- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Serious questions are being raised about the performance of the FBI, and in particular, its director, Robert Mueller, over the handling of information suggesting that members of Osama bin Laden's terror network were attending U.S. flight schools. First, there were the revelations about the Phoenix memo written by FBI Agent Kenneth Williams, which notified senior FBI executives in July that bin Laden followers were training at a flight school in Arizona. Although Mr. Williams said that eight suspected terrorists were training, senior FBI officials didn't bother to follow up on the information contained in his memo.

The second mistake was the failure to connect Mr. Williams' memo with the mid-August arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Algerian who raised suspicion last summer when he attempted to seek training at flight schools in Oklahoma and Minnesota. Although Mr. Moussaoui, who paid cash for flight lessons, apparently had little aptitude for flying, he asked specific questions about piloting a plane over New York, and about how to open the cabin doors on a Boeing jet. Alarmed, the school contacted the FBI, who arrested Mr. Moussaoui on immigration charges.

After learning from French intelligence that Mr. Moussaoui had been associated with members of an Algerian terrorist group, FBI agents in Minneapolis who were already aware of Mr. Williams' memo about al Qaeda operatives at the Arizona flight school tried to obtain a warrant to search the hard drive on Mr. Moussaoui's computer. Had they managed to do so prior to September 11, FBI officials would have found information on airliners, crop dusters and wind patterns, which would have raised serious questions about what the suspected "20th hijacker" wanted to learn at flight school. But senior FBI officials in Washington rejected their request for such a warrant, claiming that they lacked probable cause to open Mr. Moussaoui's hard drive.

Upon learning of this decision, the Minneapolis FBI agents were understandably angry and disgusted with the timidity of their bureaucratic masters. Jerry Seper of The Washington Times reported Saturday that these agents were so upset that they joked among themselves that Osama bin Laden must have planted a mole inside the FBI.

On a far more serious note, Coleen Rowley, a senior FBI agent in Minneapolis, has now accused a supervisor at the agency's Washington office of altering a report in such a way as to make it all but impossible to obtain a search warrant. In a 13-page letter obtained by a joint congressional committee investigating the September 11 attacks, Mrs. Rowley charges that Mr. Mueller had made "misleading" public statements about how the FBI handled the Moussaoui case both before and after September 11, and that "certain facts have been omitted, downplayed, glossed over or mischaracterized" by the current FBI director. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, a senior member of Judiciary Committee, says that if the decisions made by senior officials in the Moussaoui case are indicative of how the FBI was investigating terrorism, "We're in grave danger."

Clearly, Mr. Mueller has got some explaining to do and fast.

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