FBI Headquarters Crippled Investigation of Moussaoui, Letter Says

Office called 'less than aggressive' in helping Minneapolis agents

by Dan Eggen and Bill Miller
The Washington Post
May 24, 2002


Washington -- Minneapolis FBI agents investigating terrorism 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 Tuesday letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller that evidence gathered in the Moussaoui case, combined with a July 10 FBI warning that al-Qaida 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 familiar with the letter. "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 last summer to the Sept. 11 attacks, an issue that has mushroomed this month amid increasingly fierce questioning from lawmakers.

Mueller released a statement Thursday night saying that he had 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."

Mounting evidence

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 New York and Washington.

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 that Mueller "was very forthright in saying the course of action should have been more aggressive."

Rowley, whom officials said has worked for the FBI for more than 20 years, declined to comment Thursday. "Our office has been very diligent in not leaking anything," Rowley said. "I'm going to have to stick with that in this case."

Classified details

Classified federal documents that previously have not been made public also show that hours after Moussaoui's arrest, federal agents in Minnesota were told that Moussaoui believed it was "acceptable to kill civilians who harm Muslims" and that he approved of Muslims who died as "martyrs" in such attacks.

The information in the documents came from interviews with Hussein al-Attas, who has not been linked to the attacks but is now being held as a material witness in the government's case against Moussaoui.

Al-Attas, a student who had driven Moussaoui from Oklahoma to a flight school in Minnesota, said that Moussaoui might be willing to act on his beliefs.

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 family 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.

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 prior to 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 argued that the FBI did all it could in pursuing Moussaoui.

Bush against probe

In Berlin Thursday, meanwhile, President Bush said he opposed having an independent commission investigate intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attack. The House and Senate intelligence committees are currently conducting a probe.

A spokesman for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said a formal investigation of Rowley's allegations had begun. A Senate source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said congressional investigators interviewed Rowley on Wednesday.

"While I'm shocked at the seriousness of these allegations, this kind of problem from headquarters is no surprise," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a frequent FBI critic. "The FBI for too long has discouraged agents from using anything besides outdated tactics from the era of chasing Bonnie and Clyde."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) co-sponsor of legislation for an independent investigation, said the problems the FBI's Minnesota office experienced were "not an intelligence failure per se. It's the way the FBI works."


The Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this report

 

� 2002 The Washington Post Company

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