Information Links To German-based Terrorist Cell
More than two years
before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on American soil, U.S.
intelligence officials reportedly had the first name and phone
number of one of the hijackers who succeeded in destroying the
World Trade Center. CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director
Robert Mueller were asked about the information when they testified
Tuesday morning before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The federal commission reviewing the events of Sept. 11 is also
examining whether the United States failed to aggressively track
this hijacker. The tip, received in March 1999, appears to be one
of the earliest signs that U.S. officials had about one of the 2001
hijackers. It also may have represented a missed chance for U.S.
intelligence to uncover a terror cell in Germany that was a key
element of the hijacking plot.
"The commission has been actively investigating the issue for
some time," Philip Zelikow (search), executive director of the
Sept. 11 commission, said Monday. "I'm not going to comment on the
progress of our investigation, but the Hamburg cell and what was
known about the plotters" is an important part of the review, he
The New York Times, in
its Tuesday editions, quoted German intelligence officials who said
they had given the CIA the first name and telephone number of
Marwan al-Shehhi, and asked U.S. officials to track him. The
Germans said they never heard back from U.S. officials until after
Sept. 11. Al-Shehhi was a member of the Al Qaeda cell in Hamburg,
Germany, and a roommate of suspected Sept. 11 ringleader Mohammed
Atta, who took over American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into
the north tower of the World Trade Center. Al-Shehhi piloted United
Airlines Flight 175 into the center's south tower in lower
A U.S. official told The Associated Press late Monday that
thousands of full names of suspected terrorists come across the
intelligence community's screens on a regular basis, making them
hard to always track. "A first name — and a common one at
that — is a scrap of information and doesn't take you
anywhere without the benefit of hindsight," the U.S. official said,
speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Sept. 11 panel, formally the National Commission on
Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, was established by
Congress to study the nation's preparedness before the attacks and
its response. It also is to recommend ways to guard against similar
disasters. In its previous hearings, the commission has highlighted
intelligence miscommunication and missteps about Al Qaeda
operatives dating back to the mid-1990s and hijackers who were
allowed to enter the United States repeatedly despite lacking
proper visa documentation. The panel planned to meet Tuesday to
discuss the status of its investigations, but the Hamburg tip was
not on the agenda, Zelikow said.
The commission currently faces a May 27 deadline to finish its
work, and has asked for at least a two-month extension, citing
delays because of disputes with the administration over access to
documents and witnesses. Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, the
commission's Republican chairman, has said the panel will be forced
to pare down inquiries into intelligence failures if Congress
doesn't act this week to give it more time.