San Diego FBI disputes report about hijackers
By Kelly Thornton
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
June 10, 2005
FBI officials in San Diego, weary of accusations that agents bungled chances to intercept two Sept. 11 hijackers living under their noses, lashed out yesterday at the same conclusions in yet another report.
"It's frustrating. It's a dead horse," said Chris Meyer, a supervisor of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. "We're trying to explain ourselves the best we can but we're looking ahead trying to prevent the next attack. We'll be glad when this is all behind us."
Other reports have made similar conclusions, but this one by the Department of Justice's inspector general is the first internal evaluation of the San Diego FBI office's performance to be made public.
The document was completed in July but kept secret until Wednesday, when a redacted, unclassified version was filed in federal court in Virginia as part of the government's terrorism case against Zacarias Moussaoui.
The report found that hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid al-Midhar should have been unmasked through two people known to the FBI: Omar al-Bayoumi, a friend who helped the hijackers find an apartment, and Abdussattar Shaikh, an FBI "asset" who rented them a room in his Lemon Grove home.
The terrorists, who crashed a jet into the Pentagon, spent most of 2000 in San Diego County. They used their names, which were known to the CIA, to obtain driver licenses and travel documents. Alhazmi's name and phone number were listed in the Pacific Bell white pages.
Current and former FBI officials in San Diego said they saw important contradictions in the report: Even while criticizing agents for failing to discover the terrorists through al-Bayoumi, who had been investigated by the FBI before Sept. 11, the report did not fault agents for closing his case. A landlord had reported that al-Bayoumi received a suspicious package, and that he frequently hosted parties for Middle Eastern men.
"We took a look at Bayoumi, and based on the (legal) restrictions we had at the time, we had no additional information on which to continue the investigation," Meyer said. The FBI closed the investigation in July 1999, about six months before the hijackers came to San Diego.
The FBI had no legal basis to investigate an informant's housemates, the officials said. Most importantly, the FBI was not told that the CIA had identified the pair as al-Qaeda operatives who were believed to be somewhere in the U.S.
"How were we supposed to find them when we didn't know we were looking for them?" said William Gore, who was in charge of the San Diego FBI office on Sept. 11, 2001. "If we'd have known, we were trained investigators. We would have picked up the phone book and found him (Alhazmi)."
"If we knew what the CIA knew, we'd have been in an ideal situation to locate these people but obviously we weren't, which the report points out."
Gore, who retired after a long FBI career and became an assistant sheriff in San Diego County, also disputed the report's conclusion that the San Diego field office had misplaced priorities – focusing too much on drug investigations.
"Prior to Sept. 11, I can fully justify our rationale for having the drug program as our No. 1 priority. One of the most ruthless drug cartels in the world is just across the border. And, just because drugs was our No. 1 priority doesn't mean we weren't working counterterrorism."
The real impediments to uncovering the Sept. 11 plot before it was too late were laws that prevented the sharing of information between intelligence and law enforcement agencies, Gore and FBI officials said.
That issue was addressed by Congress when it approved the anti-terrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, after the terror attacks, Gore said.
Shaikh, the FBI asset, was not named in the report and has insisted he never was an informant, nor was he ever paid $100,000 by the FBI in July 2003, as the report said.
When asked about the money, the FBI's Meyer would only say, "That's news to me. There was a lot of misinformation in some of these reports in how people were characterized."
Gore defended the actions of the agent who managed the informant. "I think the agent who handled this particular asset did a fine job and I wouldn't expect him to have done any more."
Kelly Thornton: (619) 542-4571; firstname.lastname@example.org
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