The inability to detect the Sept. 11 hijacking plot amounted to a "significant failure" by the FBI and was caused in large part by "widespread...

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WASHINGTON — The inability to detect the Sept. 11 hijacking plot amounted to a “significant failure” by the FBI and was caused in large part by “widespread and long-standing deficiencies” in the way it handled terrorism and intelligence cases, according to a new report released yesterday.

In one particularly notable finding, the report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine concluded that the FBI missed at least five chances to detect the presence of two of the suicide hijackers — Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar — after they first entered the United States in early 2000.

“While we do not know what would have happened had the FBI learned sooner or pursued its investigation more aggressively, the FBI lost several important opportunities to find Hazmi and Mihdhar before the Sept. 11 attacks,” the report said.

Although many of the missteps surrounding Hazmi and Mihdhar have become well known, Fine’s report adds significant new details about the FBI’s role in fumbling the case. Previous documents, including the best-selling report by the independent Sept. 11 commission, focused more heavily on the CIA’s failure to track the men after a terrorist summit meeting in Malaysia.

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The FBI said in a statement that it agreed with many of Fine’s conclusions but “has taken substantial steps to address the issues presented in the report.”

“Today, preventing terrorist attacks is the top priority in every FBI office and division, and no terrorism lead goes unaddressed,” the FBI said.

Fine’s investigation was requested by FBI Director Robert Mueller shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, but it has been held up for 11 months over classification and legal issues. It focuses on three major episodes prior to the Sept. 11 attacks: the missteps in tracking Hazmi and Mihdhar; the failure to connect al-Qaida operative Zacarias Moussaoui to the hijacking plot; and the handling of a July 2001 memo theorizing that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden might be sending operatives to U.S. flight schools.

Although the memo from Phoenix FBI agent Kenneth Williams was proposed as “a theory rather than a warning or a threat,” the report concludes that the bureau “failed to fully evaluate, investigate, exploit and disseminate information related to” the memo.

Fine’s conclusions about Moussaoui are less clear, because most references to the case have been blacked out by court order. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, who is presiding over Moussaoui’s prosecution in Alexandria, Va., blocked release of the full report because of objections from defense attorneys.

Some hints of Fine’s conclusions are still evident in the censored version of the report, however. In one paragraph that clearly pertains to the Moussaoui case, the report says agents “did not receive adequate support … from the field office or from FBI headquarters” and criticizes the FBI for “disjointed and inadequate review” of requests for secret warrants.

Previous investigations have found that Moussaoui’s laptop and other belongings were not searched in the weeks after his arrest in Minneapolis because the FBI mistakenly believed it did not have enough evidence to get a warrant.

In the case of Hazmi and Mihdhar, the report said that the FBI missed at least five opportunities to possibly locate the pair after Mihdhar was first identified in connection with a Malaysian meeting of al-Qaida operatives.

Even after the FBI learned that the pair had re-entered the United States in August 2001, “the FBI did not pursue this as an urgent matter or assign many resources to it,” the report found, noting that “it was given to a single, inexperienced agent without any particular priority.”

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