Agent Cited WTC Attack Ahead of 9/11
Sep 24, 11:35 AM (ET)
By KEN GUGGENHEIM
WASHINGTON (AP) - A Minneapolis FBI supervisor said in a pre-Sept. 11 conversation with headquarters that he wanted to prevent suspicious student pilot Zacarias Moussaoui from flying a plane into the World Trade Center, a congressional investigator testified Tuesday.
The supervisor said he had no reason to believe Moussaoui was planning such an attack, but made the remark in a frustrated attempt to convince headquarters that a special search warrant was needed to search Moussaoui's computer, investigator Eleanor Hill told a House-Senate committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
Moussaoui is now accused of conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers to commit terrorism, and Hill outlined the Minneapolis FBI's office's repeated and unsuccessful efforts to convince headquarters that he was a possible terrorist.
The supervisor told the committee staff he was "trying to get people at FBI headquarters 'spun up' because he was trying to make sure that Moussaoui 'did not take control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center,'" Hill testified.
The headquarters agent told the investigators he did not recall the conversation.
Hill also said that a July 2001 memo by an FBI agent warning that Osama bin Laden might send terrorists to the United States for flight training was disregarded by headquarters, which was unaware officials previously tried to identify Middle Eastern flight students in this country.
The investigator said the failure to connect the so-called Phoenix memo with the arrest of Moussaoui a month later - and a general increase of terrorist alerts - represented major intelligence failings before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"No one will ever know whether a greater focus on the connection between these events would have led to the unraveling of the Sept. 11 plot," said Hill.
The committees looked into the handling of the Phoenix memo and the Moussaoui case as it held its fourth public hearing into the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Phoenix-based agent, Kenneth Williams, wrote a memo to his superiors in Washington two months before the attacks, suggesting that terrorists might be learning to fly commercial jetliners at U.S. flight schools. He asked for a check of flight schools, but no checks were made.
Williams was not identified by name in the report and was to testify later anonymously. As his own prepared testimony noted, his identity has already been revealed in many news accounts of his memo, which was disclosed earlier this year.
Hill said New York FBI personnel who reviewed the memo found it "speculative and not particularly significant." They said they knew some flight students were affiliated with bin Laden, she said, but believed they were intended to fly goods and personnel in Afghanistan.
By November 2000, though, an analyst wrote a memo informing FBI offices that he found no evidence of terrorists studying aviation and that further investigation "is deemed imprudent" by FBI headquarters.
Agents involved in the Moussaoui case also were unaware of the Phoenix memo and the earlier investigation.
Moussaoui was arrested by FBI agents in Minnesota on immigration charges in August 2001 after a flight school instructor became suspicious of his desire to learn to fly a commercial jet. FBI headquarters denied agents' request to seek a warrant to search his computer. Moussaoui has since been charged with conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks.
In his prepared testimony, a Minneapolis-based FBI agent blamed legal restrictions, FBI headquarters and the circumstances of the case for impeding a more aggressive investigation of Moussaoui before Sept. 11.
The committees have also been clashing with the Bush administration about whether it can reveal what intelligence about terrorist attacks was disclosed to the White House before Sept. 11.
The administration doesn't want to reveal what the White House knew, even if the intelligence has already been declassified.
On Tuesday, leaders of the committees again called on the White House to allow the information to be disclosed, or explain why the information should be kept secret.
House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the White House's failure to allow the information to be disclosed "will undoubtedly further weaken public confidence in the entire classification system."
"To classify for the wrong reasons, when security is not at stake, when nothing of substance is really at stake, undermines the willingness of the American people to put their faith and trust in the government," the California Democrat said.