Flight school memo wasn't passed on
By Kevin Johnson and Toni Locy, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — An FBI agent's classified
memo urging the bureau to review the activities of Middle
Eastern men at U.S. flight schools did not make it beyond a
midlevel unit chief in the bureau's counterterrorism division
after it arrived at headquarters two months before the Sept.
11 attacks, government sources said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the White House acknowledged
it was told last summer in a CIA briefing that al-Qaeda might
try to hijack American airplanes. Rather than make the
information public, the administration issued a private
warning to "appropriate" federal agencies.
The FBI memo, drafted in July by the
FBI's Phoenix office, did not make it to the level of the
White House. That memo mentioned Osama bin Laden as having
possible ties to the aviation training and was not shared with
foreign intelligence experts at the CIA, the sources said.
Investigators believed it reflected a domestic concern that
did not have a clear link to any existing criminal probe.
Senior law enforcement officials said
Wednesday that the memo did not include evidence of bin
Laden's involvement. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer
played down the memo's significance Wednesday. He said
President Bush believed that it alone would not have given the
FBI enough warning of the hijacking attacks.
But since its disclosure last week, the
memo has become a symbol of the FBI's shortcomings in a debate
over whether the government did enough to prevent the
Several Senate Intelligence Committee
members, including Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Wednesday
that the FBI should have connected the dots between the memo
and other evidence suggesting that terrorist groups might be
planning attacks using airliners. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said
the question no longer is whether the FBI did enough to stop
the attacks, but whether it is "willing to learn from past
Federal law enforcement officials
acknowledge that the memo, and similar threads of evidence
that have come to light since Sept. 11, show the bureau was
not focused enough on detecting potential threats against
"The FBI has changed significantly in the
way it now deals with terrorism," Kyl said, referring to a
reorganization at the bureau that is aimed at preventing
terrorism and developing a centralized process for vetting
"The question about the future will
really depend upon the degree of (the FBI's) introspection,"
he said. "If people are too defensive, they may not be
inclined to learn from past mistakes."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has asked
the Justice Department's inspector general to trace the path
of the Phoenix memo.
"The fact that nobody followed up on it
does demonstrate that there was an inability to effectively
analyze and gauge the credibility of the threat," said Robert
Mintz, a former deputy chief of the organized crime unit in
the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey.
The White House did follow up on the CIA
information regarding possible hijackings by quietly warning
certain federal agencies, Fleischer said. The information did
not say planes might be used for suicide attacks.
"There has been long-standing
speculation, shared with the president, about the potential of
hijackings in the traditional sense," said Fleischer, who
would not say how or when exactly the information was shared
Contributing: Kathy Kiely, John
Diamond and wire reports