An FBI agent and a Minnesota flight school official discussed the possibility that alleged terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui was part of a hijacking plot before the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post.
The official with the Pan Am Flight Academy in Eagan, Minn., talked about the threat in a conversation with a Minneapolis FBI agent on Aug. 15, one day before Moussaoui was detained for immigration violations, according to a Dec. 26 letter from the flight school official to the FBI.
"Through our conversation and [the agent's] questioning, I was able to give a detailed account of the suspicious behavior I witnessed and the worst possible scenario as to what this training could be used for, a hijacking," he wrote.
The Pan Am official also praised the FBI for its "swift and diligent" response to concerns about Moussaoui, whose behavior had raised suspicions at Pan Am. "I called one day, and Zacarias Moussaoui was being interviewed by the FBI the next day and we never saw him again," he wrote.
But the correspondence provides a more explicit description of the warnings raised about Moussaoui prior to the Sept. 11 attacks and again raises questions about the FBI's handling of the case. Moussaoui, 33, a French national of Moroccan descent, is the only person indicted by U.S. authorities in the attacks. He is scheduled to be arraigned in U.S. District Court in Alexandria today on terrorism conspiracy charges.
Moussaoui was apprehended weeks before 19 hijackers commandeered four domestic jetliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside, killing more than 3,100 people. U.S. authorities believe Moussaoui may have been intended as the 20th member of the hijacking teams but was scratched after his arrest in Minnesota.
"It's understandable to some degree how the FBI might not have understood the seriousness of this case at the time," said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who was briefed on the case by Pan Am officials. "But we knew there was a danger of terrorism, which makes this case very troubling."
FBI officials, including Director Robert S. Mueller III, have repeatedly said that agents in Minneapolis and officials in Washington pursued the Moussaoui case as aggressively as possible. The officials say a lack of evidence prohibited them from searching a laptop computer that contained information about jetliners, crop-dusters and wind currents.
Authorities were suspicious enough, however, that they immediately considered Moussaoui a potential terrorist hijacker and moved to have him deported while continuing attempts to search his belongings, Justice Department officials said.
"The hijacking possibility was one of the reasons Minneapolis was pursuing the guy so vigorously," one senior law enforcement official said. "But you have to realize that we were still stuck with a guy with no connections to anyone else, and no connections to any plot that anyone knows about at the time."
Many of the details surrounding Moussaoui's detention before Sept. 11 remain sketchy or in dispute. That's largely because many key participants -- including prosecutors, FBI agents and Pan Am officials -- have declined to discuss the case publicly due to grand-jury secrecy rules.
But according to documents and senior U.S. officials, investigators in Minneapolis immediately viewed Moussaoui as a terrorist suspect but were frustrated in their attempts to learn more about why he was seeking to pilot jumbo jets and whether he was connected to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
Moussaoui was briefly interviewed by the FBI and detained by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service on Aug. 16, after Pan Am officials had alerted the FBI to a new student at the school who seemed suspicious, authorities said.
Moussaoui paid the school's $6,300 fee in cash, was woefully lacking in flight skills and was evasive and belligerent when asked about his background, school officials said. In one example, the instructor, noting Moussaoui's place of birth, greeted him in French; Moussaoui refused to respond in kind and said he was from the Middle East rather than France.
Accounts of the FBI's response vary. According to a Pan Am vice president who briefed Oberstar, Rep. Martin O. Sabo (D-Minn.) and others in early November, a flight instructor and others at the Minnesota school were frustrated by the FBI's slow response. The executive's account has been previously reported by other news organizations.
The executive told lawmakers that it took between four and six telephone calls to find an agent who would help. The caller finally warned an FBI agent that a Boeing 747-400, which Moussaoui was seeking to learn how to fly, could be used as a bomb, the executive said.
"It was said out of frustration," said Michael Erlandson, Sabo's chief of staff and head of the Minnesota Democratic Party, who attended the briefing. "It was the flight instructor's judgment that they may be dealing with a terrorist. They were scared of this individual, and thought he might be planning a terrorist event."
The FBI's Minneapolis office has referred all questions about the case to officials in Washington. Sources there said that the idea of using an airplane as a bomb was not discussed at the time.
"The notion of flying a plane into a building or using it as a bomb never came up," a senior law enforcement official said. "It was a straight hijacking scenario that they were worried about."
FBI officials also said there was no delay in responding to the reports about Moussaoui. The Pan Am official in Minnesota who alerted the FBI said in his Dec. 26 letter that the Minneapolis office "did an excellent job."
"He could have just as easily wrote it off as some lunatic, but he followed through on it," the Pan Am official wrote, referring to the FBI agent who took his report.
FBI agents searched Moussaoui's apartment thanks to an obliging roommate but were unable to examine a seized laptop without a warrant, sources said. A standard search warrant was ruled out because agents had no evidence a crime had been committed, authorities said.
Investigators in Minneapolis then sought a special warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires evidence that the target is an agent of a foreign power, including organized terrorist groups such as Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
A classified cable in August from the French intelligence service said Moussaoui had radical Islamic beliefs and identified a friend as having fought in Chechnya with an Algerian Muslim group that included a known bin Laden associate, U.S. officials said.
But the French information did not tie Moussaoui directly to al Qaeda or any other terrorist group, prompting the FBI general counsel's office to rule there was not enough cause to obtain a warrant under the FISA statute, sources said. The case was never forwarded for review to the Justice Department, which submits FISA cases to a special intelligence court.
"They looked at it several times, but nobody thought it was sufficiently close to meeting the standard," an official said. "It wasn't even a close call. Otherwise, it would have gone across the street," to Justice.
FBI agents in the Minneapolis office, which rarely handles international terrorism cases, traced Moussaoui's U.S. travels to Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., where he had logged 57 hours of flight time earlier in the year and was viewed as a poor student, officials said. But investigators were unable to find enough evidence to let them proceed with a computer search, and Moussaoui refused to cooperate with authorities, sources said.
Sept. 11 provided the evidence, authorities said. The deadly hijackings were used to secure a warrant later that day to search Moussaoui's computer, helping prompt authorities to ground crop-dusters for fear of another terrorist plot.
An indictment handed up in Alexandria on Dec. 11 alleges that Moussaoui was trained and funded by al Qaeda and was part of the hijacking conspiracy, receiving $14,000 from an alleged terrorist in Germany and mirroring the behavior of many of the 19 dead hijackers.
But FBI and Justice Department officials say that those connections were not evident before Sept. 11 and that the information on Moussaoui's laptop would have provided few tangible clues for investigators at the time. The computer files, written in English, contained no specific references to terrorism, terrorist groups or a hijacking plot, sources said.
"They really didn't have anything on this guy, other than he was here illegally," one U.S. official said. "We've gone through everything to see if anything was missed, and there wasn't anything."