WASHINGTON - 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 Sept. 11 attacks, according to officials familiar with a congressional report on terrorism intelligence failures.
The FBI's top terrorism official, Dale Watson, and the White House's anti-terrorism czar, Richard Clarke, told a meeting of FBI supervisors in March 2000 that there was a high probability that al-Qaida "sleeper cells" were working on U.S. soil and that identifying them should be a top priority, the officials said.
Clarke told the joint congressional committee that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that he later visited a half-dozen FBI field offices to reinforce the message and returned with the assessment that the job of getting the FBI to focus on the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden was like "trying to ... sort of turn this big Queen Mary luxury liner," according to officials who provided AP excerpts from the report. It is to be released Thursday.
Officials who have read the report said it gives a snapshot portrayal of an FBI on Sept. 10, 2001, that had not yet shifted its priorities from crime-fighting, which had been at the heart of its mission for decades, to preventing terrorism.
But they also said the report concludes that the FBI and other intelligence agencies did not possess specific information to prevent the suicide hijackings, although many different agencies of government missed warning signs.
"The inquiry has uncovered no intelligence information in the possession of the intelligence community prior to the attacks of Sept. 11 that, if fully considered, would have provided specific, advance warning of the details of those attacks," the report says, according to the excerpts provided to the AP.
FBI officials on Tuesday declined to discuss details of the report, but they reiterated that Director Robert Mueller has completely remade the bureau to focus on preventing terrorist acts since Sept. 11. Mueller was on the job just a few days when the attacks occurred.
Those changes include borrowing the expertise of the CIA to train FBI analysts on how to read intelligence with an eye toward prevention rather than crime solving; hiring new analysts and linguists to focus on intelligence from countries with high terrorism threats; refocusing the priorities of field offices, and shedding some crime-fighting duties to free resources for the war on terrorism.
Clarke told the gathering in March 2000 that a plot to blow up U.S. sites during the millennium celebrations, which was foiled just months before the Florida meeting when an al-Qaida operative was captured at the U.S.-Canadian border, was evidence of the existence of sleeper cells.
"Following the millennium alert ... and review, it became very clear to ... the (FBI) assistant director for counterterrorism that there was this potential for sleeper cells in the United States," the report quotes Clarke as saying.
To emphasize the importance of the mission, Watson told the supervisory agents that their future promotions and bonuses would be based in part on their performance in tracking al-Qaida cells, according to Clarke and others who attended the meeting.
"They were somewhat taken aback," Clarke, now a private security consultant, told AP in an interview.
Clarke said in the months after he and Watson made the presentation, there was some but "not a lot" of evidence that the FBI's field offices made progress tracking terrorists.
The report says Watson, who retired last year after serving as assistant director for counterterrorism, tried in the period before Sept. 11 "to get more control of field offices" but that he believed the special agents in charge were "focused more on convicting than disrupting" terrorists. One agent who attended the March 2000 meeting said the presentation by Clarke and Watson was one of several strong signals around that time inside the FBI that al-Qaida had crossed America's borders, but he observed that some supervisors had difficulty adjusting traditional investigative priorities to free resources to focus on uncovering terrorists.
"I remember SACs (supervisory agents) saying it isn't going to happen in my city or they simply didn't understand what it was they were being asked to do," said the agent, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Not all pleas fell on deaf ears. The FBI office in Dallas created a special unit in late 1999 and early 2000 to focus specifically on international terrorism cases, officials said.
A counterrorism agent in Phoenix wrote a memo in summer 2001 raising concerns that a large number of Arab pilots were training at U.S. flight schools and questioned whether it could be part of broader plot by bin Laden, officials have said. Parts of that memo are expected to be made public with Thursday's report.