It was Iran, not Iraq, that helped some of the hijackers involved in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by allowing them to bypass border controls. But there is no evidence that Tehran actually knew about the plot, U.S. and Iranian officials said yesterday.
At least eight of the 19 hijackers moved from Afghan training camps through Iran without getting their passports stamped, which helped cover their tracks, top U.S. counterterrorism officials confirmed, a day after it emerged that the information will be included in this week's final report from the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
According to Time and Newsweek, which both published details about the Iranian link, Tehran offered to collaborate with Osama bin Laden after the successful bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in late 2000. The al-Qaeda leader declined, but Iranian border officials were told to allow al-Qaeda operatives to enter and leave freely Iran without having their passports stamped, according to the reports.
"We have ample evidence of people being able to move back and forth across that terrain," said John McLaughlin, acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency. "The count is about eight of the hijackers that were able to pass through Iran at some point in their passage along their operational path."
Newsweek said the Iranian finding in the commission's report is based largely on a December, 2001, memo discovered buried in the files of the U.S. National Security Agency.
U.S. President George W. Bush fingered Iran, Iraq and North Korea as members of an "axis of evil" after the Sept. 11 attacks, but his government focused primarily on Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad. Despite repeated claims by Mr. Bush's administration that al-Qaeda and Mr. Hussein were linked, little evidence has emerged, and the inquiry's final report is expected to conclude there was no "collaborative" effort between them.
Against that backdrop, the new revelations about Iran fuelled criticism of Mr. Bush in Washington yesterday. "We focused so much energy on Iraq when other countries may have been more directly linked to 9/11," said Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
But U.S. officials said they have nothing to implicate Tehran in the Sept. 11 attacks. The inquiry's report is expected to document that the hijackers passing through Iran were those who provided "muscle" on board the planes, not necessarily those who knew details about the plan to crash them into buildings.
"We have no evidence that there is some sort of official connection between Iran and 9/11," Mr. McLaughlin said, adding that U.S. officials have known about the Iran link "for some time."
Tehran tacitly acknowledged yesterday that its long, poorly patrolled border with Afghanistan may have let some al-Qaeda operatives slip through.
"It's normal that five or six people may have crossed the border within a couple of months without our knowledge," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi allowed. "Our borders are long, and it's not possible to fully control them." He denied that Tehran had intentionally allowed safe passage, comparing the situation to migrants who slip into the United States illegally from Mexico.
"The more we approach the [U.S.] presidential elections, we will witness more of such news fabrications," Mr. Asefi said, adding that Iran has tightened security and made a significant contribution to the war on terror by arresting some al-Qaeda agents.