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American Morning

'Newsweek' Reporter Discusses Pre-9/11 CIA Hijack Investigation

Aired June 03, 2002 - 08:10   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to warn you all, at least from the administration's point of view, don't rush to judgment. That is the message from the White House after a "Newsweek" report that says that the CIA was tracking two 9/11 hijackers as early as 1999 but didn't alert other agencies until weeks before the attacks.

Michael Isikoff writes, "The CIA's counterterrorism center was sitting on information that could have led federal agents right to the terrorists' doorstep. Yet astonishingly, the CIA did nothing with this information."

And "Newsweek's" Michael Isikoff joins us here, from Washington.

Good morning, Michael. Good to see you again.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, "NEWSWEEK": Good morning, Paula.

ZAHN: Have you been able to figure out how it is that CIA agents first snapped pictures of two of these hijackers in Malaysia, you report, a year and nine months ago, and that that information was never turned over to the FBI, even when two of these hijackers entered the United States? Why?

ISIKOFF: Well, that is precisely the issue that I think is going to get a lot of scrutiny in the next, over the next few days and weeks. What we know is this, that in, right around New Year's Day 2000, the CIA received information that these two guys, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, would be traveling to Malaysia to be meeting with suspected al Qaeda operatives.

They picked this up because the government had been monitoring, the intelligence community had been monitoring, a telephone number in Yemen that had been serving as a switchboard for al Qaeda and, in fact, had tied directly back -- phone calls to that switchboard tied directly back to participants in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa.

So this was -- from the get-go there was a clear trail that led to bin Laden and al Qaeda. The CIA was worried enough or concerned enough about the meeting that they asked the Malaysian special branch of the Malaysian Security Service to monitor the meeting in Malaysia, and in fact, the Malaysian Special Branch does. They photograph Almihdhar and Alhazmi at the meeting with about a dozen other suspected al Qaeda operatives, and most importantly, they monitor these guys as they leave the meeting.

Alhazmi is actually tracked in January of 2000, as we report, from Kuala Lumpur into Los Angeles.

The CIA also learns about this time that his companion Almihdhar has a multiple entry visa to enter and leave the United States at any time. In fact, he was on the same flight as Alhazmi coming back into Los Angeles.

Now, what the CIA says now is that they didn't fully understand the significance of the meeting at the time and it wasn't entirely clear that Almihdhar and Alhazmi were, as one U.S. intelligence official put it, bad-guy al Qaeda operatives, at least back then, in January of 2000.

So that's the reason they did not feel at that moment it was necessary to alert other government agencies -- the Customs Service, the INS, the State Department -- which could have blocked these guys from coming into the country, or most importantly, the FBI, which could have trailed them while they were here.

What that...

ZAHN: Well, let's talk about -- before you go any further, let's talk about what they did when they were here, because certainly your explanation betrays this description of al Qaeda being highly secretive and highly professional. You report that these guys come here, they open up bank accounts, they got a California driver's license, they opened up credit cards, and they actually hung out with some of the other alleged hijackers.

ISIKOFF: They were operating entirely in the open, under their names. One of them, Alhazmi, actually was listed in the phone book. And they were taking flight school lessons -- not especially adept students. In fact, their flight school instructor labeled them dumb and dumber because they were so inept at their flight school lessons.

And so the idea of these guys as sort of master terrorists is, you're right, is a little bit undermined by what we know about how they operated in this country, which makes it all the more puzzling that the information about their existence had not been passed along to the FBI, because they would have been quite easy to track inside this country had it been done so.

But just getting back to the time line that you were asking before, as I said, the CIA is saying that they didn't fully understand the significance of the Kuala Lumpur meeting at first. But by December of 2000, that explanation sort of falls down because it is at that point that the CIA learns that one of the key suspects in the bombing of the USS Cole just a couple of months earlier, the explosion in Yemen that killed 19 American sailors, one of those key suspects was at the Kuala Lumpur meeting in January 2000 and was photographed with Khalid Almihdhar.

So now at this point, Almihdhar is linked up with a key suspect in the bombing of the Cole. So they now know he is a dangerous guy, or at least associating with somebody who's quite dangerous. And yet still the information is not passed along to other agencies. And what makes this all the more remarkable is that Alhazmi -- Almihdhar at some point leaves the United States, and his visa has expired.

In June of 2001, he goes to a State Department consular office in Saudi Arabia and gets a new visa, a reissued visa from the State Department...

ZAHN: Wow.

ISIKOFF: ... consular office, having no reason to believe that he has already been identified for months as a dangerous al Qaeda operative, and he reenters the country on July 4, 2001, flying from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, back into New York -- and then participates in the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 77, that crashes into the Pentagon on September 11.

ZAHN: Wow. As indicting as everything sounds that you're reporting to some, the White House -- this is probably no surprise to you -- has come down and basically played down your report. A senior administration official urges that people "do not rush to judgment based on a single report coming to light without context and input from a variety of different parties."

Your response?

ISIKOFF: Well, clearly, there are a lot more questions that need to be asked here, and there's a lot more scrutiny that needs to be done over this series of episodes.

There are, I'm sure, a lot of elements in any story like this. There are a lot of elements that unfold over time: what information; how this information was treated in the CIA's counterterrorism center; what the distribution of it was within the CIA; and whether there were discussions or debates about should we alert people to this information, or should we hold onto it hoping we're going to get more information over time?

We don't know about this point whether its bureaucratic sloth or it was, there was a conscious decision made to withhold the information either out of fear for compromising sources and methods, or hopes of gathering more information over time, say through that switchboard phone number that was being monitored in Yemen. We don't know.

But we do know that there was critical information in the hands of the CIA that unquestionably could have helped other government agencies in going after these guys.

ZAHN: Well, your report has certainly garnered a lot of attention in Washington and all over the world.

Michael Isikoff, thanks for dropping by today to share more of it with us this morning.

ISIKOFF: Any time, Paula. ZAHN: And you can all find it in this week's "Newsweek."

Good to see you again.

ISIKOFF: Thank you.