The FBI might have been able to stop some of the Sept. 11 hijackers if it had more aggressively pursued an investigation of alleged terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, who was in custody for more than three weeks prior to the attacks, the FBI's chief lawyer in Minneapolis wrote in a blistering letter to headquarters last week.
Coleen Rowley, in a highly unusual and bitter letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, was particularly critical of a supervisory special agent at FBI headquarters, whom she accused of "consistently, almost deliberately, thwarting the Minnesota FBI efforts."
Even on the morning of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the Washington supervisor instructed Rowley and her colleagues to hold off on action against Moussaoui, arguing that his arrest after suspicious behavior at a flight school was probably a coincidence, the letter said.
Moussaoui, who is thought by U.S. officials to have been training as the "20th hijacker," now faces a death-penalty trial in Alexandria for alleged complicity in the attacks.
"Although I agree it's very doubtful that the full scope of the tragedy could have been prevented, it's at least possible we could have gotten lucky and uncovered one or two more of the terrorists in flight training prior to Sept. 11, just as Moussaoui was discovered, after making contact with his flight instructors," Rowley wrote.
Brimming with indignation and at times personally critical of Mueller, Rowley's correspondence provides the most pointed indictment yet of the FBI's failure to properly read clues available before Sept. 11 that al Qaeda terrorists seemed focused on aviation. The claims in Rowley's letter are the most specific allegations to date that U.S. officials may have been in a position to at least diminish the attacks.
The single-spaced, 13-page, footnoted letter -- revealed in snippets last week after it was delivered to Mueller and congressional intelligence committees -- was first reported in its entirety yesterday by Time magazine, which posted an edited copy on its Web site.
FBI spokesman Steven Berry declined to comment yesterday on the letter, which is considered classified by the FBI.
In her letter, Rowley sought protection under the federal whistleblower statute, and Mueller has referred her complaints to the Justice Department's inspector general for investigation.
Senior FBI officials in Washington, including Mueller, have for months insisted that the bureau did everything it could to ascertain Moussaoui's intentions. They have said they aimed to secure a warrant for a laptop computer found in Moussaoui's possession, but that FBI attorneys -- including Rowley -- had agreed there was not enough evidence to do so under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
In the days leading up to Sept. 11, officials have said, U.S. law enforcement put in place a plan to rapidly deport Moussaoui under heavy guard to Paris, where French authorities would take possession of the laptop and use more aggressive statutes there to examine it.
"The fact that there were a number of individuals that happened to have received training at flight schools here is news, quite obviously," Mueller said on Sept. 15. "If we had understood that to be the case, we would have -- perhaps one could have averted this."
To Rowley and her colleagues in Minneapolis, such statements were misleading at best and ignored significant evidence that could have been used to pry open Moussaoui's laptop and possibly learn more about the impending plot.
Rowley said Minneapolis agents were hampered at every turn by bureaucrats in Washington, who allegedly resisted seeking a warrant, sought to micromanage the case and admonished the field agents when, in desperation, they turned to the CIA for help.
Rowley is especially critical of one supervisory special agent (SSA) at headquarters, who was "consistently, almost deliberately, thwarting the Minnesota FBI efforts," according to the letter.
At one point, Rowley alleges, the unnamed SSA changed a warrant application in such a way that FBI lawyers would be more likely to reject it, as they did.
Headquarters, Rowley said, "continued to almost inexplicably throw up roadblocks and undermine Minneapolis's by now desperate efforts to obtain a FISA search warrant, long after the French intelligence service provided its information and probable cause became clear. HQ personnel brought up almost ridiculous questions in their apparent efforts to undermine the probable cause."
What's more, Rowley wrote, she and her co-workers were dismayed further by the reactions of FBI officials to revelations this month about another case in Phoenix.
FBI agent Kenneth Williams, who was investigating possible terrorists at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., wrote to headquarters July 10 suggesting that U.S. aviation schools should be canvassed and raising the possibility Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network might be trying to infiltrate the aviation field.
The request was formally closed within a few weeks, and it was never acted upon. The Radical Fundamentalists Unit, a recipient of the Phoenix memo, also never connected Williams's suggestions with the investigation of Moussaoui a month later, officials have said.
Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month that, although the Phoenix memo should have been pursued more aggressively, it would not have led investigators to the Sept. 11 plot.
"I don't know how you or anyone at FBI Headquarters, no matter how much genius or prescience you may possess, could so blithely make this affirmation without anything to back the opinion up than your stature as FBI Director," Rowley wrote. "The truth is, as with most predictions into the future, no one will ever know what impact, if any, the FBI's following up on those requests would have had."
In addition to criticizing the handling of the Moussaoui case, Rowley is blistering in her condemnation of FBI culture, which she portrays as dominated by careerists who are too afraid of internal discipline to be aggressive in their work. In addition, Rowley complains that headquarters staff involved in the Moussaoui case were central to the post-Sept. 11 probe and that the SSA most to blame was actually promoted.
The FBI enforces a "double standard which results in those of lower rank being investigated more aggressively and dealt with more harshly for misconduct, while the misconduct of those at the top is often overlooked or results in minor disciplinary action."
Rowley also takes aim at Mueller's plans to create an anti-terrorism "super squad" at FBI headquarters in Washington, which would control all terrorism cases and would rely heavily on a centralized Office of Intelligence. Rowley, a 21-year FBI veteran, argues in her letter that the Moussaoui and Phoenix incidents show that FBI headquarters is the problem, not the solution.
Staff writer Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.