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Congress Seeks F.B.I. Data on Informer; F.B.I. Resists
By JAMES RISEN
WASHINGTON, Oct. 5 — The Federal Bureau of
Investigation had a confidential informer who rented rooms in California
to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, but the bureau is resisting a request
from the Congressional committee investigating the attacks to interview
the informer and his F.B.I. handler, government officials said.
The joint Sept. 11 Congressional committee
plans to hold a closed hearing on Wednesday focusing on the F.B.I.'s
handling of its San Diego informer, who was the landlord of the hijackers
Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi a year before the attacks.
Several officials said the F.B.I. had
rebuffed requests to make the informer available to the committee and
would not authorize the agent who was his contact to testify.
The F.B.I.'s resistance has led
Congressional officials to become more aggressive in trying to find out
whether the informer provided clues about the hijackers that the bureau
ignored or failed to act on before Sept. 11.
An F.B.I. official said the bureau had
provided the committee with all the agent's reports on the informer's
activities. The official said the F.B.I. was unwilling to allow the
informer to testify on principle, fearing it could damage efforts to
recruit sources from Arab-American communities. The official said the
F.B.I. had not learned the identity of Mr. Midhar or Mr. Alhazmi from the
informer, who was known as a "passive source," meaning he was
not assigned to obtain specific intelligence but routinely passed on
The official said the F.B.I. did not have
any information indicating that the informer knew anything about the plot
or had passed on any details that should have caused his F.B.I. contact
to focus more closely on Mr. Midhar or Mr. Alhazmi.
But Congressional investigators say the
F.B.I.'s efforts to block their inquiry makes them skeptical of the bureau's
assertions about the informer. They also say the Justice Department has
joined the F.B.I. in fighting the Congressional requests for information
related to the matter, escalating tensions.
The fight over access to the informer is
the latest bitter dispute between the committee and the Bush
administration and the intelligence and law enforcement agencies that are
the subject of the committee's investigation.
Antagonism between the Central
Intelligence Agency and the committee became public a week ago after
the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, wrote a letter to
the committee's leaders, protesting the treatment of a senior C.I.A.
officer who had testified about the agency's record on fighting
terrorism. Mr. Tenet's letter was in response to a disclosure that the
committee's staff had written briefing papers predicting to committee
members that Cofer Black, who was until recently the chief of the
C.I.A.'s counterterrorism center, would "dissemble" in his
Separately, documents made public in
federal court in Alexandria, Va., late last month showed that the Justice
Department sought unsuccessfully to prevent F.B.I. agents, and the
bureau's director, Robert S. Mueller III, from testifying publicly before
the joint inquiry.
Justice Department lawyers asked the judge
presiding in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, who faces a trial on
conspiracy charges related to the Sept. 11 attacks, to rule that
Congressional testimony from agents and Mr. Mueller to the committee
would imperil Mr. Moussaoui's trial. Lawyers for the Congressional
committee responded in court filings of their own, saying that the
Justice Department was seeking an order that they could use to tell
F.B.I. witnesses not to respond to questions about the bureau's handling
of the Moussaoui case.
The role of the F.B.I.'s San Diego informer
has become important to the Congressional committee because he is linked
to the two hijackers who have come under the most intense scrutiny in the
joint inquiry. Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi, who were among the hijackers
on the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon, were
identified as Qaeda operatives by the C.I.A. in January 2001. But the
C.I.A. did not ask the State Department to place their names on a watch
list intended to prevent entry into the United States until late August.
By then, they were both in the country. The C.I.A. passed on information
about the two men to the F.B.I. in late August, but by then the bureau
had little time to track them down.
Mr. Midhar is believed to have played a
central role in the attacks, and some Congressional officials say they
believe the plot might have been disrupted if he had been caught.