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May 24, 2002
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FBI Lawyer Tells of Terror 'Roadblock'
* Inquiry: In a bitter and detailed letter, the Minneapolis official says the bureau failed to act on its agents' suspicions in Moussaoui case.

 
 
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Coverage of the attack on America and the first six months of its aftermath.


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By ERIC LICHTBLAU and JOSH MEYER, Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- An FBI official in Minneapolis has lashed out at bureau headquarters for putting up a "roadblock" and failing to act aggressively enough in pursuing suspicions in August surrounding flight school student Zacarias Moussaoui, sources said Thursday.

The detailed, sometimes bitter letter from Coleen Rowley, an FBI lawyer, revealed that agents in her office were reprimanded for seeking assistance from the CIA in the case after they were dissatisfied with the response from the FBI in Washington, according to a government official familiar with the classified letter.

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Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said today the allegations showed there was a "lack of aggressive follow-through" by FBI officials to concerns raised about Moussaoui by agents in that state.

Those concerns "deserved to have gotten greater attention," Graham, D-Fla. said in a news conference with House Intelligence Committee chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla.

The two chairmen are heading a joint congressional inquiry that will examine the U.S. intelligence system since 1985 as well as failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The separate staff created for the inquiry interviewed Rowley on Wednesday, but Graham added: "I would think she would be someone high up on the list of people we would like to interview further and potentially call on as a witness."

Goss, agreeing the letter was significant, cautioned: "We haven't heard the other side of the story." Rowley's letter, sent Tuesday to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and congressional intelligence committee members, contained bureaucratic language laced with outrage: "When, in a desperate eleventh-hour measure to bypass the FBI HQ roadblock, the Minneapolis division undertook to directly notify the CIA's counterterrorist center, FBI HQ personnel chastised the Minneapolis agents for making the direct notification without their approval."

Rowley also criticized officials at FBI headquarters in Washington for rejecting Minnesota agents' request for a secret search and surveillance of Moussaoui last summer, weeks before the Sept. 11 hijackings. And she accused Mueller and other senior officials of trying to "circle the wagons" in their recent defense of the bureau's performance.

Mueller, who sources said faced heated questioning about the letter in a closed-door meeting with lawmakers earlier this week, said Thursday he has referred the matter to the Justice Department's inspector general's office for investigation.

"While I cannot comment on the specifics of the letter, I am convinced that a different approach is required" toward counterintelligence operations, Mueller said in a statement.

"New strategies, new technologies, new analytical capacities and a different culture make us an agency that is changing post-9/11," he said. "There is no room after the attacks for the types of problems and attitudes that could inhibit our efforts."

The FBI has come under swelling criticism in recent weeks over its alleged failure to pick up on warning signs before Sept. 11, including the suspicions of a Phoenix FBI agent who warned in July that Middle Eastern flight school students in Arizona might be planning an attack. The Minneapolis letter is sure to ratchet up that criticism even further.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, questioned Mueller intensely about Rowley's letter in a closed briefing Wednesday, and the senator was said to be very angry about the FBI's "failure to act," according to a congressional source.

Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, was taken into custody in Minneapolis in August on an immigration violation after his instructors at a flight training school thought he was acting suspiciously. He wanted to learn how to fly 747s, a jetliner far above his experience level, and he paid the $8,000 fee in cash.

Agents with the FBI's Minneapolis field office wanted approval to execute a search warrant and conduct secret wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which allows the government to monitor suspected foreign agents or terrorists with the approval of a secret court in Washington. But officials at FBI headquarters turned down the request, saying they did not have enough evidence to act. They refused to pass the request along to the Justice Department and the FISA court, and Moussaoui was not conclusively linked to any terrorist plot before Sept. 11.

But subsequent investigation after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon revealed evidence that Moussaoui may have planned to be "the 20th hijacker" had he not been taken into custody. A search of his computer and his belongings turned up a flight simulation program, along with information about crop-dusters and other suspicious material, officials said. That material led the Justice Department to warn about possible attacks using crop-dusters to spread biological agents.

Moussaoui was charged with conspiracy to commit murder in the hijackings, and he is facing the death penalty if convicted. After a defiant courtroom tirade several weeks ago calling for the destruction of America, he is now seeking to represent himself in court. His trial is scheduled to begin in Alexandria, Va., this fall.

The handling of the Moussaoui case before Sept. 11 has stirred questions for months, but Rowley's letter represents the first in-house attack and adds significant new details to the public record.

In her detailed 13-page letter, Rowley said Minneapolis agents realized the serious risk that Moussaoui posed even before Sept. 11, according to the government official familiar with her letter.

She complained that FBI officials in Washington had changed the warrant request so that it would be more easily rejected by the FBI office that handles such requests. And she criticized the FBI for not disseminating information about Moussaoui to other law enforcement and intelligence officials before Sept. 11.

Her revelation that the agency sought CIA assistance could prove particularly damaging to the FBI, because the bureau's failure to share information with the CIA about terrorist threats before the attacks has been a central focus of the recent debate.

On a separate front, Rowley also contended that Mueller and other FBI officials made misleading statements in recent weeks by claiming repeatedly that the FBI had no clear warning before Sept. 11 about the looming threat.

Rowley was particularly upset by Mueller's insistence in recent weeks that the bureau might have been able to take some action to prevent the tragedy if it had gotten more information. She and others in the Minneapolis office tried to reach Mueller to tell him that they thought he was skewing the facts, but the calls were either rejected or fell on deaf ears, she wrote.

"We faced the sad realization that [Mueller's] remarks indicated someone, possibly with your approval, had decided to circle the wagons at FBI headquarters in an apparent attempt to protect the FBI from embarrassment and the relevant FBI officials from scrutiny," Rowley wrote.

The Justice Department's inspector general's office will be reviewing her allegations to determine whether department policies or procedures were violated, but Justice Department officials say they have already confirmed portions of her narrative.

"The tone of her letter is a little over the top," according to an official who asked not to be identified, "but her facts are right."

_ _ _

Times staff writer Janet Hook and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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