- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

Senior FBI officials blocked an investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, who authorities suspect was meant to be the 20th hijacker on September 11, because they did not understand the significance of his arrest a month before the attacks, an FBI agent said.
In a rare, critical letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Agent Coleen Rowley said Minneapolis agents who arrested Moussaoui on Aug. 15 after he tried to seek lessons at a flight school faced a "roadblock" when they sought search warrants for more evidence.
Ms. Rowley, chief principal legal assistant and a 20-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.
"When, in a desperate 11th-hour measure to bypass the FBI HQ roadblock, the Minneapolis division undertook to directly notify the CIA's counterterrorist center, FBI HQ personnel chastised the Minneapolis agents for making the direct notification without their approval," she said.
The letter, according to government sources, said the agents although "closest to the action and in the best position to gauge the situation locally" were not allowed to proceed, despite an earlier July 10 FBI alert about terrorists seeking flight training in Arizona.
She said senior officials in Washington derailed agents' efforts to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to search his computer. Lawyers at FBI headquarters said there was insufficient probable cause and denied the request.
Ms. Rowley also noted the Minneapolis agents already had information that Moussaoui was tied to terrorism suspects, including intelligence from officials overseas.
"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," Ms. Rowley wrote. "The bottom line is that headquarters was the problem."
Mr. Mueller, named as FBI director in September, told reporters earlier this year he was not sure if the Moussaoui probe was handled properly, but noted that "the agents on the scene attempted to follow up aggressively and September 11 happened."
Last night, Mr. Mueller referred the matter to the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General for investigation.
"I respect that process and all the independence and protections it affords," he said in a statement. "There is no room after the attacks for the types of problems and attitudes that could inhibit our efforts."
Meanwhile, ABC's "World News Tonight" reported yesterday that a paid FBI informant claimed he warned the bureau about one of the September 11 hijackers as early as 1998.
Aukai Collins, who monitored Muslim communities in Phoenix, said he told the FBI about a group of young Arab men who were training at an Arizona flight school. Among the men was September 11 hijacker Hani Hanjour, he said.
ABC said the FBI "emphatically denies that Collins provided any information about Hani Hanjour."
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.
The Minneapolis agents received information about Moussaoui's flight training Aug. 15. The agents, working with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, were able to ensure that he was detained on visa violations, and he has remained in custody since, refusing to cooperate with investigators.
The Rowley letter, first reported by the Associated Press, went to Mr. Mueller and members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The director, under fire for the agency's lack of aggressiveness before September 11, spent much of yesterday explaining the letter.
One committee source told The Washington Times that Ms. Rowley also has been interviewed and more questioning of her and the director is likely. The source said panel members fear that senior FBI officials in Washington mishandled "obvious genuine concern by agents on the scene."
The source noted that while both the FISA warrant request and a separate search warrant request were denied, both were approved after September 11. Law-enforcement authorities said evidence later found on Moussaoui's computer hard drives tied him to the suicide strikes.


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