06/18/2002 - Updated 09:36 PM ET

Officials: Sept. 11 attacks were planned since 1998

By John Diamond and Kathy Kiely, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON Al-Qaeda spent three years planning the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, methodically selecting targets and recruiting skilled participants and "muscle" to hijack the jets, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials told lawmakers Tuesday. In a closed session held in a secure room of the U.S. Capitol, a House-Senate investigative panel for the first time heard the chiefs of the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency detail the elaborate terrorist plot and "several of the areas in which we missed" clues pointing to it, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla. "There were lapses, in my judgment, by all three agencies," Graham said.

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CIA Director George Tenet, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the NSA chief, described how al-Qaeda began planning the Sept. 11 attacks in 1998, recruited the participants and maintained secrecy. The three told lawmakers that not even the arrest of alleged co-conspirator Zaccarias Moussaoui a month before the attacks swayed the terrorists, according to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

The officials appear again today for more private questioning. But the public's opportunity to hear the details may be delayed. Early in the Moussaoui case, a federal judge imposed a broad protective order that strictly limits public disclosure of information gathered in the government's investigation.

Graham said the committee hopes to work out an arrangement with the Justice Department that would allow public hearings next week as scheduled.

With the intelligence community facing intense scrutiny and criticism over its failure to uncover the Sept. 11 plot, committee members have said they are anxious to hold as many open hearings as possible.

The closed-door format of the congressional hearings has raised suspicions among some family members of Sept. 11 victims, who fear a coverup.

Tuesday's session marked the first time the NSA, the nation's eavesdropping agency, has faced direct questioning from lawmakers about its role before and after Sept. 11. NSA satellites, antennas, bugs and other high-tech equipment collect 75% of the nation's intelligence, Graham said. The agency is run by the Defense Department. Graham said committee members want to know whether there had been "some signals that might have been acted upon that could have thwarted this event."

An official privy to the closed-door session said lawmakers are examining two NSA intercepts collected Sept. 10 that caught al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan discussing with cohorts in Saudi Arabia an impending terror strike. The two intercepts were not translated by NSA until Sept. 12, the day after the strike.

The NSA refused to comment, but a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the intercepts were too vague to justify a shutdown of the nation's transportation system and public spaces.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said lawmakers want to know what the NSA has done to speed its handling of threat-related intelligence. Asked if the agency is now capable of a quick response to an intercept suggesting that an attack is brewing, Shelby said, "We're not sure."

Graham said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told him the Bush administration is willing to put off reorganization of the intelligence community until next year, after the joint committee has finished its inquiry. Legislation to create the new homeland security department is on a fast track in Congress, but Graham and Shelby said they want to hold off making decisions about the department's intelligence component.

Contributing: Kevin Johnson and Toni Locy