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AMERICAN MORNING

09/11 Failures

Aired July 24, 2003 - 09:02   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Did the national security agency lose one of the 9/11 hijackers it was tracking? The results of a congressional investigation into the intelligence failures leading up to the September 11th attacks have just been released. Elaine Shannon has a preview of the report. She covers the FBI and terrorism for "Time" magazine. She joins thus morning from Washington D.C.
Good morning to you. Thanks for joining us.

ELAINE SHANNON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Good morning, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk a little bit about a smoking gun. When you look at this report, is it just an overall blanket blame of the various intelligence agency working, or is it better to say not working in concert, or is there some particular thing you can point to and say, that's where the mistake was made?

SHANNON: I think it's a broad indictment of the way they talk to each other, but the committee, as they told us before, never found a piece of paper or anything that would say, ah, if we've just seen this, we would have known a bunch of guys were going to hijack some planes and drive them into buildings on September 11, 2001.

O'BRIEN: A focus one of your reports is the phone call made by one of the hijackers. Elaborate on that for me.

SHANNON: There were two hijackers who moved to San Diego in early 2000, Khalid Al Midhar and Nawaf Al Hazmi. They were Saudis. They had just been to a big meeting of terrorists in Malaysia. They flew to L.A., then they went to San Diego and started taking flying lessons. While there, we now know that the NSA intercepted a call that one of them made to a known safehouse in the Middle East that it had been monitoring since about '98, but they only picked it up as Khalid, and they didn't pick up that someone bad was calling this safe house from some place in the United States, probably from San Diego, and so it doesn't say for sure, and they never made the connection.

Now it's interesting, because the NSA, and another part of it knew that this hijacker, Khalid Al Midhar was a bad guy and they identified him and his buddy in 1999, and they had him on the list. They just didn't put two and tow together. The CIA also knew who these guys were. Neither one of the agencies told the FBI, you should be looking for these two guys.

O'BRIEN: Does the report explain why two and two was not put together, why there were no red flags about these two guys when there seems to have been actually a decent amount information about them? SHANNON: Well, that's the $64 question. The -- I think the report will talk about what bureaucrats call stove piping -- they talk to each other, information went up and down, but didn't go across collegially. The tragic thing is an FBI informant lived with these two guys. They were living in San Diego under their own names, under the same names that the CIA and NSA knew them by. And they had telephones. They knew people. If the FBI had a tip to the names, and then they might have picked up on the fact they were there in San Diego taking flying lessons.

O'BRIEN: In your report you talked about the various abilities to track suspects and some of the hijackers as well through telephone, radio, cell phones, e-mail, fax, and yet while those efforts, to some degree, seem impressive, some of the critical information that completely lost, it's not to be tracked. Is that process going to change and is it already changing?

SHANNON: Well, the NSA doesn't talk about its technology, and we don't know whether it was the technology that didn't give them the call origination or what, but certainly, the agencies have been told that they must talk to each other and have hair triggers on any bit of information, no matter how wispy and they can't wait until they get someone's date of birth or Social Security number. The CIA has promised to be much more aggressive in putting names on watchlists, or phony names on watchlists or anything they have.

O'BRIEN: Elaine Shannon from "Time" magazine. Thanks for your insight. Appreciate it.

SHANNON: Thank you.

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