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May 21, 2002, Tuesday

NATIONAL DESK

TRACES OF TERROR: THE F.B.I. MEMO; ASHCROFT LEARNED OF AGENT'S ALERT JUST AFTER 9/11

By DAVID JOHNSTON and DON VAN NATTA Jr. (NYT) 1941 words

WASHINGTON, May 20 -- Attorney General John Ashcroft and the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, were told a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks that the F.B.I. had received a memorandum from its Phoenix office the previous July warning that Osama bin Laden's followers could be training at American flight schools, government officials said today.

But senior Bush administration officials said neither Mr. Ashcroft nor Mr. Mueller briefed President Bush and his national security staff until recently about the Phoenix memorandum. Nor did they tell Congressional leaders.

The disclosure is certain to magnify criticism of the F.B.I.'s performance, including its failure to act on the memorandum before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The two men have not said publicly when they learned of the July 10 memorandum, but the officials said that within days of the attacks senior law enforcement officials grasped the document's significance as a potentially important missed signal.

Today, several F.B.I. and Justice Department officials said that in the chaotic days after the attacks, discussions between Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller were hurried and that their recollection of events were somewhat blurred by the frenetic pace of activity. Some officials said they recalled high-level discussions about how the hijackers had attended American flight schools, but one Justice Department official did not recall a briefing about the memorandum.

Spokesmen for Mr. Mueller and Mr. Ashcroft would not discuss the issue today. A senior Justice Department official said, ''The attorney general was not briefed in any detail or with any specificity about the document known as the Phoenix memo until about a month ago.''

Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, who was traveling today with the president in Miami, said, ''We have nothing that indicates the president had seen or even heard about this memo prior to a few weeks ago.''

Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said last Thursday that the president had not heard about the memorandum before the hijackings and had only recently learned of it. ''I personally became aware of it just recently,'' Ms. Rice said, adding that she had asked Mr. Mueller and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, to review the matter.

The Phoenix memorandum, written by Kenneth Williams, an agent in Phoenix, was sent to F.B.I. headquarters as an electronic computer message on July 10. It was reviewed by midlevel supervisors, who headed the agency's bin Laden and Islamic extremist counterterrorism units.

But the officials said the memorandum was never sent to top F.B.I. managers, including Thomas J. Pickard, who was acting director in the summer of 2001 before Mr. Mueller took over early in September. Other senior officials were unaware of the memorandum before Sept. 11, including Michael Rolince, who managed the bureau's international terrorism unit, and Dale Watson, his superior, the officials said.

The issue of when top officials knew of the Phoenix memorandum is emerging as a main focus in Congressional inquiries getting under way. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has asked the F.B.I. to identify anyone at the agency who knew about the memorandum before the attacks.

But lawmakers also want to know when Bush administration officials learned about the memorandum after the attacks. Some lawmakers have asked whether administration officials were told about it soon after the attacks, but were slow to disclose it.

Several lawmakers, including Richard C. Shelby, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have already singled out the F.B.I. for blunt criticism after Mr. Williams's memorandum came to light several weeks ago.

The Phoenix memorandum is one of two documents under heavy scrutiny by Congressional investigators. The other is a daily intelligence report, shown to Mr. Bush on Aug. 6. The report mentions the threat of Qaeda members' carrying out hijackings in the United States. The White House has refused to produce the document, and administration officials have said that the information was too vague to act on.

Mr. Mueller has acknowledged that the bureau's failure to evaluate the Phoenix memorandum fully was an analytical failure that the F.B.I. has tried to correct.

''It is a very worthwhile process and a process we are undertaking to change what we do in response to that instance and others where perhaps we did not have the analytical capability,'' Mr. Mueller said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 8.

''We did not have the people who were looking at the broader picture to put the pieces in place,'' he said, adding that nothing in the memorandum would have enabled the F.B.I. to thwart the attacks.

The memorandum remains classified, and much of its contents are unknown. But officials have confirmed that it expressed concern that Mr. bin Laden and other groups could be using the flight schools to prepare for terror attacks. It urged F.B.I. officials to check the visas of foreigners at American aviation academies. But no action was taken before Sept. 11.

The memorandum was sent to counterterrorism offices in two cities -- one copy went to John O'Neill, then the top counterterrorism agent in the F.B.I.'s New York office. Mr. O'Neill retired from the F.B.I. in late August. He had just begun a job as the security chief of the World Trade Center when he was killed in the attacks.

Usually, internal investigative proposals that involve agencywide resources are reviewed by high F.B.I. officials. But in this case F.B.I. officials have said that officials who read the memorandum were distracted by other cases, a plot against American interests in France and the investigation of the attack in October 2000 on the destroyer Cole.

Two or three days after the attacks, Dale Watson, who was then assistant director for counterterrorism, brought the memorandum to the attention of Mr. Pickard, who had returned to his job as deputy director after a stint as acting director, officials said.

Mr. Pickard and several other agents then briefed Mr. Mueller and Mr. Ashcroft on its existence, the officials said.

The Phoenix agent's memorandum was not based on intelligence but on concerns and recommendations based on ''conjecture and assumptions,'' said a senior official who has read it.

''There appeared to be a lot of Middle Eastern guys taking flying lessons in the Phoenix area,'' the official said. ''This was just a good investigator taking a look at something. It was pure hunch.''

For that reason, the official speculated that the memorandum had not set off strong alarms among other law enforcement officials who had reviewed it at the bureau.

Officials at the Central Intelligence Agency have said that they did not receive a copy of the memorandum until several weeks ago. But F.B.I. officials have said that the names of Middle Eastern men in the Phoenix area who were identified in the memorandum, were referred to the C.I.A. in the summer of 2001.

F.B.I. officials have said that the C.I.A. reported back that none of the men appeared to be connected to Al Qaeda.

Intelligence officials, however, have said that two or three of the men have recently been linked to the Qaeda network. These men remain at large, the officials said.

Uncertainty Surrounds Memo

Following are comments from President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, about how the administration and the bureau handled a memorandum by an F.B.I. agent warning that Osama bin Laden's followers could be training at flight schools. Ms. Rice's statements came from a White House news briefing last Thursday, and Mr. Mueller's came from testimony on May 8 to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

From Ms. Rice
As you might imagine, a lot of things are prepared within agencies. They're distributed internally, they're worked on internally. It's unusual that anything like that would get to the president. He doesn't recall seeing anything. I don't recall seeing anything of this kind.

Neither the president nor I have recollection of ever hearing about the Phoenix memo in the time prior to Sept. 11. We've asked F.B.I., C.I.A., our own people to go back and see whether or not it's possible that it somehow came to him. I personally became aware of it just recently.

From Mr. Mueller
ABOUT THE AGENT'S MEMO -- I think the recommendations of the agent are something that we should have more aggressively pursued. I do not believe that it gave a signpost of that which would happen on Sept. 11.

He made a recommendation that we initiate a program to look at flight schools that was received at headquarters. It was not acted on by Sept. 11. I should say in passing that even if we had followed those suggestions at that time, it would have not given what we know since Sept. 11 had enabled us to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11.

WHO SAW THE MEMO -- I am not certain as to the highest-level individual who received it. I do not believe at this juncture that it went so high as the director of the F.B.I. But I am not certain how high it went in the hierarchy.

ON CHECKING ALL FLIGHT SCHOOLS -- It was a monumental undertaking. There are more than 2,000 aviation academies in the United States. The latest figure I think I heard is something like 20,000 students attending them. And it was perceived that this would be a monumental undertaking without any specificity as to particular persons.

The individuals who are being investigated by that agent in Phoenix were not the individuals that were involved in the Sept. 11 attack.

REGRETS ABOUT NOT DOING MORE -- So, do I wish we had more aggressively followed up on that suggestion at the time? Yes. Are we taking steps to address what the failings and weaknesses were prior to Sept. 11? Absolutely.



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