Washington -- An FBI agent in Phoenix told
counterterrorism officials at the bureau's headquarters last
July that he had detected an alarming pattern of Arab men with
possible ties to terrorism taking aviation-related training,
and he urged a nationwide review of the trend, according to
The agent's recommendation was not acted upon before Sept.
11, however, because bureau officials determined that hundreds
of Middle Eastern men regularly attended flight schools and
aviation training in the United States.
After the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon, the FBI agent's memo took on a new urgency
within the bureau as investigators hunted for possible links
to the 19 hijackers. The memo also gained attention as
officials began to check whether they had missed warning signs
of the attacks.
A review determined that none of the seven or eight Arab
men identified by the agent in Phoenix had any connection to
the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon or other
terrorist activities, officials said. A few were detained on
immigration violations, however, FBI officials said.
"None of the people identified by Phoenix are connected to
the 9/11 attacks, " the FBI said in a statement on Friday.
"The Phoenix communication went to the appropriate operational
agents and analysts at headquarters, but it did not lead to
uncovering the impending attacks."
"It is imperative that we learn exactly what information
was contained in the FBI report, to whom it was sent and what
actions were taken in response," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.,
chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a
"The FBI has to do a better job of connecting the dots when
it comes to intelligence about terrorists," added Sen. Chuck
As Congress gears up for its first comprehensive
investigation of the government's performance leading up to
Sept. 11, the memo offers another tantalizing glimpse of what
counterterrorism experts knew about the threat to the United
States before the attacks. The joint House-Senate committee
conducting the Sept. 11 investigation has already been briefed
on the FBI memo,
FOCUS MORE ON AIRPORT JOBS
Officials at the FBI stressed that the Phoenix agent did
not predict the attacks. In fact, the agent's memo did not
focus on Arabs seeking pilot training, but instead raised
issues about individuals being trained in airport management.
The agent wondered whether they might be getting training that
could help them get jobs that would allow them to skirt
airport security procedures.
But some FBI officials acknowledged that the agent's memo
was as close to the mark as anyone came before Sept. 11.
"He wasn't saying, 'Hey, I know there are guys out there
who are going to hijack planes and fly them into buildings,' "
said one official. "But he did have the right industry."
FBI officials said the agent first became suspicious after
noticing a pattern among several Arabs being monitored for
possible terrorist ties, as well as others thought to be
associates of individuals suspected of having those
The agent noticed that several of those individuals were
attending Embry- Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott,
Ariz., a highly regarded college specializing in flight
training and other aviation-related studies. The agent thought
he might have stumbled onto a larger pattern of Arabs coming
to the United States to get aviation training for use in
future terrorist activities.
In July, he sent a memo to counterterrorism officials at
FBI headquarters recommending a study of the issue. He also
recommended that the FBI ask the State Department to provide
visa data on flight school students from Middle Eastern
nations so that the bureau could track them more easily.
"Phoenix believes that the FBI should accumulate a listing
of civil aviation universities/colleges around the country,"
the memo stated. "FBI field offices with these types of
schools in their area should establish appropriate liaison.
FBIHQ should discuss this matter with other elements of the
U.S. intelligence community and ask the community for any
information that supports Phoenix's suspicions. FBIHQ should
consider seeking the necessary authority to obtain visa
information from the USDOS (Department of State) on
individuals obtaining visas to attend these types of schools
and notify the appropriate FBI field office when these
individuals are scheduled to arrive in their area of
FBI SENT MEMO TO NEW YORK
After the agent's memo arrived at headquarters, it was also
sent to the bureau's New York field office, which then was
taking the lead in international terrorist investigations. FBI
officials identified 600 schools involved in flight or other
aviation training in the United States, and determined that as
many as 500 or 600 students from Middle Eastern countries
attended them each year.
Most Middle East nations send pilots from their commercial
airlines and their military to train in the United States. At
the time, FBI officials believed a study of the Arab presence
at American flight schools could only be done as a long-term
project taking one to two years. No action had been taken on
the issue by Sept. 11.
FBI officials said there was reluctance at the time to
mount such a major review because of a concern that the bureau
would be criticized for ethnic profiling of foreigners. Bureau
officials were also aware of the political sensitivities of
asking colleges and universities to cooperate on such a
sweeping review of students without specific evidence that
they were guilty of any crimes.
"You had to ask, was there valid intelligence pushing you
in the direction of doing this? And the answer at the time was
no," one FBI official said.