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9/11 Investigation: Missed Opportunity?

Aired July 23, 2003 - 20:20   ET

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

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Tomorrow, a joint congressional committee will release its much anticipated and long delayed report on the September 11 attacks. And according to "TIME" magazine, one agency in particular may have missed a prime opportunity to crack the plot.
I'm joined now by Matt Cooper, "TIME" magazine's White House correspondent. We should mention this is an exclusive report that is appearing online tonight on Time.com. Welcome.

MATT COOPER, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": That's right. Thanks.

ZAHN: So if we're too lazy to go online, give us the headline.

COOPER: Here's the snapshot version. Basically, the National Security Agency, which does all this oversees intelligence, was keeping an eye on an al-Qaeda safehouse overseas. They were monitoring the calls going in and out of there.

One of the calls that they monitored came from a fellow, Khalid Almihdhar, who turned out to be one of the 9/11 hijackers later. Now, had they bothered to trace...

ZAHN: Now, this guy was in San Diego at the time?

COOPER: He's in San Diego at the time.

ZAHN: And he's taking lessons at a flight school...

COOPER: Right. He's taking flight school...

ZAHN: ... learning how to fly.

COOPER: ... all the terrible things we've seen. They didn't bother to trace where the call came from. Had they done that, they would have seen it came from San Diego, and not only San Diego, but the guy was living in a house being rented to him by an FBI informant. So they got tantalizingly close to getting this guy.

ZAHN: So how do you explain that the system fell apart there?

COOPER: I really can't. And I don't think the report that's going to be out tomorrow is going to do that either. It's one of many tantalizing, excruciating moments where they seem to get close to getting these guys and never quite got it. ZAHN: Are you saying in this piece, had the NSA or whoever ultimately would have gotten involved in this, had nailed this guy, it could have stopped the September 11 plot from happening?

COOPER: Well, we don't know that, but it certainly would have been a good step forward. I mean basically, if they had seen it was coming from the U.S., presumably they would have alerted the FBI, because the FBI takes care of domestic stuff. And the FBI would have given these guys closer scrutiny and presumably asked some questions about why they're going to flight school and what they're doing in California.

ZAHN: Besides what you're reporting with us tonight, what else might the American public be shocked by coming out of this report tomorrow? Is it pretty much as has been indicated? No big surprises?

COOPER: Well, it doesn't blame a person; it doesn't blame an agency. It kind of blames a culture. I mean, in a way, it's not that tough because they're not saying anyone really dropped the ball. They're saying, well, these agencies did a few things wrong here, this agency did stuff wrong there. It's kind of a "plenty of blame to go around" kind of report.

ZAHN: Well, thanks for sharing your exclusive, that is, with us this evening.

COOPER: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: Always good to see you - Matt.

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