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FBI Flaws Alleged by Field Staff
Moussaoui Probe Lapses Blamed on Headquarters
Dan Eggen and Bill Miller
Minneapolis FBI agents investigating terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui last August were severely hampered by officials at FBI headquarters, who resisted seeking search warrants and admonished agents for seeking help from the CIA, according to a letter from the general counsel for the FBI's Minneapolis field office.
Coleen Rowley also wrote in a letter Tuesday to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that evidence gathered in the Moussaoui case, combined with a July 10 FBI warning that al Qaeda operatives might be taking flight training in Arizona, should have prompted stronger suspicion at FBI headquarters that a terror attack was planned, according to officials familiar with Rowley's letter.
"There was a great deal of frustration expressed on the part of the Minneapolis office toward what they viewed as a less than aggressive attitude from headquarters," said one official. "The bottom line is that headquarters was the problem."
The sharply worded letter from Rowley stands in stark contrast to statements by Mueller and other FBI officials, who have insisted that the bureau did all it could to determine whether Moussaoui was part of a terrorist plot. It is also the clearest sign of dissent within the FBI over whether the bureau mishandled clues to the Sept. 11 attacks last summer, an issue that has mushroomed this month amid increasingly fierce questioning from lawmakers.
Mueller released a statement last night saying that he has referred Rowley's complaints to the Justice Department's inspector general for investigation.
"While I cannot comment on the specifics of the letter, I am convinced that a different approach is required," Mueller said. "New strategies, new analytical capacities and a different culture makes us an agency that is changing post-9/11. There is no room after the attacks for the types of problems and attitudes that could inhibit our efforts."
In her classified 13-page letter, which includes detailed footnotes, Rowley said Minneapolis investigators had significant evidence of Moussaoui's possible ties to terrorists, including corroboration from a foreign source that Moussaoui posed a major threat, sources said.
But agent Dave Rapp and his colleagues in Minnesota faced resistance from headquarters staff that Rowley considered unnecessary and counterproductive, according to officials who have seen the letter.
FBI attorneys in Washington determined there was not enough evidence to ask a judge for warrants to search Moussaoui's computer under routine criminal procedures or a special law aimed at terrorists. Officials have said there was no evidence of a crime and no solid connections between Moussaoui and any designated terrorist group.
Moussaoui, who was detained Aug. 16 after arousing suspicions at a Minnesota flight school, has been charged as a conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Mueller, who took over as FBI director on Sept. 4, was questioned about the letter during an appearance Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, sources said. One official said Mueller "was very forthright in saying the course of action should have been more aggressive."
Rowley, who officials said has worked for the FBI for more than 20 years, declined to comment yesterday. "Our office has been very diligent in not leaking anything," Rowley said. "I'm going to have to stick with that in this case."
In Berlin yesterday, President Bush said he opposed having an independent commission investigate intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks. The House and Senate intelligence committees are currently conducting a probe.
More than a month before Moussaoui was arrested on immigration charges, Phoenix FBI agent Kenneth Williams wrote a memo July 10 to FBI headquarters outlining his investigation of Islamic radicals enrolled at a Prescott, Ariz., aviation school. He cited bin Laden and raised the possibility that the al Qaeda terror network was using U.S. flight schools as a training ground.
Williams's suggestion that the FBI canvass U.S. flight schools was rejected within weeks by FBI counter-terror division mid-level managers, who decided they lacked the manpower to pursue it. The memo was not shared with agents who later investigated Moussaoui, and it was never given to any other intelligence agency.
Williams told lawmakers in closed-door briefings this week, however, that he did not expect his request to be acted on immediately and did not believe his memo could have thwarted the Sept. 11 attacks. None of the men named in the document, including several associated with a militant London group that has praised bin Laden, has been connected to the deadly hijackings.
Rowley's correspondence, by contrast, underscores the depth of frustration within the Minneapolis field office over the way the Moussaoui case was handled.
"It really paints a very grim and troubling picture about the institution of the FBI at the end of August last year and how many obstacles the Minnesota office ran into," said one official familiar with the letter's contents. "Clearly she feels this was handled very poorly."
At one point, according to accounts of Rowley's letter, agents in Minnesota went to the CIA for help, only to be admonished by headquarters.
The FBI first notified the CIA about Moussaoui soon after arresting him, a U.S. government official said. The CIA found nothing in an initial check of Moussaoui's name, but over the next couple of weeks, French intelligence interviewed Moussaoui's brother and the parents of a man who blamed Moussaoui for radicalizing their son, according to U.S. sources, and turned over the information.
In late August, CIA officials learned from "FBI agents in the field" that they hoped to obtain a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which would have allowed the government to search Moussaoui's laptop computer without notifying him, one government official said. He could not confirm that this was the contact that brought the admonishment.
The hard drive of Moussaoui's computer, which was finally searched several hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, was found to include detailed information on crop-dusting and on the type of jetliner hijacked. The computer also included the names of Moussaoui associates in Singapore and elsewhere that could have opened new paths for investigators, two sources said.
"The argument is that there was already probable cause and headquarters didn't move aggressively enough," one source said. "If you had the analysis from Phoenix, that would have made the case even better."
Two officials who have read the letter said Rowley indicated she was upset by Mueller's public statements about the extent of the FBI's knowledge before Sept. 11.
In testimony earlier this month before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mueller acknowledged that the FBI should have responded more aggressively to the Phoenix memorandum, but he argued that the FBI did all it could in pursuing Moussaoui.
"The agent in Minneapolis did a terrific job in pushing as hard as he could to do everything we possibly could with Moussaoui," Mueller said. "But did we discern from that that there was a plot that would have led us to September 11th? No. Could we have? I rather doubt it."
Staff writer Dana Milbank in Berlin contributed to this report.
It's come to this: finger-pointing about the finger-pointing.
That is, an argument over whether the Democrats are or are not benefiting from their attacks on the White House for mishandling intelligence before Sept. 11.
Only in Washington could a debate about the most vicious terrorist attack in American history turn into partisan score-keeping.
Pretty lame, if you ask us.
Let's see if we can get this straight.
First CBS broke the story on Bush having been warned last August about possible hijackings by Osama-linked operatives this while the FBI was blowing off such a warning by Phoenix agent Ken Williams.
Then the Democrats said this appeared to be a distressing state of affairs and an independent commission should be named to investigate.
Then Cheney ripped the Democrats for irresponsibility and the White House mounted a heavy-duty counterattack.
Then the Dems complained that these are legitimate policy questions but toned down their rhetoric.
Then Republicans did a little victory dance and said they had whipped some Democratic derriere.
Now some liberal writers are saying, hold on! The Democrats need to show some spine! It ain't over till it's over!
In some respects, this looks like a mirror image of the Clinton years, when Republicans would root for Ken Starr and rather than challenge Bill Clinton's fairly popular policies hope that digging up dirt would help neutralize him.
Of course the country needs a real inquiry to plug those gaping intelligence holes that allowed the government to be stunned by the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. But some seem to be hoping there will be enough ammunition to ground the high-flying Bush.
With the '02 elections coming up, how the Democrats conduct themselves and how the Bush team responds could loom large as an issue, even though most people seem more concerned at the moment with such matters as schools and health care.
Before we get to that debate, a classic television moment last night.
ABC's John McWethy had this scoop:
"A paid FBI informant told ABC News that three years before Sept. 11, he began providing the FBI with information about a young Saudi who later flew a hijacked passenger plane into the Pentagon.
"Aukai Collins, the informant, said he worked for the FBI for four years in Phoenix, monitoring the Arab and Islamic communities there. Hani Hanjour was the hijacker Collins claimed to have told the FBI about while Hanjour was in flight training in Phoenix. Twenty hours after ABC News first requested a response, the FBI issued an 'emphatic denial' that Collins had told the agency anything about Hanjour, though FBI sources acknowledged that Collins had worked for them."
Minutes later on CBS, Dan Rather reported that the FBI was knocking down a story "broadcast elsewhere" about the informant and sniffed that the man in question was writing a book.
Now back to our debate. Josh Marshall says the Dems are in danger of being rolled:
"If the Democrats have an ounce of strategic know-how or common sense they will not allow the Vice President and others in the White House to pull off this deeply cynical bait and switch. Here's the Vice President a chillingly arrogant man by all appearances speaking:
"'When members of Congress suggest that the president of the United States had foreknowledge of the attack on September 11th, I think that's outrageous, that is beyond pale. Somebody needs to say, that ain't criticism, that's a gross outrageous political attack, and it's totally uncalled for.'
"Who's making this claim? What member of Congress beside possibly Cynthia McKinney? To the best of my knowledge, the answer to that question is: none. If there is a charge out there it's that the White House should have known about the attacks or perhaps could have if all the tidbits and shreds of evidence had been properly assembled and analyzed. . . .
"But, look: earth to Democrats. You're being bullied. This is the oldest trick in the book. Lash out at your enemies for saying what they didn't say and see if they'll run scared. This man is a bully. He's arrogant. In the marketplace of ideas and argument he believes solely in force. Accepting it now will only encourage further untoward behavior. In any context, bullies can only be treated in one way. Call him on his lie. Be firm in what is a very reasonable position: support for an independent commission.
"Don't get baited. Don't get scared. Don't get distracted."
"The furious volley of charges between Democrats and the White House over what President Bush knew about the terrorist threat before 9/11 seems to have produced some clear winners and losers. After a week of acid exchanges, the consensus in Washington is that Democrats are in retreat and Bush is jetting off to Europe victorious. The White House supposedly won the skirmish with a furious two-pronged, vice-presidential counterattack. . . .
"Not quite. Yes, the White House has forced Democrats to ratchet down their criticism, but it may prove a Pyrrhic victory. In fact, just as the White House was publicly proclaiming success, it was privately telling reporters that the scuffle could have worrying long-term consequences because, for the first time since the attacks, it has given political momentum to Democratic calls for an outside commission to investigate what went wrong. And such high-profile snooping could tilt the partisan balance of power throughout 2002. . . .
"If the Democrats get their commission, the administration will have lost control over the 9/11 probe, and there is no telling what embarrassing or incriminating information will come to light."
Slate's William Saletan questions the premise:
"Tell a Republican operative that the Bush administration should have foreseen Sept. 11, and he'll lecture you about the difficulty of prediction. . . . But ask the same Republican operative about Democratic criticism of the administration on this issue, and he'll predict the political fallout with confidence: Democrats will lose because polls show the public trusts President Bush.
"Democrats seem to be buying this prediction. According to The Washington Post, Democrats are toning down their criticism of Bush's handling of intelligence about Sept. 11 since their strategists 'say privately the party can't win a political fight with President Bush on terrorism and need[s] to push the debate back to domestic issues.' . .
"Why are the Democrats falling for this fatalism? Probably because, as the Post indicates, it's coming from pollsters. People think polls are scientific. If a poll suggests you can't win, you're supposed to give up."
The prez, meanwhile, was in Berlin, as the New York Times reports:
"President Bush stood in the well of Germany's reconstructed Reichstag today and told the nation's Parliament that the terrorist groups the United States and its allies are hunting down constitute a 'new totalitarian threat.'
"And in a clear reference to Hitler, the president compared the current struggle against terrorism to a past generation's battle against those who 'killed in the name of racial purity.' . . .
"Mr. Bush's remarks, the first by any American president in the Reichstag building, were received politely. But his appearance was punctuated at one point by a demonstration by four members of the former East German Communist Party, who unveiled a banner that said 'Stop Your Wars.' Mr. Bush missed a few beats of his speech, then kept speaking as a few members of the Bundestag walked out in protest."
Today's news today on the website for USA Today, courtesy of the AP:
"President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a landmark treaty today that requires the United States and Russia to make the largest reductions ever in their nuclear arsenals.
"'We ended a long chapter of confrontation and opened up an entirely new relationship between our countries,' Bush said moments after signing the treaty. Putin said, 'This is a serious move ahead to ensure international security.'
"The accord would limit the United States and Russia within 10 years to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, down from about 6,000 apiece now a two-thirds cut in their respective nuclear arsenals. 'Friends really don't need weapons pointed at each other, we both understand that,' Bush said."
Those plans to march into Baghdad could be toast, The Washington Post reports:
"The uniformed leaders of the U.S. military believe they have persuaded the Pentagon's civilian leadership to put off an invasion of Iraq until next year at the earliest and perhaps not to do it at all, according to senior Pentagon officials.
"The Joint Chiefs of Staff have waged a determined behind-the-scenes campaign to persuade the Bush administration to reconsider an aggressive posture toward Iraq in which war was regarded as all but inevitable. This included a secret briefing at the White House earlier this month for President Bush by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who as head of the Central Command would oversee any U.S. military campaign against Iraq.
"During the meeting, Franks told the president that invading Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein would require at least 200,000 troops, far more than some other military experts have calculated. This was in line with views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have repeatedly emphasized the lengthy buildup that would be required, concerns about Hussein's possible use of biological and chemical weapons and the possible casualties, officials said.
"The Bush administration still appears dedicated to the goal of removing the Iraqi leader from power, but partly in response to the military's advice, it is focusing more on undermining him through covert intelligence operations, two officials added."
More Enron info dribbling out of 1600 Pennsylvania, says the Washington Times:
"The White House's top economic advisers discussed extensively last fall whether the collapse of energy giant Enron would create turmoil in financial markets and warrant intervention by the Treasury Department. But after a government-wide review of the possible consequences of the largest corporate failure in history, Bush officials decided not to act, say document summaries released by the White House late yesterday.
"The review was prompted by previously disclosed calls to Cabinet officers by former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay, President Bush's top campaign contributor. . . .
"Mr. Lay had more luck getting the White House to look favorably on nominees he supported for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the principal regulator of Enron's natural gas pipelines and energy trading activities, the documents show.
"Mr. Bush not only appointed Mr. Lay's top choice, Pat Wood, as chairman, but he also heeded the Enron founder's advice in appointing a second commissioner, Nora Brownell. Mr. Lay lobbied for Miss Brownell in a call to Mr. Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove."
TVOTW - ICOPO
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