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05/16/2002 - Updated 07:21 AM ET

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 terrorist attacks.

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 mistakes."

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 America.

"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 intelligence.

"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 with Bush.

Contributing: Kathy Kiely, John Diamond and wire reports