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FBI disregarded warning terrorists might get flight tra

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FBI disregarded warning terrorists might get flight training

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

A July 2001 memo by an FBI agent warning that Osama bin Laden might send terrorists to the United States for flight training was disregarded by headquarters, which was unaware officials previously tried to identify Middle Eastern flight students in this country, a congressional investigator said Tuesday.

The investigator said the failure to connect the so-called Phoenix memo with the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui a month later — and a general increase of terrorist alerts — represented major intelligence failings before the Sept. 11 attacks.

“No one will ever know whether a greater focus on the connection between these events would have led to the unraveling of the Sept. 11 plot,” said Eleanor Hill, staff director for the inquiry by the House and Senate intelligence committees into the attacks.

“But clearly, it might have drawn greater attention to the possibility of a terrorist attack in the United States, generated a heightened state of alert regarding such attacks and prompted more aggressive investigation and intelligence gathering,” she said in a report for the committees.

The committees looked into the handling of the Phoenix memo and the Moussaoui case as it held its fourth public hearing into the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Phoenix-based agent, Kenneth Williams, wrote a memo to his superiors in Washington two months before the attacks, suggesting that terrorists might be learning to fly commercial jetliners at U.S. fligHd schools. He asked for a check of flight schools, but no checks were made.

Williams was not identified by name in the report and was to testify later anonymously. As his own prepared testimony noted, his identity has already been revealed in many news accounts of his memo, which was disclosed earlier this year.

Hill wrote that both Williams and the FBI agents in headquarters were unaware that the FBI had received a report in 1998 that a terrorist organization might be planning to bring students to the United States to train at flight schools.

By November 2000, though, an analyst wrote a memo informing FBI offices that he found no evidence of terrorists studying aviation and that further investigation “is deemed imprudent” by FBI headquarters.

Agents involved in the Moussaoui case also were unaware of the Phoenix memo and the earlier investigation.

Moussaoui was arrested by FBI agents in Minnesota on immigration charges in August 2001 after a flight school instructor became suspicious of his desire to learn to fly a commercial jet. FBI headquarters denied agents’ request to seek a warrant to search his computer. Moussaoui has since been charged with conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks.

In his prepared testimony, a Minneapolis-based FBI agent blamed legal restrictions, FBI headquarters and the circumstances of the case for impeding a more aggressive investigation of Moussaoui before Sept. 11.

“We are subject to human factors and limitations and are occasionally hamstrung by legal constraints, both real and imagined,” the unidentified agent said.

Lawmakers have been meeting behind closed doors since June, but public hearings were delayed until last week, partly because of questions about what information could be revealed in the Moussaoui case.

Justice Department officials were concerned that details of the case disclosed at the hearings could undermine the prosecution. Also, court rules prohibit prosecutors from revealing information about the case that could become public.

In two reports at last week’s hearings, Hill outlined missed counterterrorism opportunities before the attacks.

U.S. intelligence officials on Monday disputed a charge in Hill’s report Friday which maintained that they “did not fully understand the importance of a key leader” in al-Qaida. They said they had been pursuing this leader, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, for years.

Officials said they provided some 600 documents to the inquiry’s staff detailing their efforts to capture him. Mohammed has been associated with al-Qaida since as early as 1995 and is on the FBI’s 22 most-wanted terrorists list.

Mohammed worked with Ramzi Yousef, now in prison for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and two others in the Philippines on a number of plots, collectively termed “Project Bojinka.” One plan included crashing a hijacked airplane into CIA headquarters outside of Washington. Of the four participants in Project Bojinka, only Mohammed remains free.

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