British intelligence put in the dock over failure to prevent September 11 attacks

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The Independent US

Britain was accused yesterday of failing to provide in sufficient time crucial information about an alleged accomplice of the 11 September hijackers that could potentially have allowed investigators to detect and disrupt the al-Qa'ida plot.

Britain was accused yesterday of failing to provide in sufficient time crucial information about an alleged accomplice of the 11 September hijackers that could potentially have allowed investigators to detect and disrupt the al-Qa'ida plot.

The American independent commission investigating the attacks said the UK Government gave a low priority to a request from the US authorities for information about Zacarias Moussaoui, who was in American custody. On 13 September ­ two days after the attacks in New York and Washington ­ information provided by Britain revealed that Mr Moussaoui had spent time at an al-Qa'ida training camp in Afghanistan and had links to a terrorist cell involved in the hijackings.

"The case, though handled expeditiously at the American end, was not handled by the British as a priority amid a large number of other terrorist-related inquiries," said a preliminary report by the commission. "Had this information been available in late August 2001, the Moussaoui case would almost have certainly have received intense and much higher-level attention ... A maximum US effort to investigate Moussaoui could conceivably have unearthed his connections to [an al-Qa'ida cell involved in the 9-11 plot].

"The publicity about the threat also might have disrupted the plot. But this would have been a race against time."

It is not the first time that Britain has been accused of failing to deal with warnings about Mr Moussaoui, the only person to have been charged in connection with the attacks. In the aftermath of 11 September, the French authorities revealed they had warned Britain about the French national ­ who lived in London ­ and his alleged links with terrorists but these warnings were ignored.

The criticism within the commission's report is the first time an official body has gone as far as to suggest that a more expeditious response by the British authorities could have helped disrupt the plot, about which Mr Moussaoui allegedly had information. He remains in US custody.

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office denied last night that Britain had failed to act. She said: "The British Government had no information that could have prevented the attacks. Prior to 9/11, the US did not seek information from us as a priority. There was no significant information about this individual. Post 9/11, the United Kingdom provided significant information to the US immediately ­ as soon as the information was obtained."

The commission's allegations were made as it strongly criticised the FBI and the Justice Department, headed by the Attorney General, John Ashcroft, accusing them of repeatedly failing to react to the growing threat from al-Qa'ida.

"On 11 September 2001, the FBI was limited in several areas critical to an effective, preventative counter-terrorism strategy," the commission said in a statement. "Those working [in] counter-terrorism matters did so despite limited intelligence collection and strategic analysis capabilities, a limited capacity to share information ... insufficient training, an overly complex legal regime and inadequate resources."

The comments by the 11 September panel are an early indication that much of the eventual blame for failing to prevent the al-Qa'ida attacks on New York and Washington will fall on the FBI. There is an expectation that the agency's director, Robert Mueller, will face intense questioning when he testifies today.

"They have some wonderful, wonderful agents in the FBI out in those field offices," the panel's chairman, Thomas Keen, said before yesterday's hearings, which included testimony from several senior law enforcement officials. "The problem is somewhere in that mushy middle, somehow stuff doesn't get up and doesn't get action from the top."

Mr Ashcroft sought to rebut criticism, suggesting that when the Bush administration took office, it inherited a "failed policy [and that] for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to our enemies".

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