Moussaoui Probe Lapses Blamed on Headquarters
by Dan Eggen and Bill Miller, The Washington Post
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
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
July 10 FBI warning that al Qaeda operatives might be taking flight training
in Arizona, should have prompted stronger suspicion at FBI headquarters
a terror attack was planned, according to officials familiar with Rowley's
"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,
issue that has mushroomed this month amid increasingly fierce questioning
Mueller released a statement last night saying that he has referred
Rowley's complaints to the Justice Department's inspector general for
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Williams's suggestion that the FBI canvass U.S. flight schools was
rejected within weeks by FBI counter-terror division mid-level managers,
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
Williams told lawmakers in closed-door briefings this week, however,
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
the document, including several associated with a militant London group
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
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"
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
"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
the Phoenix memorandum, but he argued that the FBI did all it could in
"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.
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."