The real question for the 9/11 commission and the American public is not whether George W. Bush considered al Qaeda an urgent threat before 9/11, but this: How did the U.S. government let Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi get away with it?
Dont know who al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi are or were? Their names should be household words; they should be as famous as Lee Harvey Oswald. They were two of the 9/11 hijackers who took control of Flight 77 and crashed it into the Pentagon. But they were
different from the other 19 hijackers. The CIA had been watching them as early as January 2000. Yet the CIA failed to let the FBI know that these two men who had attended an al Qaeda summit in Malaysia in early 2000 were in the United States or heading toward it. Consequently, the FBI lost what probably was the best opportunity it had to unravel the 9/11 plot.
This episode is important to keep in mind as Washington partisans and commentators dissect the face-off between Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism coordinator, and the Bush White House, particularly National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. (This column was written before Rices much-anticipated public testimony to the 9/11 commission.) The Clarke dustup focused on a matter that shouldnt be a subject of dispute. Clarke accused George W. Bush of having failed to consider the al Qaeda threat a top priority before September 11, 2001, and the White House cried did-not. But Bush told journalist Bob Woodward (for Woodwards book Bush at War) that before 9/11, when it came to Osama bin Laden, I didnt feel that sense of urgency. So wheres the argument? Other evidence uncovered by the 9/11 commission and a separate 9/11 investigation conducted by the House and Senate intelligence committees support Bush on this point. Why not take him at his word?
But the urgent/not-urgent debate has produced enough smoke (so far) to obscure what should be another cause of concern for the White House: al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi. The story of these two has been covered in the media, but not to the same extent as such pressing matters as, say, Janet Jacksons right boob. And, more importantly, the CIA has gotten a complete pass for one of the biggest screwups in U.S. history, and Bush has gotten a pass for giving the CIA a pass.
Heres the story in short, according to the final report of the 9/11 congressional inquiry. The CIA had spied on an al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur that occurred the first week of January 2000. Within days, the CIA knew that al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi had been present, and the agency had enough information on the two to add them to a State Department watch list that could have been used to deny them entry to the United States. Yet it did not do so. In early March 2000, the CIA learned that a week after the Malaysia gathering, al-Hazmi traveled to Los Angeles. It also knew that al-Mihdar had accompanied al-Hazmi part of the way, but the CIA did consider the possibility that al-Mihdar, too, had been heading toward the United States. In February 2000, the two settled in San Diego. They rented a place and obtained drivers licenses using their own names. They took flight lessons. In July 2000, al-Hazmi applied for a visa extension. In December, he moved to Arizona with another 9/11 hijacker. And at some point, al-Hazmis brother came to the United States. He, too, would become one of the 9/11 hijackers.
Because the CIA failed to tell the FBI until August 23, 2001 that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdar were in the United States, the FBI never went looking for them. Had the FBI been searching for them, it well could have found them. The two had had numerous contacts with a longtime FBI informant in San Diego. The FBI agent who handled this informant told the intelligence committees, Im sure we could have located them, and we could have done it within a few days. Unfortunately, the CIA was 17 months late in passing information on the pair to the FBI, and then FBI headquarters did not disseminate it to the FBI office in San Diego until after September 11. All this means that the CIA had a bead on two of the hijackers, who could have led the feds to others, and it did virtually nothing. If I were a 9/11 victims family member, this would keep me up at night and crying during the day.
Why would a high-profile examination of the al-Hazmi and al-Mihdar case be bad news for Bush? There are two reasons. First, Bush seems to have done nothing in response to this awful mistake. He has defended the pre-9/11 performance of the CIA. He has not publicly demanded accountability or explanations. Apparently, no one has lost his or her job for these mistakes.
Second, if it were more widely known that the U.S. government had been this close to al-Hazmi and al-Mihdar, Bushs lack of urgency would look worse and perhaps downright negligent. Some Bush defenders have argued that a more vigorous Bush policy pre-9/11 would not have made a difference. The 9/11 plot had been put into motion long before Bush hit 1600 Pennsylvania, and a new push against al Qaeda and bin Laden even the assassination of bin Laden might not have stopped the action. But theres a counterargument: If Bush and his aides had considered al Qaeda an urgent matter, they might have responded to the increased warnings that came in during the summer of 2001 by going ballistic and demanding that government agencies double-check and triple-check all the information they had on al Qaeda operatives. Had Bush and Rice sounded a call to arms, would midlevel officials have connected the dots on al-Hazmi and al-Mihdar? Would they have paid more attention to other telltale signs in their possession, such as the infamous Phoenix memo, which was sent by an FBI agent in July 2001 to the bin Laden unit at headquarters and which reported that suspected extremists linked to bin Laden were taking flight instruction in Arizona?
Bush and Rice are lucky such questions are unanswerable. Their line has always been, there was nothing we could have done. Just days ago, Bush adviser Karen Hughes said, I just dont think, based on everything I know, and I was there, that there was anything that anyone in government could have done to have put together the pieces before the horror of that day. The case of al-Hazmi and al-Mihdar proves her wrong. With this foul-up in mind, the congressional intelligence committees concluded, The intelligence community failed to capitalize on both the individual and collective significance of available information . . . As a result, the community missed opportunities to disrupt the September 11 plot.
The Bush crew refuses to acknowledge that mistakes were made. Its as if al-Hazmi and al-Mihdar never existed. (If only.) September 11 family members and citizens who care about truth, history and government accountability can only hope the 9/11 commission exposes not only what went wrong but Bushs less-than-urgent attitude toward the blunders that enabled bin Laden to succeed.