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Hijackers conducted surveillance flights ahead of 9/11

FBI Director Robert Mueller
FBI Director Robert Mueller

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The hijackers who took over four airplanes on September 11, 2001, and carried out the worst-ever terror attacks on U.S. soil conducted several surveillance flights prior to that day, according to newly-declassified information released Thursday.

One of those flights was on the same route as the plane that was crashed into the Pentagon.

The information was made public during a hearing conducted by the House and Senate intelligence committees. It came from a statement by FBI Director Robert Mueller -- made at a closed-door hearing in June -- about how the hijackers entered the United States and prepared their attack without arousing any suspicion.

"Meetings and communications between the hijackers were done without detection, apparent surveillance flights were taken, and nothing illegal was detected through airport security screening," Mueller's statement said.

"In short, the terrorists had managed very effectively to exploit loopholes and vulnerabilities in our systems. To this day, we have found no one in the United States except the actual hijackers who knew of the plot and we have found nothing they did while in the United States that triggered a specific response about them," he added.

Mueller said his remarks could not include a discussion of Zacarias Moussaoui because of the case pending against him. Moussaoui faces six conspiracy charges and a possible death penalty for his involvement with al Qaeda, the Islamic terrorist group behind the attacks.

Each of the return flights taken on the preparatory missions included a one-to-two day layover in Las Vegas, but Mueller said the purpose of the stops in that city is not known.

The FBI chief also disclosed for the first time that hijackers including Nawaf al Hazmi and ringleader Mohammed Atta had monthly, face-to-face meetings to discuss their deadly plan. More than 3,000 people were killed in the September 11 attacks.

Mueller: Terrorists 'were not supermen'

Mostly, the hijackers blended in to American society, Mueller said.

"They dressed and acted like Americans, shopping and eating at places like Wal-Mart and Pizza Hut," he said.

Aside from minor traffic violations, they committed no crimes, and al Hazmi even reported an attempted street robbery on May 1, 2001, to Fairfax, Virginia, police, although he later declined to press charges.

Mueller said the September 11 attack plan was conceived and carried out using simple means.

"Clearly, these 19 terrorists were not supermen using extraordinarily sophisticated techniques. They came armed with simple box cutters," he said.

"But they also came armed with sophisticated knowledge about how to plan these attacks abroad without discovery, how to finance their activities from overseas without alarm, how to communicate both here and abroad without detection, and how to exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in our free society.

"There were no slip-ups. Discipline never broke down. They gave no hint to those around them what they were about," Mueller's statement continued. "They came lawfully. They lived lawfully. They trained lawfully. They boarded the aircraft lawfully. They simply relied upon everything from the vastness of the Internet to the openness of our society to do what they wanted to do without detection."

His remarks were released as top counter-terrorism officials defended their various agencies to lawmakers. Both CIA and FBI officials said they did the best job they could given the resources they had to work with.

Responding to criticism that the FBI missed clues about the use of aircraft by terrorists, the FBI's counter-terrorism chief said those clues came amid a torrent of other intelligence information.

"We had threats to malls, threats to power plants, threats to assassinations, across the board we had threats coming in every day," said Dale Watson, executive assistant director of the FBI.

In his statement, Mueller praised the work of his agency, especially after September 11, but admitted "there were clearly things we should have done better or differently."

And he warned that the threat from terrorists has not subsided.

"Those who masterminded and financed these attacks are still capable of doing so. Capturing a number of important operatives has been a huge victory but there are others, still loosely connected and still a potent threat," Mueller said.

"Nor should we forget that thousands of 'foot soldiers' -- those who trained in the camps -- remain disbursed. And there are those who, without direction or control, are compelled for ideological reasons to pursue jihad and kill Americans."

Mueller said the FBI needs new structures, new training and new technologies, which are now being put in to place.

"Nothing can be paramount to preventing the next attack," he said.

-- CNN Justice Department Correspondent Kelli Arena contributed to this report.

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