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'Ignorant and inept' FBI failed to heed warning of attacks

August 29 2002

Bureau chiefs ignored the agents tugging at their sleeves, Philip Shenon writes in Washington.

The ignorance and ineptitude of FBI supervisors and lawyers in Washington obstructed agents all over America from pursuing evidence that could have provided them in advance with a "veritable blueprint" of the September 11 attacks, a Senate report has found.

The report by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is expected to be made public next month, is the result of an investigation that began shortly after the terrorist attacks.

It focuses on the mishandling of the case against Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged with involvement in the September 11 attacks. Though the blundering mishandling of his case was particularly deplorable, it may be indicative of the FBI's bungling of other sensitive counter-terrorism cases before September 11, the report suggests.

In the Moussaoui case, the report found, FBI counter-terrorism specialists and the bureau's lawyers were so ignorant of federal surveillance laws that they did not understand that they had ample evidence to press for a warrant to search Moussaoui's belongings.

Instead, they aggressively blocked the search warrant sought by desperate field agents, who believed last August that they might have found a terrorist who might use a commercial airplane as a weapon.

Officials said a search of Moussaoui's computer and other belongings after September 11 turned up information on commercial airplanes, crop-dusting and a telephone number in Germany for a suspected member of al-Qaeda.

That evidence, coupled with other information in the possession of the same FBI counter-terrorism supervisors last year, would have provided a "veritable blueprint for 9/11," Senator Arlen Specter said.

The other information, he said, included a report sent to Washington by a field agent in Phoenix who had warned of the threat posed by an unusual number of young Arab men seeking flight training.

FBI spokesmen said that the bureau had not seen the Senate report and would have no immediate comment on it.

However, other law-enforcement officials said the FBI supervisors singled out for blame in the report believed that they had acted properly. But, a senior official said, "factually, they couldn't link him [Moussaoui] to a recognised terrorist group, or to any terrorist group. They felt they didn't have the evidence."

The essential elements of the Moussaoui debacle have been known since earlier this year, when an FBI whistleblower from the bureau's Minneapolis office alleged that Washington supervisors had mishandled the case and might be trying to cover up their mistakes.

But the Judiciary Committee report provides extensive new detail about the furious debate last summer between the Minneapolis field agents and their supervisors in Washington, especially about what the report describes as the lack of understanding by Washington counter-terrorism supervisors and the bureau's lawyers about the standards of evidence required to seek a search warrant under federal surveillance laws.

The Senate report does not identify by name the supervisors and lawyers who mishandled the Moussaoui case, but some are identified by their title, including supervisors in the bureau's Radical Fundamentalist Unit.

The New York Times

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