foodsupply.

The National Academies, which includes the National Academy ofSciences, compromised, removing some portions of a section thatreferred to specific case studies. Some classified documents wereused to develop the report.

William E. Coalglazier, executive officer for the NAS, said theAcademies worried that terrorists would misuse some information.

"Clearly the Academy does not want to provide a road map forterrorists," Coalglazier said.

Only government officials can read the excluded details, hesaid.

— 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 theirstates against terrorism — from toughening standards for driver'slicenses to increasing communication between states.

Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, a co-chairman of the National GovernorsAssociation's anti-terrorism task force, said, "It's even moreimportant that we coordinate and collaborate with each other."

"We felt it was important to assess where states are indeveloping their plans and strategies," said Barnes.

Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, co-chairman of the task force, saidthat in the next few months, the governors would start a pilotproject looking at ways to improve the sharing of information amonglaw enforcement, corrections officials, courts, homeland securitydirectors, health agencies and hospitals. The five to eight statesthat will participate have not been chosen.

Barnes said the governors are willing to shoulder their share ofthe costs, but noted that billions of dollars in federal moneypromised to the states has never been provided.

"To date, the main costs of homeland security have been bornealmost entirely by the state and local governments," Barnes said."We cannot wait until next year for financial assistance from thefederal government."

He called on Congress to include several billion dollars to helpstates with homeland security in its continuing budget resolutionat the end of September. That resolution is needed for the federalgovernment to continue operating because Congress has not passedits annual spending bills.

"We need some clear lines of delineation of how much money isgoing to be available, how it's going to flow, and the flexibilityto make sure we continue to provide security for our citizens,"Barnes said.

The NGA has put together a guidebook on emergency management forgovernors, including almost two dozen new governors who will takeoffice after Election Day.

"After Nov. 5, there will be a minimum of 21 new governorstaking office," said Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. "Within twoweeks [of the election], they will have this document."

The guide provides information on how to create a homelandsecurity team, set up alert systems and communicate with the publicin a time of crisis. It also defines emergency powers of thegovernor and outlines the role of the National Guard.

"There is no way we can guarantee there will never be anotherincident," Barnes said. "But we can greatly reduce theprobabilities and guarantee we'll have a much better, quickerresponse."

—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 shiftingmuch of its wealth from cash to gold and other commodities, makingit harder for U.S. agencies to track, FBI Director Robert Muellersays.

At a hearing Thursday, some lawmakers said a recent allegationthat a suspected member of a New York terror cell spent $89,000 ina casino raises the possibility that the cell was laundering moneyfor Osama bin Laden's network.

A Democratic lawmaker asked Mueller about criticism that the FBImay have lacked sufficient evidence when it arrested the six menthis weekend near Buffalo, N.Y., and was acting under pressure toshow results. The six, accused of supporting bin Laden'sorganization, are being held in jail without bail.

"That is absolutely not true," Mueller replied. "The FBI doesnot 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 ServicesCommittee. He said the FBI and the CIA are following every lead inthe government's ongoing effort to shut down the network's financesbut because the money is mostly being moved abroad, it's difficultfor U.S. investigators to trace it.

Still, committee chairman Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, suggestedmovements of large quantities of gold should be fairly easy todetect.

Oxley asked Mueller about a report in Thursday's New York Timesthat al Qaeda has transferred substantial assets beyond the reachof banks into diamonds, gold and other commodities.

Starting after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government beganan aggressive program of freezing bank accounts and other assets ofsuspected terrorists around the world and groups said to supportterrorism.

Treasury Department officials have touted the results, reportinglast week that some $112 million in assets belonging to suspectedterrorists have been frozen worldwide in more than 500 accountssince the Sept. 11 attacks. Of that total, $34 million has beenblocked 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 moneyflowing outside traditional financial channels, such as trading indiamonds or gold.

A recent U.N. report said the global campaign to choke offfinancing for terrorist organizations had stalled, with only $10million frozen in the past eight months. The report said thecampaign has pushed al Qaeda underground but hasn't stopped theflow of money and fresh recruits.

The Bush administration will create a task force to improveregulations for catching drug dealers, terrorists and othersinvolved in money laundering, Deputy Treasury Secretary Ken Damtold the Financial Services Committee on Thursday.

He said the new task force would be housed within the TreasuryDepartment and would work with financial regulators, lawenforcement, consumers and others.

Congress last fall enacted a far-reaching anti-terrorism andanti-money-laundering law in response to the Sept. 11 terrorattacks and Treasury has been putting out new rules to implementit.

—The Associated Press