WASHINGTON - Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the CIA failed to act on intelligence it had about hijackers, the FBI was unable to track al-Qaida in the United States, and key National Security Agency communications intercepts never were circulated, a congressional investigation has concluded.
But even had these and many other failures not occurred, no evidence surfaced in the probe by the House and Senate intelligence committees to show that the government could have prevented the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
A 900-page declassified version of the report being released Thursday was expected to provide fresh details of the Sept. 11 plot and government failures but no "smoking guns." Excerpts of the report were provided to The Associated Press before its official release.
"A lot went wrong," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, said Thursday on NBC's "Today" show.
"If there had been a sharing of a lot of information at the right time between the CIA, FBI, NSA and so forth, maybe things would have been different leading up to Sept. 11, but there's no smoking gun," he said.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., asked if he thought the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented, said on CBS' "The Early Show" he thought the answer "is probably yes. The most significant set of events, in my opinion, are in the section of the report that has been censored and therefore won't be available to the American people."
Said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill.: "Anybody who makes an assertion that this could have been prevented is making a political statement because there is no evidence, no information that was shared with the top people in our government that could have led them to believe this was going to happen. It wasn't there."
Yet the report makes clear there were ample warning signs that Osama bin Laden was planning attacks within the United States, and several opportunities to learn about the plot were missed by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
For instance, the NSA, the nation's key signals intelligence agency, intercepted conversations by early 1999 indicating that two future hijackers were connected to a suspected al-Qaida facility in the Middle East, but that information was not passed on to other agencies.
The NSA intercept was the first evidence in U.S. possession that eventual hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were linked to each other and to al-Qaida, the terror network blamed for Sept. 11 and other attacks. But some of that information was not brought to the attention of other agencies until early 2002 after Congress began investigating pre-Sept. 11 failures. The two men were aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
In early 2000, the CIA had learned independently of the al-Qaida connections of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, but they were not placed on terrorism watch lists that might have prevented their entry into the United States. And the two lived with a longtime FBI informant in San Diego, who never suspected the plot and who did not learn of the CIA's information until after Sept. 11.
"As a result, the FBI missed the opportunity to task a uniquely well-positioned informant - who denies having any advance knowledge of the plot - to collect information about the hijackers and their plans in the United States," the report says.
The NSA had also intercepted "some communications that indicated possible impending terrorist activity" between Sept. 8 and Sept. 10, but these were not translated or disseminated until after the attacks.
"The CIA's failure to watch-list suspected terrorists aggressively reflected a lack of emphasis on a process designed to protect the homeland," the report says. "The FBI was unable to identify and monitor effectively the extent of activity by al-Qaida and other international terrorist groups operating in the United States."
The report is filled with examples of missed connections and poor organization, which investigators blame on a government unprepared for a terrorist threat inside the United States and unwilling to take on bin Laden overseas despite ample warnings. The Pentagon and CIA, the report says, were at odds over what to do about al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan.
"Senior U.S. military officials were reluctant to use U.S. military assets to conduct offensive counterterrorism efforts" partly because they believed "the intelligence community was unable to provide the intelligence needed to support military operations," the report states.
It notes there was repeated information dating to 1994 that bin Laden's network would like to use aircraft as weapons to carry out the attacks, and that the targets ranged from embassies to airports.
"Nonetheless, testimony and interviews confirm that it was the general view of the intelligence community ... that the threatened bin Laden attacks would most likely occur against U.S. interests overseas," the report says.
The report makes several revelations, including that the CIA had received unconfirmed intelligence before the attacks that suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been in the United States as recently as May 2001.
The report criticizes U.S. intelligence for reacting slowly to raw intelligence in 2001 that Mohammed, al-Qaida's director of operations who is now in U.S. custody, may have been coming in and out of the United States undetected "and was sending recruits to the United States to meet colleagues already in the country."
More broadly, the report says "the hijackers were not as isolated during their time in the United States as has been previously suggested" and that they had substantial contacts around the world. Some of these unidentified people had become known to the FBI through past investigations.
"It is now clear that they did provide at least some of the hijackers with substantial assistance while they were living in this country," the report adds.
The report spends substantial time discussing failures by the FBI, now well-documented, to shift its priorities from crime-fighting, which had been at the heart of its mission for decades, to preventing terrorism before Sept. 11.
For instance, agents in charge of FBI offices across the country were instructed early in 2000 to scour their communities for al-Qaida operatives but they made only spotty progress before the hijackings, according to officials.