WASHINGTON - George Tenet and his deputies at the CIA were presented in August, 2001, with a briefing paper labeled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly" about the arrest days earlier of Zacarias Moussaoui, but they did not act on the information, one of a string of intelligence failures at the CIA cited yesterday by the Sept. 11 commission.
An interim report by the panel's staff offered a stinging assessment of the CIA under Mr. Tenet and was made public at a hearing where Mr. Tenet disclosed that he had little contact with President Bush during much of the summer of 2001, a period when intelligence agencies were warning of terrorists.
Mr. Tenet, director of central intelligence since 1997, testified that he had no contact at all with Mr. Bush in August, the month in which the President received a CIA report suggesting that al-Qaeda terrorists were in the United States and might be planning a domestic hijacking.
The agency later telephoned reporters to correct Mr. Tenet's testimony, saying he did meet twice with the President that month, once during Mr. Bush's nearly month-long vacation that August at his Texas ranch and once when the President returned to Washington later that month.
Also testifying before the commission, Robert Mueller, III, who was sworn in as director of the FBI only a week before Sept. 11, said he was overseeing a transformation of the law-enforcement agency, arguing that a proposal being considered by the commission to create a separate domestic intelligence agency would be a "grave mistake." Several commissioners and the staff report complimented Director Mueller on his efforts so far, but panel members uncommitted on whether his reforms went far enough.
Mr. Mueller was praised by the commissioners of the bipartisan panel as a dedicated and effective manager. He insisted counterterrorism is now the top priority for the FBI, that there have been significant changes, and that many problems between the CIA and the FBI before Sept. 11, 2001, are being fixed.
Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, a Republican and former governor of New Jersey, shot back, "Can you fix it? If you can't, then we have to make some structural changes."
On the other hand, while praising Director Tenet's energy in battling the threat of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, several members of the commission said their staff reports showed the need for an overhaul of the CIA.
A Republican member of the panel, John Lehman, who was Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, said the CIA report was a "damning evaluation of a system that is broken, that doesn't function."
While complimenting Director Tenet as an "entrepreneurial, gutsy guy" who works very hard, Mr. Lehman accused the CIA of smugness and arrogance toward deep reform and warned Director Tenet: "A train is coming down the track. There are going to be some very real changes."
Chairman Kean described the report as an "indictment" of the CIA, the same word he used Tuesday in describing a separate staff report on the FBI's performance before and after Sept. 11.
Director Tenet was combative in his response to the panel's questions, telling them that criticisms in the commission's staff's report were "flat wrong" and that he, like Director Mueller, had overseen improvements in an agency that was long depicted as dysfunctional. He urged the commission to conduct a closer review "of our people, of our collection, of our training, of our education, because they are building blocks that, quite frankly, I'm proud of."
The panel's report on the CIA offered the first detailed evidence about the CIA's failure to follow up on the arrest of Moussaoui, a French-born Islamic extremist who was taken into custody in Minnesota in August, 2001, after arousing the suspicions of instructors at his flight school. After Sept. 11, Moussaoui, an avowed al-Qaeda member, was tied to the terrorist cell in Germany that carried out the attacks.
CIA officials have previously been unwilling to say what, if anything, had been known at the agency about Moussaoui before Sept. 11. But the commission disclosed this week that information about his arrest on Aug. 17 had been relayed within days to the highest levels of the CIA, including to Director Tenet.
Staff reports also disclosed that the CIA, for years, had intelligence reports in its files suggesting that al-Qaeda might hijack passenger planes and try to use them as missiles, but the reports were never drawn together in a larger analysis.
The reports cited a 1996 warning about a terrorist plot to fly an explosives-laded plane into an American city, a 1996 warning that Iranians intended to hijack a Japanese plane and crash it into Tel Aviv, and a 1995 warning that terrorists intended to fly a plane into CIA headquarters. The agency also knew that an Algerian terrorist group hijacked an Air France jet in 1994 in order to fly it into the Eiffel Tower, a plot that failed because none of the terrorists knew how to fly.
Blade Washington Bureau Chief Ann McFeatters contributed to this report.