Minneapolis agent says FBI headquarters rewrote requests for search warrants for Moussaoui
John J. Lumpkin and John Solomon
Associated Press
 
Published May 25, 2002

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- An FBI whistle-blower alleges that FBI headquarters rewrote Minneapolis agents' pre-Sept. 11 request for surveillance and search warrants for terrorism defendant Zacarias Moussaoui and removed important information before rejecting them, government officials said Friday.

Agent Coleen Rowley wrote that the Minneapolis agents became so frustrated that they began to joke that FBI headquarters was becoming an "unwitting accomplice" to Osama bin Laden's efforts to attack the United States, the officials said.

As new details emerged about the letter Rowley wrote to FBI Director Robert Mueller and senators, members of Congress sought to extend her whistle-blower protections and encouraged more agents to come forward.

And a panel of House and Senate members set for June the first hearings to examine what the government knew before Sept. 11 about terrorist threats and what mistakes it made.

"This [Rowley] letter documents exactly what headquarters knew and when, and how midlevel officials sabotaged the Moussaoui case before the attacks," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Friday.

Officials familiar with Rowley's memo said she alleged that terrorism supervisors at FBI headquarters rewrote the Minnesota office's warrant applications and affidavit and removed intelligence about Moussaoui before sending them to a legal office that then rejected them as insufficient.

She alleged that some of the revisions "downplayed" the significance of some intelligence linking Moussaoui to Islamic extremists, and blamed the changes on a flawed communication process.

"Obviously, verbal presentations are far more susceptible to mischaracterization or error," Rowley wrote in her 13-page letter, excerpts of which were obtained by the Associated Press.

After arresting Moussaoui at an Eagan flight school in August, the Minneapolis agents were concerned that he was seeking to hurt Americans, and they wanted to gather more information through national security and search warrants, including data off his computer.

The officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said Rowley identified the warrant revision process as flawed, particularly complaining that the field office was never consulted about the changes that were made before the warrant applications were forwarded to the Washington offices that rejected them.

Officials said Rowley in other parts of the memo attacked the public explanations that Mueller and other FBI senior officials have offered about why the FBI failed to connect the dots before Sept. 11.

Rowley wrote she had come to the "sad realization" that officials had skewed facts in the post-Sept. 11 accounts and were trying to "circle the wagons" to protect FBI headquarters from embarrassing disclosures.

She also criticized the culture of Washington headquarters, saying FBI higher-ups were too concerned with "petty politics" and too afraid to make tough decisions that could affect their career ascensions, the officials said.

Grassley said he has given Rowley "written assurance that she will be protected for her cooperation with the Judiciary Committee's investigation" and urged Mueller "to ensure there is no retaliation against Ms. Rowley."

Failure to connect

Several times, Rowley complained in the letter that Minnesota had never been told of a separate memo written in July by a Phoenix FBI agent warning that Arab pilots in Arizona with ties to radical Muslims were training at flight schools.

FBI officials have repeatedly said the agency failed to connect the two matters before Sept. 11.

But on Friday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and fellow committee members Arlen Specter and Grassley questioned whether David Frasca, the head of the FBI's radical fundamentalist anti-terrorism unit in Washington, may have handled both matters and been in a position to make the connection.

Rowley's letter has sent tremors through the FBI and has seriously damaged Mueller's standing with the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the committee, said Friday that Rowley's allegations suggest a "lack of aggressive follow-through" by the FBI, a charge that would get high priority in the congressional investigation.

Graham, D-Fla., said the first hearing will take place June 4 but will be closed to the public so participants can discuss classified intelligence sources.

The first hearings open to the public will be in late June, and CIA Director George Tenet and Mueller are expected to testify, Graham said.

The Minneapolis FBI office's concerns about Moussaoui "deserved to have gotten greater attention," the Florida Democrat said in a news conference with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla.

Praise for Rowley

Meanwhile, a senior FBI official in Washington told Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., that the bureau's headquarters "should have done more" to help FBI agents in Minnesota investigate Moussaoui's activities at the Eagan flight school, Dayton said.

Dayton quoted the official, whom he did not name, after urging top FBI brass to provide whistle-blower protection to Rowley.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he talked to Rowley on Wednesday to thank her for coming forward. "It took a lot of guts to do what she did," Peterson said.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., also praised Rowley and others in the Minneapolis office: "They have created a better climate for people to raise questions, without being accused of being unpatriotic," Wellstone said. "Clearly, there wasn't follow-through. Something went wrong."

-- Washington Bureau correspondent Kevin Diaz contributed to this report.

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