WASHINGTON -- The FBI missed at least five opportunities before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to uncover vital intelligence information about the terrorists, and the bureau did not aggressively pursue the information it did have, the Justice Department's inspector general said in a newly released critique of government missteps.
The inspector general faulted the FBI for not knowing about the presence of two of the Sept. 11 terrorists in the United States and for not following up on an agent's theory that Osama bin Laden was sending students to US flight training schools. The agent's theory turned out to be precisely what bin Laden did.
''The way the FBI handled these matters was a significant failure that hindered the FBI's chances of being able to detect and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks," Inspector General Glenn Fine said.
When the bureau did discover the presence of hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar in the United States shortly before the attacks, ''the FBI's investigation then was conducted without much urgency or priority," the report concluded.
The five missed opportunities in regard to the two hijackers stemmed from information sharing problems between the FBI and CIA and problems inside the FBI's counterterrorism program.
The report gave an hour-by-hour description of how CIA and FBI agents assigned to the CIA's bin Laden unit on Jan. 5, 2000, reviewed incoming cables containing a substantial amount of information about Mihdhar, including that he was traveling and that he had a US visa. According to internal e-mail traffic cited by the report, the deputy chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit never gave the necessary approval for disseminating information about Mihdhar to the FBI. Less than two weeks later, Mihdhar was in California.
The CIA shares information with the FBI and other agencies through central intelligence reports, or CIRs, and such a document was drafted about Mihdhar on Jan. 5, 2000, at the CIA by an FBI employee working at the spy agency's bin Laden unit. The deputy chief of the bin Laden unit and a CIA desk officer who was following the issue said ''they did not recall the CIR, any discussions about putting it on hold, or why it was not sent."