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Terrorism Was Job 4 in Phoenix

June 10, 2002|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — Months before an FBI agent here warned of extremists attending U.S. flight schools, anti-terrorism efforts in the Phoenix office had virtually ground to a halt when a surveillance unit was disbanded and agents assigned to counter-terrorism were diverted to an arson case, according to current and former FBI agents.

The actions reflected the low-priority status given by FBI management here to anti-terrorism investigations before the Sept. 11 attacks on the East Coast, agents said in recent interviews.

Even now, some say, the office's attention and resources to preventing terrorism remain inadequate.

"If people only knew," said one agent who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They think [agents] are really out there making progress, but they are not being allowed to do what they need to do."

Guadalupe Gonzalez, special agent in charge of the Phoenix FBI office, acknowledged Friday that, before Sept. 11, international terrorism ranked fourth in his office's list of priorities behind organized crime and drugs, white-collar crime and crime on Indian reservations. That clearly has changed since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with international terrorism seen as the priority, he said.

But Gonzalez rejected the notion that his office's anti-terrorism efforts have been compromised by staffing decisions involving surveillance or the local arson case.

"I don't think those events were detractors in any way from what we were able to do in Phoenix," Gonzalez said.

In recent interviews, however, current and former FBI agents criticized the decision to assign the office's international terrorism squad to the full-time investigation of an "eco-arsonist" who torched luxury homes in the Phoenix and Scottsdale areas from April 2000 to January 2001.

"This was not terrorism," one agent said. "This was some [guy] burning down homes."

Among the half a dozen or so international terrorism agents assigned for months to the arson investigation was Kenneth Williams, who wrote the July warning memo to FBI headquarters.

Although Williams declined to comment Friday, sources say his memo last year was the result of months of monitoring Islamic extremists attending flight schools in Arizona beginning in early 2000. Records and interviews also show that at least one of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, Hani Hanjour, was living in the state as early as 1996 and returned in January 2001. At that time, the arson investigation still was underway.

Current and former agents say it was stunning that agents assigned to international terrorism--or IT, as they call it--would be diverted to an arson investigation.

"Kenny's expertise is in international terrorism, not arson or general property crimes," former agent Jim Hauswirth said. "And it is just unbelievable that we would take one of the premier IT investigators in the bureau and put him on a local arson case with the history of Islamic terrorism here in Phoenix."

A current agent added: "There were no terrorism investigations taking place for several months during 2000 and 2001. Cases were open, but nothing was being done."

Gonzalez insisted Friday that the Joint Terrorism Task Force agents assigned to the arson case were not prevented from continuing work on their other cases.

"They were part of our counter-terrorism squad and that is what the squad does," he said, describing the arson case as a type of counter-terrorism investigation into what was a "very significant crime."

Critics contend that Phoenix FBI management also erred in disbanding its so-called Special Operations Group surveillance squad in May 2001.

After Sept. 11, surveillance of potential terrorists resumed, using agents borrowed from Tucson.

"If you have a surveillance team, it is traditionally assigned to headquarters division," said former agent Hauswirth, who spent 16 of his 27 years with the FBI assigned to Special Operations Groups in Phoenix and Philadelphia. "And it doesn't make sense not to have your surveillance assets assigned to the headquarters."

In December, Hauswirth wrote a scathing letter to FBI headquarters in Washington complaining that management of the Phoenix office had given anti-terrorism "the lowest investigative priority."

Gonzalez defended the decision to disband the Phoenix surveillance team, saying that budget cuts last year forced the office to reduce staffing by 10 positions.

Critics counter that the FBI has been spending thousands of extra dollars a day to house and feed the agents from the Tucson office.

"Ever since 9/11, these poor guys have been taken out of Tucson, moved away from their families, and assigned to Phoenix at great expense to the taxpayers," said Susan Via, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Arizona whose husband is an FBI agent.

"I am not saying they should always have kept the surveillance team intact. But once Sept. 11 happened and it became apparent they would need a full-time surveillance team back, why would you drag up agents from Tucson to work that assignment?" said Via, who began her career as a federal prosecutor in Boston with now-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

Gonzalez said he doesn't believe that the decision to do away with the surveillance team hurt counter-terrorism efforts in Phoenix.

Still, he said, the Phoenix surveillance squad may be reassembled soon.

Several current and former Phoenix agents say it will take far more to turn the office around.

"The morale here is as bad as I've ever seen it anywhere," said a veteran FBI agent who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

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