- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

A veteran FBI agent, who complained that senior bureau executives mishandled a pre-September 11 probe by field agents of terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, yesterday said a "climate of fear" inside the FBI had inhibited aggressive investigations.
Agent Coleen Rowley, who outlined her concerns last month in a letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the FBI was bogged down by an "ever-growing bureaucracy" with multiple layers of senior executives in critical decision-making positions.
"Seven to nine levels [of bureaucracy] is really ridiculous," Mrs. Rowley testified, adding that FBI field agents were subjected to make-work paperwork and seldom communicated concerns about ongoing investigations to senior supervisors.
She said many agents and senior FBI officials, fearful of retaliation or of making career-ending mistakes, were unwilling to "rock the boat."
"We have a culture in the FBI that there's a certain pecking order, and it's pretty strong, and it's very rare that somebody picks up the phone and calls a rank or two above themselves," she said, calling for changes in the FBI that would put an end to what she called "careerism."
"The only way the public's distrust can be alleviated, to enable us to do our job, is for the FBI, from the highest levels on down, to adhere to the highest standards of integrity," she said in a statement prepared for the committee.
Her testimony followed an appearance before the committee by Mr. Mueller, who said the FBI made mistakes before the September 11 attacks in its analysis of available intelligence data, but said he was seeking to reorganize the FBI to become "more flexible, agile and mobile."
Mr. Mueller, who took over as director a week before the September 11 attacks, was sharply questioned by committee members who were concerned about memos from field agents in Minneapolis and Phoenix that questioned the flight-training activities of several suspicious Middle Eastern men.
He said no one at FBI headquarters, where the memos were sent, put the information together. He said he did not know whether the FBI could have prevented the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed more than 3,000 people, had that been accomplished. But, he said, he thought that probability was "unlikely."
Mr. Mueller noted, however, that his reorganization plan devoted additional resources and manpower to counterterroism efforts, including the bureau's ability to analyze available intelligence.
"This Congress is all too familiar with the FBI's analytical shortcomings," he said. "Building subject-area expertise or developing an awareness of the potential value of an isolated piece of information does not occur overnight. It is developed over time."
Mr. Mueller also told the committee that "an honest and comprehensive examination" of the FBI "reflects an agency that must evolve and that must change if our mission, our priorities, our structure, our work force and our technologies are to revolve around the one central, paramount premise of preventing the next attack."
Mrs. Rowley agreed, saying the FBI computer system is too antiquated to search effectively, calling it "the most fundamental, rudimentary thing."
She told the panel that field agents can search the FBI's databases only for a specific name or one identifying word, rather than conduct multiple-word searches similar to Lexis-Nexis.
"Our central record system is indexed according to the name of the subject," she said.
Because of the one-word text-search limit, she said, Minneapolis field agents could not have searched the FBI's computer system for "airline training" or "flight schools" to determine if there was additional information on other terrorism suspects after Moussaoui was arrested in August on immigration charges.
"If you put in 'airline' to do a text retrieval, you would get up such a volume of records that it would be impossible to review. It's almost impossible to do just a one-word text," she said.
Mr. Mueller told the committee it could take up to three years to upgrade the FBI's computer system.
In her letter, Mrs. Rowley said the Minneapolis agents who detained Moussaoui after he tried to seek lessons at a flight school faced a "roadblock" when they sought search warrants for more evidence.
Mrs. Rowley, chief principal legal assistant and a 21-year FBI veteran, said the agents became so frustrated at the lack of response by senior officials at Washington headquarters that they sought to bypass the chain of command and notify the CIA directly but were reprimanded.
She said senior officials in Washington derailed the agents' efforts to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to search Moussaoui's computer, even rewriting the warrant application. Lawyers at FBI headquarters said there was insufficient probable cause and denied the request.
Moussaoui, 33, was indicted in December by a federal grand jury in Alexandria on six counts of conspiracy. Four of the counts could result in the death penalty.
In her letter to Mr. Mueller last month, she said there was a "delicate and subtle shading/skewing of the facts" by the director concerning pre-September 11 information the FBI had. Mrs. Rowley's letter also questioned the response of FBI headquarters to the request for a warrant for Moussaoui's computer, and talked about a double standard in discipline and evaluation between senior agents and the rank-and-file.
Mrs. Rowley said some facts in the Moussaoui matter had been "omitted, downplayed, glossed over and/or mischaracterized in an effort to avoid or minimize personal and/or institutional embarrassment on the part of the FBI and/or perhaps even for improper political reasons."
The Rowley letter to Mr. Mueller triggered massive criticism of the FBI about its handling of potential terrorist information in the months before the September 11 attacks, and it raised questions on the accuracy of Mr. Mueller's public statements on what the FBI knew and when it knew it.


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