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FBI Agent Memo Urged Probe of Suspect Tied to 9/11

Terrorism: Failure of officials to follow up on the man's contacts with one of the hijackers is seen as another missed opportunity for bureau.

September 25, 2002|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A memo from a Phoenix FBI agent urging the bureau to investigate Middle Eastern men at American flight schools focused on a suspect who had repeated contacts with one of the Sept. 11 hijackers--a disclosure lawmakers said signaled yet another missed opportunity to unravel the plot months before the terrorist attacks.

The suspect--whom authorities declined to identify--may have trained and screened pilots involved in the plot, according to testimony at a congressional hearing Tuesday. The new information contradicts repeated statements by law enforcement and intelligence officials over the last year that none of the suspects identified in the so-called Phoenix memo was linked to Sept. 11.

The FBI has since learned that the suspect in the memo met repeatedly with Hani Hanjour, who is believed to have seized control of the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

In other testimony, a Minneapolis FBI agent said he warned officials in Washington that Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of being the intended 20th hijacker, might be part of a plot to "take control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center."

The flurry of disclosures indicate the Sept. 11 plot was not as compartmentalized as U.S. intelligence officials have claimed. Indeed, the thrust of Tuesday's testimony underscored that a web of connections between the hijackers and others who had come into investigators' sights is still emerging.

Tuesday's hearing focused on lapses in the FBI's handling of the Phoenix memo and the investigation of Moussaoui, who is awaiting criminal trial in federal court in Virginia.

In both cases, FBI officials in Washington failed to heed prescient warnings from field offices.

Eleanor Hill, director of the congressional investigation, on Tuesday attributed the FBI's lapses to a "myopic" culture in the bureau before the Sept. 11 attacks that prevented officials from recognizing broader patterns and threats.

In fact, FBI officials now theorize that the suspect, who had significant flying experience, helped to train Hanjour and may have been screening other would-be Al Qaeda hijackers to determine whether they were capable of carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks.

"That is an investigative theory" the FBI is pursuing, said Kenneth Williams, the author of the July 10, 2001, memo urging officials in Washington to launch a probe of flight schools across the country.

Hill said the FBI had been alerted to the possibility of terrorists training in U.S. flight schools well before the Phoenix memo.

In 1998, she said, an FBI pilot in Oklahoma City wrote a memo expressing concern about the number of Middle Eastern flight students he had encountered in schools there, and speculating that they could be planning attacks.

But even given these previous warnings, and the avalanche of intelligence traffic warning of imminent Al Qaeda attacks during the summer of 2001, the FBI essentially dismissed the Phoenix memo.

New York FBI agents who reviewed it found it "speculative and not particularly significant," Hill said. Indeed, the agents said they knew associates of Osama bin Laden trained at U.S. flight schools, but thought the students posed no direct threat.

"The commonly held view at the FBI prior to Sept. 11 was that Bin Laden needed pilots to operate aircraft he purchased in the United States to move men and materiel," Hill said.

In the wake of the attacks, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and others have downplayed the significance of the Phoenix memo, saying there were no links between suspects named in the memo and the Sept. 11 plot.

But the FBI has since uncovered an alarming connection between one of the individuals named in the memo and Hanjour, a Saudi citizen who first came to the United States in 1991. The memo names 10 individuals, none of whom have been identified publicly.

The connections between the suspect and Hanjour date back to 1997, Hill said, when they began training together at an Arizona flight school. At least one instructor at the school said the two men may even have carpooled together.

Records obtained by the FBI indicate the two men were at the flight school on the same day on at least five occasions. Once, in 1999, the suspect accompanied Hanjour in a training session in a plane.

Authorities increasingly believe the suspect may have played a broader role in the plot because he was a veteran pilot training alongside students with far less experience. "What other reason would there be for an experienced pilot to be sitting in on Cessna simulators with these other guys?" one source close to the investigation asked.

The FBI sought to investigate the suspect in May 2001, two months before Williams wrote his memo, but dropped the effort after learning he was out of the country. The FBI didn't know that the suspect returned to the United States shortly thereafter, having failed to notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service or the State Department.

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