July 24, 2003 -- If San Diego FBI agent Steven Butler had known what the CIA knew about possible terror attacks, he may have had the best chance to stop the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, investigators told ABCNEWS.
Butler had two of the hijackers, Nawaf Alhamzi and Khalid Al-Midhar, under his nose for some 18 months, but neither he, nor anyone in the FBI, was warned by the CIA.
The CIA had tracked Alhamzi and Al-Midhar to California after the men were photographed at an al Qaeda planning meeting in Malaysia in January 2000 where, it was later determined, terrorists were plotting the attack on the USS Cole.
Alhamzi and Al-Midhar then moved to San Diego, where the FBI could have monitored them. The two future hijackers actually rented rooms in the house of one of Butler's informants, Abdussattar Shaikh, a leader at the local mosque, who also helped get them a computer and a car.
"We know for a fact that that car was used to travel from San Diego to Phoenix, to meet up with Hani Hanjour …, who [was] another pilot who [was] taking flight training," said Jack Cloonan, a former FBI agent who is now an ABCNEWS consultant. "This is a window of opportunity you are seldom presented with."
Hanjour would end up with Alhamzi and Al-Midhar on American Airlines Flight 77, the jet that smashed into the Pentagon shortly after departing from Dulles airport outside Washington.
A government report on the Sept. 11 attacks, which was prepared by a joint House-Senate committee and released today, says the FBI's informant knew that Alhamzi and Al-Midhar were going to flight school in Arizona but never told his FBI handler, Butler, who was in the dark about the significance of the two men.
"The informant's contacts with the hijackers, had they been capitalized on, would have give the San Diego FBI field office perhaps the Intelligence Community's best chance to unravel the September 11 plot," the report says.
"Given the CIA's failure to disseminate, in a timely manner, intelligence information on the significance and location of Al-Midhar and Alhamzi, that chance, unfortunately, never materialized."
• Read the report.
Questioning Informant’s Inconsistencies
The report also criticizes the FBI for questioning whether its informant, Shaikh, held back advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot. The FBI defended its decision, citing significant inconsistencies in his statements and inconclusive results from a lie detector test.
Shaik, however, insisted the results were not inconclusive. "I did not fail that lie detector test," he said.
In its report, the committee also says it was denied access to the informant by the Bush administration, which would not allow a subpoena to be delivered.
It wasn't until Aug. 23, 2001, that Alhamzi and Al-Midhar were added to the terrorist watch list that is distributed to the FBI, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
But it was too late. The State Department — unaware that Al-Midhar was a suspected terrorist — had issued him a new multi-entry visa two months before. The INS discovered Alhamzi was already in the country.
Even on the morning of Sept. 11, the FBI unsuccessfully searched for the two men who were thought to be staying at a Marriott hotel in New York City. Later that morning, they helped hijack American Airlines Flight 77 and crash it into the Pentagon.
CIA sources told ABCNEWS that the agency did inform the FBI of Al-Midhar and Alhamzi in January 2000, and that there is e-mail message traffic between the agencies that proves it. FBI officials said the names were included but there was nothing to explain who they were or their significance.
As for agent Butler, his criticism of FBI headquarters and the intelligence community, in general, led to a punitive transfer and he left the FBI in disgust. Butler said he could not speak with ABCNEWS because of the classified nature of this information.