Monday, July 12, 2004

Two senior Senate Judiciary Committee members want the Justice Department to release a newly completed classified report on the FBI’s handling of information it received prior to the September 11 attacks, including an agency memo on Zacarias Moussaoui and information about two of the al Qaeda hijackers.

Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s ranking Democrat, and Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said in letters Friday to Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that the report includes terrorist information “that was not acted upon, or not acted on in the most effective and efficient manner.”

The report includes information on the FBI’s handling of the so-called Phoenix memo; the handling of information about Moussaoui, the only person charged in connection with the September 11 attacks; and the FBI’s investigation into two of the September 11 hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar.

The senators also want the release of two other reports that involve accusations made by a former contract linguist, Sibel Edmonds, about problems in the FBI translation program, and an audit of the FBI’s overall translation program.

The reports were conducted by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

“We have been informed that all three of these reports are classified and that there are no plans at this time for the OIG to release to the public any unclassified information,” the senators said.

“As a result, the information gathered in these investigations, which is of significant public interest and is critical to effective congressional oversight of the FBI and other federal agencies, will not be made available to the public,” they said.

The senators said the release of the report on what pre-September 11 information the FBI possessed was critical as the committee attempts to understand “how important clues were overlooked and how we can protect Americans by preventing such failures from occurring in the future.”

The Phoenix memo was written by FBI Agent Kenneth Williams, who notified senior agency officials in Washington in July 2001 that followers of Osama bin Laden were training at a flight school in Arizona. Although Mr. Williams said eight suspected terrorists were training, senior FBI officials did not follow up on the information.

Those same FBI executives never connected Mr. Williams’ memo with the August 2001 arrest of Moussaoui, a French Algerian who raised suspicion when he attempted to seek training at flight schools in Oklahoma and Minnesota. Although Moussaoui, who paid cash for flight lessons, 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 Moussaoui on immigration charges.

After learning from French intelligence that Moussaoui had been associated with members of an Algerian terrorist group, FBI agents in Minneapolis tried to obtain a warrant to search the hard drive on Moussaoui’s computer. The request was denied by FBI executives in Washington.

In June 2002, Coleen Rowley, a veteran FBI agent, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that senior bureau chiefs mishandled a pre-September 11 probe by field agents of Moussaoui because a “climate of fear” inside the FBI had inhibited aggressive investigations.

Mrs. Rowley said the agency was bogged down by an “ever-growing bureaucracy” with multiple layers of senior managers in critical decision-making positions, and FBI field agents were subjected to make-work paperwork and seldom communicated concerns about ongoing investigations to senior supervisors.

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.

Moussaoui, 34, was indicted in December 2001 by a federal grand jury in Alexandria on six counts of conspiracy. He is awaiting trial in the case in Virginia.

“While the needs of national security must be weighed seriously, we fear the designation of information as classified in some cases serves to protect the executive branch against embarrassing revelations and full accountability. We hope that is not the case here,” the senators said.

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