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Sources: CIA warned FBI about hijacker

Almihdhar, left, and Alhazmi
Almihdhar, left, and Alhazmi  

From David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In response Monday to the contention by CIA officials that they warned the FBI in January 2000 that one of the September 11 hijackers had participated in an al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia and merited scrutiny, the FBI refused to point blame officially at anyone.

"There is a joint committee in Congress examining these issues," the FBI said in a statement. "It is not helpful to engage in fingerpointing."

The subject of that warning, Khalid Almihdhar, has been identified as one of the hijackers who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon last year. The CIA has records indicating it had urged the FBI to take a closer look at Almihdhar, officials told CNN.

Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi -- another of the September 11 hijackers, also on American Airlines Flight 77 -- were among those photographed by police at the meeting in Malaysia.

In March of 2000, another nation told the CIA that Alhazmi had flown from the Malaysian meeting to Los Angeles.

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Nevertheless, it appears the CIA let more than a year go by before putting the men on a list of people to be kept out of the United States.

Government officials with knowledge of a timeline submitted to Congress told CNN Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena that in late December 1999 or early January 2000, the FBI and intelligence agencies were alerted to a person named Khalid who was said to have terrorist connections. No last name was given.

On or about January 5, 2000, the officials said, the agencies were given more information about Khalid -- that he attended the meeting of suspected terrorists in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

At the time, the purpose of the meeting -- to plan that October's bombing of the USS Cole -- was not known by authorities, the officials said.

About the same time, another agency relayed information to the FBI and others that a man named Khalid Almihdhar was traveling to Kuala Lumpur, the officials said.

The FBI, making the connection between Almihdhar and the earlier warning about a man named Khalid, then checked its files for information concerning Almihdhar but found nothing, despite spelling his name several ways, the officials said.

From January until late August 2001, the FBI received no more communication from the CIA on Almihdhar, the officials said.

But during that time, the CIA learned that Almihdhar had traveled from Kuala Lumpur to the United States and that he had a multiple-entry visa that allowed him to come and go at will. The CIA did not share that information with the FBI or anyone else, the officials said.

It was only when the CIA analysts reviewed their files August 23, three weeks before the attacks, that the agency made the connection between the men and the Kuala Lumpur meeting, the officials said.

At that point, the CIA alerted the State Department, which alerted the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the visa lookout system intended to identify terrorists before they enter the country, the officials said.

But a records search indicated Almihdhar was already in the United States, the officials said.

The FBI then initiated a massive manhunt, which continued until September 11.

Newsweek magazine reported Sunday that the CIA had been tracking Almihdhar and Alhazmi nearly two years before the attacks on New York and Washington last September -- but didn't inform other agencies until last August that at least one of them had entered the United States.

The White House downplayed the report Sunday. A senior administration official urged people "not to rush to judgment based on a single report ... coming to light without context and input from a variety of different parties."

Two senior administration officials said Monday that the White House contacted the CIA and FBI for information about the reported failure to share information about the two hijackers and was told by CIA officials Monday afternoon that it had records proving it had offered a warning to the FBI about one of the hijackers back in early 2000.

Both of the officials voiced concerns about finger-pointing between the agencies heading into congressional hearings aimed at determining what the government knew about the hijackers and other possible clues in advance of the September 11 attacks.

"It sure seems like they have their barrels pointed at each other," one of the officials said.

In January 2001, officials said, the FBI identified a third man who attended the meeting in Kuala Lumpur --Tawfiq Attash Khallad -- as a suspect in the Cole bombing.

At that point, the CIA -- or the FBI for that matter -- could have put Almihdhar and Alhazmi and all others who attended the meeting in Malaysia on a watchlist to be kept out of this country.

It was not done.

On July 4, Almihdhar re-entered the United States from a trip abroad.

Only on August 23, 2001 -- less than three weeks before the September 11 attacks and about six months after the CIA knew the two had met with a suspect in the Cole bombing -- were Almihdhar and Alhazmi put on the watch list by the CIA.

Intelligence officials Monday called it a "missed opportunity" but said that if the two had been kept out of the United States, al Qaeda would likely have simply replaced them.

Newsweek quotes an unnamed FBI official as saying if the bureau had had more on the two it could have tied all the 19 hijackers together in one plot.

-- CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor, Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena and Senior White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.




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