FBI Pigeonholed Agent's Request to Investigate Flight Schools

Officials had previously been unclear about when and how the suggestion was abandoned. But now they acknowledge that the request was quickly marked "closed," and plans to pursue it were postponed indefinitely."
BY DAN EGGEN, Washington Post

May 21, 2002

A Phoenix FBI agent's request for a canvass of U.S. flight schools for al Qaeda terrorists was formally rejected within several weeks of his July 10 memo, after mid-level officials at FBI headquarters determined they did not have the manpower to carry out the task, sources familiar with the memo said yesterday.

The request was forwarded to counterterrorism chiefs at FBI headquarters and the New York field office, but one of the terrorism units in Washington decided by early August that the document's suggestions were largely unworkable in the midst of more immediate cases, sources said.

Officials had previously been unclear about when and how the suggestion was abandoned. But officials now acknowledge that the request was quickly marked "closed," and plans to pursue it were postponed indefinitely.

The abrupt halt underscores the low priority that FBI officials assigned to thefive-page memo from Phoenix agent Kenneth Williams, which was not distributed beyond FBI middle management prior to the Sept. 11 terror attacks and was viewed as largely speculative by those who reviewed it.

The Phoenix memo is now at the center of heated debate on Capitol Hill about whether the government misread warning signs about the intentions of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

Williams, 41, a former SWAT team leader, joined FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III yesterday for a classified briefing on the memo before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is expected to offer similar testimony as early as today to a joint House-Senate intelligence committee investigating the events leading up to Sept. 11, officials said.

The FBI has publicly released only one paragraph of Williams's electronic memo, which outlined his suggestion that "the FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities/colleges around the country" and "should discuss this matter with other elements of the U.S. intelligence community."

The Phoenix memo was never shared with the CIA or any other agency, officials have said. Nor was it given in August to investigators in Minnesota, where alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui was first detained after he raised suspicions at a flight school there.

"Even to this day, no one seems to know who knew what and where critical information went at FBI headquarters," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said after meeting with Mueller and Williams yesterday. "They still don't have answers to . . . why things fell apart before September 11."

The memo, which updated about a dozen counterterrorism cases that Williams was working, was approved by Williams's supervisor in Phoenix and transmitted to the Radical Fundamentalist Unit, or RFU, within the bureau's counterterrorism division.

A copy was sent to the FBI's Osama bin Laden unit, because his name was mentioned, and an informational copy went to the New York field office, which has been the center of FBI expertise on terrorism, sources said.

One paragraph in the summary said that eight Arabs who were the subjects of Williams's investigation were students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., where they were enrolled in courses including pilot training, aircraft mechanics and security.

Williams suggested that the men, who were under investigation for suspected ties to terrorists, might be a threat. He asked for an analysis of people coming into the United States for aviation training and suggested requesting help from the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

RFU analysts decided that resources were stretched too thin at the time to pursue such a plan. Officials said that the FBI counterterrorism division was swamped with urgent matters, including a large volume of intelligence reports indicating a possible attack, and the investigation into the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

When the memo's existence was revealed two weeks ago, one law enforcement official suggested that the FBI had been "seriously considering" a plan to pursue Williams's suggestions at the time of the attacks. But officials now acknowledge that was not the case.

"The decision was made that this would be taken up at a later time when they got through the crisis of the moment," one FBI official said. "There had to be some closure, otherwise it just would remain pending."

The memo was initially categorized as "routine," several sources said, because there was no imminent threat or crime indicated in the document. The other possible category is "urgent," officials said.

Associates said Williams is surprised by the furor his memo created. FBI officials, including Mueller, have noted that none of the subjects named in the memo has been connected by investigators to the Sept. 11 plot, sources said.

Prior to Sept. 11, the FBI did refer the list of names in the memo to the CIA, which concluded that none appeared to have ties to al Qaeda, officials have said. But Williams noted that one of the aviation students was a radical Muslim who had a picture of bin Laden on his wall, while another had made a phone call to a man linked to an al Qaeda associate.

Earlier this month, after finally receiving a copy of the memo, the CIA determined that at least two of the non-flight school students named in the document have ties to al Qaeda based on intelligence gathered since the attacks.

Neither Mueller nor Attorney General John D. Ashcroft learned of the Phoenix memo until after the Sept. 11 attacks. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said that as of yesterday, President Bush still had not seen it, but was briefed on it "in the last week or two.

"I don't think anybody needed a memo after September 11th to know that there were general suspicions that people were in flight schools," Fleischer said. "Everybody knew it, as a result of September 11th."

Also yesterday, Ashcroft met for nearly an hour with the four lawmakers heading the congressional Sept. 11 inquiry, which has been mired in internal squabbling and hampered by some resistance from agencies. The Justice Department has balked at turning over some records to Congress because they could be used in future terrorism prosecutions.

Ashcroft told the lawmakers that the Justice Department has provided 37 of 79 witnesses requested by the committee so far, and that seven more will testify this week, a department official said. Ashcroft also told the lawmakers that the department has handed over 9,000 pages of documents, and has made 20,000 more available at a classified location within FBI headquarters, the official said.

"The information we need, we are going to get," House intelligence committee Chairman Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) said after meeting with Ashcroft.

Staff writers Mike Allen

and Walter Pincus contributed

to this report.

2002 The Washington Post Company