WASHINGTON — A Phoenix FBI agent who wrote a memo last year warning about suspicious Middle Easterners at flight schools had developed detailed information before Sept. 11 linking Arizona students to Osama bin Laden and to a radical British Islamic group, and he shared some of his concerns with the CIA, law enforcement sources said Wednesday.
Agent Kenneth Williams suspected that a group of about eight Middle Eastern men in the Phoenix area were not merely studying at flight schools but also had shown a keen interest in airplane engineering and airport construction and security, according to sources familiar with the closed-door briefings Williams gave members of Congress this week.
His review also determined that one of the Arizona flight school students appeared to have communicated through a middleman with one of Bin Laden's top aides, Abu Zubeida, and that several of the students under suspicion had links to a radical group called Al-Muhajiroun. The Britain-based group is dedicated to the establishment of a global Muslim state and has vocally supported Bin Laden and other terrorists.
The still-secret memo that Williams prepared in July, warning that the FBI should canvass flight schools around the country for possible terrorist ties, has become Exhibit A in the eyes of some members of Congress who accuse the Bush administration and the intelligence community of missing possible warning signs before Sept. 11. Scrutiny has focused on who knew about the Phoenix memo and why the document never made it above middle FBI management before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Vice President Dick Cheney, asked Wednesday on CNN's "Larry King Live" whether Williams was prophetic, said: "I think he was." Cheney acknowledged that "there's a lot we can do" to improve the flow of intelligence information, but he said much of the recent criticism connected to the Williams memo represents "Monday morning quarterbacking."
Indeed, administration officials say they had no tangible warnings that could have led them to predict that an attack was imminent. And Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who is helping lead the congressional inquiry into the attacks, said in an interview after a classified briefing with Williams on Wednesday that "no smoking gun" has emerged to dispute that claim.
But the new details suggest for the first time that the CIA may have had advance knowledge of some of the suspicions generated from Arizona. And the details also appear at odds with authorities' contention that Williams was only pursuing "a hunch"--not actual evidence--in warning about the risk of flight schools.
"This was not a vague hunch," according to a congressional source familiar with a classified briefing Williams gave to lawmakers. "He was doing a case on these guys. He put in all the history about this pattern of radical Muslims and [Bin Laden having] links to Arizona. He talked about fatwas [religious edicts] targeting U.S. airports. He noted that one guy was asking about airport security--that's specific information, not guesswork." The memo "was very specific. It named names," the official said.
Officials at the FBI and the CIA declined to discuss the issue Wednesday.
But, asked about the CIA's role in the Phoenix case before Sept. 11, an official said "FBI headquarters requested some name traces on some Middle Eastern individuals that they had concerns about." While the details of that request remain unclear, "it could have been that they had some individuals in Arizona who came up on their radar screen that they were interested in," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
The CIA's knowledge of the case appears to have gone beyond a fairly routine request by the FBI for the CIA to come up with information on suspected individuals. Williams also discussed his concerns regarding the Arizona flight schools with field-level intelligence counterparts at the CIA, according to a government official familiar with what Williams told members of Congress.
The FBI's initial inquiries to the CIA last year regarding the Phoenix suspicions did not produce any positive links to terrorists, the official said.
But after Sept. 11, the CIA confirmed that at least two of the flight school students under suspicion in Arizona had links to Al Qaeda, and evidence indicated that one person had communication through a third party with "a very close associate of Bin Laden"--namely Zubeida, the official said. The nature of that communication was not disclosed.
Williams also told lawmakers that his interest in the flight school issue was piqued last year because Bin Laden had known ties to Arizona, the official said. This was an apparent reference to Egyptian Essam al Ridi, a Bin Laden operative who trained to be a pilot in the United States and purchased a used military aircraft in Arizona for Bin Laden in 1993 for $210,000. He then flew the Saber-40 twin-engine passenger jet to Sudan.