- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

The ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday harshly criticized the FBI for its handling of intelligence information prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"The FBI was either asleep or inept, or both," Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, said in an interview on CNN's "Novak, Hunt & Shields."
The senior Republican's criticisms came as the agency issued a warning yesterday that the al Qaeda network is considering attacking U.S. apartment buildings.
Mr. Shelby charged that the actions of the FBI before September 11 "had failed the American people." The agency neither acted on intelligence information it had obtained nor informed the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency or others in the federal government of what it had learned, he said.
His comments come as the Senate intelligence committee begins an inquiry to determine whether one of its members leaked the story this week that the Bush administration had advance information that Osama bin Laden's followers were considering hijacking a U.S. plane. But Mr. Shelby yesterday accused the FBI of leaking documents sought by Congress for an investigation into intelligence failures leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Mr. Shelby also called "bogus" accusations and insinuations by Democrats and others that President Bush had information that might have prevented the suicide hijackings, which killed some 3,000 people.
It "would have been a different story," the intelligence committee's vice chairman said, "if the president had known, which he didn't," what was in an FBI memo that came out of Phoenix in July, or if he had been informed "prior to September 11" of information the FBI gathered in Minnesota in mid-August.
It was only recently that the CIA received a five-page memorandum written by a Phoenix FBI agent about followers of bin Laden training at flight schools for a possible hijacking or bombing assault. The Los Angeles Times reported in its editions yesterday that the Phoenix-based agent, Kenneth Williams, is a specialist on counterterrorism and that several of his former colleagues said the bureau should have taken his warnings more seriously.
On May 8, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the Senate Judiciary Committee he regretted the FBI had not been more aggressive in following up on the Phoenix memo. Mr. Mueller also said he regretted a decision made at FBI headquarters to reject a request by an agent in Minnesota to search the computer files of Zacarias Moussaoui. The agent had compiled information about suspicious flight school activities by Moussaoui, who is charged with conspiring with 19 al Qaeda terrorists to carry out the deadly hijackings.
Asked who he believes was responsible for failing to understand the clues received before the September 11 attacks, Mr. Shelby said: "I believe it is the FBI that's the responsible party. And I believe the FBI has failed the American people in that regard nothing was done [on the information in that Phoenix memo]. The FBI was either asleep or inept or both."
Told of Mr. Shelby's remarks yesterday, the FBI referred to a statement Mr. Mueller made in his Senate testimony: "Even if we had followed those suggestions at that time, it would not have enabled us to prevent the attacks of September 11."
John E. Collingwood, assistant director of the FBI's Office of Public and Congressional Affairs, added: "The FBI is working diligently with joint congressional committees to ensure a full understanding by the American public of what the FBI did and did not know prior to September 11."
The agency did not address Mr. Shelby's assertions that the FBI leaked documents dealing with the concerns of the agents in Phoenix and Minnesota. They did this, the Alabama Republican said, "after we made demands on this information."
Mr. Shelby criticized Democrats and a television network he did not identify for suggesting Mr. Bush knew a lot more about the planned terrorist attacks than he has let on. "He didn't know more than [the intelligence committee] basically knew. And it was general in nature; let's be honest this story has no legs."
On CNN's "Saturday Edition," Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and member of the intelligence committee, called it "unconscionable" that anyone would "insinuate that the president somehow knew about this and then sat back and did nothing."
But Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democratic member of the intelligence committee, said it's a "misuse of the trust" that the public and Congress place in the administration "to call anybody irresponsible who asks tough questions about what sure looks like an intelligence failure."
While defending the president, Mr. Shelby said some officials in the administration have been less than cooperative with the Senate and House intelligence panels, which are conducting an investigation into intelligence failures that led to the September 11 attacks.
"We've been assured by Vice President [Richard B.] Cheney that the administration that means all the agencies, the CIA, NSA, FBI would cooperate with this joint investigation. They're not cooperating fully," Mr. Shelby said.
He said the committees will meet this week with Attorney General John Ashcroft to try to resolve the stalemate.
Meanwhile, bin Laden's al Qaeda network may be considering staging attacks on apartment buildings in the United States, the FBI said yesterday.
The FBI has received information that al Qaeda operatives are "considering renting apartments in unspecified areas of the United States and then planting explosives," said FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman.
The information was "nonspecific" and "uncorroborated," Miss Weierman said.
During the last few days, the FBI has passed the potential threat on to its field offices around the country as well as to local officials and apartment building managers and owners, she said.
However, U.S. intelligence officials have detected "enhanced activity" that points to a potential new attack against the United States or American interests abroad, a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters news agency yesterday.
The comments came as the New York Times reported on its Web site yesterday that U.S. intelligence agencies have learned that al Qaeda officials are planning an attack as big as or bigger than the one on September 11.
But Mr. Bush and U.S. counterterrorism are uncertain about the timing, location or method of this potential attack.
Also, the Associated Press reported yesterday that five months before September 11, the government warned airlines that Middle Eastern terrorists could try to hijack or blow up a U.S. plane and that carriers should "demonstrate a high degree of alertness."
The warning, obtained yesterday by AP, came out after the April 6, 2001, conviction of Ahmed Ressam in connection with a failed plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium celebrations.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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