May 25, 2002
Angry FBI agents joked about al Qaeda mole at HQ
By Jerry Seper
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Minneapolis FBI agents who unsuccessfully sought an August 2001 warrant to search flight school student Zacarias Moussaoui's computer did so after learning that Phoenix FBI agents outlined similar concerns about other suspected terrorists in Arizona three weeks earlier.
Despite information that suspected al Qaeda terrorists were involved in flight training in two states, the warrant request — coming a month before the September 11 attacks on America — was rejected by FBI officials in Washington for a lack of probable cause.
That decision, according to government sources, so infuriated the Minneapolis agents that they joked among themselves that Osama bin Laden, whose al Qaeda network has been named in the September 11 attacks, must have successfully planted a mole inside the FBI.
The Minneapolis agents arrested Moussaoui in August after questions surfaced about his flight training. The 33-year-old French-Moroccan has since been charged in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed at least 3,000 people. He was named by authorities as the 20th hijacker — although he was already in custody at the time of the attacks.
The Phoenix memo, by FBI Agent Kenneth Williams, alerted bureau executives in Washington in July that bin Laden followers were training at an Arizona flight school. He said eight suspected terrorists were training, but senior FBI officials did not follow up on the information.
The decision to reject the Moussaoui warrant was criticized in a 13-page letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III from Minneapolis Agent Coleen Rowley, who said senior FBI officials created a "roadblock" to derail the probe. She said the agents were so frustrated by the lack of response by senior officials that they sought to bypass the chain of command and directly notify the CIA — but were reprimanded.
Miss Rowley said that although they were "closest to the action and in the best position to gauge the situation locally," the agents were not allowed to proceed despite the corroborating Phoenix alert and information they had from intelligence officials overseas that Moussaoui was tied to terrorism suspects.
"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," Miss Rowley said. "The bottom line is that headquarters was the problem."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was "alarmed" by the Rowley letter. He said if the decisions by senior FBI officials in the Moussaoui probe were an example of how the FBI was investigating terrorism, "We're in grave danger."
"I don't blame agents in Minnesota for wondering if there were unwitting collaborators of Osama bin Laden sitting around at headquarters," Mr. Grassley said. "If field agents committed these egregious errors, they would be facing discipline and relocation. But the double standard of discipline and accountability continues, even though Director Mueller has pledged to me that it was gone."
Mr. Grassley said he had given Miss Rowley written assurance she will be protected and he expected that the FBI would take "no retaliation against" her.
According to the sources, the letter questioned whether the Minneapolis warrant application had been changed by officials in Washington and it suggests that several FBI officials could face possible disciplinary action.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Graham and Rep. Porter J. Goss, chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, said they intended to pursue accusations that FBI senior officials created a "roadblock" that derailed the Moussaoui probe.
Mr. Graham said accusations in the Rowley letter showed a "lack of aggressive follow-through" by FBI officials on concerns that field agents had about flight lessons Moussaoui had taken and his ties to international terrorists. The Florida Democrat said those concerns "deserved to have gotten greater attention."
He said it was "premature" to suggest that senior FBI officials in Washington had obstructed the Moussaoui probe, but there was "a lack of aggressive follow-through." He said the Moussaoui concerns were relevant to the nation's vulnerability and, as a result, "deserved to have gotten greater attention and treatment."
Mr. Goss, Florida Republican, spoke of "a frustration in the field [among FBI agents] that people are not willing to take risks in Washington and don't want the boat rocked in any way, shape or form." He said "there could be a more aggressive pursuit [by the FBI], within the guidelines of the law, of enforcement of the law."
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.
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