FBI Agent's Frustrations - Terror Probes Were Marginalized, Ex-staffer in Phoenix Wrote

The Los Angeles Times
May 26, 2002

 

Phoenix - FBI agents attempting to investigate terrorism were hamstrung for years by top officials here despite abundant evidence of Middle Eastern extremists, according to a letter sent to FBI headquarters late last year by a longtime special agent.

The letter, written five months before the now-famous flight school warning memo by Phoenix agent Kenneth Williams became public, portrayed counterterrorism as "the lowest investigative priority in the Phoenix Division."

"The [international anti-terrorism] program ground to a halt a couple years ago because of the micromanaging, constant indecision, and stonewalling," retired Special Agent James Hauswirth wrote in his two-page December letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller.

The 27-year FBI veteran said in the letter reviewed by the Los Angeles Times that the Phoenix office had evidence of Islamic potential terrorists operating in the region as far back as 1994. That year, two men were videotaped by FBI agents recruiting a Phoenix FBI informant as a suicide bomber, the letter says. One of those men, according to a source, was linked to a terrorist in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

In 1998, the office's international terrorism squad investigated a possible Middle Eastern extremist taking flight lessons at a Phoenix airport, wrote Hauswirth, who retired from the FBI in 1999.

Despite such activities, the commitment to anti-terrorism by some in top management at the Phoenix office was lukewarm at best, according to Hauswirth. One top Phoenix FBI official described anti-terrorism investigations as "hokey-pokey work" before Sept. 11, he wrote.

The allegations, echoed by other former agents here, in some sense mirror complaints by a Minneapolis FBI lawyer last week about inaction at bureau headquarters in the Zacarias Moussaoui case. That letter claims officials in Washington set up a "roadblock" for Minneapolis agents, who were pursuing a search warrant on the radical flight school student just weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Phoenix Special Agent Manuel Johnson, spokesman for the division, said Friday he was not aware of Hauswirth's letter and neither he nor Special Agent in Charge Guadalupe Gonzalez could discuss the allegations because of oversight investigations.

An FBI spokesman in Washington, D.C., also declined to comment, other than to say it is not uncommon for the bureau to receive critical letters from former agents. "They write the letters after they leave because they don't have the --- to write them while they're still agents," the spokesman said.

Hauswirth declined to comment on his letter. But records and interviews show it reflected broader concerns among some current and former FBI veterans.

Until Sept. 11, many FBI field office managers viewed crimes such as bank robberies and high-profile busts of drug dealers as their bread and butter.

"They looked down on people who worked for counterintelligence because they couldn't show results. They're not arresting people," said one former federal law enforcement official.

Congress and the Bush administration are now debating how best to refocus the mission of the FBI and permanently shift resources from areas such as bank heists and identity theft to the fight against international terrorism.



© Copyright 2002, Los Angeles Times

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