The CIA had a chance in 1999 — and blew it. From the New York Times:
American investigators were given the first name and telephone number of one of the Sept. 11 hijackers two and a half years before the attacks on New York and Washington, but the United States appears to have failed to pursue the lead aggressively, American and German officials say.
The information — the earliest known signal that the United States received about any of the hijackers — has now become an important element of an independent commission’s investigation into the events of Sept. 11, 2001, officials said Monday. It is considered particularly significant because it may have represented a missed opportunity for American officials to penetrate the Qaeda terror cell in Germany that was at the heart of the plot. And it came roughly 16 months before the hijacker showed up at flight schools in the United States.
In March 1999, German intelligence officials gave the Central Intelligence Agency the first name and telephone number of Marwan al-Shehhi, and asked the Americans to track him.
The name and phone number in the United Arab Emirates had been obtained by the Germans by monitoring the telephone of Mohamed Heidar Zammar, an Islamic militant in Hamburg who was closely linked to the important Qaeda plotters who ultimately mastermined the Sept. 11 attacks, German officials said.
After the Germans passed the information on to the C.I.A., they did not hear from the Americans about the matter until after Sept. 11, a senior German intelligence official said.
“There was no response” at the time, the official said. After receiving the tip, the C.I.A. decided that “Marwan” was probably an associate of Osama bin Laden, but never tracked him down, American officials say.
The Germans considered the information on Mr. Shehhi particularly valuable, and the commission is keenly interested in why it apparently did not lead to greater scrutiny of him.
The information concerning Mr. Shehhi, the man who took over the controls of United Airlines Flight 175, which flew into the south tower of the World Trade Center, came months earlier than well-documented tips about other hijackers, including two who were discovered to have attended a meeting of militants in Malaysia in January 2000.
The independent commission investigating the attacks has received information on the 1999 Shehhi tip, and is actively investigating the issue, said Philip Zelikow, executive director of the commission.
American intelligence officials and others involved with the matter say they are uncertain whether Mr. Shehhi’s phone was ever monitored.
An American official said: “The Germans did give us the name `Marwan’ and a phone number, but we were unable to come up with anything. It was an unlisted phone number in the U.A.E., which he was known to use.”
The incident is of particular importance because Mr. Shehhi was a crucial member of the Qaeda cell in Hamburg at the heart of the Sept. 11 plot. Close surveillance of Mr. Shehhi in 1999 might have led investigators to other plot leaders, including Mohammed Atta, who was Mr. Shehhi’s roommate. A native of the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Shehhi moved to Germany in 1996 and was almost inseparable from Mr. Atta in their time there. Both men attended the wedding of a fellow Muslim at a radical mosque in Hamburg in October 1999 — an event considered an important gathering for the Sept. 11 hijacking teams just as the plotting was getting under way. American and European authorities say that Mr. Shehhi was actively involved in the planning and logistics of the Sept. 11 plot.
“The Hamburg cell is very important” to the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Zelikow said. The intelligence on Mr. Shehhi “is an issue that’s obviously of importance to us, and we’re investigating it,” he added.
Asked whether American intelligence officials gave sufficient attention to the information about Mr. Shehhi, Mr. Zelikow said, “We haven’t reached any conclusions.”
The joint Congressional inquiry that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks was told about the matter by the C.I.A., but only a small part of the information was declassified and made public in the panel’s final report in December 2002, several officials said. The public report mentioned only that the C.I.A. had received Mr. Shehhi’s first name, but made no mention that the agency had also obtained his telephone number.
Officials involved with the work of the joint Congressional investigation made it clear that the publication of a more complete version of the story was the subject of a declassification dispute with the C.I.A. A former official involved with the Congressional inquiry acknowledged that having a telephone number for one of the hijackers was far more significant than simply having a first name.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the C.I.A., F.B.I. and other government agencies have been heavily criticized for failing to put together fragmentary pieces of information they received from a wide array of sources in order to predict or prevent the terrorist plot. The joint Congressional panel that investigated the attacks concluded that American authorities “missed opportunities to disrupt the Sept. 11 plot by denying entry to or detaining would-be hijackers; to at least try to unravel the plot through surveillance and other investigative work within the United States; and finally, to generate a heightened state of alert and thus harden the homeland against attack.”
Until now, the most highly scrutinized failure has related to the C.I.A.’s handling of information about a meeting of extremists in Malaysia in January 2000 that involved two of the men who would become hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi. Although the C.I.A. identified the two men as suspected extremists, the agency did not request that they be placed on the government’s watch lists to keep them out of the United States until late August 2001. By that time, they were both already in the country. In addition, while the two men lived in San Diego, their landlord was an F.B.I. informant, but the bureau did not learn of their terrorist links from the informant.
But unlike the leads to Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi in San Diego, the earlier information about Mr. Shehhi could have taken investigators to the core of the Qaeda cell at a time when the plot was probably in its formative stages. According to testimony in Germany in December in a criminal case related to the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Shehhi was one of only four members of the Hamburg cell who knew about the attacks beforehand.
Mr. Shehhi and Mr. Atta traveled to Afghanistan in 2000 to train at a Qaeda camp with several other Sept. 11 plotters. And after returning to Germany, Mr. Shehhi made an ominous reference to the World Trade Center to a Hamburg librarian, saying: “There will be thousands of dead. You will all think of me,” German authorities said.
Soon after, Mr. Shehhi, Mr. Atta and another plotter, Ziad al-Jarrah, began e-mailing several dozen American flight schools from Germany to inquire about enrollment, and they arrived in the United States later in 2000 to begin flight training.